The pandemic has cost the Valley scores of annual public events this year – from fundraising galas and community gatherings to well-established traditional celebrations like the Ostrich Festival and even the Arizona State Fair.
But Mark and Carrie Schnepf are refusing to bow to COVID-19 and scrap one of the East Valley’s signature fall events – the Chili and Pumpkin Party on their 300-acre farm at 24810 S. Rittenhouse Road, Queen Creek.
“Someone needs to do normal because for families, it’s tough,” Carrie said. “It’s tough for everyone and we have a big space. … This is just for everyone to just enjoy each other. COVID-19 has been devastating to many families who have lost loved ones or those who have lost jobs. It’s time to finally have some positive memories.”
With that theme, the Schnepfs are determined to help families eke some fun out of a year that’s been hard for everyone – including them.
Their annual Peach Festival earlier this year was crimped by COVID-19 as they had to forego the traditional peach-picking by patrons, who instead ordered the fruit online and had it picked by the couple’s employees. Scores of spring weddings were canceled, further impacting the bottom line of an operation that depends on such events – as well as the Peach Festival and Chili and Pumpkin Party – to augment the revenue their more traditional farming generates.
The Schnepfs have added a number of attractions to this year’s 23rd annual Halloween tradition, which runs Oct. 1-31 and draws thousands of families and couples on many weekend days and evenings.
But the pandemic also has forced them to alter some aspects of the party – particularly the number of people they can allow on the premises at any given day.
“Extreme steps have been taken to assure visitors that when visiting this fall,” Carrie said. “Their safety and health is our top priority.”
The Schnepfs figure they can allow 4,000 people to attend the event, where masks will be required in close quarters like on the hayride, in the country store and a few other places and amusements – and will be mandatory throughout the farm 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Fridays for those grandparents who want to bring their grandkids.
Hand sanitizing stations have been installed throughout the site, as well as auto-flushing toilets, soap dispensers and hand dryers. Sanitizing teams will be cruising the farm to keep high-touch surfaces safe and all staff will have daily temperature and symptom checks.
To keep the crowds manageable, people must buy their tickets online at pumpkinandchiliparty.com so that the Schnepfs know how many people are planning to come.
While all-season passes are available and good any time, they are included in the count of single-visit tickets to help them count the crowd.
“Once we get around 4,000 people, then there’s no more tickets to be purchased for that time,” Carrie said, adding that military, law enforcement and first responders can get in for $10 instead of the regular $23 admission – which entitles visitors to free rides and all other activities except food, the hayride and pumpkins.
For those people who enjoy dropping by the party to pick a pumpkin or be one of the 50,000 visitors who gobble up the event’s famous chili lunches and dinners – but are nervous about mingling among others on the farm – the Schnepfs have you covered.
They can order bowls of chili – complete with corn on the cob, a slice of corn bread and a brownie – and even caramel apple pies and pumpkins online at Schnepffarms.com. The online pantry also has other baked goods and food products.
For those who do enter the grounds, the Schnepfs have added some amusements in addition to fan-favorite attractions like the pig races, petting zoo, bonfires and the 4-acre and 10-acre corn mazes. The larger maze is always cut in honor of a local sports celebrity and this year it will be Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps.
Because the Arizona State Fair will not be held, the amusement ride supplier, Kastl Amusements of Casa Grande, is renting the Schnepfs a super slide and the Extreme Hyper Loop to add to the normal array of amusement rides like the roller coaster and kiddie ferris wheel.
In the open-air pavilion, Molly Jacobs, the director of the Queen Creek Performing Arts Center, has choreographed a small troupe of three costumed girls and two costumed boys to provide country-western shows every couple hours and there will be continuous line dancing for everyone.
The Schnepfs also have had success with their drive-in movies on a 50-foot screen and they’ve planned family-friendly Halloween-themed major motion pictures for people who feel like taking in a movie at $20 a carload in an area apart from the Chili and Pumpkin Party.
“We can only take up to 150 or 200 cars but people love it,” Carrie said. “I get emails and phone calls every day about doing the drive-in now. We let them bring their own food and their snacks and they can sit in front of their vehicle or in the back. They just can’t sit beside their cars because of the social distancing.”
They’ve also added additional times and days for the event, with 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-through-Thursday opportunities for families whose kids might be on fall break or can sneak away from their laptops if they’re doing distance learning.
Other times are 1-9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 10 a.m.- 9 p.m. Sundays.