BY RODOLFO ROMAN
Special to The Miami Herald
On Friday, Cutler Bay resident Greg Cekay stood in line, but not at the mall trying to take advantage of holiday sales.
Instead, Cekay was waiting to ride a camel with his 4-year-old daughter Samantha at Miami Metrozoo.
“It took some convincing to get her to ride,” said Cekay, who is an avid zoo visitor.
Cekay was one of many South Floridians who attended the grand opening of Holiday Nights with Wild Lights on Friday at Miami Metrozoo, 12400 SW 152nd St. The event transforms the zoo from a safari to a winter wonderland. The holiday affair runs weekend evenings through Dec. 20.
Dozens of bright animal-shaped lights such as snakes and lions are set up throughout the zoo along with holiday-themed artificial trees.
Guests can also enhance their lighting experience by wearing three-dimensional glasses. The $1 fee for the glasses benefits the Zoological Society of Florida.
Kendall resident Maria Betancourt, a first-time night visitor at the zoo, watched magical patterns and holographic illusions in the lights thanks to the 3-D glasses.
“The lights give it a more festive event with the whole holiday spirit,” she said.
Almost all of the animals were asleep, except for the crocodiles, white tigers, lemurs, flamingos and gibbons and Siamangs, primates that make loud noises. They captured the attention of fifth-grader Amin Esquivel.
“It’s a little scary because you hear some weird noises at night you don’t hear in the day time,” said Amin, who was in line to take a picture with Santa Claus.
At night, visitors can also see other animals, such as hundreds of egrets that roost on several trees and lend the area a White Christmas feel.
“The zoo is home at night to a lot of animals,” said Ron McGill, director of Miami Metrozoo, who pointed to the white birds covering a tree located in the center of a lake in the flamingo exhibit.
Metrozoo last hosted the event in 2000. After several requests from pass holders, the zoo decided to revamp the holiday idea and bring it back along with seasonal food favorites, McGill said.
“We’ve added more lights and more dimensions to it like hot chocolate and chestnuts,” he said.
Designer Lisa Rispoli transformed the Dr. Wilde’s World exhibit hall into Flore de Lisa’s Winter Wonderland.
“It’s one of the first [exhibits] in the country to incorporate Christmas and animals,” Rispoli said.
The 7,000-square-foot building houses animated figures and 12 Christmas trees designed with different themes. The Safari tree features a lion on top of the tree and has giraffes and elephants as ornaments.
Visitors can win the trees by buying a $5 raffle ticket, which will support the Zoological Society of Florida and Metrozoo.
Families also have several photographic opportunities, including with children’s character Diego from Dora the Explorer cartoon, and can ride a carousel in The Children’s Zoo area.
Amin’s father, Jonathan Esquivel, said the event put him and his family in the holiday spirit.
“It’s something new to me,” he said. “The walking around and watching all types of Christmas trees is exciting.”
The West Miami resident said the park brings something new to his holiday life.
“It’s not the same routine,” he said. “It’s awesome.”