WHEELING, W.Va. (WV News) — Beginning in 1985, the Winter Festival of Lights at Oglebay in Wheeling has grown into one of the nation’s largest holiday light shows, attracting more than one million visitors every year. In 2020, it’s anticipated to attract even more as families attempt to find ways to celebrate the holiday season safely.
Identified as one of the top light displays in the country by numerous travel companies and media outlets, the Winter Festival of Lights features 300 acres of twinkling lights over a six-mile drive and includes 90 lighted attractions boasting more than one million energy efficient LED lights.
Each year, thousands flock to the region to see the attraction, and that is unlikely to change this year.
Starting at dusk each night from early November through Jan. 10, the nationally acclaimed light show features displays in 3D to keep the season “alive and twinkling,” said Lindsey McGlaughlin, marketing director for the resort.
“Oglebay’s Festival of Lights is the perfect socially-distant holiday activity,” she said. “From the safety of their own vehicles, families can enjoy more than 90 twinkling displays along the drive through Oglebay Park.”
The park began receiving calls back in March asking if the lights were going to stay up when the pandemic started to get worse, according to Oglebay Director of Special Events and Programming Andy Brown.
“Even back in the beginning of the pandemic, people were looking for something to do,” he said.
The annual show is a monumental task but even more went into planning and programming the Festival of Lights this year.
“The Festival of Lights is a year-round operation,” he said. “From the moment the season is over, we begin tearing down. During this process, frames are being set aside to be refurbished, which will continue until we start setting up again the following August.”
McGlaughlin said the park’s teams have worked hard to make slight modifications to holiday activities on site.
“To ensure the holiday season remains magical for children and families, while keeping the health and safety of the park’s guests at the forefront, teams have made modifications to our popular holiday activities,” she said.
For instance, character meet-and-greets will be slightly modified to include a socially distanced rope barrier to preserve the safety of our actors and guests, McGlaughlin said.
Brown said he is sure they aren’t finished planning as they are constantly adapting and reacting to the different protocols being announced.
“We are constantly adapting to make sure that our guests and team members are safe,” he said. “The major change this year is in the holiday programming. For example, Santa can’t wait to see and hear from all the smiling children but that will be a little difficult with the best practices from the CDC.
“We have put a lot of thought and planning into making sure that all Santa’s guests are safe, as well as keeping the big guy himself safe for his big night on Christmas Eve. We have developed a safe way to achieve this and are thrilled to have Santa at the Good Zoo every night this year.”
The 2020 Festival of Lights season promises to be even more magical with the addition of a brand new theme — Sounds of the Season — which will showcase 12 multi-sensory displays featuring twinkling lights paired with audio effects and popular carols.
According to McGlaughlin, the can’t-miss audio experience includes the following displays: Rainbow Tunnel, Dinosaur Park, Green Monster, Cinderella and the Snowflake Tunnel.
“One of my favorite quotes is ‘without music, life would be a mistake,’” Brown said. “Anytime you can incorporate an entirely new sense into any experience it will drastically enhance the overall result. It’s like eating without smell.”
Oglebay’s iconic Mansion Museum will also serve as a popular holiday attraction during the 2020 holiday season, where by day, guests can tour the museum which was the summer home of Cleveland industrialist Earl W. Ogebay in the 1900s to explore 13 period rooms lavishly decorated with holiday decor.
“By night, the mansion will come to life with a stunning, animated light show choreographed to toe-tapping holiday hits,” McGlaughlin said.
For kids and kids at heart, McGlaughlin said Oglebay’s Good Zoo offers once-in-a-lifetime reindeer encounters which allow guests to get up close and personal with Santa’s flying friends.
Families can meet Santa’s reindeer and the zoo keepers who train them, enjoy a ride on the Snowflake Express Train, roast marshmallows by the fire pit or snag an adult hot cocoa at the Ice Lounge.
At the Elf Zone in Wilson Lodge, guests can enjoy a magical story time with favorite holiday characters as they share holiday stories followed by a holiday movie.
Oglebay Institute’s Youth Ballet Company will dance the holiday favorite “The Nutcracker” this season, as for many families, attending the performance is a treasured holiday tradition.
Participate in the park’s new Elf Digital Scavenger Hunt featuring seven stations throughout Wilson Lodge, which offers chances to win weekly prizes when you unlock clues.
Schrader Center at Oglebay will offer the opportunity to create your own wreath with fresh ingredients until mid-December.
Also in Schrader Center, paint your own piece of holiday pottery, choosing from snowmen, Santa, cookie plates and more, as the “perfect holiday craft for kids and young families to create together.”
Families can also create all-natural holiday ornaments after a reading of Eve Bunting’s “Night Tree,” an illustrated story of a family’s unusual tradition that brings to life the true spirit of the season.
