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Find your way through a maze to a fair piglet or prize apple

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / October 3, 2010

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With crisp fall air signaling the prospect of long days inside, October offers a last chance to savor the outdoors without being all bundled up. Celebrate the fall bounty at New England’s farms and festivals, where corn, pumpkins, apples, and hay rides transform the region into an autumn wonderland for children.

Whether picking the perfect pumpkin or the closest apple, visiting 5,000 illuminated jack-o-lanterns or festivals that date 100 years or more, seasonal adventures can create family traditions. Struggling through corn mazes or watching a piglet handling contest can bring memorably funny moments. They won’t postpone winter, but the memories might alleviate the chill.

Lyman Orchards (Middlefield, Conn.) During apple-picking season, toddlers join in the fun here, tugging at low-hanging fruit. The hilltop orchards offer 28 apple varieties and stunning views of foliage. Travel to the bottom of the hill for the corn maze. It depicts Geno Auriemma, coach of the NCAA women’s basketball champion University of Connecticut, and the school’s husky dog mascot. Maze admission includes a map and “passport’’ with trivia questions in different categories — American history, movies, sports, and, for the youngest, “Tiny Tots.’’ Answer the passport trivia questions and get hints for which way to turn. “Corn Cops’’ throughout the maze also help. Wagon and pony rides and fresh kettle corn on weekends. Junction of Routes 147 and 157, 860-349-1793, www.lymanorchards.com, daily apple picking 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Maze open Sat-Sun 9-6, Wed-Fri 3-6. Apples: $1.10/ pound; corn maze: adults $9, ages 4-12 $5, 3 and under free.

Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular (Providence, R.I.) Intricately carved and illuminated pumpkins along a quarter-mile woodland trail make the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at the Roger Williams Park Zoo awe-inspiring. “Kids are entering this little magical world,’’ said Janet Mariani, director of marketing for the zoo. “It’s an eyeful with the woods transformed with these 5,000 pumpkins.’’ Wandering along the path, visitors see pumpkins of all sizes in trees and on the ground. Theatrical music plays in the background. This year, the theme “A Walk Through Time’’ will come to life in carvings of dinosaurs, cavemen, Renaissance scenes, Wild West themes, and popular culture snapshots. There are also classic jack-o-lanterns. The path accommodates strollers. 1000 Elmwood Ave., 401-785-3510, www.rwpzoo.org, Oct. 7-31, 6-10 p.m., adults $12, age 62 and older $10, ages 3-12 $9, under 3 free. Add $1 for Fri-Sat nights.

Thunder Road Farm (Corinna, Maine) After visitors select the perfect pumpkin from a 30-acre patch, they can try all the “agritainment’’ activities at Thunder Road Farm. The options include a corn maze and mini-mazes, rubber duck and tricycle races, a corn box and cow train. “We try to have something for all ages,’’ said Barbara Peavey, who owns the farm with her husband, Charles. The duck races involve pushing water through sliced-in half PVC pipes with an old-fashioned water pump. The more water flowing, the faster the ducks float to the finish. The cow train is a collection of wheel-mounted, cow-painted 55-gallon drums pulled along by a 4-wheeler at just the speed for toddlers. 185 Newport Road, 207-278-2676, www.thunderroadfarm.com, Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m. until Oct. 30, night maze Oct. 29 from 5:30-9, Columbus Day Weekend Fri-Mon 10-6, ages 4 and up $6, 3 and under free.

Topsfield Fair (Topsfield) A well-known fixture on the fall festival circuit, this fair has been entertaining and educating visitors since its start in 1820 as a cattle show. On the animal side, kids can see hatching chicks, sheep shearing, and piglets. The pat-a-calf attraction is a big draw for the younger set. “They stand in line for hours for that,’’ said fair general manager Jim O’Brien. “Get in line, do it, and get back in line again.’’ The giant pumpkins also prompt lots of questions. “They laugh at it, then they want to know if it’s real,’’ said O’Brien. Children can try cider making with an antique press or sit back at the arena and watch concerts, antique farm-tractor pulls, and other shows. 207 Boston St., 978-887-5000, www.topsfieldfair.org, Oct. 1-11, daily 10-10, midway till 11, $10 weekdays, $12 weekends, free under 8.

