WHEELING, W.Va. — The hills of Oglebay Park are awash in holiday cheer once more.
On Thursday, Oglebay made the season bright, officially beginning the countdown to the Christmas in the Ohio Valley — 44 days, if anyone’s counting — by kicking off the 31st annual Winter Festival of Lights. With just a slight chill in the air the ceremonial switch was flipped, bathing the patio at Wilson Lodge in colorful light and sending a burst of fireworks into the air.
The honor of throwing the switch this year went to Wheeling Park Commission member Joan Stamp. Appointed in 2013, Stamp is the granddaughter of Arthur Stifel, a founding member of the park commission.
Stamp said she was honored to be chosen to flip the switch.
“It’s a wonderful family tradition,” she said of the Festival of Lights. “Being from Wheeling, we’ve always brought our children through the lights.”
The lights are viewable today through Jan. 1. Hours are Sunday through Thursday until 10 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m., with a per-car donation requested that is valid for the entire festival season.
Wheeling Park Commission CEO Stephen Hilliard had just taken over the job when last year’s festival began. This year, he said, he got to see firsthand the vast amount of preparation involved in setting up the more than 80 displays featuring thousands of LED bulbs covering more than 300 acres.
“It’s just incredible, the amount of work that goes into this, but it’s well worth it,” Hilliard said.
Returning to the festival are favorite displays such as “Snoopy and Friends,” the golfing owl, Nutcracker quartet and the Twelve Days of Christmas — but, as is always the case, there are new features for visitors to check out. The big change this year, according to Hilliard, is the Christmas at Crispin area, located near the Pine Room, that features a brand new Christmas shop, hay rides, a straw maze, and fresh-cut Christmas trees for sale.
“One of the things we hear is it’s a long time for the children to spend in the car,” Hilliard said. “It’s a great way for the little ones to get out and stretch their legs.”
G. Randolph “Randy” Worls, chairman and CEO of the Oglebay Foundation, recalled the festival’s origins in 1985, at a time when the park was trying to draw more visitors during its slowest period. A consultant told them how tour buses flocked to Niagara Falls to see the holiday lights each year, and Oglebay’s Festival of Lights was born.
The park now is responsible for an estimated $20 million in sales around Ohio County during the Festival of Lights, according to Worls.
“Today, we’re considered to be the best or second-best. It’s either Branson (Mo.) or Oglebay,” Worls said, noting with pride that Branson officials visited Oglebay’s Festival of Lights in 1992, where they got many of the ideas for their own show.
For his part, Worls said the candy canes are his favorite display. It’s among the oldest displays at the festival, and it holds fond memories for a lot of people.
“We’ve had at least 10 weddings in front of the candy canes,” he said.