Providence's pumpkin extravaganza offers family friendly Halloween fun – Boston Herald

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If you look past the frights and over-the-top costumes, there’s a certain beauty around Halloween.

Ornately carved pumpkins. The coziness of walking in autumn twilight, bundled up just right. Candy apples and popcorn balls. While I’m not a huge fan of super scares, those Halloween moments.

I found them all at the Roger Williams Park Zoo Halloween Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular (1000 Elmwood Ave., Providence; rwpzoo.org/jols/), a monthlong event that mixes Halloween fun with artistry, food and setting in a family-friendly way.

The Spectacular has Bay State roots: It began when Oxford resident John Reckner, now owner and operator of Passion For Pumpkins, helped with a school fundraiser by crafting and displaying hundreds of carved pumpkins in his front yard. That was in 1988.

The display drew so many visitors, they had to move it, first to a park in Oxford, then to Salem and then, in 2001, to Roger Williams Park Zoo where — other than a short jaunt to Salem and Boston — it has remained.

Today, the event brings in tens of thousands of visitors over the month of October. Still run by Reckner and team, it features more than 5,000 carved pumpkins, centered around an annual theme.

As Reckner likes to say, it’s more of an illuminated art display than a basic Halloween outing.

I confess: My first visit to the Spectacular wasn’t with my grandkids. Rather, it was with a group of adult friends. I was skeptical. I mean: How fun can it be to wander past pumpkins in the dark?

Absolutely tons.

The combination of location (a zoo at night), flow (while thousands go through, you never feel crowded) and ambiance (each year features a new theme; this year’s is 75 Years of Television) all add up to sheer delight.

Carvers have to work continuously to keep the pumpkins fresh. According to the park, more than 20,000 pumpkins are carved by the time the last night (Oct. 31) comes around.

The theme gives all generations a point of reference. From “I Love Lucy” to “Breaking Bad” — a history of television is all there in the carvings. (Fun moment: When a teen pointed to two pumpkins; one of Neil Armstrong on the moon and another — just past it — of the moon and asked someone, “What show is that?”)

There are also classic pumpkin carvings, unique face carvings and fun setups like the skeletons mid cornhole game tucked into a side woods area.

You certainly won’t go hungry: State-fair like booths with fun autumn fare dot the pathway..

It need not take long to take it all in, which means you can adapt your timing to the ages of your group. We chose to take our time and revel in the artistry, stories and mood. Not once did a ghoulish “zombie” jump out and try to scare the daylight out of us. I like that.

There are chances to see some characters, if you choose: Oct. 11 and 18 are Fairy Tale Nights, when you can meet and take photos with your favorite fairy tale characters (and dress up too if you like). Oct. 12 and 19 are Superhero Nights with the same set up for superhero fans.

And Oct. 25 and 26 the park opens early, 5-6 p.m., for Sensory Friendly Nights, designed to comfortably host those with Autism Spectrum Disorders and sensory processing differences.

For those who like a little more wild, there’s a zip line (for an extra fee) that takes you high up over the zoo for an incredible view of the pumpkins.

The Spectacular is open nightly through Oct. 31 from 6 to 10:30 p.m. with last entry at 10 p.m. Pricing is reasonable: Mon-Thurs. nights are $18 for adults, $15 for kids, and weekends are $21 and $18.

Roger Williams Park Zoo is an easy drive from most of New England. Should you want to make it an overnight, the city has plenty of great hotel choices, including the Omni Providence Hotel right in the center of the city.

However you tuck in after a visit, your dreams will feature autumn beauty and artistry — and not Halloween horrors.


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