The key to surviving any outing with children is to have low expectations

Emer McLysaght: A trip to Wild Lights at Dublin Zoo was full of magic and wonder and awe, but there was also crying, begging, screaming and complaining

My favourite bit of Wild Lights at Dublin Zoo was the sea lion enclosure. It’s not part of the Wild Lights experience. None of the animals are. They’re all away minding their business for the evening and because it’s dark you’re a bit disoriented and can’t remember where the giraffes or the red pandas usually go. The five-year-old child in our party was insistent that they had gone “home” for the night and that home was somewhere other than the zoo. After a minute or two of telling her that the zoo is their home, I became a little depressed by that fact and let her believe the tigers had nipped off back to Ballinteer for some chops and a bit of Gogglebox.

The sea lion pool is the only exhibit that isn’t hidden from sight, and we could hear a couple of them roaring away as we neared their area. I saw the pair of them glistening in the darkness before I saw the woman in the high vis who seemed, in all seriousness, to be asking people not to look at them. I would have loved if she was incanting “nothing to see here, you only paid to see the lights”, but instead she was mildly waving her arms and pleading to people to move along and take in the beautiful illuminated displays instead.

In fairness to her, she was mostly making sure people weren’t using flash photography and blinding poor Sealia and pals, but the laugh I got out of being asked to avert my gaze made the whole evening worth every penny. It’s a bit like seeing some fireworks in the sky, but being asked not to look at them because you didn’t pay for the show.

Earlier I had arrived outside Dublin Zoo before my party – 11 of us in total, some adults, some children. My vantage point near the exit was spectacular for people watching. Everyone was fighting leaving the zoo. Absolutely everyone. It was past some bedtimes, grannies were somewhat unhelpfully observing “that child’s tired, Dermot”, and the trudge back to the car was filled with none of the promise of the excited walk in earlier that evening. As I waited, I empathetically enjoyed the fractious parents trying to fold buggies into taxi boots while snapping “I’m going as fast as I can, Stephen”.


I wasn’t too smug though, because there but for the grace of God went I. It could be the 11 of us exiting Dublin Zoo in an hour’s time, fighting over souvenirs and accusing each other of being cranky. We just needed to keep our expectations low. That’s the key to surviving anything. Particularly when children are involved.

I think I was swept into one woman’s cohort of children at one point. If I’d stuck around long enough, I might have bagged some candyfloss or an overpriced hand-held swirly light

I’m not a parent, but I go into any activity involving children with my expectations on the ground. Something I learned from my much wiser and much more exhausted friends who are parents. On paper, Wild Lights is a magical pre-Christmas experience. The real zoo animals are replaced with giant lanterns in the shape of bees, owls, butterflies, elephants, spiders, flowers, sloths – this year’s theme is the Magic of Life and biodiversity. Everyone will point in awe and wonder, and maybe we’ll enjoy a delicious hot chocolate and nobody will spill theirs four seconds after receiving it. And it was all of those things. There was magic and wonder and awe. But there was also crying and begging and dropping and screaming and complaining. And that was just from the adults.

Our session was probably one of the busiest, at 6pm on a Saturday evening (we booked in September to secure a weekend slot) and so the volume of people meant we were sort of carried around the zoo on a lazy river of women in beige coats, children in identical hats and dads shouting “Don’t touch that, Noah! You’re not getting a lollipop the size of your head, Emily!” The darkness and the identical hats meant that everyone was parenting everyone else’s children. It was impossible to tell them apart, so as long as everyone kept the same number of people in their party, it would all come out okay in the end. I think I was swept into one woman’s cohort of children at one point. If I’d stuck around long enough, I might have bagged some candyfloss or an overpriced hand-held swirly light.

I enjoyed being carried around on the sea of people. The lights were beautiful, the sea lions were clandestine and there was the occasional bellow of an animal from its bed. At one point I did think the honking of something enormous – an elephant maybe? a lion? – was some beautiful choral music further along the path. As with all such experiences, I was ready for it to be over when it was over and was very proud that we didn’t lose a child either to the darkness or a tantrum.

As we enjoyed the final beautiful coral reef light display, I noted that not one of us was fighting or cranky. My expectations were exceeded. What more could you ask for?