Deep, dark woods. Tall trees wrapped in fog. A silence that seems to settle inside your bones. Locals know there’s no place like the Key Peninsula for Halloween.
Those of us raising young children on the Key like to kick off the season each year at the All Hallows Eve festivities at Volunteer Park. Scheduled this year for the evening of Saturday, Oct. 21, the long-running event features a bonfire with s’mores for roasting, hot apple cider and cocoa, a pumpkin-carving contest, a costume contest with multiple categories and prizes, a haunted hay ride and more. In the picnic shelter, pint-size princesses and superheroes show off their best moves as the DJ spins “Monster Mash” and strobe lights flash.
For many children, the highlight is the candy hunt on the ball field. Before the event, park employees lay out bags of candy on the grass. Once the festivities are ending and darkness has settled in full, kids line up at the gate for their chance to run in and grab a bag. “Her favorite part about the Volunteer Park event is looking for the candy bags on the dark field,” said Nikki Menchaca-Riddle about her 10-year-old daughter, Mallory.
When the night ends, bag in hand, weary parents shepherd kids toward the parking lot. Squinting at candy labels as the family car rumbles home is a rite of passage for many Key Peninsula kids.
Parents of teens and older children now have their own way to celebrate the spooky season. The Haunted Forest at Grand Farms, which opened last year, is back for the 2017 season, now bigger and better than ever. While owner Mark Dodson was unwilling to reveal specific details about new scares, “anyone who visited last year will be pleasantly surprised,” he said.
Grand Farms, located on South Vaughn Road about a mile from the Key Peninsula Civic Center, is a 27-acre property primarily used for equestrian training and events. Once owned by Easter Seals, Dodson’s in-laws purchased it 17 years ago and passed it on to Dodson and his wife, Anni Grandia, a few years back.
For Dodson and Grandia, diversifying the activities that take place on their farm is a way of keeping the land economically viable. When the transfer was made Dodson promised his in-laws he would never cut the trees down to make ends meet. “We have a unique niche here,” he said. “We’re trying to maximize the facility; we don’t want to log it.”
In 2016, 680 brave souls entered the Haunted Forest and Dodson expects more this year once doors open Oct. 6. (Dodson’s pro tip: To avoid crowds, plan to visit in the first half of the month.)
As Key Center is too often experienced through a windshield at 30 mph, the annual Scarecrow Festival event helps keep harried commuters in the holiday spirit. As soon as the leaves start falling in earnest, there’s bound to be funny, funky scarecrows cropping up in front of the Food Market, Sunnycrest Nursery, Sound Credit Union and more. The library is always good for a wonderful reading-related creation. Remember when Cutter Bug took itself literally, displaying an enormous ladybug with dino-sized blow dryer hovering over its floppy-haired scarecrow?
The rain is back; the long, dark nights are growing longer; and that very special time of year is once again upon us. Happy Halloween, Key Peninsula.
For more information about the All Hallows Eve event at Volunteer Park, visit the event page at keypenparks.com.
For more information about The Haunted Forest at Grand Farms, visit theeventcenteratgrandfarms.com.
Alice Kinerk teaches at Minter Creek Elementary School. She lives in Longbranch.
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