This is day 36 of our 61-day Hauntathon, counting down to Halloween. Zoo Tampa’s Halloween event is pretty outside the norm of other zoos, it’s a full experience with characters shows, mazes, food and a thematic storyline all tied back to the zoo. It’s impressive, and this year, the event is expanding. Alex Crowe, the director of entertainment productions at Zoo Tampa takes us on a deep dive into Creatures of the Night.
What Is Creatures of the Night in 2021?
Alex: We’re pushing the envelope a little bit more than we have in the past. We’ve got a new icon, his name is Nightshadow, and he’s a master of dreams that can bring to life the whimsical and the nightmarish. We’re really playing on the idea that we can cover a little bit of everything for everybody this year. So, we’ve got some scary stuff that we haven’t delved into in a while, and we still got a lot of the family friendly stuff. So, pretty much if you’re between 5 and 14, this is an event that the whole family can come to.
Tickets can be bought on a walkup basis, but Zoo Tampa has a guest cap, so it is recommended that you make your reservation for Creatures of the Night online. For non-members it is $29.95 per person, but if you are already a member there is a $5 reservation fee that is returned to you in the form of a voucher you can spend at the event.
Zoo Tampa Has a New Icon for 2021 and a New Scary House
Alex: Nightshadow will appear in multiple places around the park. He’s always accompanied by his African Pied Crow which is his familiar, for lack of better term, and that bird’s name is Whisper. The bird helps him with his magical powers to bring dreams to life, going in a little bit of the mythos of the Crow as a bird and being a harbinger of either dreams, nightmares, or life and death messaging.
For Mr. Nightshadow, he’ll premiere right when you walk in the park, you’ll see him in Twisted Tales where he’s brought the fairytales to life, then for the scary house this year—and we’re really shooting to be scary—it’s called the Junkyard of Broken Dreams, which he is the proprietor of. The idea is that he’s brought to life all of the nightmares that, once you got past childhood, you thought you threw away. You’ll experience the Slender Man, the Chupacabra, the Hook Hand Man story, we’re bringing to life the Bunny Man myth from Fairfax, Virginia, you’ll see, bloody Mary, you’ll see people with fear of insects. So, a little bit of the stuff that you think you grow out of, nightmares and things that freaked you out, Nightshadow brings to life in this new junkyard. We’re excited for that one.
Then, around the park you can meet him and Whisper, we’ll do a couple of meet and greets where you can actually meet the bird and him. In addition to that, every area in the park this year, including the Realm of the Spider Queen, which is back, he’s brought to life and infused a dream-like feel through all of it.
Alex Walks Through the Creatures of the Night Areas in Zoo Tampa
Alex: So, we have Twisted Tales returning. Again, that’s where fairytales come to life, it’s all the villains you recognize. Clown Carousel is back this year as well, because clowns are fun for some and freaky for others. This year, Lucila Lumpkins has joined the circus, so we have a pumpkin smashing show with a little bit of a clown twist this year.
Our Wallaroo section is brand new, it’s called Scarecrow Junction. It’ll feature dancing scarecrows for the family, and then a little open-air haunt for the younger guests, that’s called the Haha Haybale Maze. Again, open air so that parents can let their little ones go in and experience Halloween in a completely safe environment. They can let the kids go off on their own, but the parents can still watch. That one is all built around funny Halloween puns, so it was very lighthearted. We’ll be using a pumpkin scale for fear this year. So that’s our one pumpkin scale house.
As you go back, you’ll see the Realm of Spider Queen, where we have spider court there dancing again, so it’s a dance DJ party for everybody.
Past that our beer and wine areas being turned into a Voodoo Bar for our adult guests, and just past that, the back of Africa areas being turned into a Voodoo Area, watched over by Dr. Hoodoo, who has a voodoo medicine man. He’ll do a little show about breaking the veil between this side and that side, and you can peek in what life after death might be in the voodoo world.
Back in Roaring Springs, we’ll have an area, it’s a new haunt, called Ghost of Gator Grove; this is a two on the pumpkin scale, so it’s that’s mid-level to get people ready for the scary stuff. The story there is, pirates buried a treasure in the swamps of the bayou, and you’ve been invited to try to find it and learn that the town has been overrun by the ghosts of the pirates and the people that lived in that space prior to the Pirate’s curse being enacted. Then we’ve got our Pirate Party Pants this year, which a it’s against a party area for kids, but we’ve added two shows there. So, families can sit down and watch a pirate magician. That’ll do a 15 to 20 minutes show throughout the evening, and also, a pirate storyteller that will tell stories about his adventures on the open seas.
