By: Gabrielle Tieman

Niagara will once again sparkle under millions of lights as the Ontario Power Generation Winter Festival of Lights returns for its milestone 32nd year, transforming the city’s tourist district into a winter wonderland up until January 12.

Globally recognized as North America’s premiere illumination festival, this annual winter event boasts five kilometers of dazzling illuminations. But this will not be a typical year for the world-renowned festival. Shifting its focus towards increasing engagement, the festival has turned its eyes to the future by adding new high-tech 3D illuminations, animated glasses that convert lights into 3D objects, interactive shows, Sylma displays and light projections by Shear Display all choreographed to music.

“We really want to work on bringing us back to lights, but continuing to be a world renowned festival,” said Tina Myers, program director for the festival. “We realized we have become tired and old over the years – we are 32, it’s like we hit that midlife crisis. So we are completely starting over and making everything really animated and fun, beautiful and charming.”

Dufferin Island’s previous light displays will all be retired and recycled this year, with a new focus on music choreographed DMX projection lighting which will wall wash the bridges and trees. Along with the projection lighting will be Sylma light displays scattered throughout the park; including a shimmering animated fountain, a 3D cascading water display and five to 11 foot 3D illuminated animals that will also change colour to the music.

“In the past, we have always had two dimensional lighting displays,” said Myers. “It kind of carried a wildlife perspective and it was beautiful, but it had been the same lights for many years. This year we took all of those lights, they’re going into storage, and this time when you go through Dufferin Island everything will be choreographed to music.”

The music will be broadcasted throughout the park for those who choose to walk the route as well as available over the radio for any choosing to drive the festival.

“We have some people who come in their PJs and hot chocolate and they drive through,” said Myers. “But we do encourage people to get out of their cars and embrace the winter – we are Canadians. But whichever way you do it, we just want to make sure that they are doing the entire parkway and having fun.”

Along the Niagara Parkway, Queen Victoria Park will take your eyes upwards to a 60 foot tree being placed in front of Queen Victoria Restaurant covered in thousands of twinkling lights. This tree will be the focal point and torch of the event’s opening ceremony.

“We are going to flip the switch and the tree will become illuminated,” said Myers. “It’s going to be really exciting.”

Zero Gravity Circus will also be joining the festival for the opening ceremony as well as performing daredevil acts and circus style acrobatics every Friday to Sunday at the bottom of Clifton Hill, in front of Queen Victoria Restaurant and on Dufferin Island near the Sylma displays.

“This is entirely new and exciting,” said Myers. “All of their costumes are going to be LED illuminated or black lit and there is going to be a finale with fire artists. We really want to engage the visitor.”

Working towards their plans for the future, the festival has partnered with Paramount in order to incorporate fan favourite movie characters into the festival’s interactive shows and performances. For the 2014/2025 season, this means bringing the hit Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Niagara for a special fireworks performance, 2D light displays and exclusive movie screenings of the film before its DVD release.

“We will be bringing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the top of Clifton Hill,” said Myers. “There will be four 2D displays perfect for photos with your favourite characters. As well, we will be turning the fireworks green for a special tribute to the film and handing out poncho slickers that look like turtles. There is going to be a sea of green all there to see the fireworks.”

Volunteers will also be handing out a custom form of the animated glasses so that kids will be able to see turtles in the sky as the fireworks are set off.

“On top of working on any kind of strings of light, [the animated glasses] also work on the fireworks,” said Myers. “We are going to encourage people to go down into specific lighting areas so they can see different winter characters in the fireworks.”

Though the festival is free, donations are gladly accepted – with an annual generation of over $100 thousand dollars – all of which help to maintain the event, grow and evolve new initiatives.

The Winter Festival of Lights generates $25 million in economic impact for the region and hosts approximately 1.5 million visitors annually with a large percentage of attendance drawn from outside the Niagara Region. Following an economic impact study, the festival is said to support the equivalent of 452 full-year jobs, helping to grow Niagara’s economy.

With their five year plan to fully animate the festival, the 2014/2015 season is a huge leap into the right direction.

“We want to make the visitor engaged,” said Myers. “We want them to really take control over the displays. We are looking big and it’s only going to get better.”