It’s Christmas in July for the organizers of Winter Wonderfest.
After three years at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal and Cape Henlopen State Park, the popular holiday light show and Christmas Village, which runs from the weekend before Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve, will move to Hudson Fields in Milton this winter.
John Snow, president of the Festival of Cheer board, said the new 60-acre space allows the event to be bigger and brighter with everything in one location, just off Route 1.
“The company that does our lights has been telling us since we started that we would be the first successful event like this not located near and visible from a major highway,” Snow said. “They were kind of prophetic.”
Board member Brittany Danahy said the event simply outgrew the ferry and state park, and the Hudson Fields location will allow more food and beverage options, add to the Christmas Village and continue to grow the light show.
“It wasn’t a bad break up,” she said about moving away from the ferry and state park.
“We were running out of room,” Snow said. “On busy nights, people were literally being turned away because there wasn’t anywhere to park.”
Not only can the new location offer more space, but it will remove limitations of operating in a state park or on the ferry’s private land. Hours can be longer, specifically on New Year’s Eve, and organizers will accommodate birthday parties and large groups, even offering hay rides through the light show.
“This gives us a lot of options we didn’t have before,” Snow said.
Winter Wonderfest started in 2016 on a shoe-string budget. Snow said the first year was about testing the waters to see if the community wanted and would support the event. While there were some hiccups, he said, it was a success, and they raised a lot of money for local charities. The philanthropic mission of the event is often lost, he said, but it’s the event’s main focus.
“It was surprising to all of us how large a percentage of people did not realize this was an event for charity,” Snow said, noting that proceeds from the event’s first three years have resulted in about $150,000 in grants to local charities.
Following last year’s event, organizers made a conscious decision to pull back on donations to invest in the longevity of the event. Rather than shell out a lot of money each year to rent and maintain an ice rink, organizers chose to shift funds to purchase an ice rink – a $450,000 expense. Snow said a capital campaign raised $350,000, and they still owe money to pay it off.
Snow said the event wouldn’t be possible without support from the community. He said Schell Brothers invested $250,000 in creating the miniature homes, stores, workshops and other buildings for the Christmas Village, and the Hudson family is making a major contribution by putting in the electric infrastructure to power the Christmas Village and ice rink, which runs 24 hours a day the entire length of the event.
Although the first three years were successful, Snow said there were some challenges to overcome. Drawing people to the light show at the end of a dead end street was not easy, he said. Compounding the problem was sending cars past the Christmas Village at the ferry terminal to get to the light show, he said.
“A lot of people were never making it to the light show,” he said. “People were confused because they thought it was the light show.”
This year’s event will take folks through the light show and end at the Christmas Village. Snow said the plan is for cars to enter the back of the Hudson family’s property on Hudson Road and meander through woods and the athletic fields before finishing near the parking lot along Eagle Crest Road. For guests visiting only the Christmas Village, there will be access off Eagle Crest Road.
The event will kick off, as it always does, with the Dashing through the Show 5K and 1-Mile Fun Walk. It will conclude with a New Year’s Eve ball drop.
Sponsorships are available, and the event is always looking for volunteers.
“When the light show arrives, it comes in two tractor trailers with two drivers and a manager, then we have to set it up ourselves,” Snow said. “We set the whole thing up with our volunteers.”
Organizers are also accepting applications for food trucks interested in setting up at the event.
To learn more about the event, go to www.wonderfestde.org.