The River Towns do many things right, and one of those things is Halloween. I’m not saying that’s why my family moved up from Brooklyn, but I’m not saying that’s not why.
It wasn’t until we moved up three years ago that I discovered it’s not just Halloween that my town does well, it’s Jack O’Lanterns. Like, really well. Like, best-in-the-country well.
The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze: Hudson Valley has been blazing for many years at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson. Every September, over 7,000 hand-carved pumpkins decorate the grounds of the 18th-century estate—lining the walkways, spread throughout the heritage gardens, forming intricate sculptures—and they remain there through November.
But, for a dedicated group of talented local artisans, the work begins much earlier than that. Sine Hjort, a Croton resident and artist now in her third season as a carver, explained that the team begins planning for the event in the winter and the carving can begin as early as February.
My family has had the pleasure of attending The Blaze for the past three years. The first year, I wore my younger child in a baby carrier. Last year, she rode on our shoulders. This year, she ran ahead of us the entire time. We change, but much of the event does not, and there’s a wonderful comfort in that. “Remember the windmill?” my older child said as we drove into the parking lot a few weeks ago. “I want to see the windmill. And the dragon!”
This year’s event features old-time favorites like—you guessed it—the windmill and the dragon, and also the dinosaurs, the huge spider web, the spinning carousel, and the Pumpkin Planetarium, as well as some newer additions from the past few years like the Pumpkin Bridge and the New York City skyscape. There are also a few brand-new installations: a jellyfish tunnel, a beehive, a new Headless Horseman display, and a fully animated Jack at work in his “jacksmith” shop.
Most of these displays are made with “fumpkins” (hard foam pumpkins) so they can withstand the weather and curious wildlife. But the “live carvings” (real pumpkins), located on the stands and the ground near the entrance and up on the wall near the exit., only last a couple of days and are replaced throughout the festival. Hjort said the live carvings are a favorite part of her job. “We are encouraged to do whatever comes into our heads, so some of them are really fun and interesting and surprising. … We’re creating all this stuff just for the experience of our guests walking through, and if a couple of people see it and really, really like it, then our mission is accomplished.” She also hopes that the guests feel inspired to go home and try something different when they carve their own pumpkins. “There are so many possibilities. Scraping it, sculpting it a little bit, layering the thickness of it so that when the light shines through you get different effects.”
The ever popular, family-friendly, immersive experience has clearly marked pathways, synchronized lighting, and an original soundtrack to boot. Autumnal refreshments are provided by Baked by Susan and Captain Lawrence. and the gift shop has souvenirs that the kids will beg for. At least mine did.
The Blaze will be on display through Nov 20. And more good news: proceeds from the tickets support the education and preservation efforts of Historic Hudson Valley.
All photos by Tom Nycz