Festival of Lights Reaches 25 Years

WHEELING – With a flash of light and a burst of fireworks, the holiday season kicked off Thursday night in the Ohio Valley.

The 25th Anniversary Winter Festival of Lights officially began at 6:15 p.m. when Health Plan President and Chief Executive Officer Phil Wright performed the ceremonial flipping of the switch at Oglebay Park’s Wilson Lodge.

Prior to the ceremony, Doug Dalby, president and chief executive officer of the Wheeling Park Commission, gave opening remarks.

“For those of us who have been here since the beginning,” he said, “It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this for 25 years.”

Dalby noted at the time of the first festival in 1985, when there were just five light displays and some landscape lighting, Ronald Reagan had just began his second term in office. He said a lot has changed since then, but one constant has been that those visiting the show rarely leave disappointed.

Dalby shared some statistics from recent surveys given to those who visit the festival. He said 96 percent of people rate the show as “excellent” or “good” and 70 percent of respondents have been there before.

Then a special well-wisher appeared on the projector screen to deliver a pre-recorded message – “Today” show personality Willard Scott, who once flipped the switch during the festival’s early years.

“You’ve got a friend on the ‘Today’ show,” Scott said. “As long as I can help you, I will do it.”

The party then moved outside, where after a countdown from 10 Wright flipped the switch, flanked by his wife Linda Wright, his daughter, Trish Bush, Dalby, and Wheeling Park Commission members G. Ogden Nutting, Roland “Ron” Hobbs, Wilbur “Bill” Jones, Sue Farnsworth and Dr. Donald Hofreuter. A long line of hedges and light-up candles illuminated the night against a backdrop of fireworks.

Dalby said when the festival began, no one involved thought about whether it would still be there a quarter-century later. But, he said, it has continued to grow and change year after year. Four brand-new displays this year include a 25th anniversary display, a Health Plan display, the Oglebay Village and a vibrant, new American flag.

Dalby said the process of converting the display to energy-efficient LED, or light emitting diode, lights is 30-40 percent complete. He believes the change will be a good economic as well as environmental decision.

“We’re a park, and that’s part of what we are,” Dalby said.

Also present at the light-up ceremony was Caroline Ihlenfeld, who teaches classes on radio and television at Wheeling Park High School. Her students at the high school’s radio station, 99.1 FM, provide music visitors can listen to as they drive through the park. Ihlenfeld, a former Park student herself, said WPHS students have done that since the festival’s inception. Ihlenfeld noted in the early years, someone had to be on site each night, including Christmas, to broadcast music live during festival hours.

“Now, it’s all computerized and it’s really neat how it’s evolved,” she said.

Ihlenfeld added welding students under Lou Winters and electronics students under Jeff Higgins help to build and wire many of the more than 70 displays at the festival, something she said is a year-round job.