Fairplex, Pomona, CA
It’s been a little while, but we’re going to bring back a “Flashback Frightday” to catch up on another one of the few Halloween attractions we didn’t get around to reporting to last year. That’s because this wasn’t a media attendance, but rather an October outing I made with my girlfriend (YES I HAVE A GIRLFRIEND, MOM!! SHE EVEN GUEST-WROTE SOMETHING FOR WESTCOASTER LAST FALL!!). And it wasn’t even a haunted attraction, but rather one of those jack-o-lantern walks that pop up each year in one form of another. But it was family friendly and photogenic, and it counted as a Halloween event for me, so I figured, why not?
Pumpkin Nights, located at the Fairplex in Pomona, was one of two local carved pumpkin walkthrough experiences that sprouted up in Southern California last year (the other being Nights of the Jack, out in Calabasas). You may recall that the year before, Fairplex had called another, much more intense haunted attraction home in the form of Into the Black. That attraction ended up being part of HorrorWorld last year, and that left a niche for this first year (in Southern California, but already present in a few other locations across the country) autumn special event.
Fans of the fall might remember that for several years a short while back, there was an event called Rise of the Jack-O-Lanterns that featured hundreds (thousands?) of elaborately carved and lit pumpkins displayed across a winding path. At its peak, Rise actually ran two locations locally—one in Pomona and one in Downtown Los Angeles. But for whatever reason, the event went away, and in its place, new successors have appeared.
Pumpkin Nights was slickly marketed as a magical, immersive, enveloping Halloween wonderland full of beautiful pumpkin carving and fun autumn atmosphere. Part of a bevvy of attractions in recent years that have been marketed toward the “Instagram generation,” it appeared catered toward a social media audience that could post and share photos of the fantastic, spooky holiday season festivities in which they were taking part.
In truth, entering Pumpkin Nights was initially a letdown. Set up in a parking lot area, the primary promenade area felt more like a fairground than an elaborate themed experience, with pop-up tent vendors, some inflatable slides and bounce houses, manufactured props, and no real sense of enclosure. I was certain skeptical as I strolled under the (admittedly nice) entry archway, then promptly turned right to go around the pavilion building in front of me, rather than into it.
It turns out that while the front of the attraction grounds is an umimpressive-looking gathering space, the main attraction—the actual Pumpkin Walk—was tucked behind the building and off the side of the main midway sort of area. This was marked by the first impressive-looking structure, a tunnel of jack-o-lanterns, each uniquely faced, glowing with various expressions of joy, chagrin, fright, and spook.
I couldn’t help immediately notice that these pumpkins were fake, though. Manufactured products lit up internally. In fact, as we would come to see, pretty much the entire Pumpkin Nights is full of artificial jack-o-lanterns. Other than one specific area of hand-carved pumpkins, all of the Halloween squash were in fact fabricated off-site and set up.
Although this was not as authentic as I expected, it did make sense. Having thousands of actual pumpkins carved and sitting in the weather for a month wouldn’t be very sustainable, as they’d inevitably rot and stink and attract flies and pests. In addition, should there be rain—as there actually was on the event’s opening night—the condition of these pumpkins would surely deteriorate.
Once I got over the fact that the advertised displays weren’t actually organic (in the literal sense), I began to appreciate the craft of the set-up, and the interesting themes and the way the event organizers had created fun little stories with each of the seven distinctive areas and themes of the Pumpkin Walk.
The first area of the winding, half mile walk was dubbed Spider Alley. Here, it was immediately clear how the attraction would be organized, and why they couldn’t use real pumpkins. Effectively, the walkthrough provided features of sculptures and figures made out of pumpkin shapes. This initial area featured an insect garden theme, with caterpillars, spiders, Venus fly traps, and more, all lit up in eerie greens and purples.
Dissect each creature, and it became fun to see how they created each creature out of the artificial pumpkins. Aesthetically, each looked like they could have been made from a series of pumpkins Frankenstein’d together. It was just the up-close plastic sheen that gave things away.
