EAST MANATEE -- The Hunsader Farms Pumpkin Festival started as a hobby 21 years ago. Today, it is a tradition for the family's three generations, Manatee County and beyond.
The three-weekend event -- complete with a hayride, corn maze, pumpkin patch and games -- kicked off Saturday, reminding attendees that fall has arrived.
"It's not what it used to be," said Trish Hunsader, co-coordinator. "But the flavor of the event hasn't changed. It's still folksy, wholesome, family fun."
Hunsader said people returning after 10 years are shocked by the growth of the festival that includes entertainment, fair food, arts and crafts booths, and demonstrations of pioneer living.
The Hunsader family begins planning the festival in March, preparing the grounds a month before thousands descend on the East Manatee farm. It has become a well-organized event, with vehicles efficiently parked and show times strategically planned so families can enjoy the many offerings.
Each year, the family tries to add a new attraction. The most recent addition is a giant pumpkin tent, featuring the Sweeney Family Band, Top Bird Act, as seen on "America's Got Talent," and Farm-ly Feud.
"It's stressful and rewarding all wrapped up together," Hunsader said, adding that it is a great time for their family to work together and meet so many people, including a family from Georgia who attends every year.
Becky Newton drove from Cape Coral with her mother, brother and their combined five kids.
"We heard about it last year and loved it so much we wanted to make it a tradition," Newton said.
To get into the spirit of fall and make their children easy to spot in the crowd, the family made their own orange jack-o-lantern tie-dyed shirts. The kids' favorite parts of the festival are the corn maze, free circus and petting zoo, she said.
Mary Beth and Glenn Watson traveled south from Seminole with their 7-year-old twins, William and Andrew, who enjoyed pumpkin basketball, a bounce house and game prizes.
"We love fall and it's something with pumpkins to get us in the mood," Mary Beth Watson said.
The abundance of hay, pumpkins and gourds set the appearance of the autumn season, but attendees had to cool off from the heat with ice cream and other frozen treats. For those with a heartier appetite, turkey legs, pulled pork sandwiches, seafood platters and fried versions of many traditional favorites are available.
Dressed as Spider-Man and a Navy SEAL, Tyler Seabury,7, and brother Payton, 5,braved the heat in their Halloween costumes.
"We spend a lot of money on costumes and this is just another place to wear them," said their mother, Brittney.
The brothers from Ruskin attended the festival last year, but Saturday was the first time for Brittney and Ben Seabury.
Parker Irvin, 9, from Sarasota was also a first-timer, accompanied by his cousin, Sophie Bostick, 8, from Clearwater.
Dave Bostick said he and his wife, Julie, who live in Clearwater, decided to make the festival an annual outing after attending the "family-oriented" event last year.
"There's just so many different things to do -- so much variety," Julie said, adding that the children "thought it was cool that they were helping kids by playing games."
Proceeds from carnival games will benefit a variety of local nonprofit organizations.
The festival continues from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Oct. 20-21, and 27-28 at Hunsader Farms, 5500 County Road 675.
Parking is $5. Admission is $8. Children 12 and younger get in a free. A map of attractions and list of featured acts and show times are available at the entrance.
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.