By Jeff LaBonte
With Halloween just about 2 weeks away, festive activities are in full swing, locally and regionally. From Spooky World to haunted hayrides to community costume parties, there are events to get anyone in the Halloween spirit.
But one of the area’s premiere events is the Jack ‘O Lantern Spectacular at the Roger Williams Zoo in Providence. Over 5,000 carved, illuminated pumpkins line the main walkway of the zoo. Over 100,000 visitors experience the event annually, and the lines on any given night can be daunting. But make no mistake, this is an event worth every minute of your time and every penny of the $16 admission.
From Auburn, Roger Williams Zoo is a relatively quick 40 minute drive down Rt. 146 to I95. Once you hit the Elmwood St. exit, though, you can expect traffic. Cars moved into the parking areas slowly, but steadily. When you get to the Zoo, you have the option of free parking or $10 “VIP” parking which puts you closer to the entry gate, and allows you to get into the extensive ticket line that much earlier. Again, the ticket lines move slowly, but steadily.
The actual pumpkin trail does not open to the public until dusk – about 6:45 the night we visited – but you can enter the park where there are a variety of food vendors to satisfy your sweet and/or fat tooth. Fried dough, candy apples, soft pretzels, churros, and other typical “fair” fare are available for purchase.
Once you enter the Pumpkin Trail, you’ll queue up with the thousands of other visitors until the actual jack o’ lantern display opens for business, at which point the lines move along pretty well. It’s a bit of a hike from the trail entrance – near the admission booths – to the actual display. If you are familiar with Roger Williams Zoo, the displays begin across from the giraffe enclosure. Once you have survived the traffic, the ticket line, and the entrance line, though, the magic begins.
Thousands and thousands and thousands of jack o’ lanterns await. Each year is organized around a theme, with this year’s being “A to Z”. Scenes are laid out in alphabetical order; for instance ‘A’ is Alice in Wonderland, with intricately carved pumpkins illustrating creative, amazing and whimsical images from the Lewis Carroll classic. More traditional jack o’ lanterns are interspersed along the patch, creating an almost surreal experience as you stroll through the zoo in the dark.
Interestingly, while many of the animals are housed overnight, such as the elephants and giraffes, some are out and about. While observing one scene, one of my companions pointed out the hulking shadow of what appeared to be a buffalo seemingly a few feet behind the display. Of course, it wasn’t that close, but dark and shadows play tricks on the eye!
The intricately carved pumpkins are created by Oxford, MA-based Passion for Pumpkins. According to owner Paul Cadieux, “We start planning about a year in advance” and recruit the best pumpkin carvers from across the country.
The entire walk will take anywhere from 45 minutes to nearly 2 hours, depending on crowds, your pace and how long you stand in awe of the displays. Along the way, music accompanies the scenes: The ‘Oompa Loompa’ song in the “Whimsical” theme, or ‘Barber of Seville’ in the “Remember” display, for example.
All in all, this is a worthwhile trip for the entire family. If you have never been to the Jack O’ Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Zoo, you owe it to yourself to see what columnist Joe Berkowitz calls the “foremost pumpkin carving event in the world.” And it’s just 40 minutes away.
If you go, go early. Ticket sales open at 6pm, and the trail opens at dusk which, as we know, is earlier and earlier every day now. By the time we left, about 8pm, the lines waiting to purchase tickets wrapped all the way back to the swan boat pond. If you are not familiar, just know that is one long line. If you can get there on a weekday, the waits are somewhat shorter and ticket prices are a little cheaper.
Also of interest is the Harvest Buffet, of which we did not partake so I can’t vouch for. But for $25 per adult or $13 for children 3-12 (under 3 is free), you can dine at the park, then get VIP entry to the Spectacular. The admission to the Trail is additional, but you can purchase your admission ticket when you purchase your Harvest Buffet tickets, and those sales open at 5pm, an hour earlier than Train-only sales.
Roger Williams Park Zoo: 1000 Elmwood St., Providence, RI
When: October 2 – November 2.
Admission opens at 6pm; pumpkin trail opens at dusk.
Last admission Sunday – Friday at 10pm; Trail Closes at 11pm.
Last admission on Saturdays at 11pm; Trail Closes at 12am.
PLEASE NOTE: The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular is open rain or shine, however, in cases of severe weather or weather-related technical difficulties the show might close early. Please check the website, Facebook and Twitter pages for frequent updates.
Pricing Monday – Thursday: $12 adults; $10 seniors; $9 children ages 3 – 12
Pricing Friday – Sunday: $16 adults; $14 seniors; $13 children ages 3 – 12
Toddlers two and under are admitted for free.