This is the third part of our mini-series covering some of the haunt-friendly programming from this year’s IAPPA Expo in Orlando. Every trade show presents the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and despite how large IAPPA is, haunters always seem to find each other coming up we’ll hear how the Kirby Family Farm Scary Train capitalized on last year’s momentum to have their best year ever.
While walking the show floor I quite literally ran into Darryl, and we started chatting. After some personal setbacks in September, the team rallied to make this past Halloween the best year ever. And one more note, you’ll hear Daryl reference their Christmas event later in the show, that’s because we recorded this back in November.
What Is Kirby Family Farm?
Darryl: I am Darryl Kirby with Kirby Family Farm in Williston, FL. Our main order of business is a children’s outreach center. We’re a not-for-profit 501C3 educational facility, and we found some of our best ways to raise funds for the charity is through our Christmas Train experience, our Scary Train experience, and other experiences where we open the facility to the public, they can come out and support us, leave a donation behind, they contribute for their tickets and that all goes to the charity.
Philip: Tell us about Scary Train.
Darryl: Scary Train kind of came out of nowhere. A few years ago we decided to “go scary” at the encouragement of some key volunteers and the kids and things. So, I said, we would try it. What’s interesting about us we don’t go gory. It’s not that I don’t love a good gory haunted house myself, but we work with a lot of children that have come home to actual gory experiences. So, we decided since we’re letting some of those kids work within the haunts and all, we would stay away from that aspect. But, we did decide to focus firmly on gotchas and phobias, and we still want to scare them.
I say it’s becoming my favorite event, because Scary Train, like our other events when we open our facility to the public, was strictly to raise funds for the charity. We host over 10,000 children a year in a normal year, for free. How do we pay? How do we maintain a 100-year-old railroad? How do we do all those outreach programs and get him there? Well, we got to have money from somewhere. So, I either tap on your window at a red light and beg, or we let you come out and have some fun, and it’s worked for us. So, Scary Train, we started with that same concept. What we didn’t know is how big of an influence it would be for a lot of teens that are in situations. I can’t even count on my fingers and toes how many teens get involved that are in situations that is their normal.
They don’t even know that they’re in a screwed up situation, but they come out there, they start getting comfortable, now they’ve got Father figures in their life, they’ve got people in their life that care about them, that are following up on them. So, it’s become as big an outreach as a fundraiser. So as it’s skyrocketing up and fundraising for the charity, it’s also become an outreach in a huge way too in our teenage range. So, we’re just so excited about it.
Scary Train 2020 And 2021 Season
Philip: So, this year went really well and you also were able to open in a smaller version last year, correct?
Darryl: Yes, we opened Scary Train last year. We’re in Florida, we had no competition. A lot of events, even Halloween Horror Nights, the largest haunted attraction in the world, was closed. So, all those hundreds of thousands of people that normally go to these venues had no place to go, and they found us. They discovered us. We started getting a lot more YouTubers, a lot of bloggers, a lot of news crews going through with their scare cams on. Word got out and it was very successful for us. People said they loved it, people said they were going to come back, but are they really? So we’re all excited, but is it going to happen?
Fast forward to 2021. We started our marketing a little early, we crossed our fingers, is it going to happen? And man did it happen. We increased exponentially over even last year. They did come, they did bring their friends, and we were ready for him. There were nights on sold-out nights where we had a standby line, and my front gate would call us and I would say, “let another 100 in.” It’s, of course, much appreciated because it helps a charity.
The more we do at our events, the more we can do in our outreach, because we can do more programs. Some of our programs now have waiting lists for kids. How do you put a kid who needs help today on a waiting list? You can only do so much because if you bring too many kids into a program, none of them benefit. Yeah I can tell you, over 10,000 children a year, and that’s an impressive number, but our goal is one child. If we spend thousands of hours, of volunteer hours, and we spend all this money and try to make things scarier and spookier and new ideas and everything, and everything we do with all of our volunteers we see in a year at Kirby Farm. If we can point at one child in that year and say we impacted them, we made a positive difference, it’s success. I mean, who would deny that wasn’t successful?
Staffing For Scary Train 2021
Philip: Staffing was difficult this year, but yours is all volunteer and you still had the volunteers, so why do you think that is?
Darryl: Honestly, it sounds like something my grandma would say to me. It’s the good Lord above, because in the month of September we lost some very close people, very prominent figures that were involved in outreach. We were in such a position emotionally that I think some of us key folks, if it hadn’t been for what they had poured into it, we would have probably taken a year off. We were dealing with heartbreak and loss. We were just like, how are we going to pull this together? But between the kids, we knew that they needed it more than ever, between all the effort that our lost friends had poured into it and all, that kind of gave us some motivation to do it.
So I share that with you to mention, I still can’t figure out why we had so many good people. We had a good team. We had enough to open the houses and everything. But people started showing up, newbies that had never haunted before, and then we had people that were FX makeup artists, and 10 year haunters all saying, “hey can we play?” We’ve always had good people involved, but we’ve never had so many people at once. I mean, I’m telling you, I don’t know, I can’t, I can only try to explain to answer, but I can’t directly answer your question, how did we do it? All I can say is as grandma would say, because they just came out of the woodwork. I mean, we were literally holding kids up the best we could, trying to help them get through hurt and loss, and I literally had volunteers just showing up saying, “where do I get a registration form?” I don’t know why. Is that a good answer?
