Category Archives: Vala’s

My wonderful week off from work

I’ve just returned from a week-long vacation that I spent entirely in the Omaha area, catching up on things around house and spending some quality time with the family. It’s the first time I’ve had a full week off work since our trip to California in 2012, and the first time I can remember with that much free time on my hands. It was lovely.

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On Sunday, we kicked things off doing some costume shopping down at Mangelsen’s, where we tried out various masks and accessories before eventually getting Aaron and Hannah to decide on being Batman and Poppy (from Trolls) respectively for Halloween.

Then that evening, I managed to literally burn through all the wood we’d accumulated from fallen branches over the past year or so in a fire pit. I invited my parents over and we roasted hot dogs over the open flame, which worked out amazingly well. The weather was downright gorgeous most of the week with highs in the 60s or so, which was just about perfect every single day.

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I spent nearly all day cleaning house and doing laundry as Vivian was out doing school stuff with the kids. Then on Tuesday, we had our annual trip to Vala’s. Tuesday was just about the perfect day to go — we got the home school discount, which included free pumpkins and a train ride, and the weather was beautiful all day long. We got Hannah and Aaron measured up before hitting the pig races and getting our family photos taken behind cut-out characters (and on the big chair). Hannah’s favorite attractions were the haunted houses and the pumpkin mine, so we wound up wandering through those multiple times. We grabbed some apple donuts for a snack and spent extra time in the school house pretending to teach the kids. We also spent some extra time at the Pirate Cove dancing to music by the Skeleton Band.

The fall colors were glowing everywhere, and I tried multiple times to get a decent autumnal photo of Vivian and the kids, but they were too excited to sit still for long. We got a wagon ride and a ride on the train and stopped to see an animatronic show or two on the way between exhibits. We also paid a visit to Bunnyville and saw Xander the Dragon as the suns tarted going down. Storybook Village had a few new items, such as the Hungry Catterpillor (sic) and a sword-in-a-stone. We ended the day taking Aaron on the big slide (where his reaction was “I’m scared of that … I wanna go again) and then the pie barn for “dinner.” We grabbed a few pumpkins on the way out before heading for home, where we all pretty much crashed afterward.

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Hannah and Aaron got to try out their costumes for the first time at First Presbyterian for some trick-or-treating on Wednesday Night. They got their fill of candy and played a handful of games along with a few of their little friends.

The next day, I went out to lunch with my parents to a place in downtown Papillion called “Brownie’s.” They had $8.99 rib-eyes (thinly cut) and I got to catch up with them a bit without having to wrangle two kids wreaking havoc at the same time, which was nice.

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On Friday night, Vivian and I went to the Omaha Jitterbugs’ Halloween Dance together, the first time we’d been to the Eagle’s Lodge since the last Halloween dance. I went as a Steven Crowder “Change my Mind” meme, complete with mug, which got me into the finalists’ row during the costume contest. Vivian went as a “one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater,” a last minute thing thrown together once she and I realized we had all the components at home.

It felt strange to be back dancing with the Jitterbugs after being away so long, partly because there were so many new people, and also because I’m darn OLD and dancing all night long isn’t as easy as it was a decade ago. We still had a fun time, and we even grabbed some donuts from the Donut Stop, which will be sadly closing its doors forever on Halloween.

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We had a lovely lazy Saturday for most of the day. Then that evening we went to Jenny’s annual birthday/costume/Halloween party up in northwest Omaha at Dean and Sarah’s house. Our kids got to bounce around for a couple hours (in costume) with a handful of our friends’ kids as we had some cake and played a bit with our grown-up friends. Takashi led us all in Thriller, of course, and we also got our group picture before people started to leave.

I came in my second costume of the night, an “NPC,” which has become something of a political meme online. Nobody seemed to get it, which was mostly fine with me. I may reuse the mask to be Michael Myers from “Halloween” instead, which is what most people thought I was anyway.

