Sunset Zoo holds annual Halloween celebration

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Roy takes a photo of his 9-year-old daughter Sarah in a scarecrow cutout at Sunset Zoo’s "Spooktacular" on Oct. 29, 2016. (Payton Heinze | The Collegian)

A dog, a cat and a turtle that is a teenage mutant ninja walk into the Sunset Zoo.

They are not the newest attractions on display, though.

Sunset Zoo held “SPOOKtacular” Saturday and Sunday, an annual two-day event hovering around 20 years strong that allows children, teens and adults to trick-or-treat in the zoo. Animals were not handing out candy, but were playing and marveling in the attention they were receiving.

Pirates, Disney characters — from Darth Vader to Elsa — Harley Quinns and tiny football players walked with their families as they went booth to booth, collecting candy and participating in activities from cornhole to a miniature haunted house.

Booths were manned and decorated by local area businesses and organizations, like Oak Grove School, an area preschool that came out for the first time this year.

“The zoo comes and visits the kids every month, so it’s a great way to give back,” Jessie Gardiner, director of Oak Grove School, said. “It’s great seeing the costumes and the families and the kids we know. It’s really fun to see everybody out, dressing up, having fun.”

Oak Grove was just one of 28 organizations sponsoring the event, said Ella Casey, assistant zoo director. In addition to the organizations, the roughly 20-person zoo staff and almost 100 volunteers help keep this program up and running.

“It’s all hands on deck here,” Casey said. “We have a fairly small staff, around 20 people, and we have volunteers doing the behind-the-scenes logistics; we have candy runners, parking volunteers.”

In addition to being prepared on the days of the event, preparation starts in mid-to-late summer, when it is time to order the candy.

“We order about 62,000 pieces of candy in advance,” Casey said.

The staff and volunteers gauge how much more candy they will need for Sunday based on the Saturday numbers, then go buy 10,000-12,000 more pieces for the final day.

“We have about 4,000 people a day,” Casey said. “It’s a very busy day and it goes quickly.”

The other factor in preparing for this event is the university, more specifically the Homecoming game, which can effect the turnout of the event.

“We have to choose over a Saturday and Sunday that doesn’t compete with Homecoming, because a lot of community members and businesses are involved with those activities,” Casey said. “It’s a little challenging because we’ve had to move it earlier in the past to not interfere.”

Casey expected a good turnout this year, and attributes strong crowds to when “the weather is good, and it’s proximity to actual Halloween.”

This year 6,681 people attended the event. On average, 5,000-6,000 people attend, with 2015 having a high of 8,000 people.

Parents like Tesha Washington, who was attending for the first time with her children, enjoyed the event.

“I really like it; there’s a lot for the kids to do,” Washington said.

While she has lived in the area for two and a half years, she had never considered attending before this year. Washington came with her three children, along with her friend and her child.

“My best friend looked it up and we decided we wanted to come today,” Washington said.

As people keep attending, the zoo will continue with the program.

“It’s a community event that is serving the community,” Casey said. “When we look at what events to keep, we see how it’s serving the community, and this one is one of our biggest so we keep it around.”

Those who say there is no use crying over spilled milk have never heard the cry of children who have dropped their bucket of candy.

In between the tears, there was laughter, smiles and the K-State Tap Ensemble. As they tapped to the “Ghostbusters” theme song, a small Ghostbuster looked excitedly at his costume and said “That’s me!” to his family.

The kids, while too shy to speak to a reporter, would probably say they had as much fun as they appeared to be having.

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