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Winterfest of Lights brings Christmas to resort

Colorful Christmas displays light up Northside Park in Ocean City during the Winterfest of Lights celebration, last year. The annual event reopens today, Nov. 15.

By Morgan Pilz, Staff Writer

(Nov. 15, 2018) Colorful lights, hot chocolate, a festive market and Santa Claus return to Northside Park on 125th Street for the 26th annual Winterfest of Lights, which kicks off today, Nov. 15.

“We wanted to create an event that people could come to, and they can have that holiday cheer, that wonderful feeling of warmth and giving that goes along with the holiday,” Ocean City Special Events Director Frank Miller said. “We want people to come here and feel the holiday season.”

The opening ceremony will begin at 5:30 p.m. today and includes Ocean City Elementary School’s “OC Stars” performing holiday songs and dance, in addition to an appearance from Santa Claus. Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan will flip the switch to illuminate the 50-foot Christmas tree and light displays, and officially open the Winterfest of Lights. In addition, there will be free rides on the Winterfest Express after the celebration.

New to the festival this year are moving light displays, Miller said.

“This year [the 50-foot tree] has animated garland wrapped around it, and we added a small sound system into the tree and [it] now dances to music,” Miller said. “There are three songs we created and the lights will dance to the music. We’ve tried to cover the gamut. We’ve got oldies, modern [and] somewhat semi-classic rock. You have to come and listen to all three songs to get the feeling for them.”

The 12-minute tram ride provides guests with an unforgettable experience, Miller said, through 58 acres of more than 400 displays from fairytale characters, to the 12 Days of Christmas accompanied with holiday music. From Nov. 15 through Dec. 31, visitors will have the opportunity to see more than a million lights during their one-mile ride through the park.

Visitors can wait for their ride inside a heated pavilion, which includes the Winterfest Village and features returning favorites such as an open Winterfest Marlin Marketplace, where ornaments, stocking stuffers, souvenirs and holiday gifts can be purchased.

Long lines should not discourage fans of the ride, as six trams will be set up during the weekends, meaning 65-70 passengers will board a tram every four minutes.

Jolly Roger Amusements will have a display for visitors to take photos, in what Miller called the “Instagram Hotspots.” There will be five designated hotspots this year compared to just three last year.

“These are photo opportunities for families and patrons, and those displays we try to change up every single year,” he said.

IG Burton is slated to have a Jeep on display, there will be an Assateague Island National Seashore photo opportunity, a sweets display courtesy of Candy Kitchen, and four poinsettia trees – including the large 12-foot favorite – will decorate the pavilion in a courtyard setting. Also new this year is a display from Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

“We always try to give new opportunities for photographs, and those are in addition to our hotspots like the Christmas tree and the Winterfest archway,” Miller said. “We always try to give something new to experience in the Winterfest pavilion.”

Santa resides in Kris Kringle’s Corner and is surrounded by Christmas trees. Candy Kitchen has decorated the jolly old elf’s section each year.

St. Nicholas will greet visitors and listen to Christmas wish lists through Dec. 23. Children also have the option to write a letter to Santa and put it in his mailbox.

Mrs. Claus will join Santa in spreading holiday cheer, with a focus on staying healthy and helping others.

Winterfest of Lights has become a yearly tradition for residents and families visiting during the holiday season. The city’s crews began setup in early October to transform the park into a winter wonderland, with a different layout each year to keep the excursion fresh for returning visitors.

Last year, 109,210 passengers took a ride through illuminated Northside Park during the 46-night holiday spectacular, according to Miller. He hopes better weather this year will bring in larger crowds. The largest recorded attendance occurred in 2015, with a total of 126,924 patrons riding through the park.

The Jingle Bell Run and New Year’s Eve fireworks show will also be returning this holiday season. The run is scheduled on Sunday, Dec. 2 and is sponsored by the Ocean City Recreation and Parks Department and OC Tri Running. The race will take runners through the light displays at Northside Park.

The New Year’s Eve celebration will include a midnight fireworks display, live entertainment, hot chocolate and a ride through the Winterfest of Lights.

For almost a decade, organizers have focused on refurbishing the more than 400 existing displays, which are stripped down and rewired, with bulbs and sockets regularly being replaced. This year, something completely new will be added to the displays.

“We are going to have a new display in the park this year,” Miller said. “It’s going to stand out unlike anything else we’ve had historically. It’s always been 2-D displays at Northside Park. This year we have a three-dimensional element, which you’ll have to come and see for yourself.”

The nighttime holiday favorite festival runs nightly through Dec. 31 at Northside Park. Hours of operation are 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 5:30-10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The cost to ride the train is $5 for adults. Children 11 and younger ride for free.

For more information, call Ocean City’s Recreation and Parks Department at 410-250-0125.