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It was a great week overall, helped in my doubt by the lovely weather and fall colors we got to enjoy. We took a walk or two around the neighborhood with the kids just to enjoy them (and see the Pumpkin Man).

We also raked a bit of leaves in our yard on Sunday so Hannah and Aaron could play in them (along with Hannah’s family of toys) before it got too cold. Then we watched the sun set on my last day of vacation before Vivian fried up a whiskey-marinated sirloin for dinner, which was quite tasty.

It was a good week, and I may wind up doing something like it again before long, as I have a couple hundred hours of vacation time left to use up (eventually.)

Fall fun at Vala’s, the Hall’s, and the Museum

Why hello, autumn! You snuck up on us while we’ve been busy, so I guess it’s now time for some of our favorite fall traditions: Vala’s Pumpkin Patch, a Hayrack Ride at the Hall’s, and getting set for Halloween!

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We went down to Vala’s last Thursday with a bunch of other home-schooled kids from Classical Conversations and had a long, fun day at the Pumpkin Patch. We took multiple trips through the Spook Shed (now Hannah’s favorite attractions), and Pig Caller Mark Celesky picked Hannah got to be a Pig Leader again during one of the many Pig Races throughout the day. We dropped by the duck races, the bouncing pillows, and the corn bin, and then got a bucket o’ fries to tide us over until dinner. We even got a free train ride around the park, getting rare glimpses of the Old West Town and the Singing Fish Wall (followed by the Train Playground afterward). The kids played on some scooters, some tractors also spent a good deal of time firing foam balls inside a the new, giant Egg Barn (which ironically had nothing to do with eggs). Of course, we also took advantage of photo opportunities on the Big Chair behind painted cutouts throughout the park during the day, including a Cow, some donkeys, some ghosts, a pumpkin carriage, and the How Tall This Fall board to record how Hannah and Aaron measure up.

We went down a couple slides and then had some dinner and s’mores by the Classical Conversations fire pit toward the end of the day. Then we visited the Dragon and let Hannah and Aaron pick out a couple pumpkins of their own before we headed home, happily exhausted.

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Dad and I spent a little time fixing things around the house on Saturday. Then on Sunday, we went to the Hall’s for another campfire and hayrack ride through the country. The kids tossed around a football, Aaron got to play on a tire swing, and Hannah chased some of the farm cats (which resembled her toy cat Zoey, which has gone missing yet again). I brought along my tripod for a few family pictures on the hayrack before Rick drove us around the dirt trails as the sun went down. We kept warm by the fire afterward while filling up on chili and things for dinner, and some of the guys broke out some guitars for some worship songs before we headed home.

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Then on Tuesday, our kids got to break out their Halloween Costumes for the first time (after mommy dragged them to three or four stores trying to find them)! They dressed as characters from PJ Masks, Cat Boy and Green Gecko, and we took them down to the Omaha Children’s Museum for an evening of “healthy” treats and checking out the exhibits. They had some kind of obstacle course set up for Halloween along with a “forest” exhibit upstairs with a canoe, Brio Train Set, and logs to climb on. Some of the parents came in costume as well, prompting me to start thinking seriously about my own costume this year.

On the way out the door, Vivian stopped to get a picture with museum employee Shawn Toovey, also known for playing Brian Cooper on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman back in the 90s. He was very nice, and Vivian asked him if he’d enjoyed being on the show as a kid and whether he kept in touch with former cast members. I never actually watched the show growing up, so Vivian was a bit more star-struck than I was, but maybe I’ll have to give it a watch sometime. (I think it’s available on Amazon.)

Autumn at Vala’s and Bacon by the Fire

Fall is probably the best time of year to be outside, enjoying the crisp autumn air and seeing the trees bursting with color. Of course, the temperature still swings wildly from the chilly 40s to the near-summer 80s in a matter of days.

