OCEAN CITY — As revenue goes down, oftentimes the price must come up, and that could be the case for admission to the Winterfest of Lights next year.
One pre-holiday snowstorm may have kept the Winterfest of Lights from meeting last year’s numbers, but on Tuesday, the Recreation and Parks Committee heard a proposal that called for a one dollar raise for access to the entire Winterfest experience: the tent, hot cocoa, Santa Claus and a ride through hundreds of thousands twinkling lights on the tram.
Recreation and Parks Director Tom Shuster told the commission in his final Winterfest report that revenue, total riders and average daily riders at the Winterfest of Lights all declined this year, and pointed to lackluster weather and most notably, the Dec. 19 snowstorm that forced the uptown holiday attraction to shut down.
“That Saturday, we usually bring in anywhere from $12,000-$20,000 in revenue, and because of the storm, we lost a critical night of business,” said Shuster, “and as any retailer will tell you, you never get those days back. I think we would’ve been on track to meet last year’s numbers, but that’s not how it ended up.”
Total revenue for the 45-day Winterfest of Lights was a little more than $330,000 compared to $339,000 last year. In addition, almost 6,200 fewer people rode the tram this year, which equated to 266 fewer riders daily.
Another intangible in the drop in Winterfest revenue this year was credited to zero donations collected from the Inlet Parking Lot, which the Mayor and City Council elected not to light up this year as part of cost cutting measures, as well as no donations from the Winterfest Gala Committee, which has provided donations in the past.
As a result, Special Events Coordinator John Sullivan pitched the idea to charge $5 for riders 10 years old and older next year.
“A family of four with two adults and two kids under 10 would pay $10, while a family of four with two adults and two kids over 10 would pay $20,” said Sullivan. “For a family of four to attend a movie in Ocean City, without buying popcorn or drinks, the cost is $28 and to play a round of miniature golf is approximately $32 for that same family of four.”
The council members on the committee were not entirely sold on the idea, however, calling for further study to be done before any decision is made on the matter.
“I don’t agree with this at all,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic. “The one thing I heard last year was that it was too expensive and we lowered the age for kids to get in free last year. If you take your kids to a movie, it’s at least an hour and a half, whereas the tram ride through Winterfest is, what, 12 minutes?”
City Manager Dennis Dare noted that the city pays between $70,000 and $80,000 every 4th of July weekend for a fireworks display that lasts less than 20 minutes, and argued that the extra dollar for admission might be necessary for the town to continue to provide the same quality experience for visitors to Winterfest.
“Given the budget that we are going to be facing, it’s going to be hard to justify a program that isn’t making any money, even if it is Winterfest,” said Dare.
Sullivan said that on average, the $1 rise in admission fees for visitors 10 and over would generate $65,000 in added revenue for the town-funded event.
“I had a gentleman come up to me during this past Winterfest and thanked us for providing something so positive for his family to enjoy for less than $20,” said Sullivan. “If you look at Disney World or any airline, they are charging admission for anyone over the age of two.”
Mitrecic and Councilman Lloyd Martin both worried aloud that raising the price of admission would be another talking point for people who believe the town is pricing itself out.
”We need to go back and look at some other options before I would agree to recommend anything to the full council,” said Mitrecic.