Thousands Attend First Weekend Of Ocean City’s Modified Winterfest; Pandemic Restrictions Result In Walk-Through Event

Thousands Attend First Weekend Of Ocean City’s Modified Winterfest; Pandemic Restrictions Result In Walk-Through Event
Winterfest of Lights opened last Thursday night to warm temperatures and solid crowds of pedestrians. Photo by Matt James

OCEAN CITY — Blessed by unseasonably balmy weather, the first weekend of the walk-through Winterfest of Lights was an unqualified success with thousands enjoying the modified event.

The 47th Annual Winterfest of Lights opened last Thursday with a virtual opening ceremony and tree-lighting. On a typical Thursday before Thanksgiving, thousands would cram into host Northside Park to watch the opening ceremonies, specifically the OC Stars youth singing group from Ocean City Elementary School, but, of course, this year has been far from typical.

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.

This year, however, because of COVID-19, like so many of the town’s other special events, Winterfest of Lights has been dramatically altered, although the experience thus far has proven to be equally rewarding for many. There is still the massive Christmas tree with its synchronized lights and music and hundreds of large light displays situated around a roughly half-mile loop around the lagoon.

This year, however, visitors are enjoying Winterfest of Lights as a walk-through experience. Earlier this fall, there were discussions about moving forward with Winterfest in its traditional format with the trams while practicing social distancing and following other health department directives.

There was even a brief discussion about creating a drive-through Winterfest of Lights experience, although that idea got little traction. There also was discussion about simply cancelling the event this year. However, Special Events Director Frank Miller and his staff came up with the idea of the modified pedestrian event, which opened last Thursday.

Just four days into the 2020 event, the modified Winterfest of Lights is a critical success with positive feedback coming from all corners. Miller said the first weekend drew 6,635 visitors, a little less than half of which were on Saturday. With unseasonably warm temperatures last weekend, thousands of visitors got out and enjoyed the modified event.

“It was a good start to the event,” said Miller. “Guests seem to enjoy the more intimate walk-through of holiday lights and the ability to do so at a leisurely pace. We’ve had many positive comments on the heavily modified experience. Needless to say, the weather has been a positive factor.”

Miller said his department has received numerous calls and emails about the modified Winterfest of Lights, all of them positive. He shared one particular email from a local resident that appears to sum up the sentiments about the walk-through Winterfest.

“I wish to extend my thanks to you, your department and all that worked so hard in making the 47th Winterfest of Lights possible,” the resident wrote. “Although I miss the full complement of lights from years past, you and all of those under your direction did an outstanding job of continuing a cherished holiday tradition.”

The emailer said she and other members of a local camera club enjoyed the opportunity to walk through the light displays, which afforded them different perspectives than those from a moving tram. She also said it was a pleasure to see young families walking through the numerous displays out in the fresh air.

“I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to walk the park,” she wrote. “Moving at my own pace definitely allowed me to enjoy the experience longer. It was so relaxing to see so many people strolling the park with their dogs, pushing strollers or hand-in-hand with little ones.”

Winterfest guests can experience the magic of the holiday season close-up this year. The walking tour contains several surprises along the way. With proper distancing practices in place, visitors still have an opportunity for photos with Santa and his sleigh in the Winterfest gift shop, which has been moved inside the Northside Park facilities this year instead of the traditional tents outside.

Visitors are urged to dress appropriately for the weather with this walk-through event and masks are required when social distancing can’t be accomplished. Health checks are required when entering the Northside Park facility gift shop and Santa photo areas. In another departure from the norm, the opening ceremony and tree-lighting last Thursday was done virtually and aired live on Facebook.

The hours of operation were also reduced this year. Winterfest is open on Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Admission is $5 for those 12 and over, and free for those 11 and younger. Tickets can be purchased on-site or online.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.