- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

Food, games and hayrides at annual fall festival

It's not every day you get to run around a giant pumpkin farm. Just every day in October.

The countryside around the metro area is well-stocked with pumpkin farms and festivals. At Halloween time, many Northern Virginia parents head for Cox Farms, a 116-acre Centreville property that celebrates the autumn holiday season with flair.

The Cox Fall Festival, billed as a "low-tech amusement park" for children of all ages, offers hay-rides, farm animals, slides, mazes, live entertainment and other attractions in a straw-filled farm playground. We checked it out on opening day Oct. 1 a Monday. School day or not, there were plenty of customers, ranging from toddlers on up to roaming preteens all nearly wild with excitement.

The festival grounds contain 20 or so activities for children, not including food stands, stages or the produce market. There are obstacle courses made with hay bales; rope swings that release children onto piles of foam rubber; and long, high slides, with bales of straw as bumpers.

Burke residents Ken and Elaine Wolin watched their 2-year-old daughter, Sarah, writhe around in a foam-rubber pit. They said they go out of their way to visit the farm.

"The size of it and the amount of activities," Mr. Wolin said. "Sarah's under 3, and there's still so much to do. Nothing compares to this the size and for this price."

A strolling minstrel approached, picking a tune on a banjo. Banjer Dan, aka Dan Mazer, is a local musician moonlighting as a Fall Festival entertainer. He has 27 years of experience with the instrument.

"What's your favorite song?" he asked a young girl. When she choked on her answer, he played a plucky version of the Britney Spears tune "Oops, I Did It Again," much to the surprise of onlookers.

Then the goats beckoned. Billy Goat Village is a vast corral containing scores of small white goats as far as the eye can see, it seems at least 50 of them. Children usually are permitted to enter the enclosure to offer the goats palmfuls of grain, but the goats were too skittish their first day on the job, a festival worker said.

Children had to be content to feed the goats through the wire fence, which, evidently, can be loads of fun for the two-legged and the cloven-footed alike. We spent about a half-hour making sure no one went hungry.

Next came the highlight of the festival: the hayride. We boarded the tractor-drawn ride with 20 or so festival-goers, including Marcy Dilworth of Clifton, a part-time leasing specialist, and her two children, ages 7 and 9.

"They love Halloween, and this starts off pumpkin season," she said as the tractor wound through head-high rows of corn. "I love this place because there is a ton of stuff to do. We've been coming here for nine years."

The truck took us through ponds, fields and forests. Around every turn were 3-D animals and plywood cutouts of characters as diverse as Digimon and Waldo of "Where's Waldo?" fame.

As we continued our wanderings around the farm, the children stopped to bang on an old orange piano and listen to an entertainer try a range of songs, from "Old McDonald" to "Who Let the Dogs Out?" They rode a giant rocking horse and, in a new twist on searching for a needle in a haystack, searched for pennies in the straw of the Penny Pit.

When we got hungry, we ate free apples from the crates, choosing among several types, and when we got thirsty, we drank cups of cold apple cider also free.

The children rolled around in tubes and petted several pigs. They swatted flies off a huge black calf and crawled through tunnels of straw bales.

After three hours, it really was time to go. As any parent knows, this point can be the most harrowing of any trip. Cox Farms makes it easy, though. Included in the price of each admission is one free pumpkin. Children can dig through bins to find their special pumpkin to take home, put it on the doorstep and remember their trip to the pumpkin farm. It's a great way to welcome autumn.

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