ZOO BOO: A Halloween Spook-Tacular
Increased Participation Through Adaptation
Laurie Machen and Susan Weil
Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, Pittsburgh PA
The Haunted House for the Zoo Boo event at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium has progressed through a huge evolution over the past 16 years. To date, it has become the major draw of the Zoo’s final and largest docent fund raising event of the year. At times, creativity seemed to take second place to a “mandatory” attitude for this event, however, by combining updated themes apart from normal Halloween traditions and with the enjoyment of the entire family in mind, the Pittsburgh Docents have continually set a new path to make this mundane project exciting for volunteer involvement.
To begin, Halloween is VERY big in Pittsburgh, so looking back, it should be no surprise to anyone that in 1987, when several docents decided to get together and celebrate Halloween at the Zoo, that it had the possibility to turn into the 15,000 to 20,000 person extravaganza that it is today. Beginning as a one afternoon event in the then Children’s Zoo, it has expanded into a six to eight evening spectacular involving such areas in the zoo as crafts for the kids in the Discovery Pavilion, train rides and a docent decorated train yard (not scary for the very little kiddies), Aquarium events, a docent sponsored raffle (proceeds helping to cover costs), local celebrity story telling and many other exciting events. Candy and treats are also handed out at various locations throughout the Zoo (not Docent sponsored).
This year, to continue with Zoo Boo’s ever-constant evolution, the entire zoo will be open (for the first time) for the enjoyment of all scary creatures. Considering the fact that many people have not had the opportunity to experience the zoo with darkened skies over head, we are hoping this drastically adds to the drama and creepy Halloween experience.
In the beginning, the only place available to decorate was a small concession stand at the back of the Children’s Zoo that was closed for the season. Approximately 20 docents performed their first Zoo Boo setup on that cold October night, transforming an empty popcorn machine into a monster’s habitat, `digging’ a small graveyard, and incorporating every inch of unused space into some sort of scary encounter. The first Zoo Boo was a hit not only with the zoo, but also with the public and fellow docents.
For several years, Zoo Boo prevailed in that lonely concession stand, expanding slightly to include a small red barn. When Dr. Barbara Baker joined the Pittsburgh Zoo, as it’s new director, she saw the possibilities of Zoo Boo becoming a large event and a zoo tradition. The Pittsburgh Docents were then given permission to use the current Zoo Boo haunted house location, the Niches (Reptile) Building.
It took many years of trial and error, of gaining and losing help and actually testing the public and the EVENT itself to try and gain a comfortable level of control on the ever-growing Zoo Boo Event. Docents were used everywhere at first, from manning the ticket booths, to handing out candy, to working the haunted house.
Organization was lacking and finally, it became evident that someone had to have total control of different aspects and events. It was decided that the Docents would have total control over the Haunted House and decorating the Train yard, and the Zoo would staff the ticket booths, supply vendors and hand out candy.
The Haunted House has resided in the Niches (Reptile) Building for many years now, in which its naturally creepy, dark interior lends itself wonderfully to many a variety of themed areas. Turn the lights out in this building, and even the bravest of adults have reservations about proceeding forward. At first, the building was decorated with Halloween decorations, which was a large undertaking compared to the small venue of previous years. The “themed areas” idea had not yet emerged there was way too much to think about in the size adjustment alone of the now rather large project.
Over the years, the Docent Zoo Boo Committee became much more organized. When the group became accustomed to the size and scope of work, they began once again to spread their “creative” wings and gave the house a “Theme”. The House was broken down into 10 or so different areas that were designed, built and totally funded by the Pittsburgh Docent Council.
The physical aspects of creating the Haunted House cumulate in October with the setup of the Haunted House lasting 3 days, 9am to 9pm. The event runs for two weekends, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, with an occasional rental or two during the week thrown in. Tear down of the house goes much quicker with it being 1 day, 9 am to 4 pm. The hardest part about obtaining commitment to participate in Zoo Boo setup is getting the volunteers to take time off from their `real jobs’ during the daytime. Understandably, a lot of people do not want to sacrifice their highly valued vacation time for a volunteer project. We always seem to get enough help to get by, but it is always a bit of a worry.
For many years the Haunted House was much scarier and gorier than the House of today. For a while they accommodated the little kiddies by having a special night (Thursday) in which they left the lights on in the Haunted House and used less frightening costumes. Docent tastes seemed to vary: some liked the scary Haunted House and scaring kids, others had a definite mind set that scaring little kids was not a good thing to do. So there it was a volunteer group divided. How do we accommodate everyone?
Our next endeavor, after carefully watching the age group of the Zoo’s clientele for this event, was to switch to “light-fright” themes, which was overwhelmingly praised and applauded by parents, patrons and zoo members. Locally, there are many haunted houses at Halloween time around the greater Pittsburgh area. However, we seem to have a captive audience with the fact that we are the only Haunted House geared solely for the twelve and under age group, which means little to no gore or distasteful decorations.
Although the Zoo was given accolades of praise from parents and the public for the “light-fright” switch, some fellow docents initially resisted, with the thoughts that a Haunted House had to be more traditional and scary.
