Tricks and Treats for Kids in Northern California

October is here and even though I’m still not quite ready to say goodbye to summer, I have to admit a tinge of excitement because my family’s Halloween countdown has begun. You don’t have to be a kid to get into the spirit of Halloween in Northern California. All you have to do is enjoy a sense of mystery and know the way to San Jose.

Winchester Mystery House San Jose California

Winchester Mystery House by Harshlight on Flickr

Winchester Mystery House

About an hour south of San Francisco, the city of San Jose is home to the Winchester Mystery House. In 1884, Winchester rifle heiress, Sarah Winchester bought an unfinished farm house. With an income of $1000 a day her hobby it seems was living in a house under construction. Over the course of 38 years the farm house grew into a seven-story mansion with 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens.

But it’s not just the Winchester Mystery House’s size that intrigues visitors. Winchester had an perplexing sense of design; staircases lead to nowhere, doors open to solid walls, a window built into the floor, upside down posts, doors without doorknobs and closets with a mere inch of storage space.

Winchester had construction workers on the job 24 hours a day for 38 years.  Work stopped when she died September 5, 1922 leaving many rooms in the house unfinished. Think bare walls, missing plaster and exposed floor boards.

No one knows why she built the house the way she did. She bought the property after the deaths of her husband and infant daughter and legend has it she was convinced by a medium her family was being haunted by the spirits of others killed by Winchester rifles.

Convinced the deaths of her daughter and husband were caused by these spirits, Mrs. Winchester feared she was next. In order to save herself, her medium told her to move west and build a house for the spirits, and as long as construction never stopped, she would never die.

Who knows, maybe she thought a door that opened to a wall would confuse the spirits as well, and keep them away from her. It’s the type of story that screams telling, especially at Halloween.

Halloween Flashlight Tour Winchester Mystery House California

Touring the Winchester Mystery House by flashlight

Halloween Flashlight Tour

The House and Gardens are open all year long for tours. But if you can make the trip in October, book a “Halloween Flashlight Tour.” This is not a haunted house. By the light of the moon and your souvenir flashlight, you’ll tour the mysterious mansion. Your guide will share stories of ghost sightings and strange phenomena reported over the years. Is it a little creepy? Sure. But no one is going to jump out at you and scream “boo!”

I’d say kids age 8 and up will enjoy the adventure and playing with the flashlights in the dark. The tour lasts about an hour and 15 minutes. By the time you’re finished you’ll walk more than a mile so make sure everyone is wearing good shoes and has a sweatshirt.

Curse of Sarah Winchester Maze

Haunted house lovers, this is for you. The Curse of Sarah Winchester Maze takes about 20 terrifying minutes to fearfully make your way through, which I’m told makes it one of the longest haunted attractions on the West Coast.

With 60 roaming scare performers, a fog machine and a hallway with flexible moving walls that try to make you a thinner person, this is not for the faint at heart.  It’s recommended for kids 13 and up, but know your kids.

My 13 year-old wouldn’t even consider it, and I wasn’t about to try and convince her. My 10 year-old begged to go. After a fair amount of discussion, I gave in. She made it halfway through and decided she’d seen enough. She didn’t freak out, just decided being scared wasn’t as much fun as she thought it would be.

The Maze and the Flashlight Tour are two separate events, so families with kids a variety of ages can easily divide and conquer. There’s an indoor snack bar and huge gift shop where fraidy cats can wait in brightly lit peace.

Think of happy thoughts before you head to bed and get a good night’s sleep. My family spent the night at the Fairmont, located in downtown San Jose. The hotel’s central location is within walking distance of some many of San Jose family-friendly favorites like the Children’s Discovery Museum and The Tech Museum. (Both museums are gems. Full posts coming soon.)

Snoopy Halloween Party at Great America California

Snoopy’s Costume Party at California’s Great America

Trick or Treat Practice

In keeping with our Halloween theme, the next day we headed to California’s Great America for Snoopy’s Costume Party. Open weekends through October, kids 12 and under are encouraged to come to the park in costume and trick-or-treat with Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.  About a half-dozen trick-or-treat stations are set up in the Planet Snoopy section of the park. The stations are close together and in an area with a number of mellow amusement rides for the younger set. Pumpkins and fun Peanuts Halloween decorations are at every turn so bring your cameras, photo opportunities abound.  Families with kids a variety of ages need not worry. My 13 year-old was more than welcome with her younger sister and the lure of candy made her more than happy to take part.

