Winter tourism's guiding light

Fireworks over Niagara Falls. (Handout Photo)

Fireworks over Niagara Falls. (Handout Photo)

QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:09 PM ET

It started as a way to keep up with our American competition.

Now, nearly three decades later, the Niagara Falls Winter Festival of Lights has no competition.

When rumblings of a winter lights festival first started in 1982, organizers watched what was happening across the border with envy. Established two years earlier, the Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was an immediate hit, attracting 250,000 people during its first year. It was one of the rare times our American counterpart got the tourism jump on us.

In winter no less, when tourists all but vanished around these parts.

"We were embarrassed by the Americans, to be honest with you," recalls George Bailey, one of the Canadian festival's founders while a member of the Niagara Falls Canada Visitor and Convention Bureau.

"They embarrassed us by running with the ball, so we had to get on board."

During the summer of 1983, Bailey and other enthusiasts preached the benefits of a lights festival to council, hotels and the tourism industry. They didn't need much convincing, he says -- they just had to look across the river. The Niagara Falls, N.Y., event had just attracted 200 bus tours, generating about $250,000 in revenue.

Pocket change now. A bonanza back then.

"It wasn't such a hard sell," says Bailey. "We had a lot of real estate sitting there and nobody was doing anything with it. People wanted something to do."

And so the first Winter Festival of Lights debuted Nov. 26, 1983. Such former landmarks as Maple Leaf Village and the Panasonic Tower were lit up, along with the Skylon Tower and trees along the Niagara Parkway. It was a city-wide event, and organizers urged all residents to string up lights and turn on the juice.

It was a low-key start, says Bailey, but it did the trick. Hotels started getting winter bookings, and Niagara Falls started finding a pulse past August.

"Prior to that, I managed the Sheraton Foxhead hotel for three years. And come the middle of September, we packed up," says Bailey. "That was it. Nothing happened.

"There was no game in town then. So any 'light' was welcome in the winter time, when we could potentially fill rooms and put people into restaurants."

There were growing pains. And hurt feelings. Some tourism operators complained about the brochures. At one point, the tourism bureau voted whether to dump its general manager, John Bolvansky. Some attractions asked the hydro commission for a break on their bills during the festival.

It grew at a snail's pace until The Mouse came along.

In 1992, the festival linked up with Disney for a deal that effectively secured its future. With one of pop culture's most powerful brand names on board, there was more interest from sponsors and television.

A free concert on New Year's Eve started in Queen Victoria Park, and it was televised across the country.

Tour buses -- normally a rare sight in winter -- started pouring into the city.

In 1999, the North American Bus Association, which can make or break a festival, declared it Canada's top event. The Winter Festival of Lights was in the big leagues.

At the same time, though, the U.S. festival that inspired it was suffering. Unable to compete with the Disney-powered Canadian version, it folded in 2001 after 20 seasons.

"The thing that dooms any of those events is mediocrity," says Bailey. "Getting stuck in a rut. That's why Disney came aboard (in Canada). That was the turning point."

Today, the festival attracts about a million people and a thousand motor coaches every year. It boasts more than 120 lighting displays with more than three million individual lights.

Last year, close to 60,000 vehicles drove through Dufferin Islands, where the largest gathering of displays are.

With a $1 million budget, it has become a crucial tourism anchor during the winter months, says general manager Dino Fazio.

"When we started the festival in '83, hotel occupancy rates were around 11% (in winter)," he says. "Now, they're hovering around 40%."

Casinos and waterparks have played their part, but it was the Winter Festival of Lights that proved the 'off season' had life.

"Without question," says Fazio.

"Back in those days, they said you could shoot a cannonball down Clifton Hill and not hit a soul. There was an old saying that they'd rip up the sidewalks and store those away for the off-season. That's how dead it was in the industry in those days."

On a chilly Tuesday night last week, cars steadily cruised through Dufferin Islands as the lights came alive at dusk.

A good night will see about 1,200 vehicles, says Heidi Werner, the festival's manager of events.

The biggest night this year was the Sunday night the Olympic torch passed through town -- about 1,800 vehicles came through.

On this night, she's manning the donation barrel at the end of the trail. The barrels raise about $100,000 every year.

"It's going quite well," says Werner. "We're getting people from all over the world."

At Queen Victoria Park, a Toronto couple poses their daughter in front of one of the Disney displays. The colourful images of Toy Story, Fantasia, The Lion King and 17 others have become the most recognizable part of the festival.

"It's pretty good ... we don't have anything like this in Toronto," says Waqas Mir.

"Our daughter (Maha) really likes the Disney stuff," adds wife Amatul.

But since 9/11, the festival has had an uneasy road.

Even before the recession hit last year, Niagara's ailing economy forced the festival to back out of the New Year's Eve concert (it was rescued by the city and Niagara Parks Commission). Now with American visitors forced to show passports in order to return home, Fazio says the festival has to give people more reasons to come.

This year's big addition was The Rink at the Brink, a semi-outdoor skating rink located by Table Rock near the Horseshoe Falls. While attendance isn't what Fazio hoped for, he's thrilled with the comments people are leaving.

"We had one guy from North Bay who said, 'I've travelled to a lot of places, had a lot of experiences, but to skate that close to the Falls, hear the roar and take in that sight ... it's on my bucket list.' I couldn't believe it. It has that effect on people."

Bailey still feels pride when he takes his annual winter stroll among the lights. He left the organization in 1993 and has watched it become the major festival its founders envisioned back in 1982.

"It has definitely done its job," he says. "Can you imagine if we didn't have any winter activity now? It would be a ghost land.

"It's like if the lights were turned off the falls at night, nobody would come and visit. So the lights have done their job."

The Niagara Falls Winter Festival of Lights goes until Jan. 31, 2011. Visit for more information.