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TRADITION ON HOLIDAY LIGHTS BEING REVIVED BY WHEATFIELD

You can't keep a good holiday tradition down.

That's why four years after the last light bulb of the Festival of Lights went dark in downtown Niagara Falls, that same spirit of Christmas past has flicked the switch on a new display of holiday lights and decorations about 12 miles down the road.

"Holiday Lights of Niagara -- A Festival Returns" is a direct descendent of the famous festival that drew thousands of tourists to Niagara Falls for nearly 20 years. It is also a distant cousin of the holiday lights drive-through that ran at Delaware Park in Buffalo until a couple of years ago.

"Holiday Lights" is loosely based on the same concept: A carload of participants pays $10 to cruise through Oppenheim Park on Niagara Falls Boulevard and view 53 lighted displays, some of which are animated. Each car also gets a program book and a bag of popcorn.

"We're very pleased to bring a family event back to the area. Although it's very similar to the one that used to be in Delaware Park, it's not the same," said Carol Houwaart-Diez, president of the United Way of Niagara.

The United Way is coordinating the event by receiving the many donations from sponsors and contracting with the display company for the electric snowmen and other characters.

United Way volunteers were setting up the displays out in the drizzle and rain all weekend to make sure all the connections were made in time for the VIP party today and the grand opening at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Along with the snowmen are snowwomen, a Statue of Liberty, teddy bears and a host of other characters of the brand-new winter wonderland to delight young and old.

"Some of the displays are animated, and some go over the road such as basketball players, candy canes, holly and penguins," Houwaart-Diez said. The "beautiful animated carousel" is her favorite.

Some of the pitfalls of the original Niagara Falls festival were complaints that the displays often remained the same year after year, and showed signs of disrepair and neglect.

"We have a five-year contract (with the display company). The displays will change every year to bring something fresh and new. That's the exciting part," Houwaart-Diez explained. "Our hope is to build upon it every year. In the future, we may have a jingle bell run, sleigh rides, hayrides, and activities for children, such as a breakfast."

"Holiday Lights" will run from Tuesday to New Year's Day. It will be open to vehicles only, from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

There will be special walks from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Dec. 4 and 18, during which no vehicles will be permitted. The first 250 visitors get a free pedometer provided by BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York.

Cooperation has been very good, Houwaart-Diez said. Forty of the displays have sponsors. She said the biggest were Ferguson Electric, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 237 and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.

Niagara County has donated use of the park, while the Town of Wheatfield is providing police protection.

Wheatfield Supervisor Timothy E. Demler said he welcomed the event. "There's plenty of room for everybody," he said.

Demler said the town planned to sponsor one of the displays soon.

Houwaart-Diez, who was one of the volunteers at the original Festival of Lights, said another volunteer made her see the evolution of the event in a different light:

"A young girl who volunteers put it in proper perspective. She said, 'My whole life, the festival existed. I was very depressed when it closed. It's so exciting to see it return like this.' "

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