The Magic and Wonder of Niagara’s Winter Festival of Lights
Everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, the months of November through February are hit hard by cold and darkness. Winter can be incredibly dreary, as the sun rises late and sets early while freezing snow and wind scour the land. Around the world, holiday festivities have become vital forces of brightness and joy during this time of year, working to keep people’s spirits up. Though Niagara Falls boasts a relatively mild winter compared to the surrounding regions — thanks to its abundant lakes and protective escarpment — winter celebrations are just as important. That’s why every year, starting in late November, the city glows with the Winter Festival of Lights.
What Is the Winter Festival of Lights?
Spreading out from an eight-kilometer route that hugs the Niagara Parkway — and provides gorgeous views of Niagara Falls for its entire length — the Winter Festival of Lights is a massive illumination event that brings light and beauty even in the darkest, bleakest season. The festival is the largest of its kind in all of Canada, and fittingly, it receives annual visitors numbering more than 1.5 million as well as 750 motor coaches filled with travel groups. The entire festival is walkable and navigable by car or bike, so visitors can see the gorgeous displays in whatever comfort they wish.
The Winter Festival of Lights is Niagara’s best-loved celebration of the season. In fact, the festival is internationally recognized as an outstanding illumination display, winning awards from the American Bus Association and Festivals and Events Ontario. However, the festival didn’t pop into existence as a jaw-dropping, can’t-miss holiday event; it took decades for Niagara Falls to develop such an outstanding illumination event.
The History of the Festival
The tradition of adding festive lights to a city for the holiday season is not new, especially in Niagara Falls, which has been a beloved holiday destination for more than two centuries. Though Niagara boasted assorted holiday decorations in the decades before its creation, the Winter Festival of Lights only came into being 35 years ago, in 1982.
In truth, the Canadian side initially launched an organized illumination festival to keep up with the holiday lights displays visible on the American side of the falls. Niagara Falls, New York gained 250,000 winter visitors its first year thanks to its wintertime festival, and Niagara Falls, Ontario was jealous. With generous support from Ontario Power Generation, which maintains the hydro-electric generators that harness the Niagara River, the Niagara, Ontario Winter Festival of Lights was born.
Still, the festival endured a slow start. Initially, there were only a few displays: existing attractions lit up in festive colors and strings of lights adorned buildings, trees, and light posts. Even these decorations brought visitors during Niagara Falls’ off-season, so every year, the festival grew. In 1993, Disney became involved in the region’s winter celebrations, and the famous mouse brought with him unprecedented interest in wintertime Niagara Falls. Not only did the festival become enormous and elaborate, but it included exciting events, including a free, televised concert on New Year’s Eve. So much attention was paid to Canada’s Winter Festival of Lights that America’s relatively puny celebration on the other side of the river quietly folded in 2001.
Though Disney parted ways with the festival in 2013, Niagara Falls has established itself as a premiere destination for holiday travelers. When once it was said you could “shoot a cannonball down Clifton Hill and not hit a soul,” today, hotels and sidewalks are packed with people eager to see the magnificence and splendor of the Winter Festival of Lights.
This Year’s Featured Displays
This year, the festival began on November 18, and it will last until January 31, 2018 — meaning you don’t have much time left to see the magic and wonder of the lights. If you are planning a wintertime trip to Niagara Falls, here are some of the festival events and attractions you must experience:
• Dufferin Islands. Boasting some of the biggest individual displays in the festival — including Noah’s Ark, an Illuminated Fountain, and the mysterious Sylma — Dufferin Islands becomes even more beautiful during the festival.
• Wildlife displays. This year, the festival has added more than 15 different displays featuring Canadian wildlife, including moose, Canadian geese, polar bears, and wolves.
• Clifton Hill. A hub of flashing lights and frantic action during the summer, Clifton Hill dresses up in sophistication and calm for the festival. In the Grand View Marketplace, you can find a giant holiday tree decorated with ornaments and sheltering illuminated presents.
• Lundy’s Lane. Once a bloody battlefield, Lundy’s Lane joins the Festival of Lights for the first time this year with a brand-new display called “The Niagara” — a memorial to the one-of-a-kind falls and the one-of-a-kind community surrounding them.
• Fireworks. Just like summer weekends, Niagara Falls thanks its visitors with nighttime fireworks displays.
What’s more, every night during the Winter Festival of Lights, there is another thrilling event taking place. You can watch a show on ice at Fallsview Casino, visit the Floral Showhouse to see their living Christmas display, catch a Shaw Festival theatrical performance, and more. There is no better reason to venture into the Canadian winter than seeing Niagara’s Winter Festival of Lights.