Adventures of a CEO: Who’s Afraid of December Nights?

When December rolled around, we lighted the agave, topped Al the Allosaurus with his hat (above), and the holiday season was upon us. All of Balboa Park spruced up for the season’s grand kickoff, December Nights.

I started hearing about December Nights on my first few days on the job. Our staff spoke of the weekend event with a mixture of trepidation and reverence. Every staff member works on the floor for one of the two days, when we are open without charge until 9 PM. I decided to work both nights so I could truly get the flavor of the Park’s largest occasion of the year, which is also a favorite tradition for San Diegans.

What would be an onerous logistical nightmare for the rest of us appeared to be a complicated but manageable operation for Jennifer Padilla, our director of visitor services. Throughout the weekend, she had trained all of the staff on our roles, tracked rest and dinner breaks, monitored guest numbers so we could adhere to occupancy limits, announced the sets for the live music, and kept her calm through record crowds, lost children, special needs, and the swirl of more than 21,000 guests in two nights.

She also gave me an easy assignment to float around, radio in hand, and fill in for staff on breaks. This was a great opportunity to participate in the full range of activities: work the clickers counting people coming in or going out, ride the elevators, chat with visitors in exhibitions, bag mistletoe with our volunteers, check tickets for our special exhibition, and generally marvel at the evening.  

The only thing for which I lacked skill and training was the valet stroller parking. For as long as anyone can remember, Fossil Vertebrates Collections Manager Kesler Randall has organized the stroller check. Kesler's system is a sensation, honed over the years and so well-oiled that he is reluctant to take breaks because mere amateurs like myself just mess things up.  

Guests also found paleontologists in Fossil Mysteries, biologists and exhibit specialists in Coast to Cactus in Southern California, designers and librarians in Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science, live music in the Atrium, Canyoneer volunteers selling mistletoe, and a CEO working the elevator.  

I enjoyed my time as elevator operator and used it to conduct quick visitor surveys. When asked about the best thing they had seen, I was amazed to hear a six year old shout “the books!”  A number of people were delighted by the rare books in our newest permanent exhibition, others appreciated being able to touch mammoth teeth in our Research Demonstration Lab, and everyone seemed to love the Foucault pendulum and the dinosaurs. They all were grateful that we were open and welcoming.

It looked like all colors and ages of San Diego were here for December Nights. I also spoke with Girl Guides visiting from Mexico and a number of other happy tourists. It was a pleasure to see people light up when they walked in the doors, and hearing every variation of “cool,” “wow,” and “oooh.”

I relish working at theNAT because this sense of wonder and awe pervades our entire operation. Our work is fueled by the joy of discovery and curiosity about the natural world. In our back halls, a conference room might be full of the world’s experts on flat-tailed horned lizards or a terrarium contain a genus of spider that is new to science. I'm glad to see that the excitement of scientific discovery behind the scenes translates into revelation in our exhibits and programs.

I hope your holidays and the coming year are full of peace, happiness, and good health, and that they have a nourishing amount of wonder and awe. You can certainly catch them here at theNAT, and absolutely everyone is welcome at December Nights.

Checking on Bradley Tsalyuk’s exit count at the South doors

The mistletoe sales booth

Kesler’s stroller valet system minimizes chaos at the stroller check

The scene outside our doors

The line to enter

Jennifer at Command Central

Posted By President and CEO Judy Gradwohl.

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