When we were invited by the Roger Williams Park Zoo to attend the annual Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular, I was delighted—but when something is billed as “spectacular,” I am always at least a little bit skeptical. As it turns out, the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular lives up to its name. More than just a collection of carved pumpkins, it is a curated show of highly skilled and imaginative artwork, with a soundtrack to boot.
My family has long had an annual Halloween tradition of attending a zoo event during the daytime; now that my kids are older and are starting to outgrow Zoo Howl and Boo at the Zoo, maybe the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular will become our new Halloween zoo tradition.
Keep reading for highlights from the show and tips for getting the most out of the experience—perhaps it will become your family's new tradition, too. Editor's note: This is a past review of the annual Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular; this year, guests can travel through time and visit with dinosaurs, explore the ice age, and peek into the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Rome.
We laughed, we cried. Actually, we laughed and I cried, but the point is that the displays range from poignant to downright funny. For example: The In Memoriam array is beautiful and touching—and on the other end of the spectrum, the chicken jack-o-lanterns in a coop had us all laughing out loud.
Gorgeous carvings of animals, apropos for the Spectacular’s zoo locale, are plentiful. They were my kids’ favorites, and I’ll wager that they’re the favorites of many children who come through the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular, especially if they were hoping to see some animals on their nighttime zoo adventure. We did get to see one of the zoo’s live elephants having a late-evening snack, so look for the pachyderms to the right before you get to the pumpkin trail entrance.
The Laughing Tree, the show's grand finale, is complete with a laugh track, lighting effects, and dry ice seeping through the ginormous jack-o-lanterns. Giant jack-o-lanterns greet you face-to-face, and hanging overhead are thousands of tiny jack-o-lanterns, smiling wickedly at passersby. The pageantry of it all is a bit spooky and quite grand.
There are plenty extras beyond the show to enrich your experience (or keep the kids happy). Before entering the trail, you can pick up a snack and have your picture taken. At the show's exit you'll find souvenirs, photos to purchase, and food carts brimming with sweet treats. On the weekends you can opt for a hot buffet dinner before you hit the trail, and you can even take the kids for an overnight at the zoo. Both options afford you VIP entry into the Spectacular, which means skipping the long lines (priceless).
Good to Know Before You Go
- You can purchase your tickets online in advance or at the zoo from 10 am to 3:30 pm on the day you plan to attend. Make a day of it: Visit the Culinary Arts Museum or Providence Children’s Museum early in the day, go for a bike ride on the East Bay Bike Path, and then explore Roger Williams Park and the zoo later in the day.
- Go on a weeknight (Sunday – Wednesday). Get there early, or after 8:30 pm. (We tried a combo weeknight-after-8:30pm method, and we were golden.) Admission opens at 6 pm and the pumpkin trail opens around dusk. Parents who want to be heading home by 7:30 or so tend to begin arriving between 5 and 5:30 so they will be among the first on the trail.
- The show runs rain or shine—nights when there is a forecast of possible showers are very good nights to go because attendance tends to be low on those nights. (Just bring an umbrella and have the kids wear their rain boots.)
- Most of the carved pumpkins are eye level for adults. If you bring young children, plan to carry them through the trail or pick them up often to see the carvings.
- The Laughing Tree at the end of the trail might be a little intense for preschoolers or any child who is sensory-sensitive..
- I wouldn’t recommend the show for children in the squirmy age group (~ ages 2-6). The experience is more like walking through an outdoor art museum than the high-energy, hands-on activities that most young children crave. Even my tweens got a little antsy when I lingered to admire the artwork.
- You can see some of the carved pumpkins and the entire Laughing Tree when you visit the zoo in the daytime. It's not as spectacular in the daylight, but it's still very impressive and is a good way for families with young children to enjoy the jack-o-lanterns.
- Strollers are allowed on the trail, but the more crowded the show is, the less stroller-friendly it will be.
- It is very dark on the trail. You have been forewarned.
- On rare occasions, the zoo has had to close a show during the evening due to the weather. If that does happen, they will post announcements on the Zoo website and social media.
For lots of useful information about parking, tickets, restroom locations and more, check the zoo's Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular FAQ page.
Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular | Roger Williams Park Zoo, 1000 Elmwood Avenue, Providence, RI | Contact: email@example.com or 401-941-4998 x 316
Originally published October 2014; updated September 2015, 2017