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Enjoy the world of Lathrop’s 54-year-old kid

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POSTED September 30, 2010 2:42 a.m.
It was a smile as big as you’d ever see on a kid’s face.

Ron Dell’Osso a few years back was sharing how he was experimenting with a prototype for the pumpkin blasters that after 13 years are arguably the hottest attraction at the Pumpkin Maze at Dell’Osso Farms in Lathrop.

He was standing near the brick silos on the family farm just off Manthey Road. Ron and friends were testing various “ammo” in the blaster including a box of oranges they had bought at the Modesto Costco.

Suddenly, Ron’s eyes lit up as he started describing how the oranges - the perfect fruit for the blaster given their size and density - were able to soar close to a quarter of a mile. Then, with the sheepish grin of a 10-year-old boy, he told how they locked the sights on a passing semi-truck on nearby Interstate 5 and fired a round. The orange splattered against the tractor trailer as it headed toward the Interstate 205 exit.

You won’t see the pumpkin blasters anywhere else but in Lathrop. They cost Dell’Osso $10,000 apiece to fabricate after a number of miscues including trying to launch a mini-pumpkin through a PVC pipe contraption that literally blew apart under the pressure.

The bazooka-style launchers are so intriguing that during an Armed Forces competition one year Marines and Army soldiers marveled at how they were much like the real thing. If one of those flying mini-pumpkins hit you it could also be fatal given the 100 mph plus velocity and how they ding the heck out of cars and other metal targets that are down range at the pumpkin blasters shooting range.

The Pumpkin Maze by any standard is a runaway success. It attracted 140,000 people last year, the most of any agricultural tourist attraction in California. It also ranked third nationally among corn mazes in terms of paid attendance.

The Pumpkin Maze opens Saturday for the entire month of October with hours from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. when the gates close. The attractions stay open until the last person is out.

The Pumpkin Maze is a testimonial to the savvy of farmers and a kid’s imagination. Ron, who just turned 54, didn’t have video games and such growing up in the early 1960s. He just had his imagination.

Ron and his friends played war around the brick silos after watching classic World War II movies using dirt clods and walnuts for ammo. He remembered asking his mom for a BB-gun out of a Sears catalogue for Christmas when he was 12. His mom thought it was too dangerous.

Not being able to play with a “real” gun as a kid is what prompted Ron one Christmas a few years back to come up with the idea of creating the pumpkin blasters. There are probably tens of thousands of people who have enjoyed shooting off mini-pumpkins using the blasters who are more than glad that Ron’s mom nixed the BB gun. If she hadn’t, Ron may not have had a desire to fulfill one of his childhood dreams by creating the pumpkin blasters.

You’ll find that a lot of the simple “farm boy life” of using imagination to have fun reflected in the attractions at Dell’Osso Farms. (More details are at www.pumpkinmaze.com). The zip lines were inspired by Ron playing Tarzan with ropes from tree limbs along the San Joaquin River. The ropes course that puts guests 40 feet above the ground was the outgrowth of balancing on the beams in the barn as a kid.

The Dell’Osso Express train ride - a mile oval complete with station and tunnel - is an outgrowth of his cherished Lionel train set that he owned as a kid.

It is the simple low-tech fun that makes Dell’Osso’s Pumpkin Maze - and its holiday cousin Christmas on the Farm complete with hill for sliding down manmade snow and ice skating rink - so appealing.

High-tech gadgets may have a shelf life of months - if that - but good old-fashioned fun never goes out of style.
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