GTPulse: Traverse City Neighborhood Builds Pirates Of The Caribbean Style Haunted Ship

Eight years ago Brittany and Tim Merenda moved to Traverse City where they had an unexpectedly busy Halloween their first holiday season living on Union Street. The steady stream of trick or treaters surprised and inspired the couple for future Halloween festivities to come. The couple wanted to go bigger and bolder, especially with Brittany’s professional background in theatre as a projection designer. They wanted to create the kind of display that the kids would remember and look forward to every year, and they have more than succeeded. Although they don’t live on Union Street anymore, they’re keeping their love for Halloween alive on Parker Place, and it’s become a yearly tradition that the neighborhood kids help create. This crafty crew knows what they’re doing, this year’s Pirates of the Caribbean display features a fully explorable 40-foot haunted ship.

Every year Tim and Brittany transform their yard into a spookily themed fantasy land and this year is no different. On Friday the couple and a team of skilled neighborhood kids completed a lifesize, ghost steered ship of Halloween dreams. Equipped with lights, music, a smoke machine, and a 27-foot tall mast, it goes beyond the realm of Halloween decorations and into something closer to theatrical set design. The ship is a stunning decoration but is also a haunted house as well, with an entrance that leads you through a neon underworld filled with skeletal pirates, deadly (plastic) weapons, and even an organ that was used last year.

“We started doing themes four years ago. Last year was Phantom Of The Opera, the year before that was Game Of Thrones, and then this year is Pirates.”

When Ryan Donnell and his brother moved into the neighborhood, the Halloween display quickly became a collaborative effort between the Merendas and the kids living in the neighborhood.

“We don’t have kids of our own so it’s all of our friends’ kids and our neighborhood kids. I feel like most of what we want to do is dictated by what the kids want to do,” Brittany said. “He keeps me accountable,” she said grinning at Ryan. “He keeps us on a time schedule, and it actually helps a lot.”

The crew gets to work together every late September to get to work on the display. From there, it’s a daily commitment.

“We work pretty regularly every day,” Brittany said.

“And all day on the weekends,” Ryan added.

Tim, who is a full-time pilot, takes the month of October off every year to work on the display

The band of kids helping construct the display range from elementary-aged to high schoolers, and take on tasks in accordance with that. It’s a project that teaches them creativity, patience, follow-through, and handy skills. Creativity with textiles comes in the form of using secondhand clothes to costume the skeletons and using tea to dye the mast for a weathered and aged finish. They get a lesson in safety with tools too.

“We’re trying to be as safe as we can here. My one rule is that no one’s allowed to die. These kids are using power tools. They’re cutting everything, hammering it, drilling it, they’re constructing it. Those platforms and the legs, they did all of it.”

Two months of putting together a fantastical display wouldn’t be possible without all of the themed decorations and the decor shopping starts the day after Halloween. With next year’s theme already picked out, the crew hits the Halloween stores.

“November 1st is our Black Friday, essentially,” Brittany said. “We’ve driven to Grand Rapids, we’ve gone to Detroit, and we go to all the Halloween stores and just, as Ryan puts it,” she motioned towards him.

“Put the arm out and walk down the aisle,” he laughed crooking his arm into a half-circle.

Although they stock up for next year’s display a year beforehand, the theme and design is planned much earlier.

“We have a plan usually two to three years in advance, so we know what we’re looking for, but we don’t tell people what we’re going to do because it’s subject to change,” Tim said.

And for an element of surprise, naturally. Ryan has a surprise of his own. In two years’ time, he’ll be a senior at St. Francis and in his last year of high school, he’ll pick the theme for the year.

“I’ve been talking about this theme since the first Halloween,” he said.

But for now, he and the rest of the neighborhood are happy to enjoy the spooky ship and happy community they’ve built. They’ll leave the massive marvel up for the rest of this week before joining forces again to take it all down and start dreaming of next year’s theme.

“The wood exterior is built out of foam, the kids wood-grained all of it. We used it because it’s lightweight and the kids could cut it, score it, paint it, it’s not heavy,” Brittany said. “So if you walk around the ship, you’ll see everyone who worked on the ship carved their name somewhere on it. It’s been a lot of fun for us.”


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Categories: GTPulse