By Brandei Clifton
October 25, 2023
Scary movies give bats a bad rap, especially this time of year.
Guides at Silver Dollar City’s historic Marvel Cave are on a daily mission to clear up what they call unfounded fears about the critters who actually benefit our ecosystem.
“Truth is, bats couldn’t care less about us,” explains Corey Taylor, a guide at Marvel Cave. “They don’t dive-bomb people or get tangled in your hair. They just want to be left alone.”
Missouri is native to 14 species of bats, four of which are found inside Marvel Cave. Big Brown Bats, Small Brown Bats, Gray Bats, and Tri-Colored Bats all reside there. The cave’s estimated 40,000 little bats are big helpers – each one gobbling up about 600 bugs around the park each night. Since Silver Dollar City is open later during the Harvest Festival and An Old-Time Christmas, folks who visit the cave for nighttime tours get a different experience than daytime guests.
“The bats start to wake up just after sunset then make their move to find a meal,” Corey says. “Around 10 o’clock each night, the Cathedral Room looks like a big bat tornado as they fly out to find food.”
Sometimes, that means visitors get a close encounter with Marvel Cave’s longtime residents.
“Oh, yeah. They’ll get so close sometimes you can feel the wind on your face from the flaps of their wings,” Corey laughs. “It might freak some people out! But, again, these guys aren’t going to hurt you as long as you don’t swat at them.”
Once they leave the cave after dusk, the bats fly all over the park and don’t return “home” until around 9 or 10 the next morning. Then, it’s bedtime.
“Their feet can grip onto anything, anywhere,” Corey explains. “They’ll roost on the cave’s rocky ceiling or perch up high outside one of our buildings."
Wherever they choose to crash for the day, Corey says it’s always out of reach from predators. On this day, there was a family of five nestled outside our Hospitality House where guests exit the cave. You’re more likely to find a few sleeping outside as cooler weather moves in.
“They love this time of year because they feel like they’re in the cave,” he explains. “If you look up high, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see one sleeping outside almost every building in the park.”
As long as they are out of reach from guests, cave experts let the bats safely snooze. If they are too close to people, staff perform a “bat rescue” by carefully handling the bat with gloves and putting it in a box for relocation.
Vivian Ireland, a seasoned Marvel Cave guide, says the gentle way of handling bat rescues shows how important they are to the team.
“We absolutely love our bats,” she beams. “I love educating our visitors on why these little guys are so very special to us – and our history!
That “batty” history dates back to 1894 when William Henry Lynch and his two daughters opened the cave as a tourist attraction. Crews mined bat droppings – or guano – to make gunpowder. In 1950, Hugo and Mary Herschend, along with their two sons Jack and Peter, leased the cave and sold tickets for tours. By 1960, they had opened Silver Dollar City as a way to keep guests occupied while they waited for their cave tour.
“The rest is history as they say,” Vivian smiles. “But through seven decades of growth at our park, bats have always been here. They’re here to stay!”
While always present, they do take a little time “off.” When Silver Dollar City shuts down in the offseason, the bats sort of do too.
“That’s when they hibernate,” Corey says. “When bugs die off in the winter, there’s nothing for them to eat so they sleep from December until almost April.”
Cave staff takes a unique step to make sure the bats are ready to rest.
“We start turning off the music in the cave in September,” Corey laughs. “We want them to start slowing down and getting used to the quiet.”
The quiet doesn’t last long. After the long sleep, springtime always brings new energy around Silver Dollar City. As the park reopens for the season, the bats start to slowly wake up. Insects return which means the buffet of bugs is back for our bats.
The cycle continues until it’s time to hibernate again after autumn’s mating season. Even though bats give birth to only one offspring at a time, the population stays healthy because of their long lifespan – up to 30 years!
“Silver Dollar City employees get a special sign made once they work here 25 years,” Corey says. “Maybe our bats deserve their own sign!”
Tours of Marvel Cave are free with admission to Silver Dollar City.