A musical troupe, dressed festively in crumply paper costumes, prances before a crowd of tiny Spider-Men and skeletons. “It’s so wise to reutilize!” they sing, as one of them proffers some wadded-up paper balls for the puzzled kids to toss into a large bin.
A few steps away, a pint-sized princess backs away nervously from a large cricket known as Seemore Savings.
Around the shore of Rose’s Pond in Lenexa’s Enchanted Forest — and everywhere else in the area — the signs are unmistakable. Puppet shows with aliens, “enchanted” hay rack rides, balloons from a Christian group. Live owls!
Yes, kids: If a large cricket hands you candy while trying to interest your parents in a youth savings plan, it must be Halloween in Johnson County.
You wanted activities? We had face painting, pumpkin painting, candy scrambling, exotic animal talks, apple bobbing, eyeball counting, “boo bowling,” pipe cleaner twisting, 1920s games and storytelling. And those were just from city parks departments.
More: Minivan decorating at church-run trunk-or-treats. Dance recitals, preschool parties, storefront merchants. Neighborhood cul-de-sac parties and haunted garages.
And all that was before Halloween. Let’s not forget all the room parties that will entice elementary schoolers today.
Oh, and traditional trick-or-treating tonight.
After weeks of buildup to the second-most commercial, decorated and celebrated holiday of the year, it’s finally here. So take a deep, cleansing breath and enjoy the moment. Christmas, after all, will be here before we know it.
Once the purview of kids eager for a few pieces of candy (or a chance to egg a few windows), Halloween has become a days-long ride on a candy-fueled party train through parks, businesses, schools, churches and, of course, neighborhoods.
At the Enchanted Forest in Lenexa, costumed commercial sponsors handed out fliers in booths alongside Operation Wildlife and its owls. Nearby, Martin City Junior, a children’s theater troupe, presented an “edutainment” show about recycling.
Once a year, some Overland Park merchants dress up for trick-or-treaters to promote the downtown. Ditto Oak Park Mall and individual stores. And countless churches open up their parking lots for trunk-or-treaters every year.
“Halloween has always been a big deal for kids, but it’s a much bigger deal now,” said Marjean Cox, as she waited for her 5-year-old grandson outside one of three inflated bounce houses at the Enchanted Forest.
“It seems like Halloween has just blown up exponentially,” said Jillian Martin of Shawnee.
The numbers bear that out.
Temperatures in the breezy 40s didn’t make a dent in the turnout for the Enchanted Forest, organizers said. An estimated 1,500 turned out to watch the shows and ride hay bales at Sar-Ko-Par Trails Park on Thursday.
Some 500 went to downtown Overland Park on Saturday afternoon and another 1,000 kids went to the Trick-or-Treat Trail at the Matt Ross Community Center the very next day.
Johnson County reflects a national trend. The National Retail Federation’s 2012 Halloween consumer survey says some 170 million people expect to celebrate Halloween this year — the most in its 10 years of collecting the data. Average spending will be up also, from $72.31 last year to $79.82 this year, for a total spending spree of about $8 billion.
The retail federation’s president and CEO, Matthew Shay, estimated that Americans spend two months getting ready for Halloween. Two months.
To quote Charlie Brown, “Aaugh!” But if anyone’s getting burned out on Halloween, few are showing it.
Meaghan Johnson and her mother, Karvette Montgomery, both of Olathe, spent an evening at the Merriam Marketplace last week, where youngsters did pumpkin putt-putt and pipe cleaner spider assembly.
Johnson figures it was her ninth or 10th Halloween event with her children Ayshah, 6, and Austin, 14 months. They’d already been to a Blue Valley fall festival and events at Chuck E. Cheese’s, Worlds of Fun and Hy-Vee, and they had a dance class party and the Legends shopping center on tap for later.
“It’s fun for them to get out of the house with activities we can do together,” Johnson said.
Montgomery laughed. “The real reason is she’s such a big kid, she wants to go herself,” she said of her grown-up daughter.
For which Meaghan had a comeback: “But you jumped right in the car with me.”
Only Christmas out-performs Halloween as a prolonged holiday. But its focus on unhealthy candy has some parents limiting the number of events their children attend.
