From costumed children in search of candy to adventurous adults in need of a good scare, visitors to the Texas Zoo will find what they are looking for this Halloween season with two special events.

Haunted Zoo will offer visitors ages 13 and older the scare of their lives Oct. 22-24 and Oct. 29-31. On Fridays and Saturdays, their worst nightmares will come to life from 8 p.m. to midnight, while sheer terror will take them over from 8 to 10 p.m. on Sundays. For children, the 37th Annual Zoo Boo, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 30, will provide fun-filled trick-or-treating in a safe, entertaining environment.

“If you’re scared of the dark, we’re going to capitalize on that fear. We are going to turn the quaint Texas Zoo that everyone knows and loves into a super haunted horror show,” said Cari Wittenborn, interim director of the Texas Zoo, about the Haunted Zoo event. “If you’re scared of something, we’ll have a room that suits your phobia.”

For several years, at least 20 Halloween-loving volunteers and staff members have worked behind the scenes as organizers and scare actors to make the Haunted Zoo a truly hair-raising experience for hundreds of thrill-seekers.

“It’s unique because it’s a lot bigger than other haunted houses that are just one room or one building,” Wittenborn said. “And walking on the trail outside adds to the spook factor. It’s a good time with friends if you enjoy something scary, and it gets you into the Halloween spirit.”

This year, a couple of volunteer groups will provide nightmares of their choosing along the way, and the entire zoo will transform into a freaky house of horror. Those who visit the zoo on a regular basis will not recognize their surroundings, Wittenborn continued.

Eerie zombies, creepy clowns, spooky cult leaders, scary demons and pumpkin monsters, among an assortment of other devilish beasts, will terrorize zoo-goers. Those who dare enter will make their way around the perimeter path of the darkened zoo, which will take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes — unless they run. The snack bar will be open where visitors can work up their courage with the purchase of chips, cotton candy, chocolate, soft drinks, water or gatorade, among other treats.

In the past, Paul Hulbert, guest service specialist for the Texas Zoo and lead planner for this event, has had to escort adults out of the haunted house because the experience was too intense for them.

“We really try to make it scary. We don’t try to water anything down,” Hulbert said. “We do what we can to make it really scary because we want to give them what they came for. This is the perfect place for horror lovers and people who like to be scared.”

The day before Halloween, hundreds of younger visitors will enjoy sporting their costumes at Zoo Boo. Festive photo opportunities will please parents and children alike along with music celebrating the spooky holiday. At least 10 booths manned by community businesses will dispense candy and host fun games and activities for the children. In the past, businesses have provided entertainment including a ring toss, coloring pages, face painting and pumpkin painting. Depending on the unpredictable Texas weather, the snack bar will either sell snow cones and ice cream or hot chocolate, among other fare.

“It’s a neat way for children to safely trick-or-treat, and businesses get to be involved in the community without paying outrageous booth prices,” said Kay Irwin, education director for the Texas Zoo and lead planner for this event. “The booths are free, and the businesses supply candy and activities. They become more well known, and it brings more people into the zoo.”

Halloween-themed enrichment activities also will entertain the children. For example, the zoo staff might give the animals pumpkins or piñatas filled with their favorite foods. Furthermore, the children will learn about endangered and invasive species that live at the zoo, and the zoo will share its messages about conservation and research that everyone should do before engaging in activities like adopting a pet or going hunting.

Because of COVID-19 and the event’s popularity, space is limited. Timed ticketing is available on the zoo’s website, www.texaszoo.org. Some tickets might be available on a walk-up basis, but the zoo cannot make any guarantees.

“The kids always enjoy Zoo Boo, and we see tons of them,” Irwin said. “We are always looking to keep them wanting to come back.”

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Elena Anita Watts is the features editor for the Victoria Advocate. She covers faith, arts, culture and entertainment, and she can be reached at 361-580-6585 or ewatts@vicad.com.

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