Sprawling across 392 acres and home to thousands of unusual plant and animal species, the Boyce Thompson Arboretum is far from a standard classroom. Here, people learn through exploration rather than through textbooks; they’re able to smell the plants they study and ask native squirrels for direct quotes about soil quality. Jaunts through the park cover a range of terrain. Butting up against the northern face of Picketpost Mountain, the park encompasses canyons, hills, and trails carefully landscaped to duplicate arid environments from around the globe. The cactus garden features plants both sinuous and spiny, creating a vast collection of shapes and textures nestled into the dusty red landscape. Queen Creek Canyon provides respite from the sun, its towering trees thriving in the cool shade. Visitors pick up tips on how to enhance their own yards in the demonstration garden of drought-tolerant plants, which are relatively easy to care for except for when they demand chocolate milk. Additional education can be found in classes and lectures held at the Smith Interpretive Center.
Though the calendar maintains that it's still the 21st century, the experienced cowfolk at MD Ranch take visitors back to the Wild West with horsemanship and equestrian knowledge that's been perfected across the centuries. Joining them is a herd of well-trained horses, who itch to take riders on vigorous romps across the Sonoran Desert landscapes of San Tan Mountain Regional Park. The only outfitters in the mountains, the ranch's seasoned guides lead experienced or first-time riders along desert trails, trotting past stately cacti on all-day and sunset excursions or galloping in search of far-off coyote choruses during intense ranch rides. The herd contains a wide range of horse personalities–from horses that are safe for even the most inexperienced riders to those with enough go for seasoned cowboys. On-site trainers work with steeds and riders alike, teaching students of all ages the techniques of English and Western riding as well as basic horsemanship and equine care skills.
For the Banzai Physical Challenge, young warriors must face a dastardly foe: mud. Throughout a two-mile course, kids must brave the mess as they scale a hay mountain, take on a technically engineered ¼ pipe, rope swing, and mud crawl. Youngsters ages 7–17 can opt to tackle the muddy obstacle course on their own, with an adult, or with an altruistic pig that can carry them to the end.
After rinsing off at the cleanup area, participants can explore Banzai's other kid-friendly attractions, including tug-of-war, inflatable obstacle courses, and bounce houses. Warriors can unwind with chair massages, adorn their arms with glitter tattoos, groove to tunes spun by live DJs, or replenish themselves with food and drink. There's even a beer garden for the adults.
Charming Pony Parties elevates children’s birthday celebrations to fairy-tale status by inviting a few very special guests—ponies. Rather than making them run on horse treadmills, the staffers position ponies around a carousel or hand-lead each ride to let both children and ponies enjoy the open air. Whether the party is held at a park, at home, or on the center’s spacious ranch, the ponies dress for the occasion by donning unicorn horns, flowers, and colored hair spray, making it easy to match any princess, pirate, cowboy, or knight theme a child desires. Meanwhile, extras such as bounce castles and snow-cone machines add even more excitement to the party.
The zombie-themed Queen Creek Running Dead 5K has a greater purpose than scaring participants into running from the undead hordes hungry for brains. The race—held the weekend before Halloween—benefits local schools by funneling the proceeds to the Queen Creek Schools Education Foundation for scholarships and teacher grants.