A little boy smiles as he glides smoothly down a shiny new slide. A little girl giggles as she swings higher and higher. Squeals of delight can be heard as children hop, jump and walk through sprays of water fountains. It’s just another day at Louisville’s California Park, and the kids are playing on new and improved playground sets, thanks, in part, to pumpkins. Yes, pumpkins.
For the past three years, proceeds from Louisville’s Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular have gone toward improving the city’s parks and recreation areas.
“Not only is Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular an amazing family event, the proceeds benefit the Louisville Parks Foundation,” said Erika Nelson, the community relations administrator for Louisville Metro Parks and Recreation. “Funding has allowed us to build an inclusive playground and make improvements to our local parks. It’s really a win-win for the community.”
This year’s Spectacular, held in Iroquois Park in the city’s South End, is set for Oct. 13-Nov. 6. The quarter-mile trail opens at dusk and closes at 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Visitors enter behind the Iroquois Amphitheater and proceed along a soft woodland path that has a few steep slopes. It’s important to note the terrain, as attendees may be distracted (and how can they not be?) by the 5,000 or so artistically carved pumpkins lining the walkway.
Passion for Pumpkins, a multimedia production company, first brought its elaborate display of pumpkins to the park in 2013, and the number of people attending the event each year has grown exponentially. To date, the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular has brought more than 70,000 people to the park.
“We didn’t realize this, but Louisville loves Halloween,” said Travis Reckner, one of the owners of Passion for Pumpkins. “By the second year, we doubled the attendance.”
That’s exactly what they want to see. “The goal, or mission, is to create a family tradition,” said Paul Cadieux, a Passion for Pumpkins co-owner. “It’s a family-friendly event at Halloween, which can be hard to find.”
So, exactly why is this becoming a tradition? Cadieux credits word of mouth from folks who are amazed at the intricately carved jack-o’-lanterns. More than 30 artists from around the country spend the month in Louisville carving thousands of pumpkins.
“We try to maintain 5,000 on the path,” Cadieux said. “It’s all weather dependent. If it rains, we go through more, and if it’s humid, we go through more … We pick up the ‘dead soldiers’ that rot and fall during the night.” These are replaced with freshly carved pumpkins.
The jack-o’-lanterns range from a half-pound to a 1,900-pound pumpkin, with most representing a specific theme. Reckner said there is an overall theme of the show each year; this year, it’s “America the Beautiful.”
“All 50 states will be represented,” he said. “It’ll be broken down into regions depicting that region’s famous events, landmarks, industry—whatever is the most dynamic, compelling thing that represents it.”
Once given the theme, the artists carve people, places and things that are easily recognizable to those walking the path.
Past work includes images of actors, historical figures, fictional characters, movie scenes, animals, traditional jack-o’-lantern faces and pretty much anything the artists dream up.
It’s not an expeditious process. It can take anywhere from six to 14 hours to carve just one pumpkin. Reckner added that, up until a few years ago, most of these artists had never used a pumpkin as a medium before. Now, they come back year after year to add their own touch to the show.
“Pumpkin carving can be very addictive,” he said.
Reckner knows that firsthand. While living in New England, his father, John, became enthralled with local Halloween pumpkin traditions. Eventually, Reckner held a pumpkin festival to raise money for a Massachusetts elementary school.
“From there, it went from one night to two nights; from a few hundred to 500 visitors; and, in a few years, it outgrew the elementary school where it was held and moved to a high school,” Travis Reckner said. “It started a life of its own.”
That was more than 25 years ago. Now, families and folks from Massachusetts to Kentucky are making the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular a new Halloween tradition—exactly what the owners want.
“There’s something for everybody in it—from little kids to parents to grandparents,” Cadieux said. “We’re very anxious to see how year four is going to go.”