Across much of the country, fall is the season of apple-picking, corn mazes, winery harvests and Halloween hauntings, luring day-trippers and weekenders to rural areas. But if summer is any guide, many fall festivities may require more planning this year to avoid the crowds.
While visitors may still launch a pumpkin from a catapult, pandemic restrictions will touch everything: Hayrides will now be socially distanced, and masked clowns will be poised to scare haunted house visitors from 6 feet away.
Reservations in the orchards
Apple picking, pumpkin patch visits and corn mazes are fall traditions at many businesses.
In Hendersonville, North Carolina, 25 miles south of Asheville, the annual North Carolina Apple Festival celebrates the area's fruit growers and has, in recent years, drawn some 250,000 attendees to town. This year, the September event was largely canceled, but area orchards remain busy.
"Down are the tour bus groups and church groups, but we're getting a lot more families," said Leslie Lancaster, an owner of Grandad's Apples N' Such, a 120-acre farm in Hendersonville that offers apple picking (pecks from $11) and has a store and bakery. "Everyone is trying to find something to do with their kids."
The orchard, one of 20 on the regional Crest of the Blue Ridge Orchard Trail, isn't taking reservations but is monitoring the number of visitors to ensure social distancing, and recommending its slower hours, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to avoid congestion. It runs a tractor-pulled train on the weekends, but has kept the jump pillow, where children may collide, closed this year.
"A lot of farms have gone to timed entries or tickets for a certain time frame to encourage crowd management," said Suzi Spahr, executive director of the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association, a nonprofit trade group.
Admission policies may vary by state or by county. In South Natick, Massachusetts, Lookout Farm is requiring reservations for apple picking, and has shut down its train ride and play area (admission $20, including a half-peck of fruit). Pickers must wear masks, wash their hands before entering the orchard, use bags supplied by the farm and refrain from eating fruit in the orchard.
At Dr. Davies Farm in Congers, New York, about 30 miles north of New York City, reservations are strongly suggested for 30-minute windows, and visitors must buy a 7-pound bag each or a 25-pound bag for a group of up to six people (prices vary).
Carter Mountain Orchard, in Charlottesville, Virginia, has implemented a ticket reservation system. Guests can choose from three time slots per day.
"We absolutely cannot accommodate the same number of people this year that we have in previous years," orchard owner Cynthia Chiles said. Visitors can also drive through the 200-acre orchard and purchase ready-picked apples from their cars. Tickets aren't needed, but ordering in advance is recommended.
The alterations are similar at you-pick pumpkin patches.
Less-confusing corn mazes
Many corn mazes this year will have wider paths and additional passing lanes where mazegoers can distance themselves from others at points where they must decide which way to go; some are reducing the number of those decisions or eliminating dead-end options, according to Brett Herbst, owner of The MAiZE, a company based in Spanish Fork, Utah, that works with more than 280 farms in North America and Europe in designing and building corn mazes.
"These are about three to four times the size of a Home Depot or Walmart," Herbst said, noting that mazes run 300,000 to 600,000 square feet. "I don't know of a business that can social distance better than we can, given that we're outdoors and have such a large footprint."
Herbst also operates Cornbelly's, a corn maze in Lehi, Utah, that has partnered with Disney to theme its 2020 maze after the movie "Toy Story" (admission from $13.95). Both the maze, opening Sept. 25, and the film turn 25 this year.
To comply with pandemic-imposed capacity restrictions, most mazes require timed and ticketed admission this season.
Near Fredericksburg, Virginia, Belvedere Plantation is selling timed tickets to its maze to keep within the state capacity limit of 1,000 people, and has made everything cashless except the animal feed dispensers that still take quarters (admission from $13.95). Its 34 campfire sites are available by reservation for four-hour windows ($75), though most attractions, including a pumpkin patch and hayride, are included with admission.
Downsized farm festivals
Many farms that held fall festivals had to cancel or reduce them, often spreading more low-key celebrations out.
Lawrence Orchards in Marion, Ohio, canceled its annual Applefest and replaced it with Harvest Saturdays, through October, with events including pumpkin painting and scavenger hunts (free admission).
Fishkill Farms, in East Fishkill, New York, has also scrapped its fall harvest festival weekends, which feature live music and face painting. But one celebratory touch remains in the form of a fiddler who roams the fields serenading customers.
"That was a way that we could maintain a little bit of a festival atmosphere, without creating a crowded congregation area around live music," said Joshua Morgenthau, who owns the farm.
At Happy Day Farm, in Manalapan, New Jersey, the annual Fall Festival will take place on select days through Oct. 25, but at half-capacity and without activities involving contact, including children's pony rides and photos with the Pumpkin Princess (admission $16). The corn maze route is a little wider, and the new hay wagons are 32 feet, compared with the 20-footers used in previous years. Each activity features hand-sanitizing stations and signs on social distancing.
"We've never had to wipe down a tether ball before, but this year, we will," said Tim Stockel, owner of the 130-acre farm.
In many cases, restrictions have led to new activities.
"These entrepreneurs have very creative minds," Spahr, of the farmers association, said, noting that many farms have added drive-through lanes to pick up things like flowers and doughnuts.
