The new-look Winterfest of Lights is here to stay in its 29th year.

Last year, event organizers unveiled a new layout to the annual holiday-season tradition to accommodate covid-19 and following the rave reviews it garnered, they decided to stick with the made-over festival that kicks off at Northside Park on 125th Street on Thursday.

“Patrons spoke and we listened,” said Special Events Director Frank Miller. “The walking path is back and refined.”

For years, Winterfest consisted of a tram ride through a colorfully illuminated Northside Park adorned with Christmas displays and a large, heated tent.

“Those days are gone and it’s not a bad thing,” Miller said. “One thing we learned is that change is good. 

“Masks aren’t required like they were (last year) — people will wear them and that’s fine — but the outdoor walking experience was so well received,” he continued. “We had so many positive compliments on it that council decided to move forward with a walking event again for 2021.”

The tram will not be coming back at all, and Miller said it doesn’t seem like many people miss it.

“That’s also given that we’ve been missing some of our loyal crowd (due to covid-19),” he said. “We’ll see what happens in 2021. It is a change in progress. We want Winterfest to be a unique experience, but to maintain that family-friendly (feel) and family traditions that it’s had for so many years. [This year] is sort of a testbed to see what people want and what they like.”

Thursday’s opening ceremony will feature the OC Stars choir from Ocean City Elementary School and a “surprise show in the sky,” Miller said. 

The surprise show will happen on Friday, too.

The expanded walking path this year offers the option to take a shorter or longer stroll through the park. Last year’s path followed the lagoon all the way around. This year’s path is expanded to include a walk through the softball field.

Winterfest mainstay hot chocolate, provided by the Ocean City Recreation and Parks Boosters, will be available “inside the event footprint,” Miller said. 

Some of the larger light displays have returned to the park this year. Winterfest will also include crowd-favorite and all-new photo hotspots and two photo options with Santa Claus — Santa’s sleigh or chair.

Every Wednesday, pets are permitted for “Furry Friends Day.”

Winterfest will run until Jan. 1. Miller said that, typically, the event gets a little more than 100,000 visitors each year. Last year, the final number was down a bit, with the festival drawing 74,201 guests.

Miller said he’s hoping that number rebounds this year, but he isn’t sure what to expect.

“We’re just going with the flow,” he said. “We don’t know what to expect from the crowd-adverse patron base.”

Winterfest runs Wednesday through Sunday every from 5:30-9:30 p.m.

The event is free on opening night. For all subsequent nights, admission is $5 for guests 12 years and older and free for children 11 and younger. Tickets are available online and at the event, but Miller urges patrons to secure tickets beforehand.

Call 410-250-0125 or visit https://www.ococean.com/events/winterfest-of-lights2021 for more information.

This story appears in the print edition of the OC Today on Nov. 12.

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