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On Wednesday I took the entire day off for our our annual trip down to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch. I learned how much more fun this autumnal amusement park is when you have no lines, no crowds, and tickets are half price. We kicked off our trip at the pig races (which included ducks for some reason), and then our kids got to have some quality time on a slide or two. They played on the new obstacle course and had a few more photo opportunities on some tractors and at the storybook village. Hannah also got to give Little Bo Beep her annual hug.

We eventually met up with Jenny and Kody at the bouncing pillows before moving along to the corn bin, the dragon, and the Rocking Chair. The sun went down and we got some dinner around a campfire with the folks at Bellevue Christian Center before calling it a night. The temperature dropped to about 48, which was a little too chilly for us, so we didn’t get to see the new “eggshibit” that Jenny and Kody went along to look at. We all still had fun, though, even if we only saw a fraction of the attractions available. (Sorry, Pumpkin Mine. I think this here map is was wro-o-ong.)

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On Sunday afternoon, we had attended a “FUNdraiser” for congressional candidate Don Bacon down at Scatter Joy acres, a therapeutic animal farm hidden away north of 49th and Sorensen Parkway. The farm itself was built over a hundred years ago, back when this area was still part quite rural before the “hood” grew up all around it (though it still felt like being in the country). Our kids got to interact with pigs, llamas, ponies, cows, and several other farm animals before we made our way to the picnic area. Both kids got to paint pumpkins in-between playing on the various farm attractions in the play area. Don Bacon was there as well, of course, meeting and greeting everyone and even giving an extended interview to a reporter from Sweden, who came all the over to cover the Presidential Election.

It was probably the most fun, family-friendly political event I’d been to since Ben Carson came to Council Bluffs last August. I was also disappointed that I can’t vote for Bacon, since we’re no longer in his district, but I did enjoy getting to shake hands and ask him a few questions face-to-face. (And despite appearing in a photo with volunteers for Gary Johnson, he is, in fact, “holding his nose” and voting for Trump.)

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In other news, both Hannah and Aaron got their Halloween costumes for the year, just in time for trunk-or-treating in a week or two. We’ve also been getting in as much park time as possible. We visited Thompson Park on Saturday, which was unseasonably warm compared to Vala’s on Wednesday. Hannah got to practice ballet in the tennis court, and she brought along her new Peppa Pig for some of the fun. Then on Monday, we walked up and down the Keystone Trail taking in as many of the fall colors as we could before the leaves all fell off. Enjoy it while you can, everyone — winter’s on its way.

Mid-Week Vacation at Vala’s

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I’ve been to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch, the infamous autumnal amusement park of Nebraska, manymany times over the past few years. It gets more and more expensive every year, but that hasn’t stopped it from being maddeningly crowded on the weekend as well. Now that Hannah is there years old and no longer admitted to Vala’s for free, I had the bright idea of taking a whole day off of work so we could attend on a Wednesday, when the rates are one-third cheaper.

Wow, it was a great decision, and I don’t think we’ll ever go back to Vala’s on a weekend. There were virtually no lines for anything at the park, including such photo opportunities as sitting on the big chair. We could even jump on the pillows for as long as we waited, with no waiting whatsoever.

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Since we were visiting Vala’s on a weekday, our usual gang of friends weren’t able to come with us. That turned out fine, however, as we were able to focus exclusively on activities that interested the kids, such as playing in the giant corn bin and watching the giant dragon smash a pumpkin. The kids also liked playing on the slides and wandering around the storybook village.

At two o’clock, I was able to corral everyone to see one of the pig races. Hannah had gotten her photo with the Pig Man back in 2012, and I got a follow-up photo with Aaron this time around. Picture-taking seems to be a huge part of visiting Vala’s, whether it involved those stand-up pictures you stick your head through or the obligatory photo of the kids in front of the “how tall this fall” measuring stick. We even got a picture of the family around a pile of pumpkins thanks to a nice lady at the gift shop. The park was so not-busy that she was able to snap a photo without leaving any customers unattended.

