“If you’ve never been to the West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta, odds are you’ve never seen anyone sit inside a giant pumpkin, let alone race one across a lake dressed as a superhero or the tooth fairy.”
That’s how the City of Tualatin, Oregon describes the West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta. The statement captures the playful, quirky nature of the event — as well as the city’s commitment to the spirit of the season.
For the main event, participants decked in colorful costumes ranging from fireman to chef to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle climb into giant hollowed out pumpkins and paddle across the Tualatin Commons. They’re cheered on by over 15,000 people; international visitors, neighbors from the Pacific Northwest and residents from Tualatin and the surrounding area. This year’s crowd is expected hit 17,000 people.
“Racing giant pumpkin vessels at the Lake of the Commons is a Tualatin original which brings great fun and builds community like no other event in America.” -Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden
The Pumpkin Regatta is admission free. Its goal is to make it accessible to all members of the community. Drawing on a strong sense of civic pride, the city recruits over 100 volunteers and relies on the support of local business sponsors — along with in-kind donations of food and equipment from the community.
What’s made the event such a success? The city recommends finding a theme that is unique to the area, and staying true to the original vision. For the city of Tualatin, it was all about engaging and celebrating their vibrant community, and making sure the event had a home-grown, community-oriented feel. Working with local service organizations, churches and schools helped them accomplish this goal and remain focused even as the event grew exponentially.
“The Pumpkin Regatta does so much to create that community fabric that we’re all working toward; this wacky, zany event draws the community together, and gives us identity and pride.”-Tualatin City Manager Sherilyn Lombos
The races themselves serve as opportunities for the community to engage with and celebrate local institutions. The first race is reserved for the pumpkin growers themselves, followed by the event sponsors. The third heat helps raise money for the Tualatin Police Foundation, with members of the Tualatin Police Department racing against members of the Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue to collect rubber ducks floating on the lake. The final heat is open to the public—anyone can apply to jump in through a lottery system.
For those who aren’t inclined to brave the chilly waters of the Tualatin Commons, the Pumpkin Regatta still has something to offer. Activities include a giant pumpkin weigh-off (last year’s winner stole the competition with a whipping 1,678.5 lbs), a pie eating contest, a costume contest, pumpkin golf, pumpkin bowling, clowns and llamas—for a general feel that’s fun, festive and family-oriented.
The colorful event has been featured in national magazines, on CNN, The Travel Channel and other platforms. And while this year’s crowd is expected to top the charts, the Pumpkin Regatta had humble beginnings.
In 2004, the Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers, an association of gardeners, came to the City of Tualatin with an idea and a proposal. They’d heard about the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta in Nova Scotia and wanted to see if they could replicate the idea right there in Tualatin, Oregon.
That first year, just a handful of pumpkins were paddled across the Commons with a few dozen onlookers. By 2007, 2,000 people came out to cheer on the racers. And today, the event has gained an international reputation that consistently draws over 15,000 people.
So, if you’ve never been to the West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta, odds are you’ve never seen anyone sit inside a giant pumpkin. But in Tualatin, this odd ritual has become fall tradition that can’t be missed.
Meri St. Jean is an associate for marketing, communications & technology at the National League of Cities.