Among them, Leaman's Green Applebarn in Freeland, Michigan, offered drive-through cider sundaes in spring and a socially distant sunflower festival in summer. This fall, the you-pick farm is requiring timed tickets ($4 to $6) to limit the number of people on the 85-acre farm to 150. Visitors are asked to sanitize their hands before and after activities, and when each 2 1/2-hour session ends, the proprietors will close for an hour to clean the playground, hayride and picnic tables.
"We want to provide a place to feel safe and still create family memories," said Sara Reisinger, a manager of Leaman's and a sixth-generation member of the family that runs the farm.
Wine country harvest? Get a reservation
Fall is also high season for harvest visits to wine regions, and wineries are adapting to pandemic rules.
Instead of canceling harvest events entirely, members of the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail near Traverse City, Michigan, created a dispersed event called Harvest Days that runs through September. Ticketholders taking self-guided tours have access to tastings and other perks at 26 wineries ($35).
In Starlight, Indiana, Huber's Orchard, Winery and Vineyards offers 30-minute walking tours and tastings in its winery and distillery on weekdays through Oct. 31, with limited capacity ($16.05). Visitors must remain 6 feet apart, and face masks are required for indoor tours and tastings. This season, the 600-acre estate also offers outdoor tastings of its wine and spirits on weekends. Tickets can be purchased on-site and include a fall harvest-themed glass.
In the Finger Lakes region of New York, home to about 140 wineries, indoor operations are limited to half-capacity. At Fox Run Vineyards, tastings are indoors and first-come, first-served (flights $10), but most are entertaining visitors outdoors. Sheldrake Point Winery is offering flights, glasses and bottle service on the patio and allowing guests to bring their own picnics. The winery takes reservations online and asks same-day visitors without one to call for availability.
"We started with all reservations, but in so many cases we found people enjoying the views and missing their next appointment," said Laury Ellen Ward, president of the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association. "We encourage everyone to call, even if it's 10 minutes ahead."
Fall festivities that involve zombie chases, lunging clowns and stalkings by bloodthirsty psychopaths are having a harder time adapting to virus constraints.
"We thrived on big lines in front of the haunt that drew people in," said J.F. Storm, a co-host of the podcast Big Scary Show that covers haunted attractions, often called haunts. "The best actor would entertain guests and build up suspense. That can't happen this year." When it comes to personal protective equipment, he added, "masks and face shields are becoming part of the character."
Capacity limits, social-distancing measures and sanitation requirements are forcing many seasonal haunts to cancel this year, according to Larry Kirchner, who runs the website HauntWorld.com, which lists scary attractions worldwide. He also owns two haunted houses in the St. Louis area, the Darkness and Creepyworld, that will open Oct. 2 with adjustments like nightly sanitizing, confining actors to scare zones and pinning back curtains that guests once reached through blindly to enter a room.
Some of the biggest pop-up Halloween horrors, including Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights at theme parks in Florida and California, have been canceled.
"Terror Behind the Walls," the seasonal fright at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, has been replaced with night tours, through Nov. 15, that aim for a quieter sense of creepy.
"There was no way to run a traditional haunted house safely when so much of the excitement of a haunted attraction is the surprise of being closer to someone than you realize, that startled scare," said Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of interpretation at the 10-acre former prison, which opened in 1829.
With just 50 visitors per half-hour permitted, night tours, when floodlights sweep the grounds and a silent 1929 film made at the prison flickers in a cellblock courtyard, remain eerie.
Many attractions are emphasizing safety via mobility. The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze, featuring more than 7,000 lighted pumpkins on the 18th-century Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, through Nov. 21, has reduced capacity by 67% with signs, distance markers and Social Distancing Ambassadors to keep visitors progressing safely on the walking path. Timed tickets will be sold online only (from $24).
Some attractions are going to a drive-through model, including Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, New York. Running Oct. 2-31, the popular 65-acre attraction in the Hudson Valley will replace its hayride with a 1-mile drive through the haunted grounds decorated with 1,000 carved and lighted pumpkins. Costumed actors will maintain 6-foot social distancing, and cars are also required to stay 6 feet apart (tickets from $39.95).
"It'll be a visual experience until you get out of the car," said co-owner Michael Jubie, noting that after the drive visitors can park and walk through seven haunted houses with some safety modifications.
In Orlando, a group of artists with extensive resumes at Disney World and other theme parks got together to create the Haunted Road, a 40-minute drive-through event in which groups of cars travel from scene to scene to watch a live-action play with original music and sound and lighting effects that recasts the story of Rapunzel set loose in a terrifying world (Sept. 25 to Nov. 7; $15 to $30). The script was inspired by the restlessness the collaborators experienced during the pandemic.
"When we started thinking about story lines with cabin fever, we selected Rapunzel," said Jessica Mariko, executive producer and creative principal of the Haunted Road. "She's in a tower and when she finally gets out, she enters a world unlike she's imagined it to be, running into crazy scenarios, characters, horror and death."
For terror-phobes, there's also a family-friendly daytime version.