Wheeling lights up for the holiday season
WHEELING — Santa was able to send a couple of his reindeer from the North Pole to help visitors experience the magic of Christmas this year at Oglebay Park during the Winter Festival of Lights.
The festival, a holiday tradition that’s grown during the last 32 years from modest beginnings to attract thousands of visitors to Oglebay each winter, kicked off in style once again Thursday. Backed by the children’s chorus from Our Lady of Peace School and punctuated by a burst of fireworks over Schenk Lake, WesBanco President and CEO Todd Clossin and his wife, Paula, flipped the ceremonial switch to usher in the festivities.
The Festival of Lights, which includes almost 90 light displays along a 6-mile drive through the park, officially began Friday and continues through Jan. 1.
The Good Zoo’s reindeer exhibit is among the new attractions at the park for the holiday season — and one for which park officials are extremely excited, according to Stephen Hilliard, Wheeling Park Commission CEO.
Two all-new light displays — a color-changing chameleon near the lake and a 24-foot-tall “kaleidoscope” Christmas tree, sponsored by American Electric Power, in front of the Crispin Center — join tried-and-true favorites such as the rainbow tunnels and Snoopy and Friends.
The giant tree is just one element of an expanded “Christmas at Crispin” feature that was added to the festival last year and includes holiday train rides for children as well as live Christmas trees for sale between Dec. 1-23. Another addition is the new Feast With the Beasts dining venue at the Good Zoo, which will offer child-friendly dishes such as pizza, pasta and tacos from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays from Nov. 24 to Dec. 30.
The additions are also part of Oglebay’s efforts to offer more for visitors to enjoy during the day while they wait for the sun to go down and the lights to come on, according to Hilliard.
“There’s more for the kids — pony rides and an expanded Christmas shop, wagon rides … there’s a lot going on and families can have a lot of fun,” he said.
To that end, the zoo’s reindeer exhibit features 30-minute-long small-group encounters with the animals. Encounters are available daily at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
“Everybody’s all excited about that,” Hilliard said.
At least for the first couple days of the festival, some visitors may wish they could use Santa’s sleigh to avoid the paving work at the intersection of National Road and Bethany Pike on their way to view the lights. But after speaking with West Virginia Division of Highways officials, Hilliard said he’s confident the work will be completed soon.
The DOH plans to work only during the day to mitigate the impact on festival traffic.
“They fully understand how important the Festival of Lights is to us and all of our guests … ,” Hilliard said of DOH officials. “We’ve stayed in touch through this whole thing.”
Hilliard also thanked WesBanco for its support of the Festival of Lights. Although the bank’s relationship with the festival dates back almost to the event’s beginnings, this is the third straight year the company has been the festival’s primary supporter.
Clossin said when he travels around the region he always hears from people who look forward to visiting Wheeling to see the lights each winter.
“When I think of warm traditions, this is the beginning of the holiday season and we’re excited to be a part of it,” Clossin said.
Hilliard also thanked park crews who work year-round to prepare for the Festival of Lights. He said the work hasn’t been easy the last few days, which have seen much cold, rainy weather.
“You couldn’t ask for a more dedicated group of people … ,” Hilliard said. “We started (planning) actually two weeks ago, for next year.”
On hand for Light-Up Night on Thursday was Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott, who, like many who grew up in Wheeling, sees the Festival of Lights as a holiday staple.
“It is safe to say that my memories of my childhood are decorated with Oglebay and the Festival of Lights and the Good Zoo,” Elliott said.
The event has become a major economic driver for the area, according to Elliott, bringing carloads of people in from out of town to eat in Wheeling’s restaurants and shop in its stores.
“Tourism has really been one of the crutches we relied on as our industry declined. … It’s helped stabilize us in our lean years, and you can’t put a price on that,” Elliott said.
There is no charge to view the lights, although a donation of $20 per car is encouraged. Trolley tours are offered daily during the festival, and depart hourly from Wilson Lodge between 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.