Niagara’s Winter Festival of Lights has run every year since 1950 and the two waterfalls at Niagara have been lit in rainbow colours during the winter season most years since 1925, after the creation of the ‘Niagara Falls Illumination Board’. Nowadays, the lights run from November to February with fireworks before, and during, the Christmas and New Year weekends adding to the spectacle.
Light displays used to focus exclusively on the falls. The first occurred in 1860 using Bengal lights (a kind of firework), for a visit by the Prince of Wales. Electricity was used for the first time in 1879, to welcome the Governor-General of Canada, the Marquis of Lorne and his wife, Princess Louise, but the modern festival of lights began in 1983, when Niagara Falls, the local tourism bureau, and local businesses got together to establish it. The lights have steadily spread out from the falls, through the Queen Victoria Park and the Niagara Parkway, and into the city. Where there were once 250,000 visitors, there are now one million.
The weather plays an important part in the falls display. In years when the temperature sits around zero, the falls have more water than ice, which means the American falls, which have much less spray (and face the lights directly) reflect the colors better than the Canadian or Horseshoe Falls.
After a succession of really cold winter days, however, the Canadian, or Horseshoe, Falls are almost frozen over and the light show on the ice is spectacular. In case you’re wondering, the Canadian Falls are the ones most people speak of when they talk about Niagara Falls. They’re the bigger, more impressive of the two. When the winter isn’t quite cold enough, the plume of spray that keeps us all cool in summer blurs the impact of the light show.
On the Canadian side, the place to visit is the Duffin’s Island Park section of the Festival. The bad news is it is a single lane going one way and hence nose-to-tail traffic. The really good news is you’ve time to get out and take photos or just sit and admire the view. Coloured lights reflecting from the snow make great pictures, if you’ve a steady hand or a tripod.
The Queen Victoria Park gardens also shine brightly with displays along the sides of the Niagara Parkway (handy for slow drive-by viewing on cold winter evenings) and also among the trees and bushes designed for leisurely walks on the trails. Wrap up warmly and join the throng, you’ll be glad you did.
While there are many displays that remain the same, there’s always something being added. For 2009-2010, there’s a new ice-rink right on the edge of the Canadian Falls called, appropriately, ‘Rink at the Brink’. Visit the festival’s web site Festival of Lights for all the details for this year’s events.