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Winterfest of Lights opens Thursday

(Nov. 15, 2013) Sip cocoa with Santa Claus and take a ride on the Winterfest Express duirng Ocean City’s 21st annual Winterfest of Lights, which kicks off with a celebration Thursday, Nov. 21 at Northside Park.

The opening celebration will begin at 5:30 p.m. and include Ocean City Elementary School’s “OC Stars” singing and dancing, comments from Mayor Rick Meehan, an appearance by Santa and the ceremonial “flipping” of the switch to illuminate the 125th Street park.

Almost one million lights and more than a month of labor transform the park into a winter wonderland each year, with more than 100 glittering and animated displays set to holiday music.

Nov. 21 through Jan. 1, visitors have the chance to take a ride through the park’s 58 acres on the Winterfest Express, a tram that makes the one-mile journey set to music.

Old favorites such as the 12 Days of Christmas, fairy tale-based displays, the 50-foot-tall illuminated Christmas tree and even a tribute to Jaws will be there again this year, along with a new display of the Coca Cola polar bears, said Frank Miller,  Special Events superintendent for the Town of Ocean City.

Winterfest of Lights has a different layout each year to keep trips fresh for return visitors. It also challenges riders to find their favorite display in a new location.

Some of the displays take days to assemble, and the city’s crew began work in early October to transform the park for the event.

Santa will arrive opening night and be present to greet children and adults and listen to their Christmas wish lists every night, Nov. 21 though Dec. 23. Children can also write a letter to Santa and slip it in his mailbox.

His house and the tent where visitors wait in line will be heated, keeping visitors warm as they listen to music and wait for the Boardwalk trams to take them through the park of lights. The tent will be home to the Winterfest Village, where visitors can find Yukon Cornelius’ Gift Shop filled with ornaments, stocking stuffers, souvenirs and holiday gifts starting at $1.

A hot chocolate shop run by the Ocean City Recreation and Parks Booster will sell cocoa and coffee.

Winterfest of Lights has become a tradition for locals and families visiting during the holiday season. Many visit the award-winning nighttime festival each year to take the guided open-air tour through the park accompanied by holiday tunes.

“It’s like going on a ride at Disney World, but you’re seeing all Christmas lights at Northside Park,” said Tom Shuster, director of the Ocean City Recreation and Parks Department.

The American Bus Association named Winterfest of Lights one of the Top 100 Events in North America for 2014, an honor it also earned in 2011. Maryland Life Magazine has voted it “Maryland’s Finest Holiday Tradition.”

Last year, 95,599 people viewed the 125th Street displays, Shuster said. On an average night, 1,991 people rode the train through the illuminated park.

Visits in 2012 were down from the year before, when a record 107,405 passengers took the 12-minute train ride while the displays shimmered for 46 days. The previous attendance record was 93,937, set in 2001.

The biggest night last year was the day after Thanksgiving, Friday, Nov. 23, when 7,538 people rode the train, with Saturday, Dec. 1 trailing with 6,918 people touring the displays.

Mild temperatures and clear skies helped 2012 attendance and weather only hampered one night, Dec. 26, when displayed closed early due to rain, Shuster said. The event generated more than $500,000 for the city last year.

“Based on the attendance we had at Springfest, even with the bad weather, and Sunfest, I’d say were going to have another great year,” Miller said.

Winterfest of Lights began 21 years ago with the city’s parks department building original displays with iron, Christmas lights and black electrical tape, Miller said. “And we’ve gone from that to over a million lights,” with the help of the Chamber of Commerce and the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, he said.

Winterfest of Lights runs nightly through Jan. 1, 2014. 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.

To see a preview video of what’s in store for Winterfest of Lights 2013-14, visit www. http://oceancitymd.gov/ Recreation_and_Parks/specialevents.html.

For more information, call 1-800-626-2326 or call Ocean City’s Recreation and Parks Department at 410-250-0125.

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