History of the Winter Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls, Canada

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There is no denying the huge growth over the years at the Winter Festival of Lights, but how much do you know about the history of the Winter Festival of Lights?

The festival originally began on the US side in Niagara Falls, New York back in 1980. It only lasted 44 days and was simply titled “Festival of Lights.” The event received funding by sponsorship from the area tourist industry, and with volunteer help from the community. 

This included a nine-story “OxyLights,” which was a light show synchronized to Christmas music. The vacated Nabisco 180 foot tall silos were illuminated and called the “Nabisco Fantasy of Lights” on the south end of the downtown area. The trees along Old Falls Street and Lackey Plaza were decorated with thousands of strings of lights creating a path from the Falls Convention Center to the Winter Garden. Inside, there was more than 15,000 square feet of indoor animation in the Carborundum Center and inside the Niagara Falls Convention Center. The seven-story Wintergarden also had strings of lights and a huge star hanging over the entrance.

This “Festival of Lights” ran until 2004 when the City of Niagara Falls eventually didn’t receive enough sponsorship dollars.

Some photos from the US “Festival of Lights” (photos courtesy of the Niagara Falls Public Library Local History Department).

Niagara Falls, Ontario then decided to take on the “Festival of Lights” in 1983 (changing the name to the “Winter Festival of Lights” in 1985). This was an arrangement made between the Niagara Falls Canada Visitor and Convention Bureau, the City of Niagara Falls Ontario, and the Niagara Parks Commission after seeing the huge tourist draw that it brought the US side. Its budget was modest — only $18,000 when it premiered on November 17, 1983 until February 26, 1984. During this first year of operation, approximately 250,000 people and 35 motor coaches visited the Winter Festival of Lights. Currently in its 39th year, it sees upwards of 1 million annual visitors and 750 motor coaches each year.

In 1992, the Winter Festival of Lights introduced Disney into the mix. The “Enchantment of Disney” displays were immediately a crowd favourite throughout Queen Victoria Park, with over 20 animated displays of Disney classics.

Festival of Lights Disney’s Toy Story in Lights 2004

From 1998-2006, the Festival introduced a weekly Night Parade of Lights in which it featured a dozen or so lit up floats. Despite its success, in 2006, the Winter Festival of Lights cancelled the Night Parade, which in turn poured more money to be put into lights throughout the park and Dufferin Islands.

In 2010, the CAA became a huge sponsor of the Winter Festival of Lights and then became known as the “CAA Winter Festival of Lights” when they signed a contract for a two-year sponsorship.
In 2013 (to current date), the Ontario Power Generation became its new sponsor, now being entitled the “Ontario Power Generation Winter Festival of Lights“. Additionally, the Ontario Power Generation Winter Festival of Lights ended the partnership with Disney for light displays and opening ceremonies after twenty years. Disney had decided to limit the character’s appearances to their theme parks. Organizers decided to replace them with twenty Korean lantern displays, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War and 50 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and South Korea.

history of the Winter Festival of Lights

This year in 2021, The Winter Festival of Lights will illuminate Niagara Falls for 101 Nights (November 13th, 2021- February 21st, 2022), almost doubling the amount of time from previous years. Every year, there is always something new and spectacular happening during this ever-growing and one of Canada’s favourite events.

2020 introduced 20 new additional displays, with this year adding a further 8 new exhibits. 3D animals are back, along with a big gingerbread home, fairy tale palace, and light tunnel.

For more information on the Winter Festival Lights

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