Holiday light shows have become a staple of the Denver winter season. The displays might seem like a Christmas miracle or part Santa’s magic, but hundreds of hours are spent planning, hanging, and programming each twinkling bulb. We talked to the artists, organizers and producers who become the worker elves lighting up Denver with holiday cheer each year.

Zoo Lights

Courtesy of Denver Zoo Lights

Denver Zoo, a staple when it comes to holiday lights, has been creating Christmas cheer for the past 29 years through their popular Zoo Lights display.

To light up the zoo’s 80 acres with over 2 million lights, preparation starts months in advance. Cherry pickers are clearing plants and hanging lights as early as August. “In a few places we leave the lights up year round,” says Jake Kubie, director of communications for the Denver Zoological Foundation. “They aren’t really noticeable because the foliage blocks them.”

While the zoo typically sticks to its tried-and-true displays, each year the special events team works to bring something new to the show. This year an old oak tree nicknamed Sue will be strung with more than 600,000 lights.

Denver Zoo; through December 30, 5:30–8:30 p.m.; $15–$20

Blossoms of Light

Courtesy of Denver Botanical Gardens

The Denver Botanic Gardens’ biggest event of the season has been a draw for over 30 years. The event requires year-round planning to bring almost one million lights to the 24 acres of plant life.

“Most of the trees during this time of year are perennials or have already lost all their leaves,” says Erin Bird, communications manager at Denver Botanic Gardens. “They are many years old and have sturdy root and branch structures so we can string a bunch of lights on them.”

The crew also has to consider the possibility of a snow storm that could cover the ground lights in white powder. They strategically place LEDs so the lights will still be visible even with a fresh blanket of snow.

Denver Botanical Gardens; through January 3, 5–9 p.m.; $16–$21

Night Lights Denver

Courtesy of Robbie Fikes

The newest addition to Denver’s holiday lights spectacular is part of the permanent installation put on by the Denver Theatre District. The group commissioned local Colorado artists to develop holiday-themed projection mapping to be shined on the clocktower.

Animator Robbie Fikes is creating a snow scene and started where almost any project in 2019 does: Google. “I searched all the Google images of the clocktower both day and night so I could see the texture and shape I was working with,” he says

According to other artists working on the December visuals, Maya Dite-Shepard and Tom Ludlow, the color of the building and its windows create a challenge for projection mappers. To combat the 35 windows on the tower’s face and its beige bricks that don’t reflect color as well, Dite-Shepard plans to up the saturation and contrast of her owl scene. “I love [projection mapping] because I can use the environment around me as 3D props for my animations and characters to interact with the surroundings,” she says.

Ludlow likens projection mapping to non-destructive graffiti art. And best of all, instead of hiring painters and scrubbers to remove it, the city is providing funding for artists to run away with. “There’s pretty much no rules for this project,” Fikes says. “I can just do what feels good to me.”

Daniels & Fisher Tower, 1601 Arapahoe St.; Thursday–Saturday during December, 5:30–8:30 p.m.; free

Christmas in Color

Courtesy of Christmas in Color

In these sleek, streamlined, and over-the-top creations—there are two locations this year—cars serpentine through a mile-long display of light-up tunnels synced to music playing on a radio station. So you can stay warm and cozy, while enjoying the holiday lights from the comfort of your vehicle.

To keep the 1.5 million lights bright and colorful, the crew replaces about 40 percent of the LEDs each year. But new technology has allowed Christmas in Color to push the boundaries even further. “In the last five years with the advancement in RGB light elements, we are able to create light patterns, and words and shapes and images within all of our lights,” says Todd Glover, COO of Christmas in Color. “The ability to control every bulb really makes it into a screen like your TV, where each bulb is a pixel. So that’s really created fun new ways to provide entertainment.”

Water World, 8801 N. Pecos St., Federal Heights; Bandimere Speedway, 3051 S Rooney Rd., Morrison; Monday through Thursday and Sunday, 5:30–10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5:30–10:30 p.m.; $27

Mile High Tree

Courtesy of Nikki A. Rae Photography

While the Mile High Tree was honored with Denver’s nickname, the tree itself was built an ocean away. Visit Denver commissioned ILMEX Illumination, a 75-year-old family lighting company based in the small southern city of Puente Genil, Córdoba, Spain, to design, build, and transport the tree. Brut Deluxe from Madrid focused on coding and programming the tree’s 110 feet of lights to a variety of holiday classic tunes and music from the Colorado Symphony.

After building the main components in Spain, the tree made the long trek by boat to Houston, Texas. Finally, the tree was loaded onto a truck, driven to Denver and assembled in under two weeks.

Sculpture Park at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1736 Speer Blvd., through January 31, 5–10:30 p.m.; free

Windsor Gardens

Courtesy of the Windsor Gardens Association

Before Connie Johnston moved to Windsor Gardens in 2013, she had only ever decorated the inside of her house for Christmas. Now she is the art director in charge of the outdoor decorations for her two-story building in the retirement community. Even when she is just sitting on her porch during the summer, she says she is thinking about the lights. “I have it all planned in my mind,” she says. “And then I get some help from the men to put the lights up.”

This year Johnston was able to buy a new tree and a light-up schnauzer with the funding she raised to go with the six-foot tall snowman and the nativity scene. And the stakes for the display are high—the buildings within the community compete to determine who has the best lights.

Windsor Gardens, Alameda Avenue and Dayton Street; free

The Grand Illumination

Evan Semón Photography

Decorating the entirety of Union Station, both inside and out, requires a full team of dressers, trimmers, and hangers. DesignWorks has been decorating the inside for the past three years. Their biggest challenge is the 24-foot tree in the lobby. It’s not like setting up a tree in your home. The tree is made of multiple metal frames that are bolted together and the branches inserted into the “trunk.” “[Decorating the tree] requires two 30-foot lifts that we use to reach the top,” says David Squires, owner of DesignWorks.

The tree is then decorated with over 1,000 ornaments that are wired onto it to prevent them from falling or getting stolen. The entire process takes about 300 man hours with eight to 10 crew members working full days.

Union Station, 1701 Wynkoop St., 5–8 p.m.; free

Light the Lights

Courtesy of the City of Denver

Blazen Illuminations is in charge of the holiday cheer at Denver’s City and County Building. They design, create, program, and install the musical light show that Denver has become known for. Blazen also makes unique decorations specifically for the building. The company begins planning the lights in August. But they set up, test, and repair the full display in their warehouse from February through September before taking 200 hours before the holidays to put it up on the building.

City and County Building at Civic Center Park, 1101 W. 14th Ave., 4–8 p.m.; free