Philip: I think we can kind of read, take a little bit away from it. Like what I take away from it is that it’s a little bit different in that you’re looking out for the kids, which is a little bit different. Your ultimate goal is not, make a bunch of money. It’s a little bit different of a focus, like you’re focused on the kids, on the people participating, and on making the experience. It’s like a strong purpose that you have that kind of unifies everyone together, everyone kind of knows why they’re there and what you’re trying to do.
Darryl: I agree with that 100%. We have a shared purpose, we love each other, we respect each other, and we all come together and make a beautiful thing happen.
What Surprises Did 2021 Hold?
Philip: So talk to me a little bit about what was most surprising for this year, aside from the extra people that you got.
Darryl: Fast passes worked out better than I thought for a first year. We’ve had people begging us for fast passes. We did 100 fast passes at night, very low number, just wanted to try it. They all sold out and we had one night we stumbled the opening night with fast passes. We opened our first weekend like normal, get all the bugs out, and second weekend we started our fast passes. First night kind of stumbled, by the second night of that first weekend, it was running like glass. This year we did the Ghostbusters, we celebrated the Ghostbusters because we didn’t want to cross any IP lines, you know? Made that very clear, because we don’t want to cross any IP lines, but we did and that turned out to be huge. So, that’s something we do now, is that first or second weekend, we want to have some extra reason for you to come this early in the season, that’s worked well for us the last two years.
Changes For 2022 Scary Train
Philip: What are you planning on continuing and changing for next year?
Darryl: We are constantly working on our railroad. We came out of the box with our railroad when we first went “Scary” as I say, and it was a little too intense and people would try to bell off the train. This is a real 100-year-old historic train, and it’s open-air coaches. Trains are simple to run, especially old ones. Very simple. We’re on a pretty much oval track. If you look at it from the sky, it’s actually the shape of a peanut, on purpose, because we’re in a very big peanut farming community.
We have to constantly think about numbers and how many people we can carry through. We can’t have people getting freaked out and belling off the train. So, we’ve been looking at and we tried something again this year. It did pick up, the popularity of the train, but it still wasn’t as intense because we’re trying to balance the intensity level versus the safety level. Obviously, safety comes first. So we’re gonna have a whole new training experience again. We keep tweaking it, keeps getting little better, and I’m really excited.
Here we are, it’s November and I’m already jacked up about next year’s. I mean, let’s just say that we started playing around with fire a little bit, and we like that avenue, we’re going with bigger higher flames and stuff. So, I don’t want to say anything else but so scary train will be all-new experience. Same train rides, same track, all new experience.
The Bloomtown beast is being retired, and we’re retiring our dark ride. It was everything I dreamed of having from my childhood in the 70s, that sketchy, skanky old dark ride. Well now we’re in a position, with the number of attendees we have, it can’t hold up, we’ve outgrown it, so we’re selling that. So, the dark ride will be gone. The Bloomtown beast hunt will be gone, but we’re still using our Western Town and all. There will be a whole new theme there, and we’re building a whole new indoor haunt that is 2400 square feet. The indoor one we’re doing will be really the first time that we can actually go off of measurements, because when you’re in the woods and stuff and you’re trying to put a post here and you hit lime rock, “OK, we’re going to move over 3 feet. OK, now everything throws it off.” So, you just kind of wander around and build your haunt and then put in your props. So, this will be one that we really get to plan out to the inch in design, so we’re excited about that.
2021 Christmas Train Plans
Philip: Let’s finish up here with your plans for Christmas.
Darryl: The Christmas Train, this is our 10th anniversary Christmas Train. We’ve pretty much found our niche and stuck with it, so it’ll be different for the key volunteers because our iconic Santa Claus that my daughter, it’s the only Santa Claus she knows, we lost him with September. So there will be some adjustments for us, I know more emotionally, than our guests. Our guests will come out, and I mean our ticket sales right now for Christmas Train are ahead of what they were last year, so it looks like it’s going to be a promising season. We open next Friday night, where we’re normally at by a week before Thanksgiving, we’re ahead of last year’s sales. We’re not sold out on any nights yet, we still got plenty of room, but it looks like it’s going to be a popular event.
You can’t help but be aware of other venues and things doing stuff To jump back to Scary Train for a minute man, you know, last year we had no competition, so I’m very thankful and grateful for all that we benefited from. But in the back of my mind I’m like, “hey don’t get used to this money. You know, just because they say they’re coming back, don’t get used to it until you see it. Actions speak louder than words.” Then we come into the 2021 Scary Train season, man, even SeaWorld down here is doing a haunt. We got two Howl-O-Screams in Florida, and then I got corn patches and mazes all around me for 30 minutes. I’m like, “OK, let’s see what happens.” Then we had our best season ever.
So, we’ve seen a lot more people get in the Christmas game in Florida. We’ll see how that turns out for us, but as of now we’re ahead of our normal. So, hopefully they’ll be enough for everybody.