The sirens come back in our Manatee tunnel. So that’s basically, you walk through an area where the siren has turned people into stone and you get to meet a pretty creepy mermaid and the pirates that work for her.
I think that’s pretty much the whole event this year. So, you’ve got a couple more show options. You’ve got Junkyard of Broken Dreams, which is the three on the pumpkin scale, that is the scary house. So, that’s the one that we’re telling all the families that if you want to be scared, you go there, don’t bring the little ones in this house.
So again, trying to hit a little bit of that 5 to 14, get a little bit of everything for everybody. I think we said this last year, and I’ll say it again, we’re trying to make Creatures of the Night, the event that builds the next generation of haunt fans; so they can start small, get the joy of Halloween and we’re easing them into the freak out stuff so that down the line they’ll be going to the big boys and having fun at those events too.
Philip: So it sounds like you’ve expanded the event this year, and you’ve also made it much more clear that there are distinctions between the different age events, like you said, on a scale leading from 5 to 14. There’s plenty of entertainment, and also tying the new icon this year back to real animals with the crow and whatnot.
Alex: And the African Pied Crow is a cool animal. Most people think of crows as the pitch black Ravens, but the African pied Crow has this very cool white feather breast, so it’s very different looking, but still a Crow. We happen to have one here in our family at Zoo Tampa, so it kind of worked itself out; we get to showcase the animal side and the creepy side all together.
Philip: And the voodoo area that is new as well, isn’t it?
Alex: Yeah. So the Voodoo Bar is a new overlay for our beer and wine garden, and that’s geared toward the adults. So they, while their kids are having the dance party at Spider Queens Realm they can step aside, again still see their kids, but enjoy an adult beverage. The voodoo section in the back is, again, just expanding it so it feels like the whole parks involved in this event, and there’s no dark areas and dead areas.
The beauty of this event, again, no matter how you cut it, we’re a zoo. So, in addition to All the things I mentioned, throughout the entire evening we’ve got our Animal Ambassadors out for mingles. So, you can meet all different animals, not just Whisper the Pied Crow. You can meet snakes and spiders, and then at all the animal habitats throughout the evening, we’ll have the keepers out there doing animal chats. So, the educational value of a zoo still exists at this event with a fun Halloween night on top of it.
Alex Talks About the Food Passport and Unique Food Offerings
Alex: I forgot to mention earlier, we will have a lot of unique food offerings just for this event. You can come and experience and we have a Food Passport. If you’re a foodie, come to the event and try all the weird Halloween foods that our culinary team puts together here.
Yeah, so the Food Pass, when you come in, you’ll go by guest services and they’ll have a stack of passes, we call it the food passport, that you can grab and it will list every restaurant in the park, and it has a checklist of all the unique items that are only available during Creatures of the Night.
We are lucky enough, like you said, to have an internal chef and food team here at the zoo. So this is the time of the year they get to play, so they come up with all kinds of cool stuff. We have Baked Bat Wings. We have pizzas in the shape of Jack-o-lanterns. My favorite is the Monster Burger, which is literally like four patties stacked on top of cheeses and different veggies, and I believe there’s mozzarella sticks in it, it’s crazy.
If you’re a foodie, you get to come and try all this stuff that you can only try during this time of the year and check off those boxes as you go down. It totally feels different from a regular day at the zoo because there’s only things you can do at Creatures.
It became a great part of the event last year, and something that we’re going to capitalize and build on again this year. The goal this year is to make sure there’s unique items in every single restaurant and try to repeat items as little as possible, so it really feels like you’re taking a travel around the park to find something cool and new.
How Merchandise Has Expanded for Creatures of the Night
Alex: We have a specific popcorn bucket this year, that’ll be just for this year’s event. Our goal with that is going to be to create that as a collectors item and change it up every single year. Our merch team is currently researching options to do some Creatures of the Night, a specific merch.
So, we’re looking to build off the popularity of Creatures last year and find ways to give people cool collectible items to walk away from the event with.
Philip: Yeah, it sounds like it, it sounds like you’re really doubling down with the food and the voodoo and the, even the popcorn bucket, and all these items that are extending the story, as well as the new icon character this year also extends the story. I like how it’s not haphazard, but I think it’s really clear this character fits with what you’re doing, it ties in with the animal aspects, it ties in with education, it justifies the mission of the zoo, but also it extends the event and allows you guys to grow it in these natural ways.
Alex: We’re trying to always have a through line. Does that through line get a little misty and foggy at some points? Yeah. But throughout the whole thing the beauty of being a dream master is anything can happen in dreams, so it allows us that wiggle room to bring these things to life with that through line still is part of it.