With school back in full swing and popular weekend commitments like soccer games and football games dominating many family calendars, a trip to an amusement park might not be at the top of the list, but I think now is actually the perfect time to go. Lines were short and we moved from one ride to the next with little delay, that is until my girls saw what I will fondly call a bubble party. If  it has a name, we couldn’t find it on a sign or the park map.  We had seen clumps of bubbles blowing through the park all afternoon but had no idea where the sparkly clusters were coming from until we wandered into the party area in the All American Corners section of the park.

A simple but brilliant idea. Two squares formed with hay bales. One for younger kids and one for the tween and teen group. Inside each square were bubble machines working overtime. But these weren’t the type of bubble that went airborne right away. They were heavy and tended to stick around until a good wind came through. The result, bubbles, bubbles everywhere. At its deepest point, my girls had bubbles up to their waist, in their hair, just everywhere.

It’s like a giant bubble bath, just not quite as wet. I was smart enough to have my girls shed some extra layers before they went in, which assured dry clothes to put on when they came out. They went in but never came out, until the bubble machines were turned off at 5:30pm when the park closed for the day. But not for the night…

Halloween Great America San Jose

Up close with a creepy clown

Halloween Haunt

California’s Great America Halloween Haunt is held during select nights in October. Your day ticket to the park won’t get you through the gates. It’s a special ticketed event and requires a separate ticket for admission. This is not for the faint of heart. There’s no age requirement, but the park is very upfront with prospective ticket buyers, warning folks they don’t recommend the event for kids under the age of 13. Parental discretion is key. Though the majority of the crowd was teens and up, I saw babes-in-arms and strollers rolling through the park.

“Here they scare you if you want it or not,” said Michaela a mother from Concord, California. The Halloween Haunt is a yearly tradition in her family. She started bringing her daughter when she was in second grade, but she’s quick to admit her daughter, now 11, has never been the type afraid of  “blood and guts.”

Halloween Haunt is an in-your-face type of event. Creepy clowns and an assortment of gory monsters wander the park freely, on the lookout for victims to scare. They can jump out at you at any time, and if you run, chances are they will chase you. There are haunted mazes and special shows in addition to the park’s collection of rides.

“Boofet Dinner”

The Great America closes from 5:30p until 7pm to make the switch from happy amusement park to haunting hallows. Most folks don’t stay for both, they pick one or the other. But like many families, I have a kid that fits into both age groups, so I wanted to check out both sessions. Instead of leaving the park and coming back, we had dinner at the Pre-Scare “Boofet” Dinner. Just about when my kids had finished dessert, a cast of ghostly ghouls came visiting. They had fun scaring adults and kids alike as they made their way through the dining area, then lead us into the park a few minutes before the official opening time, a big perk for the hardcore amusement park type. It wasn’t a great amount of time, but it meant my family was first in line to jump on a favorite roller coaster.

My girls didn’t think much of the assorted monsters roaming the park. There were actually a good amount of laughs and smiles, especially when I was the one who got spooked and nearly spilled a drink all over myself. But then the sun went down. Once the park was dark, the mood definitely changed for the scarier. And I noticed the more tired my kids became, the more worried they became about being scared.

Crowds were light so we easily hit the favorite rides, but at 10 and 13, neither of my girls were interested in the haunted mazes or scary shows. When we made our way back to the infamous bubble party and saw it was still closed, both kids agreed they were ready to call it a night and asked if there was a way to avoid being scared on the way out.

2011 Halloween Party Great America California

No Wimps Allowed

Bottom line, know your kids and their limits. If your family falls into both categories, I’d err on the side of caution and roam the park during daylight hours. You’ll have more energy and the benefit of bubbles. Both events offer great fun that will surely get you in the holiday mood. Whether it’s happy or haunting is up to you. Either will be sweet.

Dana Rebmann and her family received complimentary lodging and activities in San Jose courtesy of TeamSanJose. She was not asked to express any particular opinion or point of view. Photo Credit all but Winchester Mystery House main photo is Dana Rebmann.

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