There are some experiences every family should try once. Then there are annual events that, after you try them, you vow to do every year forevermore. That's how I feel about the Great Jack O' Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, a Hudson Valley Halloween staple with thousands of hand-carved jack-o’-lanterns.
The downside of the Great Jack O' Lantern Blaze is that tickets start selling out way in advance ... like early September. The 2016 shows begin Friday, September 30, and run through Sunday, November 13. They are not held every day, so start checking the calendar now. Our NYC readers should know that the Blaze is definitely worth splurging on, even if you need to rent a Zipcar. It's also accessible via public transportation.
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T-Rex stalks through Jurassic Park. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell.
The first thing to understand about the Blaze is that it's a jaw-dropping original and totally worth the schlep. The grounds of Van Cortlandt Manor overflow with incredibly detailed pumpkin sculptures, with everything from traditional grinning jack-'o-lanterns to massive sculptures of dinosaurs, robots, animals, flowers, scarecrows, totem polls, snakes, giant spiderwebs, creatures from Greek and Roman mythology, King Kong and much more. It's truly breathtaking: There are intricately carved pumpkins flickering in the darkness as far as the eye can see.
Visitors take in the Pumpkin Bonfire. Photo by Tom Nycz.
I wouldn't say it's scary, but it can be overwhelming, and creepy music composed by Richard Christy from The Howard Stern Show blares from speakers all around you. Kids who are afraid of the dark probably won't like it, but really the most terrifying thing you'll encounter are the volunteers, who often yell at you in an effort to keep people moving.
Tickets are sold in 30-minute increments and that's about how long it will take you to get through the whole thing, depending on your pace. When you arrive, there's a holding tent where you can buy hot apple cider, seasonal treats and Halloween tchotchkes, and watch carvers work their magic. According to the very amusing FAQ on the Blaze website, you'll see approximately 7,000 jack-'o-lanterns during your visit. Not all of them are made out of organic pumpkins, though. Some of the most intricate creations were crafted from "art pumpkins" so they can be preserved. It takes more than 1,000 volunteers to help bring the Blaze to life, and their work definitely shows.
A few words of advice:
The Blaze is tough to navigate with a stroller, and since the grounds sometimes get muddy, it's best to leave the Elvira heels at home.
There's often a traffic jam at the start of the tour (think tourists gawking in Times Square at Christmas). You don't need to wait for them; just walk on by. Everyone goes at their own pace but, as we said, volunteers often urge you to move along.
The route strategically takes you through the gift shop.
Try to buy tickets for around dusk. That way you can watch the jack-o'-lanterns come to life as the darkness falls around them.
Consider buying tickets for after October 31. The Blaze runs through Sunday, November 13, so there are two post-Halloween weekends when you can check it out. Think of it as one last chance to wear your costume.
Still not convinced that the Blaze is worth the trek? Just do a Google image search—it's even more spectacular in person.
The train is just one of the amazing sights at the Blaze.
The Great Jack O' Lantern Blaze takes place at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson on select evenings Friday, September 30, through Sunday, November 13, 2016. Times vary. Saturdays: $25 for adults, $20 for children ages 3-17. Other nights: $20 for adults, $16 for children ages 3-17. Advance tickets are a must.
Update: Oct. 17-18, Nov. 19-20 and Nov. 25-26 have been added.
The Blaze is accessible via public transportation. Take a one-hour train ride on Metro-North or Amtrak. Get off at the Croton-Harmon station and then it's just a five-minute cab ride away.
Find more seasonal fun in our Halloween Guide.
All photos courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley. Photos reflect past years, and exhibits may differ this year.
This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2016.