WHEELING, W.Va. – As he experiences his first Winter Festival of Lights at Oglebay Park, Stephen Hilliard at times finds himself feeling more like a tourist than the incoming CEO of the Wheeling Park Commission.
On Thursday, Hilliard stood next to the man he will be replacing, retiring CEO Doug Dalby, as Dalby flipped the ceremonial switch to kick off the 30th annual Festival of Lights, illuminating more than 300 acres of Oglebay’s rolling hills with dozens of giant displays and sending a burst of fireworks high into the air over Schenk Lake.
For Hilliard, who comes to Wheeling from the White Mountains of New Hampshire and will work alongside Dalby until he officially steps down Jan. 2, being part of an event that’s become synonymous with Oglebay was a fitting way to kick off his career with Wheeling’s park system.
Photo by Scott McCloskey
The lights are on at Oglebay Park, including at the flower garden which welcomes visitors.
“We’ve never seen the Festival of Lights before, so after I picked (my wife) Holly up from the airport, the first thing we did was take the preview tour,” he said.
Hilliard, who left behind a job as managing director of the 2,000-acre Omni Mount Washington Resort to come to Wheeling, said he was immediately impressed by how invested community members are in their local parks, Oglebay in particular. He said he’s spent much of this week getting to know the staff.
“The great thing is we’ve got so many terrific people here that have been with the commission for so long. … I’m looking forward to a wonderful time here,” he said, adding there are many exciting things going on at the park, including the remodeling of a portion of Wilson Lodge, the expansion of the resort’s fitness center and the addition of a new Christmas-themed shop near the Mansion Museum.
The Festival of Lights continues nightly through Jan. 3 and is viewable from dusk until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Visitors can browse on their own or take advantage of hourly trolley tours departing from Wilson Lodge.
Dalby acknowledged that flipping the switch for the final time in a nearly 45-year career with the Wheeling Park Commission was a somewhat bittersweet moment. But he takes pride in having seen the festival grow from just five displays in its inaugural year, 1985, to more than 80 energy-efficient, all-LED displays today.
“I think any event that lasts 30 years is doing something right,” Dalby said. “I think the secret over the years has been to keep it fresh. Every year we add new displays.”
Brand new to the festival this year are a 60-foot-tall, animated Christmas tree, and a penguin display on Schenk Lake. They join perennial favorites such as the ferris wheel, poinsettia wreath and “12 Days of Christmas” displays.
The ever-growing nature of the Festival of Lights is a big reason why about half of those who come to see the lights each year are return visitors, according to Dalby.
“We have a lot of people who have made this a tradition over the years,” he said.
Someone who certainly can attest to the festival’s impact on the area is Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau. He said Oglebay is one of the region’s premier tourism drivers, and at no time is that more evident than during the Festival of Lights.
“The economic impact over that 30-year period is millions and millions of dollars,” O’Brien said. “Millions of people have come to see these lights. … It’s one of the top attractions in the U.S., and it draws people from all over the area.”
WesBanco is a major sponsor of this year’s Festival of Lights, and bank officials said they’re excited to be involved.
“The park is a great community asset, and it’s nice for the bank to be able to assist in bringing this light show to the public,” said James Gardill, chairman of the board at WesBanco.