For These Party Animals, It’s All Happening at the Zoo
Originally posted on September 9, 2012 in The Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com) | by Shirley S. Wang
LONDON—At the zoo, there is a new beast: the party animal, dancing to a beat only he can hear.
Behold the “silent disco,” an event where people rock out to music on wireless headphones that give them choice over the music they are listening to and, more important, don’t disturb their neighbors.
A concept that became popular at music festivals in the U.K.—where everyone listens to the band, just without the blasting speakers—silent disco is spreading across the world, particularly in densely inhabited areas where noise is an issue. That makes them an option for zoos, which are increasingly looking to organize events to raise funds and draw more adult visitors.
Evening concerts and parties might disturb the animals, but a silent disco lets partiers blast “Eye of the Tiger” without waking the tiger.
“Why wouldn’t you?” said Sian Clarke, 26 years old, a London resident who attended one recently. “You can see animals, you can dance and you can drink.”
At the London Zoo, which is believed to be the first zoo to hold such an event three years ago, the silent discos have been a huge draw and now bring in 6,000 additional adults a week during June and July, according to Owen Craft, the zoo’s marketing manager.
At £10 to £25, or about $16 to $40, a ticket, it also serves as an important revenue stream for the zoo’s conservation work. “It’s a good solution to enhance the entertainment but also to respect animal welfare,” Mr. Craft said.
The dance parties have quietly joined other types of events zoos use to bring in crowds, such as sleepovers, Valentine’s Day tours and “Brew at the Zoo” festivals. The Denver Zoo held a silent disco for the first time last summer, and the San Francisco Zoo held its inaugural quiet event in August.
It isn’t always a peaceful jungle. One challenge is keeping people from singing along to the music. Tony Comerford, the on-the-ground organizer for the event at the London Zoo, said that dancers inevitably burst into song and the zoo has to announce multiple times, via the headphones: “The animals have gone to bed. Please keep your singing voices in your head.” “Love Train” typically prompts a trainlike dancing procession, he said.
At a silent disco at the London Zoo recently, some people got very into character. A number of people walked around decked out in animal costumes or masks, and the line for grown-up animal face paint was at times 20 people deep.
Milly Glaister, a 28-year-old online marketer, came dressed in a giraffe jumpsuit. When asked where she was from, she replied, “Here, can’t you tell?”
Before their 9:30 p.m. bedtime, the zoo animals—which are another big draw of the evening—garnered most of the attention. Adult spectators laughed at the penguins and gawked in fascination and disgust as a crocodile ate his evening meal, a large bird.
As shut eye called for the zoo’s principal residents, more people headed toward the silent disco, a roped-off clearing outside a section of animal enclosures, eventually leading to the formation of a line like at a club.
Upon entering, each reveler was handed a black headset with a device inside the earpiece that provided a choice of two channels: one that played mostly ’70s-based Motown music or another that had newer dance music.
There was an elevated platform for those who really wanted to show off their moves, but most dancers milled about on the grassy area below it.
Some looked less than graceful, trying to dance with others dialed into different music channels. Several bobbed around with their eyes closed, as if in their own world. But the lions and tigers nearby were unperturbed and unlikely to judge.
Not everyone could get into the mood. Michelle Tofi, who came with two friends to check out the event, said she had been looking forward to the silent disco but couldn’t dance there because of the staged feel. “But I’d definitely do it again, in more of a flash mob spontaneous setting,” she said.
Avinash Naga, a London-based dentist, had no qualms. He had never been to the London Zoo before but said his friends liked dressing in costume and have held animal-themed birthday pub crawls.
“We came to be amongst animals for once instead of being animals,” said Dr. Naga, 30, who was wearing a huge, stuffed cartoon bear head that barely showed his face. After having sauntered around the zoo with beers—food and alcohol were sold—he and his five friends joined the boogying crowd and picked up their headphones.
“To start with, you listen to your own stuff,” said Dr. Naga, who said he didn’t feel self-conscious about dancing to one tune while his friends were dancing to music on the other channel.
He tried to get his friends to listen to the same channel but soon gave up and focused on his own dancing. “Just listening to [the music] you might be in your in own world, but what in fact you’re sharing is the experience of being in the same place for the same reason.”
Dr. Naga, who had been to one other silent disco but not at a zoo, was a bit worried about the animals, especially the nearby gorillas. “I wasn’t quite sure if the animals appreciated it or not,” he said. But, taking off the headphones to test the noise, he said the level was low enough to hear a conversation—until there was a burst of singing.
“When everyone started singing along at the end I was very nicely surprised by how tuneful we were,” said Ms. Glaister, who wore the giraffe outfit.
What was the loudest noise of the evening? The boos at the end of the night when the disco shut down.