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We didn’t get to see all the sights in the park before the sun went down, but we did get to visit some new areas (to us), such as a play area with a tractor ride and a giant rope spiderweb. Hannah climbed all the way from the middle to the perimeter by herself, which made me proud (she did better than mommy did six years ago). We finished off the day with a dinner of giant pork tenderloin sandwiches and a brief visit to the gift shop for our annual picture wearing cowboy hats. Both kids were fast asleep by the time we got home around seven, which was downright lovely!

The day went so well, I decided to share some of my tips and tricks of navigating Vala’s right here on my blog, which you can read here. Check it out if you plan on going anytime soon.

Doing Vala’s Right (and at a discount)

If you visit Omaha in the fall, you’re likely to hear somebody mention a place called Vala’s Pumpkin Patch. It’s a kind of an autumnal amusement park in the outskirts of town (in Gretna, actually) with lots of activities for little ones. It attracts thousands of people every year and has recently been summed up with one word: expensive. In 2015, tickets on the weekend go for $15.75 each, and children over two — i.e. any children old enough to fully appreciate the experience — pay full price. This means a family of four will shell out over $70 with tax for a day of pedal bikes and jumping pillows, and that doesn’t even include a pumpkin.

So if you’re like me, and you’re set on actually visiting Vala’s (rather than exploring the many other alternate pumpkin patches in the area), you’ll want to know how to do it right and maybe save a few bucks. And don’t bother vying for certain online “specials” you see where you can get a stack of tickets at half price. They sell out in seconds and you won’t grab any. Trust me.

Instead, to here are a few things to consider.

  1. Don’t go on the weekend. If it’s at all possible, visit Vala’s Monday through Thursday. The tickets will each cost $6 less, and you’ll have far fewer crowds to deal with. We went on a Wednesday this year, and there weren’t any lines for any of the stores, attractions, or food vendors. If you’ve stood around a good twenty minutes waiting for your turn on the jumping pillows, it’s a big deal to get to hop right on and stay as long as you like.
  2. Get your tickets online. If you plan on visiting Vala’s Friday through Sunday, you’ll save $1 per ticket if you buy your tickets online. Even better, you will get to walk more or less right on in when you arrive. This is a big deal on weekends when you could be spending your first half hour standing around waiting for Granny to figure out how to sign her name with her finger on an iPad.
  3. Don’t take 180th street. Enjoy sitting in traffic for an hour? Then by all means turn off Highway 370 and sit idling in your car for a mile as you creep along 180th along with hundreds of other cars waiting to squeeze into Vala’s giant parking field/lot. Want a shortcut? Take 168th street. It curves right around to Schram Road and there’s virtually no waiting, even on Saturday.
  4. Bring your own water. After an hour or two of hiking around in the dry dust and dirt of Vala’s, you’re going to get thirsty — over and over again. You’re going to hate yourself for spending $2 on a small bottle of water when you could have just brought your own and filled up at the water fountains down by the restroom. This is the only water fountain in the park, so bring your own bottles and use it.
  5. Time the live shows right. Certain attractions, like the pig races and that dragon thing, happen only at specific times during the day, so if you want your kid to get picked as a “pig leader,” be sure to be at the pig races at the top of the hour (except for 3 pm or whatever). It’s also worth checking the calendar for special live shows going on during the day (or evening).
  6. Bring a snack. Vala’s staff doesn’t (yet) check your stroller or belongings for outside food, so bring along a bag of trail mix for you and the little ones when you get hungry. And you will.

If you haven’t visited Vala’s yet, do it soon, because it all wraps up on Halloween night and the doors stay shut until next September. Have any advice of your own to add? Put it in the comments below.

This Year at Vala’s

Autumn is usually a busy time for us, with special events happening almost every weekend. The weekdays are filled with activity, too. On Monday, Vivian brought Hannah and Aaron to the park to grab a cupcake and make use of the swings and slides before it gets too cold. Then on Thursday I attended a luncheon and got to meet Pete Ricketts, who’s running for governor. I’d spotted him in a parade or two before, but it’s always nice to be able to shake hands and ask questions to a candidate before you decide to vote for him.

