OCEAN CITY — There will likely be a Winterfest of Lights this year, but the event could look significantly different.
During a Recreation and Parks Committee meeting last week, Special Events Director Frank Miller presented a conceptual plan to retain the town’s popular Winterfest of Lights, although the plan represents a significant departure from the holiday tradition. Because of the ongoing pandemic, most of Ocean City’s major special events have been cancelled or significantly altered this year and Winterfest of Lights will be no exception.
The annual holiday event, which runs roughly from the week before Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, typically attracts over 100,000 visitors who ride the Boardwalk tram through massive light displays arrayed throughout the vast Northside Park complex. The event includes heated tents complete with Santa, his workshop, a gift store and hot chocolate and other vendors.
However, Miller is recommending for this year a significantly scaled back walk-through Winterfest of Lights because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns. Miller said his proposed Winterfest of Lights for 2020 came after conversations with the Worcester County Health Department over some of the event’s typical signature elements.
“In our conversations with the health department, their two big red flags were the tents and the trams,” he said. “Social distancing for all of the people coming into the tent isn’t possible. It also becomes no longer viable to use the tram because of the spacing. We could only have one family per row, or one group by car.”
Instead, Miller is recommending a walk-through event this year. There would still be the massive Christmas tree and hundreds of the large light displays situated around the roughly half-mile walking trail around the lagoon area in the park. Visitors would walk through Winterfest of Lights at their leisure with no time constraints and visit the traditional amenities.
Those amenities include a visit with Santa and a gift shop and photo opportunities along with hot chocolate and other vendors. However, those amenities would be situated within the Northside Park complex building with social distancing, the wearing of masks and other COVID-related directives observed.
“The best opportunity is a walking event,” he said. “It would be a relatively tight course. Around 27 of the larger displays would be eliminated, but there would be a lot of new experiences. People could really stop and look at the displays and not just drive past them. They could re-enter and walk through again. There wouldn’t be a time limit on it.”
Cancelling Winterfest altogether remains an option, scaling it back to Miller’s recommended event would salvage some revenue while continuing a decades-old holiday tradition in Ocean City. A traditional Winterfest of Lights would draw an estimated 104,000 visitors and would cost the town an estimated $380,000 to produce, but would bring in an estimated $560,000 in revenue for a net gain of $180,000.
The scaled-back, walk-through event pitched by Miller last week would be held from Wednesday to Sunday only, eliminating the traditional seven-day format, and the hours would be reduced to 5;30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Miller estimates, weather permitting of course, the scaled-back event would draw an estimated 69,000 visitors.
The cost of producing the scaled-back version of Winterfest of Lights would come in at around $250,000, while the anticipated revenue would be $330,000, for a net gain of $100,000 after certain fixed costs were considered. Miller explained there would be some labor costs reduced by not setting up the displays in the traditional event, but some of those man-hours would be absorbed by staff lighting the trees around the proposed lagoon walking path and other amenities. There would also some savings in fuel costs associated with running the trams on a continual loop through the park.
Councilman and committee member Mark Paddack suggested another alternative for the 2020 Winterfest of Lights event.
“If we got rid of the tents and got rid of the tram, we could allow people to drive through the park,” he said. “It’s doable. They would have to drive slow and stay on the path and there would only be one way in and one way out.”
However, Miller said that concept had been dismissed because of safety concerns.
“Inside the park, we have very narrow paths,” he said. “When you go around the lagoon area, there would be huge liability issues with the very tight turns. There is a potential for them not paying attention and looking at the displays and driving into the lagoon, or driving into the vehicle in front of them. It’s just a huge liability.”
For those reasons, Miller said the drive-through alternative was not being considered.
“It just doesn’t seem like a safe option,” he said. “We would end up with more potential problems than a positive experience. It would not be conducive to a great experience.”
Nonetheless, Miller promised to deliver a Winterfest of Lights that met the public safety guidelines while still maintaining many of the holiday traditions.
“We would still have all of the traditional favorites,” he said. “There would still be Santa and the gift shop and hot chocolate and all of the traditional elements people of come to expect.”