Sara Koulen, president of the Leawood Elementary Parent Teacher Organization, says her family goes out trick-or-treating and to maybe one other event. But she limits it “because of the overwhelming amount of candy given out. Twenty pounds of candy isn’t going to help them,” she said.
Likewise, Jodi Miller of Olathe says she puts the brakes on party-going. “My kids would probably do two or three more events if I let them,” she said. “As a parent you do have to stop it because the amount of sugar they consume is just not healthy.”
Maybe the overload contributed to fewer people turning out at Shawnee’s Historical Hauntings at Shawnee Town 1929 on Saturday night. The event typically brings in 4,000 to 5,000 people, but this year turnout was 2,600. Curator Sharron Uhler attributed the decrease to the cold weather — and a trunk-or-treat event in the area the night before.
Many of Johnson County’s Halloween events have been up and running for a decade or more. Uhler estimates that Historical Hauntings has been around about 15 years. It started as a small trick-or-treat opportunity around the historic Shawnee Town, but really took off when the city asked if businesses wanted to participate.
Merchants dress up and hand out candy in the old shops. For instance, the Chopper Hair Salon has always had people in the Shawnee Town old barbershop. Now, around 25 businesses participate, most of them local, but a few national and regional chains also participate, she said.
Safety was a big factor in starting many events. As stories of tainted candy and child abductions circulated, group events in a controlled environment became more attractive. And it still plays a role.
Halloween events at the Matt Ross Community Center in Overland Park are indoors with city staff and firefighters on hand and plenty of cameras, said Kristina Stanley, recreation supervisor. And the Shawnee Town event is surrounded by a six-foot fence.
But parents shouldn’t be more worried about violent crimes during Halloween, local police said.
“I think it’s as safe here at Halloween as it is any other day,” said Leawood Police Chief John Meier.
Olathe police spokesman Sgt. Grant Allen said the increased number of parents out with their children — something the police always advocate — makes all kids safer.
Times have changed since the events got their start, however. Halloween has evolved. Nowadays, the family events are just another part of the holiday experience, not a substitute for going door-to-door in search of candy. Groups of parents and children trick-or-treating together is the new normal.
“The days of kids going outside and coming back in when the streetlights come on are probably over,” said Richard Louv, author of several books about families, nature and community, including “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
“There is danger out there, but not nearly as much as (journalists) have made people believe,” he said.
Louv, who lived in Raytown and Independence as a child, remembers an entirely different Halloween. “We just went out on our own,” he said.
But Louv, a proponent of independent play, says the family Halloween activities are a good thing. When many families get together, it gives parents a chance to socialize while kids play in their own groups. “There’s more independent play than one would think,” he said. “It’s better to have a group experience than no experience.”
Certainly, many Johnson Countians are bonding with their neighbors as they celebrate Halloween with abandon. Look in any subdivision with kids and you’ll find impromptu hay rides, cul-de-sac fire pit gatherings and over-the-top decorating.
In the Southglen subdivision in Olathe, many of the homeowners decorate, and some turn their garages into haunted houses for the droves of kids who will fill the streets tonight.
“Halloween night in this neighborhood is extremely busy and almost chaotic,” said Jodi Miller, who has five children 12 and under.
Rich Poindexter figures that this year he’s seen double the amount of decorating in his Overland Park neighborhood, Nottingham by the Green. “I’m driving down the street now and seeing orange lights. You never used to see that,” he said. “It’s become a fun holiday not necessarily just for kids any more.”
That’s for sure. The adults are into this.
Poindexter spends weekends and weeknights for the better part of two weeks putting things together for his garage haunted house. In years past, he’s had mannequins as characters from “Lord of the Rings” and “Friday the 13th,” but this year, he’ll surprise his guests with live actors from among his family and friends.
“I can’t wait to hear the people scream,” he said.
Poindexter said he’s loved monsters and science fiction since his brothers and sisters made him sit through the “Night Gallery” television show as a child. Now Halloween is his favorite holiday.
Yes, it’s a lot of work. The house is open the Saturday before Halloween, as well as the night itself, and his wife, Brooke, spends a couple of days whipping up cupcakes, dips and Rice Krispie bars for all the friends they’ll see.
“There’s always times when you’re putting things up and you realize, gosh, this is a lot of work,” Rich Poindexter said. “Then Halloween night comes and people come and say how much fun they had, and you know it was totally worth it.”