Apples to iPods (24 pick-your-own orchards across Vermont) What happens when apple picking becomes a scavenger hunt? Families fan out to Vermont orchards for the Apples to iPods event and look for specially-marked wooden apples hidden in trees. The wooden apples entitle finders to an Apple iPod. One winner will take home an Apple iPad. There is one wooden apple disguised in each of the 24 participating pick-your-own Vermont apple orchards. “Apples to iPods’’ kicked off Sept. 23 at Shelburne Orchards and continues through mid-October. “It engages kids and adds a whole other fun element,’’ said Nick Cowles, owner of Shelburne Orchards. “It brings apple picking to young kids and teenagers.’’ At Shelburne Orchards, the wooden apple is hidden in one of 6,000 trees. “I hide it really well,’’ said Cowles. “Some years it gets found in 15 minutes. Other times it goes for weeks.’’ Go to applestoipods.com for details and participating orchards.

Escobar’s Highland Farm (Portsmouth, R.I.) When it comes to corn mazes, Escobar’s goes big with a labyrinth covering eight acres. For the directionally-challenged, that means two miles of path if every wrong turn is taken. On average, visitors spend an hour finding their way through the maze, but farm owner Louie Escobar said, “Kids love seeing how quick they can do the maze.’’ On Harry Potter Day (Oct. 16, 1-4 p.m., rain date Oct. 17), visitors dressed as Potter characters get $1 off admission. And special activities in and around the maze have a Potter theme. Visit the farm’s version of Hog’s Head and Professor Snape’s laboratory. 251 Middle Road, 401-683-1444, www.escobarshighlandfarm.com. Maze Fri 3:30 p.m.-dusk, Sat 10 a.m.-dusk, Sun 11-dusk, Columbus Day (Oct. 11) 10-dusk, ages 12 and up $7, 5-11 $5, 4 and under free.

The Sandwich Fair (Sandwich, N.H.) Celebrating its centennial over the Columbus Day weekend, the Sandwich Fair is a throwback. “This fair really hasn’t changed in 100 years,’’ said Walter Robinson, fair entertainment chairman. From oxen pulling to donkey driving to piglet handling, the fair and its animals draw crowds. And its not only animals and their handlers that compete. There is a children’s pedal tractor pull with divisions divided by weight. The smallest is for children weighing up to 40 pounds. Baking contests come in a variety of categories for different ages and food types, including a theme-cake bake-off for adults and teens and a theme-cupcake bake-off for juniors (12 and under). And for the non-bakers, there’s a skillet-throwing contest. 7 Wentworth Hill Road, 603-284-7062, www.thesandwichfair.com, Columbus Day Weekend, 8 a.m.-9 p.m., $10 adult, $3 ages 8-12, free 7 and under.

Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth) No place in New England can claim a longer tradition of celebrating harvest time than Plimoth Plantation. The living history museum takes children back to the place of earliest Colonial agriculture at the 1627 English Village. As Thanksgiving draws near, Plimoth Plantation recognizes the harvest and the holiday with themed dining and special events. Over Columbus Day Weekend, the Harvest Festival encourages kids to help Pilgrim colonists prepare for winter by saving seeds and stocking up on firewood. They can also make corn husk dolls. Harvest dining events feature two-course meals with such 17th-century recipes as roast turkey, mussels steamed in beer, stewed pompion (or pumpkin), and period cheesecake. 137 Warren Ave., 508-746-1622, plimoth.org. Visitors center open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily through Nov. 29. Check website for hours of specific attractions and events. Combination ticket $28 adults, $26 ages 62 and older, $18 6-12, free 5 and under.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.