Some did not want to participate. Patience and perseverance prevailed, and we have come up with what we think is the perfect mix to keep everyone happy. The Committee’s new goal became to expose the kids to a healthy mixture of old time Traditional Halloween, an Artsy and whimsical Halloween and a Fun Halloween.
Examples of how the House now includes a mixture of these areas are: Traditional/ scary (ex: Graveyard, Dracula’s Castle), Artsy/ whimsical (ex: Nightmare Before Christmas, Cirque Du Soliel type areas), and Fun (ex: Ugly Beauty Pageant, Scooby-Doo, The Grinch, Honey I Shrunk the Kids) in its yearly design. We assign a `theme’ each year, which really is only loosely followed it is used more as a marketing tool to motivate and promote docent involvement.
We rarely seemed to be short of help when it came to working the Haunted House in costume. It seems that a large majority of our volunteer group had some sort of mask, cape, old wig or jammies just lying around waiting to come to life. However, some of us wanted more than that. For some, wearing a rubber mask and standing in a dark hidden area waiting for their opportunity to jump out of darkness is great. The public loves it, it works well, it’s easy, and we still use this technique. However, we wanted to incorporate more than that, and we sensed other people might like another option also. This option came in the form of `pumped up’ acting, more elaborate costuming and adding the use of theatrical makeup (SO much better than the five and dime store type that everyone was SO frustrated with in trying to apply). We are now in the process of encouraging people to “go all out” with their costuming and “hamming it up” when it comes to their acting. One way we’ve found to get people to let loose is so simple, yet many do not realize, “Guess what? You have a costume and makeup/ or mask on…. No one knows you!”
To create more interest and provide motivation towards the event, we decided to further promote the theatrical makeup application techniques. First we tried advertising a makeup class to be held at the zoo. Very little interest arose, so we did not hold the class. Much more interest arose at the event itself, when a handful of `Docent actors’ did use the new makeup, we heard allot more of, “I want to learn how to do that.” So, knowing that convenience is the key to making something happen, we got permission to `makeup’ some of our fellow Docent creatures during one of our general meetings. This way we knew we had a captive audience, no one had to make a special trip and it also provided some entertainment during a meeting. Even if it sparks the sincere interest of even one `victim’, it was well worth the effort.
To provide adequate `costumed coverage’ for the haunted house, we have found that a minimum of twenty docents works, but thirty or so is better. The Pittsburgh Zoo and Docent Council also allows kids from the summer’s Zoo Teen’s program to participate in costume in the haunted house, with more stringent rules applying to the `younger goblins’. A seasoned veteran docent is never far away when Zoo Teens are in the Haunted House, keeping a watchful eye over them for their safety and the publics’.
Motivating fellow docents to either stay involved or to become an integral part of the process, as you can imagine, has been somewhat of a challenge throughout the years. The biggest two factors in keeping fellow volunteers happy, seems to be: keeping involvement in the event fun, and keeping everyone busy. No one ever seems to complain about working too hard our biggest complaints have been from idle hands and minds showing up at setup and saying, “What can I do? Or, “We don’t know what to do.”
The new Docent class is also a very important asset to the Zoo Boo Event every year. Fresh minds bring in new ideas, but more importantly, they are lacking what many veteran Docents have: Zoo Boo Burnout. The new class is given a half hour presentation, which includes an explanation of what Zoo Boo is all about, motivational handouts, photos, costume examples and a map of the current years design. They are highly encouraged to get involved in any or all stages of the event. Last year, we had over 50% participation from both the new class and the entire Docent group as a whole. That is truly phenomenal, considering that some years people ran in the other direction when you said those 2 words ZOO BOO.
With Pittsburgh weather having a record of being constantly unpredictable in October, the Zoo Boo event is unfortunately, at the mercy of Mother Nature. Some evenings in October could be 65 degrees… others 25 degrees. The weather is one factor that we, even the most dedicated of Zoo Boo creatures cannot control. Zoo Boo is a total weather driven event, and attendance reflects that fact. But here’s the difference we’ve noticed the past few years —— with all the changes we keep on making —–all the progressions we, the Zoo Boo Committee, has promoted and endured, must be noticeable. We say that because we have noticed, that even on our one rain day last year, we saw a much higher than normal level of attendance (for a rain day) than we had previously seen. Patrons have actually said to us, “I know it’s raining, but we heard how great this was and just had to get down here to see this!” That to us means, as we say with ZOO BOO pride, “We must be doing something right!” Our attendance for the 2003 event was up 8% from the previous year, even with the rain day.
It has also now become apparent that docent participation and attitude towards the Haunted House has increased due to the “mixed light-fright” switch. We now have greater participation in all aspects ranging from committee membership (I actually had someone ASK to be on the committee this year!) to the design, build, tear down, acting, and home projects phases. We are very happy to currently report that instead of the usual begging for help at the Docent general meetings, we actually are now having people signing on for the next years event before the current years event is even over!
The bottom line from all of our trials and errors is: We have found that Showing and Doing works much better than Telling and trying to Convince. But the Most Important Factor we have found in getting repeat help from year to year for ZOO BOO is: We Make it fun… and we have fun… creating and interacting with each other
and the public. Add the fact that we are helping to raise a lot of money for the enrichment of the Zoo and the animals that we all care so much about….
And so we ask you,
“How does it get any better than that?”