Still, the execution was actually pretty cute and charming, and as Spider Alley unfolded past us, we entered a small, Harry Potter-themed area called Great Pumpkin Hall. Here, there weren’t really any sculptures persay, just pumpkins with wizard-y imprints upon them. Owls, candles, certain well-known quotes. With pumpkins scattered along either side of the walkway and hung above, it made for an interesting sight. But with the least amount of content of all seven districts, this ended up being the least thematically impressive.
The third section was kicked up the impressiveness meter, blending Halloween and Chinese Lantern Festival in the form of “Forbidden Pumpkin City.” Bathed in red light, this area featured turtles, hanging lanterns, and one sprawling and lengthy dragon! Some of the explanatory signage and the pervasively Chinese music felt almost a little too much—as though it was trying so hard to be authentically ethnic that it became inauthentic, but fortunately, I wasn’t really bothered that much.
Visually, the effect was stunning, and this area also featured the first of several specifically oriented photo ops set up for guests who wanted to capture portraits for keepsakes. Here’s where I have to commend this event for knowing its audience and setting up the infrastructure to satisfy them. Though the entire area was lovely, the highlight was the dragon, and over by the porch where its head floated, a pair of bright LED light boxes were set up with a hostess nearby to take photos. And it was clear that the employee had also been trained on how to work multiple smart photos and capture the right frames. Though the line for the photo was lengthy, it moved quickly, with each guest handing a phone to the employee, who snapped several shots in multiple orientations, then guided the queue along. Rather than trust the camerawork to the guests who might take excessive amounts of time to set up or turn on a phone or get it to the right camera mode, this system helped minimize waiting time.
After a short walk that passed by the aforementioned pumpkin carving display, the path actually diverged a bit into two areas. The first, Pumpkin Pirate Cove, featured an adorable buccaneer motif, with figures looking like what would happen if one combined pumpkins with scarecrows and gave them a swashbuckling flair. This area also had string lights and multi-colored ambient lighting to offer a more spirited vibe.
The second and adjacent area, Pumpkin Reef, was kind of like Little Mermaid brought to jack-o-lantern form. The underwater world featured choral, sea life, and a spectacular pumpkin octopus. And to no surprise, there was also a photo setup there as well, complete with another employee to handle the photo taking duties and keep the waits from backing up too far.
Monster Mash made up the sixth zone. This one diverged from the others, as the pumpkin focus was stripped away and instead supplanted with a playground area with a loose Halloween theme. Giant, lit up candy corn backdrops, some see-saws and a tetherball court, and jack-o-lanterns on the sides behind everything made up this sector. Like Great Pumpkin Hall, though, it was not as immersive or grand as the other areas, so we strolled through after taking in the ambiance for a moment.
Finally, we came upon Maravilla Lane, the last portion of the Pumpkin Walk. Themed to Hispanic culture, this area had a colorful, Día de los Muertos feel to it. The atmosphere was quite festive, and the carvings full of spoopy saturation. Here too, was a feature photo op, with a backdrop of sugarskull pumpkins to dress up the set.
All in all, we spent a little over an hour at Pumpkin Nights, until the event closed at 10pm. This included running back through a second time to get some shots and scenes that didn’t turn out quite as well the first time, and capture some quieter moments with less crowds as the night progressed.
My girlfriend ended up enjoying this event very much, and undoubtedly, it was a popular Halloween date night attraction, as evidenced by the many other couples we saw. But it was also a great family-friendly event, thanks to the charming displays and creative artistry. With deals on online, this ended being a relatively good value as well.
In today’s image-driven era of “look what I’m doing,” Pumpkin Nights definitely fulfilled a niche that the market has created. There may be some how are turned off by the artificiality, as I initially was. But the event did grow on me as we progressed through, and ultimately, ended up being an enjoyable and different autumn attraction. There will certainly be a demand for this event, should it return to Southern California in 2019!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.