”After the reading, sip hot cocoa as you create some all-natural holiday decorations to take home or put on the the Schrader Center’s own night tree,” Oglebay’s event page reads.
New in 2020, the Good Zoo will unveil a new Santa’s Workshop attraction complete with the big guy himself and each of the guests receiving a free digital photo with admission.
Also new in 2020, the new Wish For Snow experience will allow guests to relive the magic of the first snow every night of the week on the zoo’s outdoor patio.
At The Hilltop, the Gardens of Light will feature gleaming brick pathways guiding strolls through the Bissonnette Gardens where guests will find more than 150 twinkling hanging baskets, thousands of lighted flowers and festive trees.
At Oglebay, staff is doing their utmost to ensure a safe visit for all guests, as well as staff members.
“It’s an unusual year to say the least. We have really focused on the safety of our staff, as well as our visitors. One of the the things, we’re set up so we have a lot of outdoor space — a couple thousand acres. Between that and our 54 cottages and the lodge, we’ve got plenty of room to spread out, to social distance and still enjoy yourself on a mini-vacation, or a full vacation for that matter,” said Oglebay Resort Senior Vice President of Operations Rod Haley.
The admission is free, but to ensure the Festival of Lights continues to “shine brightly” for years to come, the park requests a donation of $25 per vehicle and in return, a 2020 Festival of Lights Vehicle Season Pass and a 2020-2021 Oglebay Rewards Book with more than $500 in coupons will be provided to each donor.
For those wishing to get away, Oglebay offers a variety of accommodations from private cabins to guest rooms in the iconic Wilson Lodge. While at Oglebay, guests can browse eight unique retail shops, dine in four restaurants, snap a photo with Santa, enjoy live entertainment- just to name a few. And after a full day of holiday merriment, guests can unwind with a variety of world-class massage services at Oglebay’s West Spa.
Whether you’re coming for an overnight stay, or just stopping by for the day, there’s plenty of holiday fun for everyone.
McGlaughlin said families can take a stroll along the twinkling pathways through the Gardens of Light & Nativity display at The Hilltop while exploring several unique retail shops, meet Santa’s reindeer at the Good Zoo, or unwind with live music and complimentary hot cocoa at the Nightly Holiday Reception at Wilson Lodge.
Returning in 2020, McGlaughlin said guests of all ages can enjoy “The Frosted Hilltop,” which features the Snowflake Express Train Ride in Oglebay’s historic greenhouse, the Frosty Wagon Ride, which takes guests on a 20-minute adventure aboard our open-air wagon, as well as the Ice Lounge at the Garden Bistro that offers a variety of seasonal refreshments, including s’mores kits and holiday beverages for guests over 21 years of age.
While there, families can snap a few photos at the lighted selfie stations or snag a photo with their favorite magical snowman, she said.
“You can see our lights from everywhere you are at our park and in some places, you can get a birds-eye view of all of the lights,” McGlaughlin said. “It’s a breathtaking and truly captivating view.”
Whether families are coming to visit their family members, residents are returning for the tradition or new individuals are visiting from out of state, McGlaughlin said hundreds of thousands of people spend some of their holiday season at Oglebay.
“This is an extremely valuable event for the Greater Wheeling community,” she said. “While the number of people we see each year varies, we have seen as many as one million people in a single year. They aren’t just supporting us; they are supporting our local businesses as well.”
McGlaughlin said the Festival of Lights has grown to be the park’s largest event and tradition and it’s one they plan for and talk about year-round.
“It’s something that everyone really looks forward to and has really become a part of the park’s traditions,” she said.
When it comes to a safe holiday activity, Brown said he can not think of a better option for safely celebrating the holidays with family than the Festival of Lights.
“I can’t think of a better experience for any family, than coming together to enjoy the holidays in a safe environment as they travel across the entire property of Oglebay, enjoying the lights and sounds of the season,” he said.
According to West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Chelsea A. Ruby, the light festival continues to be a large tourist attraction for the winter season in the Mountain State.
“More and more travelers make the Festival of Lights a part of their holiday tradition,” she said. “The Festival of Lights is a great event for in-state travelers, but it also continues to attract visitors from key target markets each year.”
“Oglebay Resort has a great product, and they continue to do a tremendous job in packaging the Festival of Lights with lodging and other activities to try and get visitors to stay longer and experience more of what Almost Heaven has to offer,” Ruby said.
Guests can tour the spectacular, six-mile route from the comfort of their own vehicles or board one of the iconic Oglebay trolleys. An advance trolley ticket purchase is highly recommended and is available seven days in advance.
McGlaughlin said trolley rights will still be taking place this year and will depart from Wilson Lodge hourly between 5:30-9:30 p.m. Nov. 6 to Jan. 10, and tickets are $12 per person.
To book reservations for trolley tours, call 304-243-4090. For information about the Winter Festival of Lights, visit www.oglebay.com/lights.