Alice in Sunderland: The High-Tech Making of This Fall’s Mike’s Maze is a Family Affair

The Recorder, September 4th, 2015, by Tom Relihan

This fall, it won’t take a trip down any rabbit holes along the banks of the Connecticut River to experience Sunderland’s own version of Wonderland. At Warner’s Farm on South Main Street, this year’s design for Mike’s Maze features Alice herself, the Cheshire Cat and some very unhappy pink flamingos.

While answering a series of trivia questions correctly will see most visitors through the sprawling eight acres of cut maize with relative ease, planning and constructing the annual attraction takes much longer, according to those who are responsible for putting it all together.

Alice in Sunderland

This season is the first time that David and Jess Wissemann, owner Mike Wissemann’s son and daughter-in-law, have stepped up to take over the design and planning of the maze, since local artist Will Sillin, the original “maze master” and artistic mind behind each year’s new theme, has decided to hang up his weed whacker and retire from the corn maze industry.

“It’s an enormous amount of work,” said Jess Wissemann, who drew up this year’s “Alice in Sunderland” design based on Lewis Carroll’s famous books “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass.” She said the design itself is sourced partly from the original illustrations by John Tenniel and partly from the Disney adaptation.
Other features include a hand of playing cards and the Mad Hatter’s hat. The entire design is encompassed within a giant keyhole.

“We pride ourselves on the intricacy of our designs,” Wissemann said. Past mazes have depicted Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup can, the Mona Lisa, a portrait of Charles Darwin and a giant raven, among others. “Will always said it’s not as much a maze as it is corn art on Earth.”

When an aerial image of the maze was posted on Facebook, it became the number-one trending post on Reddit for several hours and was widely shared on Imgur. Yahoo News on Thursday named the maze the “Best Corn Maze in the U.S.”

Cutting the corn

So, what does it take to create Mike’s Maze?

The process begins not on the fields, but in the digital world of Adobe Illustrator, said Jess Wissemann. Sillin provided her with lessons on how to use the software before bowing out completely.

“You have to imagine drawing with a tractor,” said Wissemann of the design process. “There’s no ability to do really super fine detail, and that can be limiting.”

She said all of the paths need to be at least five feet wide to accommodate droves of maze-goers on the busiest of fall days, which further limits the level of detail that can be added to the layout.

Once the design is complete, the physical construction of the maze is left to Rob Stouffer of Precision Mazes, a Missouri-based corn maze cutting company that uses a customized Bobcat utility vehicle equipped with a flail mower and global satellite positioning system to cut corn within less than a foot of what the specifications call for.

Wissemann said the farm has been working with Stouffer for the past three seasons. The first maze for which he was hired — a depiction of Salvador Dali that has proven to be the farm’s most intricate design to date — took almost two full days to complete. The Alice in Wonderland maze took one full day, she said.
Wissemann said the Illustrator file is loaded into Stouffer’s system and the route necessary to produce the design is plotted out digitally. Then, Stouffer and his Bobcat disappear into the fields of 4-foot-high corn for the day.

“It saves us a lot of time,” Wissemann said. “Will used to cut the design out by hand based on the grid along the sides of the field. He came out one year after weed whacking our Noah Webster design totally covered in corn matter. I have so much more respect for him having to go out and cut that from the grid after going through the design process. It’s like he has a sixth sense for corn mazes.”

Mike Wissemann said he originally met Stouffer at a trade show, and it took a lot of faith for him to let go of his annual project’s construction and trust another to take it over.

As accurate as Stouffer’s work is, Jess Wissemann said, parts of Alice’s face, the Cat’s eyes and the rabbit still required some hand-plucking of stalks. The farm’s staff was guided in that process by a camera-equipped drone that fed real-time video to a field command center.

“Dave would be out in the field shaking the stalks until we found the right one, and I’d say ‘I think that’s the one to pull,’” she said. “Three stalks of corn could throw off (Alice’s) whole face.”

Sillin said he’s delighted to have the Wissemanns take over the maze, but lamented not having been the one to come up with the Wonderland theme.

“I wish I had thought of their idea, it might have kept me doing it for another year!” he joked. “I was very much blown away by it.”

Sillin said he decided to pass the reins to the younger generation because both designing and cutting the maze had become too much work for him as he tried to increase the intricacy of the design and keep it fresh for visitors each year. Though he used a GPS system similar to Stouffer’s to create the first maze in 2000, he found it unwieldy to maneuver and operate. From 2001 to 2012, Sillin used the common art technique of using a grid to scale a drawing up, except instead of transposing it to an 8-inch by 10-inch piece of paper, he had to replicate it over eight acres.

“We were pushing the envelope each year, and it got to the point where it was taking more than a month to lay it out and cut it. It kind of got crazy,” Sillin said.

Part of keeping that maze fresh is the different games that visitors can participate in each year.

Dave Wissemann said he used both of Carroll’s books and most of their numerous cinematic renditions to develop the trivia game that visitors can complete to help guide them through the maze. He’s also designed a scavenger hunt that involves finding various props related to the books for the maze’s younger visitors, such as the pink flamingo mallets used in the Queen of Hearts’ croquet match.

“The goal of the maze is that you’re trying to get to the Queen’s croquet match on time. We all know what the Queen does to people who are late,” Wissemann joked. “If you get the answers correct, you can navigate the maze more quickly. But there are many spots to waste time. You might encounter Tweedledee and Tweedledum, who will just ramble on.”

Mike’s Maze is located at 23 South Main St. and will be open Sept. 12 through Nov. 8. Admission is $12, with reduced rates for students, seniors and children. Children under 4 are free. Tickets can be purchased online or at the entrance to the maze.

The Haunted Corn Maze attraction will be back by popular demand, as will last year’s popular Zombie Night Patrol paintball attraction. New this year will be Dave’s Derby Pedal Cars. Admission is $12, with reduced rates for students, seniors and children. Children under 4 are free. Tickets can be purchased online or at the entrance to the maze.