OCEAN CITY — Based on the final estimates, the modified walk-through Winterfest of Lights this year was a clear success story amid so many other COVID-related shortcomings and the changes could become part of future for the special event.
Winterfest of Lights opened the Thursday before Thanksgiving and ran through New Year’s Day at Northside Park, just as it has done for 47 years. However, because of ongoing COVID concerns, the event, which was almost scrapped at one point, was modified to a half-mile walk-through tour.
The annual holiday event typically attracts over 100,000 visitors who ride the Boardwalk tram through massive light displays arrayed throughout the Northside Park complex. This year, however, visitors enjoyed Winterfest of Lights as a walk-through experience that proved to be equally rewarding. There was still the massive Christmas tree with its synchronized lights and music.
There were still opportunities to visit with Santa and enjoy a hot chocolate and the gift shop. However, the big change was residents and visitors enjoyed the light displays and other amenities on foot along a half-mile walking path around the lagoon. When the books were closed on 2020, Special Events Director Frank Miller, who conceived the modified event along with his staff, said this week Winterfest of Lights was a qualified success in terms of visitor approval, overall attendance numbers and financially.
“The change-over from the standard event to a half-mile walking path was met with some skepticism, but approved by the council,” he said. “We have heard an overwhelming response from the attending public that the walking path is preferred to the tram experience, keeping in mind that the voice does not cover all attendees including the 15% that did not show this year for various reasons.”
Online ticket sales outpaced advanced ticket sales from 2019 by a whopping 85%. Online general admission sales versus children’s ticket sales appear to indicate 22% of the attendees this year were kids under 12, although Miller said that estimate could be low as the on-site gate admission process did not have a tracking method for children.
As expected, Winterfest fell a little short of what it would normally draw in a typical year, but 2020 was far from typical. The overall attendance was over 74,000, which was down about 26% from last year, but that was expected.
The event this year was held on fewer days with shorter hours in the midst of a revived pandemic. In addition, there were some lost days due to weather and New Year’s Eve was greatly modified with a 9:30 p.m. stop time even through the fireworks show still went off. On the financial side, Winterfest 2020 exceeded expectations, according to Miller.
“The very positive news for 2020 is spending versus my presentation estimate,” he said. “The estimate was based on an average spending of $5.40 per person, with a 20% reduction for weather issues, which yielded an estimate of $328,652 in total revenue,” he said. “For 2020, if all calculations are correct, we ended at $434,286. This is $126,000 under the town’s budget, not including the Coca-Cola sponsorship.”
Miller said the modified event could end up in the positive in terms of the event budget, or at least much closer to the roughly $89,000 net change when he first presented the walk-through Winterfest. What does it all mean for next year?
“Next year will reflect modifications addressing the experience aspect of the event,” he said. “A walking component and a revamped tram ride will both be considered. It is amazing when you think about all of the adversity the COVID issues of 2020 generated related to what was normal, and it is still possible to find new opportunity that can be embraced by our guests and residents.”
Whether Winterfest in future years returns to the tram-ride format, the walk-through event enjoyed by so many this year, or a hybrid of the two remains to be seen. Whatever future format emerges, Miller said the goal will always be the same.
“Winterfest is all about cultivating the feelings associated with the holiday good will and creating a family-friendly memorable experience that can become an annual family tradition,” he said. “A refreshed experience moving forward will be key for our guests. At this point, everyone will need to wait and see what we present to the council as many departments will need to vet future modifications.”
During Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting, Councilman Frank Knight had high praise for the 2020 event and expressed a desire for continuing at least part of the walk-through element.
“I want to give a big shout-out to Frank Miller and Special Events for what they did with Winterfest this year,” he said. “My wife and I had the most fantastic experience we’ve ever had with the walk-through event. I’m hoping in the future there will always be a walk-through. It was just a fantastic experience. Even if we have the trams, there should be a walk-through event.”