Holiday in lights: How COVID-19 will change traditions this year

Woodland Lights, a walk-through Christmas lights display near Centerville, Ohio, will return in 2020, but will look a little different due to COVID-19 restrictions. DAVID MOODIE/CONTRIBUTED
Woodland Lights, a walk-through Christmas lights display near Centerville, Ohio, will return in 2020, but will look a little different due to COVID-19 restrictions. DAVID MOODIE/CONTRIBUTED

Credit: DAVID MOODIE

Credit: DAVID MOODIE

Nearly eight months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the entire country, many might be wondering how the virus will change the way we celebrate the holiday season.

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These changes will especially be felt while attending one of the most popular holiday celebrations of the season. We have talked to the organizers behind a few of the biggest holiday lights displays in the area to get a feel for how holiday lights attractions will be changing this year, due to COVID-19, .

This year, Woodland Lights, one of the area’s most impressive lights displays put on by Washington Twp., will be operating on a slightly smaller scale with reduced capacity to ensure that social distancing guidelines are met. For example, the typical amusement park rides (including the Ferris wheel that launched last year) and horse-drawn carriage rides will not be operating this year because social distancing guidelines cannot be met during these activities. Guests can still look forward to live animal shows, safe visits with Santa, an impressive lights display and more at the Woodland Lights attraction this year. Despite these changes, organizers of the Woodland Lights are still doing everything that they can to bring this beloved event back this year.

The Woodland Lights, located in Countryside Park, 895 Miamisburg-Centerville Road, in Washington Twp. is one of the longest-running and most popular annual lights festivals in the Miami Valley area. TOM GILLIAM / CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER
The Woodland Lights, located in Countryside Park, 895 Miamisburg-Centerville Road, in Washington Twp. is one of the longest-running and most popular annual lights festivals in the Miami Valley area. TOM GILLIAM / CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

“People need something to hold onto, and we can do this safely,” said Mark Metzger, Recreation Director for Washington Twp. “Everybody kind of works together, and not just the staff, but the public, that goes along with the protocols and wears their masks and socially distances so that we can do this safely and have a lot of fun doing it. So, I hope that everybody just comes along for the ride.”

Before attending Woodland Lights this year, guests will need to purchase tickets online and reserve a time in which to see the lights display by visiting Washington Twp.’s website. To ensure that as many guests as possible have the opportunity to visit the Woodland Lights, the attraction will be operating with different hours this year. Now, Woodland Lights will be operating from 5:30-7:30 p.m. and 8-10 p.m., during every weekend from Nov. 27 through Dec. 13, and then every night from Dec. 18-27. So, essentially, visitors will pick from one of those two time blocks when making a reservation online. All of these procedures are being put into place to ensure that the attraction’s capacity can remain at 400, instead of its usual 3,000 per night.

Between each showing, the volunteers and staff at Woodland Lights will be doing a deep cleaning of all high-touch surfaces. The price of the attraction has also been lowered to $7 per person from the typical $9 per person, as many of the usual activities are not being offered this year.

Woodland Lights will also be offering visits with Santa, though these visits will look a bit different this year in order to maintain proper social distancing protocols. Though organizers want to keep the details of these visits a surprise, Metzger was able to provide some insight into what these visits will look like this year.

“So we’re going to move him into our A-frame cabin,” said Metzger. “I don’t want to give too much away, but we’ve provided a space for them to visit with Santa and to have a really nice photo moment with Santa where Santa and the child are protected. Our theater staff is going to be involved. We asked our set designers and theatrical people to come up with a solution to this problem and to figure out something that would make him feel safe.”

Luckily, Fort St. Clair’s Whispering Christmas lights display, located in Fort St. Clair State Park in Eaton, was already a drive-through operation, meaning that organizers could more easily adjust the structure of the event to meet coronavirus guidelines. These adjustments include not permitting customers to leave their cars for any reason, unlike operations of years past when customers ventured outside of their vehicles to visit with Santa and explore the lights displays and cabins. Whispering Christmas' beloved Battle Areas, where different members of the community compete to come up with the best lights display, will still be available for viewing in the drive-thru.

Fort St. Clair's Whispering Christmas light display is one of the region's drive-thru lights displays. Fort Saint Clair State Park is located at 135 Camden Road in Eaton. TOM GILLIAM/CONTRIBUTED
Fort St. Clair's Whispering Christmas light display is one of the region's drive-thru lights displays. Fort Saint Clair State Park is located at 135 Camden Road in Eaton. TOM GILLIAM/CONTRIBUTED

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

“So, we’re asking everyone to continue moving, come out and enjoy the lights,” said Amber Willeford, one of the main organizers of Fort St. Clair’s Whispering Christmas. “We are happy that we’re still able to move forward with setting up the lights and the battle areas. We have different businesses in our community participating to help out, but things will look different this year.”

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Other aspects of the Fort St. Clair’s Whispering Christmas will also be changing to abide by the new drive-through policy. These changes include the use of a handful of volunteers to pass out candy to passersby and a letter dropbox for all of the letters to Santa Claus. Santa will also be on the premises, though visitors can only wave to him from a distance now, in order to ensure the health and wellbeing of all parties involved. To make up for the lack of in-person visits with Santa, organizers will be posting video messages on the Fort St. Clair’s Whispering Christmas Facebook page.

Customers will not need to purchase tickets online or prior to the event and the cost is still a suggested donation of $5 per person. The layout of the drive-through operation will also be the same this year, with customers entering at the main entrance, off Camden Road, then turning left upon entering and following that path until the end of the lights display. Along the way, there will be signage that directs the customers and encourages them to remain in their cars at all time.

This will also be the second year of the Jingle Jog, though the 5K will be a virtual event this year. Participants will be able to complete the 5K on their own between Nov. 22-25. Though there is no set route for participants, organizers have created a suggested route at the fort that participants can complete at their own leisure between those days. The suggested route can be used by organizers between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. each night.

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“We’re really excited that we’re able to do it,” said Willeford. “Our biggest thing is that we want everyone to understand that they cannot stop or park — that’s gonna be the big difference. There will be no access to bathrooms, so be sure to plan ahead. We want to make sure that we can follow along as best we can with all of the guidelines and keep everyone safe.”

Starting the day after Thanksgiving, Fort St. Clair’s Whispering Christmas will be open seven days a week from 6-10 p.m. For more information about Fort St. Clair’s Whispering Christmas, pay a visit to their Facebook page.

Light Up Middletown will also be changing a few key aspects of their holiday lights display. For example, there will be no visits with Santa or pictures on the weekends, no balloon glow and, to reduce contact between the event’s organizers and their customers, no handouts will be distributed.

Light Up Middletown is on for 2020 with a few changes for COVID-19 safety. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Light Up Middletown is on for 2020 with a few changes for COVID-19 safety. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Organizers will be adding a couple of new displays and the lights display will be the same as it has been in previous years. Light Up Middletown, located at 500 Tytus Ave. in Middletown, will be opening on Thanksgiving night through Dec. 31 from 6-10 p.m. on every night, including all holidays.

For more information about Light Up Middletown, pay a visit to their website.

Other area holiday lights displays like Holiday Lights on the Hill in Hamilton, Holiday in Lights at Sharon Woods, Christmas Nights of Lights at Coney Island, Clifton Mill and The Christmas Ranch will also be opening this year.

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