Brookfield Zoo announced Wednesday that it will be expanding the days and hours of its annual Holiday Magic lights festival between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, but once they turn out the lights on Dec. 31, they’ll remain off until at least March 1.

The zoo will temporarily close to the public during the months of January and February 2021, with only essential staff reporting to work during that time to provide care for the animals in the collection and maintain the 216-acre zoological park at 8400 31st St.

“Through these challenging times, the health and safety of our guests, volunteers, staff, and animals continues to be our top priority,” said Stuart Strahl, president and CEO of Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, in a press release. “The past seven months have been incredibly challenging as we all continue to deal with the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, yet we continue to be reminded of the perseverance, understanding, and tremendous support of our staff, members and guests. We hope zoogoers take advantage of the additional Holiday Magic evenings this year, and we look forward to opening to the public again in March.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of Brookfield Zoo earlier this year, part of the governor’s statewide closure of most public gathering places, from schools to shopping centers to entertainment venues and museums.

Brookfield closed during the initial wave of the pandemic on March 19 and did not reopen until July 1, when it began admitting visitors on a timed reservation basis, a policy that continues to the present.

In April following the initial shutdown, the Chicago Zoological Society furloughed or laid off about 30 percent of its staff and two months later laid off 50 more employees. That number did not count foodservice and retail sales employees who earlier in the year were outsourced to a third-party vendor, SSA Group LLC.

A number of zoo employees and SSA employees returned to work when the park reopened, but in late September SSA Group issued a mass-layoff notice to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, stating it would be letting go 211 employees at Brookfield Zoo.

It is unclear how many Chicago Zoological Society employees will be furloughed or laid off when the park closes again in January.

While the return of visitors on July 1 pumped some much-needed revenue into zoo operations, physical distancing protocols have limited the number of people allowed into the park at any one time.

From July 1 through Oct. 21, zoo visitors totaled 460,228 compared to about 846,000 in 2019 for the same time period.

January and February are typically light months in terms of zoo visitors, and attendance is highly weather dependent. Just 69,617 people visited Brookfield Zoo in January and February combined in 2020.

In 2017, on the other hand, a warm February weekend brought in 70,000 visitors over three days.

Holiday Magic hours expanded

In order to spread out the crowds during this year’s Holiday Magic lights festival, which will run for 24 nights between Nov. 27 and Dec. 31, the Chicago Zoological Society is adding more days and extending hours.

Holiday Magic will be held Friday-Sunday, Nov. 27-29; Wednesday-Sunday, Dec. 2-6, 9-13 and 16-20; and Saturday-Thursday Dec. 26-31 from 3 to 9 p.m.

In addition to the light displays, visitors can participate in scavenger hunts and purchase food and beverages from outdoor kiosks. Santa Claus will not be making an appearance this year, though families can take photos with a life-size cutout and can drop wish lists in a giant mail box.

Advance admission and parking tickets are required and can be ordered in 20-minute increments at CZS.org/OnlineTicketing.

Select free days October through December

In October and November, zoo admission is free on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In December admission is free on Mondays and Tuesdays through Dec. 22. Tickets can be ordered online at CZS.org/OnlineTicketing in 20-minute increments between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The parking fee of $15 per vehicle is still required and must be purchased online in advance.

More information can be found at CZS.org/KnowBeforeYouGo.