Hitting the switch for holiday spirit: Winter Festival of Lights

For many individuals in the Niagara Region, packing up the van with children, stopping at Tim Horton’s for hot chocolates and heading down to the Falls to drive through the Festival of Lights is a Christmas staple.

Photos by Brittany Brooks/ Brock Press

Photos by Brittany Brooks/ Brock Press

As if the tourist core of Niagara Falls didn’t have enough hypnotizing lights designed for sensory overload already. The Festival of Lights is returning for its 31st year, this season between Nov. 9 and Jan.31.

The Festival of Lights is a large scale lighting display scattered through the Fallsview and Dufferin Island districts of Niagara Falls. The exposition boasts 120 displays over a four-mile stretch of the Niagara Parkway, featuring more than three million individual lights. This year, the Festival of Lights is sponsored by the Ontario Power Generation, which has added even more lights to the showing.

“That’s why we take donations, it’s all to go towards new lights,” said Helen Lea, a volunteer at the Festival of Lights since the late 1980s. “It all goes to making the Festival better, nothing else.”

More strings and wires are not the only thing added this year however, as one of the most prominent light exhibits has been totally overhauled.

For many years, at the bottom of Murray Hill, across from the Brink of the Falls, there was a park filled with Disney-themed lights and animations. Everything from Toy Story and Pocahontas to Aladdin and Cars was represented. This year however, the exhibit was totally removed due to issues of cost. Disney, being the legal and cultural powerhouse it is, continued raising the costs each year for the Niagara Parks to display their character-themed lights and have their mascots appear at the Festival of Lights Opening Ceremony.

Brittany_06Although some local and seasoned-attendees are disappointed by the animated mascots’ absence, it has opened up a prime location as a blank slate for a new display.

These new lights and decorations are all Korean-themed as a tribute to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War as well as elevated diplomatic relations between Canada and South Korea in the past five decades.

Volunteers have set up about 20 displays of Korean lanterns as well as a variety of lights, statues and themed illuminations that demonstrate specific aspects of the Korean culture.

Brittany_02The theme of Korean commemoration was also very prominent at the opening ceremony on Nov. 9 by the brink of the Falls and was made up of two distinct ceremonies. The first included the Mayor of Niagara Falls, Jim Diodati, honouring present veterans of the Korean War. After the awards were handed out, a more interactive component involved an exposé of Korean culture.

“Around the park, a lot of huts were set up”, said Lea. “Kids got the chance to go in and decorate their own Korean-themed lanterns that would then be displayed in the exhibit”.

The day was also comprised of cooking demonstrations as well as performances by Korean drummers that arrived from Toronto, creating authentic Korean beats and rhythms.

The true beginning of the festival however, was later that night when the over-sized light switch was finally flicked to turn on over three million ground and tree lights. Before any energy bills could begin racking up though, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra provided accompaniment to a 15-minute-long firework display.

The fireworks display was one of Lea’s best experiences at the Festival.

“Everything went great. The fact that they could co-ordinate between the live symphony and the fireworks was incredible. I’ve seen a lot of fireworks displays, but this was definitely the best”.

The backbone of the Festival is absolutely the dedicated group of volunteers that stand in a small booth at the end of Dufferin Islands night after night collecting money as well as food for Project SHARE from passing cars. Regardless of the cold, damp conditions, there are approximately 40 volunteers who sign up for shifts to collect donations in the cold.

In addition to simply reaping the generosity of passing cars, they also receive the chance to talk to every guest and tourist that passes through the display.

“That’s one of my best experiences at the Festival,” said Ben Termaat, a volunteer in his 10th year at the Festival. “You get to interact with every single person that comes through. You meet such a wide variety of people since on any given weekend there are about 1,000 cars that come through to look at the lights.”

The Festival of Lights has become synonymous with winter getaways and the iconic Niagara Falls destination vacation. The light displays have become an annual tradition for over one million locals and tourists from around the globe.

“They really do come from all over to look at the lights. I’ve met quite a few families fly from Brazil and Australia to come to the Festival,” added Termaat.

The Festival of Lights has become a major success for the City of Niagara Falls, attracting tourists even during the “slow season”. The Festival has even garnered the city such acknowledgements as being one of the Top 10 decorated cities as well as one of the Top 100 Internationally-known events.

The Festival has not always been a serenely set-up display set in one of Niagara’s nicest parks, though. In fact, the Festival was originally a weekly parade. The parade featured floats and volunteers that would walk down the streets of Downtown Niagara Falls every Friday night to spread Holiday cheer.

The parade idea was not very sustainable however. After a few years of weekly parades, the floats came into disrepair; the event organizers knew that there had to be a better way to spread the joy of holiday lights and to allow a wider array of visitors to experience them. In this way, the Festival of Lights as we know it today was conceived.

Since these humble beginnings, the Festival has expanded from simple strings of lights to a truly well-rounded Christmas experience.

Brittany_04For example, the Niagara Parks and TD Canada Trust have created the TD Rink at the Brink – open nightly from Dec.1 to Feb. 28. The Rink at the Brink allows residents and visitors to skate on a pond just feet from the roaring thunder of the Falls, for a small price. The Rink also provides skate and helmet rentals for visitors.

More profound however, is the Sparkle Lighting Awards. Is it a coincidence that an event created by an electricity company is encouraging people to put an insane amount of lights on their homes? Probably not, but regardless, nothing brings the spirit of Christmas to a community faster than Christmas lights and decorations on every house.

This competition essentially rates specific houses, streets and apartment buildings on their Christmas spirit and eccentricity. If you’ve always wanted to live on the street from Christmas with the Kranks, then this contest will probably fit your style. From joint efforts between apartment renters or street-wide displays, the Sparkly Lighting Awards aren’t as much about the competition as the spirit of the season – but that’s not to say that winning isn’t still a motivator.

The Winter Festival of Lights is essentially everything that is special about Niagara Falls as well as the Christmas season in general. Brimming lights, smiling people, awe-inspiring displays as well as a lack of moderation.

If you think Clifton Hill and Niagara Falls is a tourist waste-land of gimmicks and tastelessness, then maybe the pure joy of the Festival will win you over. This year, the addition of the Korean lights provides a more culturally rich perspective. Also, with the array of religious holidays, experiences and events chronicled in the light displays, the Festival of Lights is becoming more profound than vapid (although there are still a lot of colourful Dinosaurs featured in the displays).

Overall, the Festival of Lights is an experience like no other. If you have yet to take a bus, a car or snow-shoes through the glowing display, then it is a must-see. Start a new tradition this year and bring your friends and family down by the Falls to see the drowning lights of the Festival.

Fireworks Displays over the Falls are every Friday night at 9:00 p.m. The light displays are turned on between 5:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. daily until Jan. 31. Donations are greatly appreciated and are collected at the Dufferin Islands exit.

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