OCEAN CITY — After starting in a deep hole from the start, Ocean City’s Winterfest of Lights finished with a solid year in 2018 despite battling weather issues.
Ocean City Winterfest of Lights wrapped up its 26th year on New Year’s Eve with a fireworks display and other special events culminating in another highly successful season for the centerpiece of the resort’s holiday experience. Despite a total washout on opening night, followed by rough weather on other key dates, the total attendance for Winterfest of Lights in 2018 came in at 104,114, or just about average in recent years.
The record was set in 2015 when near-perfect weather for the duration of the event resulted in nearly 127,000 visitors going through the attraction. In 2016, 111,052 went through the gates, followed by 106,067 last year. The 104,114 tallied during the 2018 event fell a little short of those recent numbers. Ocean City Special Events Director Frank Miller said this week attendees came anyway despite the frequent weather challenges.
“I am always amazed at the resilience of our guests,” he said. “For the most part, they still found a way to make it to Winterfest. This really speaks to the family tradition aspect of the event- that drive to bring the family for a familiar and friendly experience, entrusting the town’s special events department to create new family memories and taking in the holiday spirit we try to create visually and audibly.”
Winterfest started behind the eight ball right from jump this year with Nor’easter conditions on opening night in mid-November virtually cancelling the event. Some of the pre-event festivities were moved inside at Northside Park, but the tram rides through the displays were shut down. On that day alone, Winterfest of Lights 2018 found its numbers down already by 3,143 from the prior year.
“Weather was a major influencing variable this year, not only with rain on key attendance days, but also with temperature,” said Miller. “We were behind pace from the start by closing Winterfest on what was to be its opening night for the first time in history.”
Miller said sustained winds were so strong on opening night, closing the outdoor festivities was the only option. A similar situation played out two weeks later when heavy rains on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which is typically one of the busiest nights of the season for the event, severely curtailed ridership. That Saturday night saw ridership drop by 6,407, representing a decrease of 78 percent over the prior year.
It was a trend repeated on several of the Saturdays during Winterfest this year. For example, rain on Saturday, Dec. 1 dropped attendance by 3,070 under the prior year, and rain and wind on Dec. 15 dropped ridership by 3,295.
A chart provided by Miller shows there were plenty of dates during which the 2018 event made gains over the prior year, but the losses on opening night and some of those key Saturdays made it difficult to reach the lofty record set in 2015. Even New Year’s Eve this week was down from the prior year because of weather challenges. The attendance last Saturday and Sunday was similar to the 2015 record year, but tram ridership on a rainy New Year’s Eve was down about 50 percent. There was strong attendance for the New Year’s Even fireworks, but Miller said that number is tallied separately because many attendees don’t ride the trams.
“Overall, it was a good year for Winterfest after a lot of nail-biting,” he said. “This was also the last year for the current Boardwalk trams. Next year, we should have the new Boardwalk trams pulled by jeeps with new audio systems designed to provide a better musical experience as well. We are always looking for opportunities to improve our guests’ experiences outside and inside the Winterfest Pavilion.”