Tabitha Danson’s two children saw bats for the first time on Saturday at the Lubee Bat Conservancy.

“It’s cool to bring the kids and educate them,” she said.

Attendees learned about bats and bat conservation at the 11th annual Florida Bat Festival, organized by the Lubee Bat Conservancy, located at 1309 NW 192nd Ave. Festival attendees played games, listened to live music and ate flavored shaved ice as bats snacked on watermelon and corn.

When the event was first held in 2004, only about 60 people attended, said Brian Pope, director of the conservancy. This year, there was a dramatic spike, with approximately 5,800 people attending — 1,400 more than last year, he said.

Last year, the conservancy raised about $11,000 in donations, which helps their conservation efforts, said Anthony Mason, a bat keeper and event coordinator at the conservancy. Because there were more attendees, the group expects an increase in donations this year. The event was free.

Pope said he was happy to see so many participants.

“I love it, I love it,” he said.  “It’s organized chaos in the morning, but I love it.”

This year, 17 baby bats were bred specifically for the festival, Pope said.

As the afternoon progressed, families streamed in. Children played cornhole with stuffed-animal bats, and they danced to “Thriller,” waving their arms from side to side.

“We really want to get kids excited,” Pope said. “They’re our next generation of conservationists and biologists.”

UF wildlife ecology and conservation postdoctoral research associate Elizabeth Braun de Torrez attended the event, wearing dangling bat earrings. She said bats help humans by spreading seeds and feeding on insects such as mosquitoes.

“They’re docile creatures,” the 33-year-old said. “They’re not threatening like many people believe they are, and they don’t fly into your hair.”  

Michelle Corona, a local medical assistant and mother, went to the festival with her husband and children. It’s the fourth year they’ve attended the festival.

“It’s like a family tradition now,” she said.