Zoos and botanical gardens find Halloween programs are a hit, and an opportunity
Enormous warty pumpkins. Carnivorous plants. Immersive arachnid displays. Slithering snakes and fluttering bats. And illuminated displays of hundreds, or thousands, of ornately carved jack-o’-lanterns.
Zoos and botanical gardens have become increasingly popular Halloween destinations. Their haunting array of natural installations and spooky events provide a fun addition, or alternative, to traditional trick-or-treating.
They also are a teachable moment, naturalists and conservationists say.
“Fall is a celebration of the natural world, so Halloween and botanical gardens are an organic pairing,” says Michaela Wright, manager of interpretive content at the New York Botanical Garden, where October is “Fall-o-Ween.” The garden’s Halloween offerings began with a haunted greenhouse tour about 50 years ago, she says, “and it continues to evolve and expand.”
This year, there’s a Halloween pumpkin patch that includes exotic heritage varieties in blues, pinks and other surprising colors, in addition to varieties covered in warts. Master pumpkin carver Adam Bierton, a sculptor from Rochester, New York, known for his life-like jack-o’-lanterns, hosts weekend pumpkin-carving events. And of course there is the annual display of giant pumpkins, some weighing in at well over 2,000 pounds each.
At the Chicago Botanic Garden, the “Night of 1,000 Jack-o’-Lanterns” features elaborately painted and carved pumpkins, along with costumed entertainers, pumpkin-carving demos, and festive food. The garden’s online adult education classes include one on “Ghoulish Plants and Folklore, “ and a Halloween Hub with information about seasonal plants and pumpkins.
Many zoos, meanwhile, are hosting Halloween programming with names like “Boo at the Zoo,” or “Zoo Boo.”
“We started hosting what we call “HalGLOween” back in 2017 and it’s become one of our biggest draws of the year, providing a huge audience for our conservation messages,” says Lisa Martin, a wildlife care ambassador for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
The event started as a single weekend in October, and was so popular it was expanded to two weekends, she says. It’s now held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for most of October, and Halloween has become one of the most popular times of the year at the zoo.
“There’s no trick-or-treating. And we don’t offer candy,” she says, adding that that’s a relief for many parents.
This year’s “HalGLOween” features a “Skeleton Band,” a “Boo Crew” of scarecrow stilt-walkers, and an illuminated “Python Path” through the reptile house, among other events.
An immersive display of arachnids in the Cool Critters building “gives kids a chance to learn about something that seems scary but might not be so scary in real life,” says Martin.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park just north of the city also features a bat house.
And at the zoo, which is also an accredited botanical garden, a “Wildlife Explorers Basecamp” has all kinds of bugs, and bee and ant colonies. Elsewhere, horticulturists are on hand to answer questions about seemingly spooky plants like strangle-vines and vampire dragon orchids.
Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, in Indiana, is hosting a series of “Wild Zoo Halloween” events. Each weekend in October has a different theme, like “Superhero Weekend,” “Pirates and Princesses Weekend,” “Witch and Wizard Day” and, for those over 21, “Rock and Roar Halloween” with live music and drinks.
The Bronx Zoo in New York offers “Boo at the Zoo” events during the day and “Pumpkin Nights” after sunset. At night, guests can follow a jack-o’-lantern trail of over 5,000 illuminated pumpkins while they learn about nocturnal animal behavior.
Says Martin, of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance: “People learn best when they’re having fun, and they just may come in for some Halloween fun, and go home with a better understanding of conservation.”