PROVIDENCE — In an age of drive-by birthday parties, it only makes sense that a treasured Halloween tradition would go the same route. This year, the Roger Williams Park Zoo has reimagined its annual Jack-o’-Lantern Spectacular. Like the giant gourds that morph from vegetable to glowing art, this walking tour has transformed into an after-dark drive-through pumpkinland. There’s fog, lights, music, and the main attraction: more than 5,000 jack-o'-lanterns on any given night. Ultimately, about 30,000 craftily carved pumpkins will get face time during the 32-night event, as some are rotated out when they start to sink and sag. That’s more than 200,000 pounds of pumpkin.
“We didn’t want to give it up this year,” says Corrie Ignagni, manager of digital communications at the property. The Spectacular typically draws about 140,000 visitors. In the new format, about 100,000 folks, paying $50 per carload, are expected to attend. The event is the park’s major annual fund-raiser. With so many Halloween events canceled this year, a 30-minute drive past a plethora of pumpkins is a fun way to get into the spirit — and maybe pick up some ideas for DIY pumpkin carving.
These aren’t the jagged-tooth creations that grace your front porch. Nope — there’s the “I Have a Dream” display, featuring a pumpkin with the likeness of Dr. Martin Luther King; the faces of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-themed section; and many more. The overall theme is “Special Places,” which allows for plenty of variety. That keeps things fun for the carving professionals from Passion for Pumpkins, an outfit based in Oxford, Mass., that works with the park to put on the show.
A team of 14 to 16 folks transforms the pumpkins into art. Like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books, the pumpkin chooses its visage, says Passion for Pumpkins cofounder Matthew Curll. “Every pumpkin is different,” says Curll. An artist will draw the design on the pumpkin with ink and Sharpie pens, and etch out the places where she wants the white inside layer of the pumpkin to come through. They use duotone and the orange pumpkin skin to create a 3-D effect. Then, the pumpkins are cut and gutted. It’s important to take out just the right amount of meat (the pumpkin’s pulpy insides), Curll says. “If you take out too much meat, it looks too light, you’ll screw up the structure, and the pumpkin will die too soon.” Do it right, though, and “it glows like a lantern,” he adds.
Pumpkins are a challenging medium, says pumpkin artist Ariane Koutsoukounis, who also runs a body art studio. “There’s no erasing, or painting over, once you’ve begun carving.” Then there’s the matter of letting go, “accepting that we don’t have to make everything perfect, because it is ephemeral,” she says. “This can be especially hard for me and a few other artists. Sometimes we get really carried away and put 15 hours into just one pumpkin, all the while knowing that a couple warm, muggy days will terminate our masterpieces.”
That doesn’t stop the carvers from pouring the love into their “show stoppers,” however. “That’s what we call pumpkins carved for the love of pumpkin carving, or a pumpkin that we’ve spent a crazy amount of time perfecting,” Koutsoukounis explains. “This year, I carved a 500-pound pumpkin, featuring Norman Rockwell’s painting ‘Do Unto Others.’” Her version features 22 faces from the original image, and an additional face, that of John Reckner, the “Lord of the Gourd,” who launched the Jack-o’-Lantern Spectacular in 1988. “Start to finish, it took about 26 hours,” she says.
You may not have that amount of time to put into your own jack-o’-lantern this year, but consider this handy trick from the pumpkin pros: Don’t cut the top off. Cut the bottom off to place over your light source. Genius! Your pumpkin will last longer this way, and the stem won’t break off.
And here’s another tip: If you want to see the carvers at work, come to the zoo during the day. “Our show is free during the day (with zoo admission) when you come through the zoo,” Ignagni says. You can walk through the path and see the artists doing their work, and get a closer, unhurried look at the crazy coterie of jack-o’-lanterns. “People see us carving up a 1,600-pound pumpkin, and they just love it,” Curll says. All the pumpkins used are from New England farms, he notes, including “the biggest pumpkins in New England, from the Topsfield Fair.” For a full-time pumpkin carver, that’s like doing a concert with Beyoncé.
The one downside about a drive-by pumpkin peek is that it goes by too fast. You’ll have your headlights off and drive no faster than 3 miles per hour as you wind past the pumpkin displays. There are foam pumpkins hanging from the trees, and pumpkin vignettes loaded with dozens of real pumpkins on both sides of the car, so you can’t possibly see everything — you’d have to turn the car around and retrace your route for that. It would be nice if you could do it again, and switch up drivers, but this is an in-and-out affair. The whole thing takes about 30 minutes.
And if you have small fry in your car — we had 4-year-old Ava — know that there’s some patience required. Cars queue up in six rows, and then peel off one row at a time. While you wait, a couple of sellers walk past the cars, hawking Halloween merch and cider donuts and pretzels. “But where are the pumpkins?” Ava kept asking as we waited for our row to move. We passed her slices of veggie pizza we’d picked up at 401 Pizza, located just down the block at 609 Elmwood Ave. (And, yeah, a cider donut.) Bring food, or eat first, if you’re visiting during dinner hour.
Seeing the pumpkins, though, really is magical. They’re orange orbs of art. “It’s all about the love you put in,” Curll says. “We really have a lot of passion here.” And here’s another tip: If you want to see the best of the best carver’s efforts, visit near the end of the run (the show runs until Nov. 1). “By then, the carvers are on their third pumpkin, and their creative juices are really flowing,” says Passion for Pumpkins’ Tristan Wright.
By the way, what happens to all of those, um, retired jack-o’-lanterns? “We compost them,” Curll says, “and then they go into the pig pile.” Kind of an ignoble end for an organic piece of art!
Drive-Through Jack-o’-Lantern Spectacular, Roger Williams Park Zoo, 1000 Elmwood Ave., Providence; $50 per carload ($45 for RWPZ members.) Ticket sales are online only. Runs rain or shine, nightly from 6:30-11 p.m. through Nov. 1. 401-785-3510; www.rwpzoo.org.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com