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The major event of this week, however, was our annual trip to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch. The trek to Gretna gets a little more cumbersome (and expensive) every year, particularly now that we have two kids to bring along. We actually headed up a little early in the morning (cutting around the traffic jam on 180th via our usual shortcut) just so we could get in some kiddie activities before our “grown-up” friends arrived. Hannah and Aaron both got to spend some quality time in the giant corn bin (before snacking on some a little later), and Hannah got a couple turns on the jumping pillows before the line got too long.

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We met up with our cluster of mutual friends around lunchtime as they were busy with the go-carts. We trekked about with them for a while, going back across the railroad tracks to watch the pig races and go down a couple slides together. The corn maze was decidedly smaller this year, as they built some kind of midway of carnival games in a large swath of it (complete with those hammer-swinging, bell-ringing games of strength). We got separated in the storybook village right before getting an obligatory group photo on the giant rocking chair. Everyone knows Vala’s is essentially one large, outdoor photobooth, but we fortunately had a friend or two wandering by who could help take our picture when we needed it.

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We didn’t buy any overpriced pumpkins during our visit, but we did get some succotash for dinner and hear some kind of a ghost story by the campfire as the sun went down. We even got Hannah her own pink cowboy hat down at the gift shop. We’ve been getting group pictures wearing hats a number of times already, so I figured it was about time we bought one. Hannah even picked it out herself, and I bet it’ll still fit when we come back again next year.

Curry, hayracks, and a pumpkin patch

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The month of October is always jam-packed with fun events with our circle of friends, and this weekend was certainly no exception. On Friday night, Vivian and I dropped by the Regency Lake & Tennis Club to attend a wedding reception PK with a bunch of her former co-workers. PK and his new bride are both from Nepal, and brought an entire cross-section of his family to come and celebrate in true Nepalese style. There was some amazing ethnic food available out front — chicken chhoyla, vegetable pakoda, palak paneer, rajma, chicken tikka masala, and mutton curry — every one of which was a new treat for us. Hannah even got to try a few bites, though she seemed content to munch on shrimp crackers and naan. I’m definitely grateful that the venue allowed PK and his family to bring their own food. Afterward, we got to burn it off with some dancing to energetic music once a few of us got over ourselves. Naturally, there were about a dozen cameras pointed every which way, so people had a few inhibitions before hitting the floor, but once PK’s mom got into the fun, nobody wanted to sit it out.

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On Saturday, we continued the fall traditions with a trip to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch. This was Hannah’s second visit to Nebraska’s famous autumnal amusement park, and this time around she was big enough to participate in some of the “big kid” attractions, such as the jumping pillows, the new Big Slide, and even the family-sized go-cart (though I did the pedaling and steering while Vivian held on for dear life). Of course, we had to bring a gang of our great friends to join in the fun (and the lines). Li Ya also brought her little boy, who immediately took a shine to Hannah. A crashed for food when necessary between trudging through a corn maze and pumpkin mine, and we grabbed a photo opportunity on a giant chair, in a coffin, in the gift shop, in jail, and by a pile of pumpkins when we got the chance (with the help of some friendly passersby). Hannah also got to see a pig race, a dragon or two, and definitely enjoyed the storybook village, riding in a pumpkin carriage and giving Little Bo Beep a hug. We finished off the night with Amazing Arthur (where I missed Jenny getting called up on stage), and found our way out through the gift shop, grabbing an obligatory caramel apple along the way.

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On Sunday, the Halls opened up their home again for another fun campfire and hay rack ride with our friends at Twin Valley Church. It was a gorgeous day for being outdoors and riding around in the countryside. Hannah is old enough now to play with the cluster of little friends from church who came along for the event, and she got to discover some of the fun of riding in a tire swing and eating tasty fall things in front of a campfire. One of the things I love best about our little church group is how much fun we all seem to have together. Of course there were plenty of pictures being snapped from every angle, so Teresa recruited a couple of us to snap pictures of her family while we were being so shutter-happy.

