Putting away Penguinzilla: After 20 years, an iconic Christmas display ends in Olathe

Twenty years.

Twenty seasons of inflating candy cane arches, untangling heavy-duty extension cords, and watching families run through the yard with matching pajamas and hot chocolate. After two decades of Christmases spent listening to laughter on their lawn, Paul Craig and Cindy Stout are finally ready to say goodbye to an iconic holiday tradition.

Outside their Olathe home, about 125 inflatable penguins clap, ice skate and play the drums. Stout and Craig landscaped their yard to create winding paths through the blow-ups, stretching around either side of the home.

The most notable bird in the collection stands 35 feet tall and towers over the cul-de-sac.

Penguinzilla, they call him.

The display attracts thousands of people, Craig said, many of whom visit every year. First dates, family outings, even proposals – Paulie’s Penguin Playground has seen a little bit of everything.

A boy and girl clutched their mother’s hand on Saturday as she led them through the zig-zagging path surrounded by reindeer and igloos.

“You should come back at night,” Stout said. “It’s even better when it’s all lit up.”

Cindy Stout poses in front of her home on Dec. 3. After 20 years of Paulie’s Penguin Playground, she and her husband are ready to give the inflatables away.
Cindy Stout poses in front of her home on Dec. 3. After 20 years of Paulie’s Penguin Playground, she and her husband are ready to give the inflatables away.

Craig, called “Paulie” by his friends, started the set-up as a joke with his wife. Stout had begun to collect penguin-themed decor for the inside of their home, and Craig seized the comedic opportunity.

“I came home and there were seven little 4-foot penguins waving at me,” Stout said.

The next year, he bought more inflatables. The trend continued the following year, and then the next, until the penguin playground became an essential stop for Christmas display-goers.

After losing his mother to leukemia in 1999, Craig saw a chance to make Paulie’s Penguin Playground something meaningful. Donations were taken outside for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in hopes that people would chip in their extra pocket change.

But giving has continued to surpass the couple’s expectations. Over the years, the penguins have raised $87,500, and Craig and Stout hope to reach their goal of raising $100,000 this year.

A rusty jug with a donation sign sits on the front porch, a slit carved out for cash and checks.

A sign in front of the house welcomes families and says, “Come walk through our yard with happy feet.”

A sign welcomes visitors to Paulie’s Penguin Playground in Olathe.
A sign welcomes visitors to Paulie’s Penguin Playground in Olathe.

Every cent of the money is donated, despite the pair’s monstrous electric bill over the holiday season. It’s costly, Stout said, buying new pieces and running the display 24 hours a day from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

But, it’s been worth it, Craig said.

“Kansas City really does step up,” he said. “We’ve got people who came when they were kids, and now we’re bringing their kids. It just makes you go, ‘Wow, that’s kind of cool.’”

Despite the fun, the couple felt it was time to retire their flightless rookery. With them growing older, their health not what it used to be, Craig and Stout have had to sacrifice plans and opportunities to run the display. The couple hasn’t been able to visit family out of town during Christmas or celebrate Craig’s birthday, which falls during the playground’s season.

While Stout teared up saying she’d miss seeing the kids’ smiling faces, she added, “I’m really happy.” She joked about throwing a party on Dec. 26 – a wake for Penguinzilla.

Bennie Armstrong snapped photos on her Canon and said she’d be sharing them with her family overseas. She and her husband, Lewis Armstrong, have been coming every year for about five years.

“The best part is watching the little kids’ reactions,” Lewis Armstrong said. “We’ve been telling everyone we know to come … because it’s the last year they’re doing it.”

When Craig isn’t at home watching the neighborhood enjoy his display, he’s dressing up as various characters for his entertainment company, Theatre Tech Productions. During the holiday season, he even poses as an elf at Santa photoshoots.

Craig said he loves to make people happy. It’s part of the reason why he looks forward to putting up the display every year.

“It’s the joys of being an entertainer,” he said. “I’m one of the luckiest sons of guns on the planet to get to do what I do.”

Even though it will no longer stay at their home, the couple is hopeful Paulie’s Penguin Playground will live on somewhere else, continuing to bring joy to the Kansas City area. They’ve already had several propositions from businesses and civilians to take over the display, but the pair isn’t ready to make a decision just yet.

Saturday afternoon, children pointed at a snow globe raining puffy white flakes down on Santa. A young boy stood open-mouthed, dangling his own stuffed penguin by its flipper as he watched.

“The squeals, the screams and the laughter. That’s really the biggest reward,” Craig said.