Make Sure to Make a Reservation
Alex: It’s going to be really important this year to make sure you go through our reservation system, to secure your spot for that evening. We will have a walkup program, but it will be based on what the in park count of guests is. So, if you want to guarantee a spot, make sure you go to zootampa.org and get yourself a reservation, otherwise you’re taking a chance. And then also, if you’re a member or a pay for day guest here at Zoo Tampa, we have a $5 reservation fee. The way that works is you put $5 down to get your spot locked in but, you’re handed a $5 voucher for your evening at the event that you can use at any food or merchandise vendor in the park.
So, it’s just basically prepaying $5 for your evening to reserve your spot.
What COVID Protocols Does Creatures of the Night Have for 2021?
Alex: We had originally started planning this year to be a maskless event, because things were looking up. We made the call about two months ago, as things started to flare up, that we should play it safe and stick to the COVID protocols that work really well for us last year. So, all the actors will be masked at all indoor sections that we do have, which is very few in the zoo. There’ll be strong recommendations with signage and employees recommending that guests wear a mask in those indoor areas. We won’t be forcing anybody to wear masks, we want people to be comfortable, but we’re taking the time, to really strongly recommend via voice announcements throughout the park and the signage.
We want people to feel safe. Our actors will be directed, just like they were last year, to keep six feet of distance between themselves and guests. And we’re doing a reservation system too, so we are capping attendance for the nights. This works for us twofold, it allows us to never have the park feel too packed, where you feel people are on top of you.
But also it allowed us, that we learned last year, to provide a really great guest experience. So, on top of, being safe as a guest, you got to come and you never felt like you were in a line too long, you never felt like you had too many people on top of you. So, we’re going to probably, even past COVID in the next couple of years, maintain that style of operation where we’ll cap the attendance. Because, no matter how you cut it, the guest experience will always be paramount to how many people you have in a park. So, you can have 6,000 people in the park and they won’t come back because it was such a bad experience, but if you cap that around 2000, 3000, it’s really enjoyable for everybody.
Alex Discuss Staffing the Event
Alex: We started doing our auditions relatively early, which allowed us to get some people locked in prior to the mad dash for all of the local haunts to try to get their folks. We do have a lot of returning cast members too, we’re pretty proud of that because we created an environment last year, a work environment, at the event backstage that people wanted to come back and spend their Halloween with us versus other areas, other parks in the area. We’re fully cast, and we have about 95 cast members this year. So, we went from about 80 last year and added about 15 different characters.
Now on The opposite end of the spectrum, we are having trouble staffing our operational positions. So, we have an events operations teams that we try to staff for the season. Our food and beverage, and our operations try to staff seasonal folks for these event times as well, and that has been a struggle. The challenge is getting the people in, and making them want to work for us versus others. So, we’re using all the tricks that so many other people are using, which is the incentive bonuses, and it’s my job, and my staff’s job to create an environment for these people that do join our teams.
Philip: Can you give me some specific examples of how you are creating a better backstage environment?
Alex: The need for having staff and the lack of people trying to come get employment has led us to have to be a little bit more flexible when it comes to scheduling. This is an opinion of my own, so let me state that, but I think people don’t want to work to work anymore, they want to work to have a good time and either capture their passion or do something they feel good about. So, for this year not only are we doing the incentive bonus, we’re also trying to offer employee-only animal interactions that’ll happen after hours and create employee events. If you work here at the zoo, you’re going to get to do something that we provide for you that you can’t do normally, and that’ll be animal encounters, animal mingles, animal stuff backstage, like feeding the Al-Dabbagh or feeding the elephants. So, we’re trying to spice up the job offer with that kind of enrichment. In addition, we’re just, again, trying to be flexible with people’s schedules. Our events from 4 to 10, and we may have to get a little crafty on our side with scheduling. If somebody’s not available till five, we’re now as a company in a position that we’ve got to figure out how to work with that, not against that. We are definitely being a little bit looser when it comes to people’s availability to make sure that we can provide a good event, and employees aren’t stressed being here.
Philip: I think that the employee only animal encounters, that sounds so interesting to me.
Alex: When you work at a zoo, we have tools that a lot of employers may not have. And working at a zoo,you’re going to interact with animals and keepers, but to be able for us to offer and create unique experiences that only employees will see, and I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that if it works for the employees, yes it’s stuff we might research on, how can we do this for a regular guest as well? But to just say again, you want to make it worth their time and make it special for them.
We’re asking people to work for us for about 15 days for these seasonal events. So, we want those 15 days to be packed full of stuff that they will talk about throughout the rest of the year and be like, “oh, I got to come back, because last year we did all this stuff. I can’t wait to see what they do this year.”
