Remembering The Festival of Lights

By Robert Ventry;

If the Festival of Lights were still held it would be in its 35th year. The first annual Festival of Lights was launched in 1981 as economic stimulant for the local economy. The event was used to draw visitors into the city during the winter, which many consider the off season for the tourist industry. A group of business and civic leaders from the Falls area traveled to Simcoe Ontario in Canada which held its own festival. The group was so impressed with what they saw in Simcoe and with the experience they had. They decided to stage their own Festival of Lights right here in Niagara Falls. Opening night offered plenty of family entertainment, a parade, fireworks, and weekend concerts at the Convention and Civic Center. The event was a huge success for the city. It was such a success that in 1982 Niagara Falls Ontario started their own Festival of Lights.

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          In just eight years the Festival of Lights was named the number one attraction in North America by the American bus Association in 1989. That distinction has previously graced other mega events, such as New York City’s Statue of liberty celebration in 1986 and the Pan American games in 1987, and the 1988 Winter Olympics. The designation as being one of the number one events in North American was expected to increase economic benefits for the area, such as an increase in buses coming to Niagara Falls and boost the number of overnight stays by visitors during the festival, and a great deal of national exposure.

In 1991 it was estimated that nearly one million people attended the 10th annual Festival of Lights, setting a new attendance record far surpassing previous year’s crowds.

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The opening ceremonies for the 44 day festival included an Electric Light Parade that went from the Aquarium to the arch of The Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center. Santa Claus would greet the crowd and the countdown would begin and the Festival of lights would be turned on, as fireworks were launched from the top of the city parking ramp on Third and Niagara Street.

After the opening ceremonies people could enter the Convention Center and view the Winter Wonderland of Animation and array of animated scenes including Santa’s workshop and a toy train village. On the way some would decide to go ice skating at Lackey Plaza. While others would head over to The Carborundum Center, which included a toy train show and an animated program based on the legends of Christmas.

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While others could go over to Falls Street Fair, which was one of the city’s newest attractions at the time, now the Conference Center. It recreates the street fairs of days gone by with Victorian style specialty shops along a Cobblestones Street, with amusement rides and a variety of food stands.

From there people could walk down Old Falls Street, which was like winter wonder land; it covered a three block area. The trees were decorated with lights and numerous Christmas displays lined the area. There were huge cut out displays that were built by volunteers; over 50 cutouts were built. Some were 20 feet high, Mother Goose, Disney characters, Santa and his elves, and other Christmas scenes. In addition there were five three dimensional displays, including a 12 foot high lighthouse and 12 feet long train, to add to the fun. In the middle was the magnificent Winter garden.

Which was a glass enclosed tropical setting in the midst of the snow and cold, decorated, inside and out with holiday decorations, animated displays, and colorful floral arrangements. The Wintergarden would glisten with two 26 foot high reflecting starts and 1,000 poinsettias. During the festival a variety of free musical entertainment was offered ranging from local choral groups to bell ringers.

From the Wintergarden people could walk right in to the Rainbow Mall and get something to eat or do some Christmas shopping. Or else walk over to the Oxy Building to view the Oxy lights. It was Occidental Chemical’s award winning light and music show. In 1987 it was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. The side of the nine story office building was used as a stage or screen converting it into the world’s largest sound music synthesizer. From there people could go over to the state park which had a number of light displays and see the lights on the falls.

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The Festival of Lights was a 44 day event held from November 23rd until the first weekend January. It featured over 40,000 lights and offered plenty of free family entertainment. At the time 69,000 people called Niagara Falls home. The annual event left  lasting memories on visitors and residents alike in the 20 years it was held.

The Convention Center was host to numerous events concerts, plays and ballet performances. Just to name a few Santa’s Magical Midway, Eddy Arnold, the Oak Ridge Boys and Mel Torme, ice skating shows The Nutcracker, basketball, hockey and midget auto racing and many more.

Without the hard work and dedication of the hundreds of volunteers and corporate sponsors, the Festival of Lights committee, The Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau, Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce, and the New York Power Authority which provided free power for all the lights and displays, it would not have been as successful as it was.

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Before the Festival of lights hotel occupancy was around 11 percent, in November and December, after the festival started it was well over 50 percent during those same months. With the increase in overnight stays, the local hospitality industry benefited greatly, in the 20 year event.

           Unfortunately after twenty years the plug was pulled in 2001.  The Festival of Lights once considered a major off season attraction sadly ended. The annual event suffered from declining attendance, increased costs and lack of corporate sponsors. Displays and lights were sold to cover any debts the Festival of Lights committee incurred. With talk over the years of bringing the Festival of Lights back, maybe one day they can shine again.

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105 Comments

  1. John Rawluszki says:

    Can’t have anything that brings in tourism that works. Shut it down! Duster and friends need the city in deep debt and bankruptcy no services for the residences so they all leave leaving only the poor and destitute who can be easily controlled. Duster just needs a plan to keep tourism away during the summer months. That’s next on the list.

  2. My wife and I were just talking the Festival of Lights the other day. I have lived in Niagara Falls my entire life and have great memories of the festival as a kid. I honestly don’t want it brought back. If it were brought back, I would not take my kids there as I bet it would be a lot different than what we remember. It would be disappointing and not family friendly. For one, it’d be full of unsupervised kids causing trouble and making it miserable for everyone. I bet we’d be forced to smell marijuana while walking around too. The Wintergarden is gone and this was one of the best parts of the festival. Not to mention the upkeep of the displays would be terrible. Look at that joke of a display in Hyde Park. Year before last we went through there and several bulbs were out and things were not moving as they should. We didn’t even bother going last year or this year. The festival stopped in 2001 as this article states, Dyster is the 5th mayor we’ve had since then. I am not saying I commend what he does (or doesn’t) do, but the state the city is not just from him. This city is a joke…and it has been for some time.

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