Open for just one month every autumn, The Pumpkin Ranch seems more like a scene from a child’s dream than a family-run business. But that’s the way the Handsaker family planned it, hoping to create a family-friendly hub that celebrated their love of all things autumn. They began by cultivating their 9-acre cornfield into a complex maze, incorporating 12 checkpoints that make sure guests are on the right path and offer clues to the ranch’s Farm Scene Investigation mystery. Alongside the maze, the Handsakers have built up a 10-acre patch of pumpkins and gourds, where squashy specimens wait to be carved into jack-o’-lanterns or stomped into wine.
The hayrack ride transports guests to and fro on the ranch, speeding up walks so guests can spend more time reveling in the play zone’s bounce houses, climbable straw bales, and tire towers. For more exhilarating pastimes, the ranch offers tennis-ball launchers that send the bright orbs soaring at water-based targets, exhilarating zipline courses, and fire pits to warm up chilly fall afternoons. Inside the concession stand, staffers sell steamy cups of specialty ciders and hot chocolate alongside homemade baked goods, giving guests a taste of fall, and outside, vendors serve up larger bites such as grilled and smoked meat to fuel the outdoor fun.
Bowling balls tumble down Perfect Games’s 24 lanes, which are situated beneath a row of flat-screen TVs. In between frames, players lounge in comfy couches or make their way to the sports bar for a quick round of billiards. Black lights illuminate each lane's invisible-inked diary entries at Friday and Saturday cosmic-bowling sessions, and the laser arena’s two floors remain aglow at all times, as participants snake through labyrinthine corridors brightened with splashes of red, orange, and green paint.
Elsewhere, an arcade enthralls gamers with titles such as Time Crisis 3 and Guitar Hero, and a bounce house shelters leaping tykes aged 7 and younger. Kingpin Pizza reenergizes visitors with its extensive menu of paninis, pasta, salads, and made-from-scratch New York--style thin-crust pizzas cooked in a Roto-Flex oven whose rotating stone shelves can bake up to 100 pizzas every hour.
The race's runners squirm and snort at the starting line. Ham Bone, Miss Piggy, and Pork Chop may just be piglets, but in the course of one fall season at Dan-D Farms, they'll transform into world-class swine sprinters. Approximately every two hours, they'll storm down a 100-yard improvised raceway, complete with a water obstacle. That's right––a water obstacle. "Our pigs," farm owner Debra Kearney confirms, "can swim."
These riotous races are just one part of the lineup of events that overtakes Dan-D Farms each fall. Guests flock to this family-friendly affair to scramble over hay bales, feed wooly sheep, or test their sense of direction in one of two hay mazes. Each year for their maze, Debra and her family––including dad, Dan––devise a new design, but try to stick to things that are Iowa related. Past mazes have included the image of iconic Iowans such as native son John Wayne, and the ISU Cyclones and Iowa Hawkeyes mascots, as well as a reproduction of the American Gothic painting by Anamosa, Iowa–native Grant Wood. Each June, they begin marking the design into the 20-acre field, painting and flagging rows like boxes on grid paper, and then cut out the tunnels before the corn grows knee-high or develops the ability to cry. While this intricate, artistic design requires huge amounts of time and labor, less energy is spent carving out the separate haunted corn maze, where the fear-factor relies on simple twists and turns, instead of fancy effects or animatronics. "It's really not too hard," Debra says, "to scare people in a dark, dusty corn field."