Philip: Yep, and because you have other seasonal events like your Christmas one last year, that was also equally successful as Creatures of the Night, and so you want to make sure that you’re building this so that you can go right into Christmas, I assume.
Alex: Correct, and a lot of our cast, again, starting early, we’ve already offered a lot of our Christmas positions as well. So, when it comes to the performance side, we’re in a really good spot. Operationals where we’re struggling and doing everything we can to get bodies in the door and find good people to be on our team.
My personal motto when it comes to leadership and management is, if you make a decision and the guest is the core of that decision and that thought process, you really can’t go wrong.
Philip: How are you making the flexible schedules work?
Alex: It’s, you don’t get tied to an operational plan. Last year, each area was split. There was the early shift that would do the 4:00 PM to 9:30, and then the late shift that would do 4:30 to 10. It was one whole area that would operate on that. But this year, because of these issues with people’s availability, it’s like, well, there’s no reason Twisted Tales. Can’t have a 4 to 9:30 shift, and a 4:30 to 10 shift. It was literally just, again, accepting that, “Hey, they’re not all going to be on the same schedule, we’re going to split this up,” which happy accident, allows us to have more coverage of our characters throughout the entire evening. So, where last year Twisted Tales would have to shut down at 9:30 and the Spider Queen team would move in to say good night, now we can have the Dream Master Nightshadow come up there with Whisper and still have him up front, but still have the Twisted Tales experience happening, just so there’s more activity upfront as you’re saying tonight. So, it was a happy accident, but that’s where the flexibility comes in of, oh you can’t be here till 4:30? Cool. W e’ll make these characters 4:30, because that’s what you’ve been assigned as your role. So yeah, it’s just being flexible and not stuck to your, “we do it this way and this is the only way we do it.”
Philip: So flexible schedules, I feel like, right now is really important for people.
Alex: It’s, again, if you build an experience that the employee likes, if we are flexible, if we realize they’re human beings and they’ve got all this stuff going on, and we still find a way to work together with them, that’s something that, down the line, when you need something and you’re really hurting, you can call a favor and be like, ” look, I know that you weren’t available last year, but I really need you now.” They’re more inclined to say, “Hey, I’m in a better spot. I can help you out,” and they want to, because they had such a good time working here. Treating people right comes back around, and good things happen to people that do good things.
Philip: Are you asking any of your staff about their vaccination status? Are you touching that at all or are you just leaving it alone?
Alex: We are not touching that. We, at the zoo for daytime employees and seasonal, we allow them to come show HR their vaccine, if they would like, the vaccine card, and then you get a special sticker. So that anybody that comes to the park has been notified, and anybody at the park that works here has notified, if you have that sticker, you have a vaccination. We don’t require you to get it. You do not have to show it If you don’t want. Since we make all of our employees still wear masks in guest areas, regardless of the guests having to wear them or not. So yeah, not requiring people to disclose, but giving the option if they want to be able to.
Philip: You know, It’s not a penalty, it’s just a positive thing they can showcase if they feel strongly about it.
Alex: We’re very pro-vaccine as a company, if you got the sticker, you got two free lunches at the zoo. So, for a small little thing, but I was like, “oh, you have the sticker, guess what? Here’s your two coupons.” So there was a value to it as well.
Philip: Did you need to increase the pay rate for your seasonal employees this year?
Alex: We did. So we had knowledge of kind of the pay rates of local parks, we were able to see where they were starting, and realized if we were going to be competitive, and again, we auditioned early, so we didn’t want to lose people, we realized we were going to have to match that base.
So yeah, we went roughly from about, I think it was a $12, $13 pay rate last year
to a $15 base. Our stilt walkers and anybody that’s doing a little bit more of an active, possibly dangerous role.
Philip: Adding the employee only interactions, the bonuses, the job fair, making the playing field equal, and then also adding little incentives for if they are already vaccinated and that type of thing. That’s a lot of extra effort to make sure that the staff is there for this year’s event.
Alex: And you’ve been to our park, it is a zoo, and it’s a zoo that’s been here for 50 years. It’s got a lot of stuff that just, innately for being an older park, that can make a job here challenging. So, we’ve got to do what we can to make it enjoyable and make it as fun and easy as we can. So, all those things that you listed allow us to give the employee a reason to want to be at the zoo, working when, I mean there’s days that it’s hard. You’re dealing with boardwalks that are 30 years old, and having to fix and repair those, and work on them. There’s plenty of opportunities to be successful in making an employee enjoy being here.