Halloween came early for some local children at Lowry Park Zoo Tuesday night
On October 31, trick-or-treaters across the nation will take part in a time-honored tradition, dressing up in costumes to celebrate one of the most anticipated evenings of the year...at least for kids. For 400 lucky children in Tampa Bay, however, Halloween came early in 2008.
On Tuesday night, youth throughout the Bay area were invited to the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa for a Halloween Celebration hosted by the Buccaneers and Publix. Children ranging from ages 5-10 came out in costume to enjoy a special evening with their favorite Buccaneers. LB Quincy Black, K Matt Bryant, TE John Gilmore, RB Earnest Graham, WR/RS Dexter Jackson, RB Clifton Smith and RB Cadillac Williams enjoyed arts and crafts and haunted houses with disadvantaged youth to help make this Halloween a memorable one for those less fortunate.
Youth service organizations including Children's Future Hillsborough, The Children's Home Inc., Hillsborough County Foster Parent Association, and the United Way of Tampa Bay helped coordinate youth attendance for the special occasion. The zoo, transformed for the holiday-themed "Zoo Boo" event going on this month at Lowry Park, served as the perfect setting to host this family-friendly celebration.
"Children are riding the carousel, getting wet over at the flume ride and just encompassing what Halloween and youth is all about: Having a good time and enjoying yourself," said Tony Laforgia, Corporate Relations Manager for the Lowry Park Zoo. "Being involved with partners like Publix, the Bucs and the Zoo, children are doing things they ordinarily couldn't have done."
The evening kicked off at Manatee Fountain, where visitors snacked on chicken fingers and sandwiches provided by Publix. The Buccaneers Cheerleaders then took center stage for a quick performance, followed by some autograph and photo opportunities with the players, cheerleaders and Captain Fear.
Then they were off!
Children dispersed throughout the park, trying out all of the spooky and fun options awaiting them. Those willing to face their fears experienced "Shipwrecked!," a journey through a pirate village and haunted swamp, while those younger – or young at heart – opted for the Little Tyke Boo House. Frankenstein's Foam Party covered children head to toe in a soapy substance, while Gator Falls took passengers on a treacherous and wet ride.
Walking around the Haunted Carousel one would find an arts and crafts station for pumpkin carving and face painting, and heading past the Flyin' Bananas ride youngsters encountered the Pony Trek, where make-believe cowboys and cowgirls saddled up on the real thing.
On an evening for the children, it proved to be an enjoyable time for all.
"This feels good," said Jackson. "I feel like we put on a costume on Sundays and that's just to be a player. But to be yourself and to give back is cool because they see you as a human, and I feel like that's one of the most important things about being in the NFL and being a Buccaneer is to be yourself and do what you've got to do for the community."
Added Smith: "I like doing events like this to the point where I can actually interact with kids and just make them laugh – or in this instance, make some of them scared. This is a lot of fun."
Some of the players enjoyed themselves so much, however, that distinguishing the Buccaneers from the children often proved difficult.
"I think I might be having more fun than these kids are right about now," joked Smith, who sported a ghoulish mask and chased around the youngsters for much of the evening. "Although they may be having nightmares about me for the next two or three nights."
Jackson wore a mask and got into the spirit of the event, too.
"I feel like just coming out here and seeing the kids look at me as one of them. I feel like you never get too old," he said. "It kind of made me feel like a kid again and I had just as much fun as one."
As participants made their way towards the gates at the evening's conclusion, children received Buccaneers posters, Halloween stuffed animals, and bags of candy from RB Earnest Graham, who graciously signed autographs and posed for pictures for every child exiting the zoo.
"As a player, you feel a huge responsibility to come out here and help out, even to sign autographs and give a good word whenever you can, because these kids are definitely going through some tough times," said Graham. To be out here with a smile on your face means so much; you never know quite what it's going to do for them today and for the rest of their days. It's something that we should all do, because these kids really need it."
Laforgia was thrilled with the event at its conclusion.
"It's just great to walk around this place and see all these kids having a phenomenal time and then leaving here with autographs from their favorite players," he noted. "When kids leave the zoo having a good time, that's what it's all about."