Ah, autumn!

Fall is definitely the most festive time of year for the Johnson Family in Omaha. October is always packed with fun things happening outdoors and in, and the weather is more than accommodating for those of us who enjoy the colors changing this time of year.

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On Friday night, Tamra dropped by to babysit Hannah so Vivian I could have a date night. We went to the premier of Atlas Shrugged Part 2 at the Oakview AMC (which was much better than Part 1 — I highly recommend checking out) and then had a late dinner together at the Zin Room downtown. The next morning, we dropped by our friend Phil’s 5 Buck Lunch Truck for some breakfast burritos. If you’re ever in the vicinity of the O’Reilly Auto Parts Store on Galvin in Bellevue, stop by and check it out.

That evening, our autumnal festivities kicked off with a pumpkin-carving party at our mutual friend Amanda’s house in mid-town Omaha. Several people brought tasty pumpkin-related goodies (including a pumpkin liqueur), and we had some fun playing 80s-movie charades and carving up pumpkins as a storm passed briefly overhead. We also had amusing “deaths” taped to our backs and we had to spend the evening guessing how we “died.” I can’t remember who won the pumpkin-carving contest, but we had plenty of worthy competitiors. Hannah also seemed to enjoy her first genuine Halloween party, despite a brief plague of spiders (both real and plush).

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On Sunday, Hannah got to experience another fall tradition — her first trip to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch. Vivian and I were somehow able to beat the traffic by taking the secret passageway on 168th street (thanks, Eric). Hannah got to see some pig races and wander around a corn maze with us for the very first time, though she’s unfortunately not old enough yet to participate in the go carts of the jumping pillows just yet. She did get to see a giant pile of colorful fall leaves for the first time, which she spent a few minutes playing in as everyone with a camera (including passersby) snapped pictures of her adorableness. We got enough exercise to justify having succotash and giant pork tenderloin sandwiches for dinner before calling it a night.

Vala’s and Lisa’s 50th

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With fall well underway, and only a week or so left in October, it was high time for a trip to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch with a bunch of our mutual friends. The weather was just about perfect — sunny and cool with nary a trace of the “80% chance of rain” the forecasters had been warning us about. As such, there was plenty of room for us to act like crazy kids bouncing on orange trampolines. We also got to ride around on pedal carts, get lost in a corn maze, wander through the obligatory haunted house, and gorge on succotash without waiting around in line. It was a terrific time, and we got to see just about everything we wanted (except for a surprise appearance by The Godfather).

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That evening we celebrated our friend Lisa’s 50th birthday party at the Bancroft Market / Reception Hall in south downtown Omaha. Our Jitterbug and Classical Music disc jockey Ben Rasmussen appeared with his band Insignificant Other and covered a variety of 60s and 70s songs for our dancing enjoyment. I poured a couple White Russians for everyone and got stuffed on nachos, cake, and other hors d’eourves over at the snack table. A few hours of dancing wasn’t nearly enough time to burn it all off, but we still had a great time hanging out and being silly under nearly midnight.

Fall Fun

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Fall’s finally here, and with it comes weather that’s only slightly cooler than the weather we’ve enjoyed throughout the summer so far (which is insanely wonderful). Per tradition, Vivian and I went by Vala’s Pumpkin Patch to check out this year’s festivities. We went with our bible group from Christ Community Church, (which is the first time I’ve mentioned them in my blog so far, oddly enough) and got to wander through a corn maze, have some succotash, and pick out a pumpkin for carving later on.

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Another fall tradition is the Great at Adventures Hayrack Ride up in Santa’s Woods. Vivian and I opted to take the less “rowdy” hayrack ride so we could enjoy looking up at the stars and not have to pick straw out of our clothes and hair for the next two weeks (like some other friends of ours will have to do). We did get to enjoy swing dancing in the barn to some country music and grilling hot dogs and smores on an open fire as well.