Walt Disney World bills itself as the “happiest place on earth” but, in Northern Virginia in the fall, one of the happiest places anywhere is Cox Farms in Centreville.
That’s when its gigantic pumpkin patch is transformed into a magical wonderland of children’s delights. And this year, its 33rd annual fall festival began Sept. 24 and runs through Nov. 6.
“Here, kids can forget their computer games for awhile, use their imaginations, run and feel the breeze,” said spokeswoman Lynn Hertz. “And it’s a time to be together with your family and have fun.”
Just off Pleasant Valley Road, Cox Farms is at 15621 Braddock Road. Through Oct. 29, it’s open daily from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., with the last entry at 5 p.m. From Oct. 30-Nov. 6, it’s open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Phone: 703-830-4121; Web site: www.coxfarms.com. Weekdays except Columbus Day, admission is $7; those 2 and under are free; Saturday, Sunday and Columbus Day, it’s $11.
Eric Cox, co-owner of Cox Farms with wife Gina Richard, says “the finest hayride anywhere” and “tons and tons of pumpkins” are just two of the many reasons why the fall festival is such a huge hit. “Kids of all ages just love to come out to our farm every fall,” he said. “They come back year after year for the slides and rope swings, the fun tunnel, the baby animals — this year we’ve even got a cute, young donkey — the food and the entertainment.”
This 96-acre children’s paradise features mountain slides, a castle, hay bales to climb on and mounds of soft sponges for kids to land on after leaping joyfully from a rope swing. There’s face-painting and even a life-size replica of the game, Candyland, for children to play.
Cox Farms offers three rope swings and 10 mountain slides, including Panda Pagoda, Miners’ Motel, Cox’s Mountain, Volcano Mountain, Fairyland, Winnie the Pooh’s House and the double-wide Jack-in-the-Beanstalk Barn Slide. The Volcano Mountain Slide has dragons on top and special sound effects to make children feel as if they’re sitting atop a real volcano. “Smoke comes out of the volcano,” said Hertz. “It’s very cool.”
ALWAYS A highlight of the pumpkin festival, the hayride travels through a large barn filled with surprises, flashing lights and unusual sounds. “The party barn is great,” said Hertz. “A cute, little song is playing, and there are lots of different things to see on the roof and everywhere people look.”
The hayride in the fields lasts nearly 25 minutes and passes by all sorts of funny and clever vignettes and scenarios, including a new-this-year Witch’s Kitchen where “witches” will be cooking their special brew over a stove, as well as the Lost Boys’ (from “Peter Pan” house with nifty sound effects. There’s also a graveyard, plus friendly aliens who leave their spaceship to run after and wave at the people on the hayride.
“Every year, we spend a lot of time repainting things it all looks bright and inviting,” said Hertz. “And the corn’s nice and high so everything is really green and looks beautiful.”
There’s also free entertainment on the brand-new music stage that’s twice the size of the old one. Farmer Jack does a musical, cow-milking show, singing and telling stories while milking his cows, Bingo and Milkshake. And children are sure to love the calf, Oreo. In addition, at least four different groups of musical entertainers will perform on the weekends.
Besides cows, kids can feed kids while frolicking with baby goats at the popular Billy Goat Village. They can also see baby chicks, pigs, bunnies and burros.
AND NO ONE goes hungry at Cox Farms. Apples and fresh cider, plus hot applesauce on the weekends, are available free. Visitors may also bring their own food (no alcohol) for picnics on the grounds. Or they may purchase hot dogs, pizza, French fries and snacks, weekdays, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. On the weekends, hamburgers, cheeseburgers and barbecue are offered, too. And this year, chicken Caesar salads and garden salads are also available.
“We added lots more picnic tables, and people can see the sound stage and listen to the music while they eat,” said Hertz. “We also spruced up the kitchen area and added more people working there so customers won’t have to wait so long in line. We wanted to make their eating experience more pleasurable.”
Everyone gets to pick out a free, patch pumpkin to take home, and local apples, kettle corn, fresh cider, crumb cakes, brownies, pies, jams, honey, Indian corn, squash, gourds and fall decoration are for sale at the farm market.
The last weekend of the festival will include Pumpkin Madness, in which children bring their old Halloween pumpkins and have fun playing games with them and then smashing them to bits. “It’s so much fun; the kids really love it,” said Hertz. “We have a catapult, and we also drop pumpkins from a high lift and roll them down Cox’s Mountain. We even have pumpkin bowling and a pumpkin toss — everything pumpkin.”
Birthday parties and groups are welcome and may call for reservations. More than 100,000 people visit Cox Farms each year and, in good weather, it hosts some 6,000 people on the weekends. But, said Hertz, “There’s plenty of room to move around so no one feels scrunched.”
Besides families, the pumpkin patch is popular with Scouts, plus school, church and play groups. All in all, said Hertz, “It’s a place where families can be safe, kids are smiling and I always hear children laughing and having fun.”
And this year, added Eric Cox, a visit to the pumpkin festival is a close-to-home, inexpensive way for people to enjoy themselves. “Cox Farms is an autumn day in the country, yet we’re just down the road in Fairfax County,” he said. “And when gas costs $3 a gallon, that really matters to people.”