Saturday afternoon, a looping line outside Lee Richardson Zoo ran from its front gates to Sixth Street and back again, guiding guests toward Garden City’s largest trick-or-treat event of the year.
Boo! at the Zoo, the Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo’s annual Halloween fundraiser, turned 25 Saturday, welcoming families from Garden City, southwest Kansas and, in some cases, surrounding states, down a candy-collecting trail on zoo property.
Waist-high monsters, superheroes and Disney characters wound past trick-or-treat booths tucked between animal enclosures and spooky decorations. The space is safe and social and family-friendly, parents said, and for some, a welcome tradition.
“I came with my kids when they were little. Now I’m a grandma and I get to bring my grandbabies for the first time …” said Araceli Murillo. She gestured to the tall, wiry boy next to her. “He was probably a baby (when we first came) and he’s 18 now.”
The event is mainly comprised of the trick-or-treat trail hosted by dozens of local businesses and organizations, said deputy zoo director Max Lakes.
A 101 Dalmatians-themed dog house stood beside the Kansas Children’s Service League booth, and young girls dressed as life-sized Thin Mints and Peanut Butter Sandwiches at the Girl Scouts table. At Compass Behavioral Health’s stop, staff welcomed kids as characters from Pixar’s “Inside Out,” complete with a display of the feeling-driven heroes of the movie and balloons representing emotional memories.
Nearly 40 booths total sat along the expanded route, including a dinosaur car wash, fairy forest and monster mash.
“The community is just absolutely amazing,” Lakes said. “We have far more companies and community partners that want to come than we actually have room for.”
Beyond the trail were the event’s other attractions: a goofy graveyard guarded by a scowling clown and a Haunted Hay Ride just outside the zoo, where riders could listen to a costumed storyteller spin Halloween-style yarns. Near the back of the zoo, families could take a break from the trail to board a miniature Hogwarts Express and fight off dementors with magic wands.
A few elements were even educational, Lakes said. “Litter bug” volunteers dressed as giant, cutesy ladybugs and beetles spoke to children about why they should be mindful of their trash.
The event’s 25th year looked to be a big one, said Friends director Jessica Norton. Staff were still tallying up attendance numbers on Monday, but the Saturday crowd looked on par with the organization’s projections of 5,500 attendees, she said, a spike from last year’s roughly 5,200 guests, Lakes said.
If 5,500 people came last weekend, Norton said the event would have raised upwards of $30,000 for the zoo.
The money will likely go to the Conservation Carousel project, or the completion of a new merry-go-round on zoo property, rideable horses swapped out for lions, rhinos and other wild animals, Lakes said.
It’s not the only project the zoo’s taking on. In September, the zoo broke ground on three projects — a new primate habitat, flamingo habitat and animal health facility — funded largely by a Finney County sales tax approved by voters in 2017.
Evidence of the construction was present even at Boo! at the Zoo, with sections of the park blocked by gates covered with blue fabric. The trick-or-treat route itself was largely altered due to the construction and some shuffled around favorite attractions, like the graveyard, usually sitting near the flamingo habitat construction, Lakes said.
Even as the zoo updates and evolves, Boo! at the Zoo is a beacon to families. In the zoo and in the line outside marched a parade of pocket-sized fantasy. A man held a toddler astronaut in a NASA spacesuit as a miniature mermaid peeked over a wall by the nearby history museum. A full family of Incredibles walked into the zoo in front of a double stroller carrying a tiny Iron Man and Spider-Man.
The evening out is a time for parents to spend time with their kids, said Angela Gomez, a mom from Liberal adjusting her son’s costume. Or just a time to be a family. Farther back in line, an Oklahoma couple and their 2-year-old son, in town temporarily for the husband’s construction job, stood together. Circumstances would set them apart on Halloween night, but that evening they got to celebrate the holiday together, they said.
The night itself was a warm one, Lakes said, and it tied community members to Lee Richardson Zoo in a positive way.
“It’s a nice, comfortable evening. People are smiling and laughing. It’s that good overall feeling,” Lakes said. “Any time that I see the community involved with the zoo in any way, I love it.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.