River Lights Winter Festival

Attendance up at this year’s River Lights Winter Festival



By Ron Giofu


The River Lights Winter Festival has officially concluded and its co-ordinator is reporting an increase in attendance.

Sarah Van Grinsven estimates that approximately 28,000-30,000 people passed through this year, “which is awesome.”

“Visitation was definitely up this year,” she reported. “Every year, it goes up. We’ve become a tradition for families to come out to. A lot of people don’t celebrate their holidays without River Lights being involved.”

The 2017-18 festival didn’t get started in a traditional way, as Mother Nature brought a soaking rain the Saturday of opening weekend.

“This year started with a twist because we’ve never had to postpone opening night at River Lights,” said Van Grinsven. “That really got us hopping trying to make alternative plans.”

The River Lights Winter Festival drew an estimated crowd of 28,000-30,000 people in 2017-18.

Van Grinsven stated that vendors and partners were able to push things back one night in order to have opening night on Sunday.

“Everyone likes River Lights and wants to see it run smoothly,” she said.

While the fireworks weren’t able to be rescheduled this year, plans call for them to return next year. Van Grinsven said they will plan for a rain date as well.

“We’ve never had to have a rain date before,” she stated.

The Essex Region Conservation Foundation’s Super Santa Run was also held opening weekend and took place as scheduled, even with the rain.

“It was pretty awesome to see how dedicated people were,” said Van Grinsven.

While 2018-19 plans still have to be worked on and finalized, Van Grinsven said the committee always finds ways to improve it and make the winter festival brighter. This year included the addition of trees wrapped with lights in Navy Yard Park between Richmond St. and Rankin Ave.

The view from the intersection of Dalhousie St. and North St., looking into Toddy Jones Park.

“That really seemed to bring the two parks (Navy Yard Park and Toddy Jones Park) together,” said Van Grinsven. “I know we’ll be able to do more of that in the future. We’re always adding to River Lights.”

The Holiday House Tours were “fabulous” this year, she reported, adding praise for the decorators of the homes. The Christmas tree dresses were a hit there and were later transported to Windsor Crossing outlet mall in LaSalle where they helped promote Amherstburg and the festival, she added.

“Having all of that cross-promotion showed Essex County what we can do in Amherstburg,” said Van Grinsven.

The gingerbread contest was popular again this year, she continued, as was the warming house. The House Youth Centre helped run the warming house as volunteers provided hot chocolate for the attendees.

The parkette at King’s Navy Yard Park was lit up for River Lights. The annual winter festival officially concluded Jan. 7.

“It’s great for youth to be involved in it,” said Van Grinsven. “They enjoy doing the activities with us.”

Telus helped sponsor the hot chocolate program with Van Grinsven thanking all sponsors for their assistance with this year’s event. Enbridge sponsored the entire festival for the fourth straight year and will be back for at least another year, with Van Grinsven adding that knowing Enbridge is back for another year helps River Lights plan next year’s event.

“Thank you to everyone who made this work,” she stated. “We have over 100 volunteers and community partners. All of the organizations (that assisted) are made up of volunteers. River Lights works because of the volunteers in Amherstburg. It’s wonderful to see how the community comes together and how important this is to the quality of life in Amherstburg. Thank you to everyone who made it happen.”

Holiday House Tours return to big crowds


By Ron Giofu


The fifth annual Holiday House Tours returned over the weekend with large crowds joining in.

The two-day event, presented by an eight-person committee, is the largest fundraiser for the River Lights Winter Festival. There were eight private homes on this year’s Holiday House Tours as well as the House Youth Centre, the latter being used as the tea room stop and as the weekend home of the Christmas tree dress exhibit.

Gail Disher looks at a Christmas tree dress at The House Youth Centre Saturday afternoon.

“The better this fundraiser does, the brighter River Lights gets,” said Sarah Van Grinsven, co-ordinator of the River Lights Winter Festival.

Van Grinsven said many groups of people went through, including people from as far as Toronto.

“Ticket sales are higher than last year,” she reported. “Everyone is absolutely impressed by the houses and the Christmas tree dress exhibit is a hit. Every house is unique.”

(UPDATE: Van Grinsven told the RTT Wednesday morning that the event drew approximately 800 visitors and was “incredibly successful.”)

The Christmas tree dress exhibit originated last year when similar dresses were displayed in homes. Van Grinsven explained that the committee and the designers decided to have a full display of eight dresses this year and have it as a standalone exhibit as part of the Holiday House Tours’ fifth anniversary celebration.

Those who took the tour were pleased with what they saw. Paige Bezaire was part of a group of friends including Chas Bondy, Jenny Mayea and Laura Micallef and came away impressed.

Paige Bezaire, Chas Bondy, Jenny Mayea and Laura Micallef admire one of the table settings during the Holiday House Tours.

“It’s very nice,” said Bezaire. “It’s our first year on the tour. It’s nice to see everyone’s take on it.”

“It’s nice to see the different themes,” agreed Micallef, with Mayea adding “no two houses are the same.”

Gail Disher came in from Kingsville and enjoyed the tour, including the Christmas tree exhibit.

“It’s beautiful. It’s fantastic,” she said, as she viewed the dresses. “It’s very well done.”

Disher said volunteers were “very friendly” and “we’re really enjoying it.”

Janice Wingrove and Lynne Boley came in from Chatham to view the houses. Wingrove joked she needed to “go home, have a rest then start working around my house” after viewing the Amherstburg homes. She said they took similar tours in Chatham-Kent but the age of some of the Amherstburg homes added to the tour.

“I liked this one because the homes are a little more historic,” she said.

Janice Wingrove and Lynne Boley of Chatham admire a mantlepiece at one of the Dalhousie St. homes.

Boley added that the decorations that go along with the homes were also impressive.

Gloria and Ernie Bondy opened their Dalhousie St. home for the tour and were glad they did.

“I can’t believe how many people have come through,” said Gloria.

Bondy said they, as well as those on the tour, enjoyed the decorations. She added they were asked several years ago if they were on the tour and at that point said no, but when the opportunity to join in came this year, they jumped at it.

“Santa’s Bedroom” was decorated at the Stoyanovich home on Concession 2 North.

“It’s fun,” said Gloria. “I like meeting people. I’m a people person.”

The homes were decorated by private citizens – including the homeowners themselves like Jill and Matt Stoyanovich on Concession 2 North – and businesses like Dusty Loft Antiques, Canadian Tire, Anna’s Flowers, Sobeys floral, Country Bliss and Elmara Flowers. Committee members included Van Grinsven, Monica Bunde, Elizabeth Davidson, Jennifer Ibrahim, Corine Jones, Carla Lauzon-Abson, Michelle Lecours, Anne Rota and Annette Zahaluk.

River Lights says thanks to Park House with donation



By Ron Giofu


The Park House Museum has been an active partner in this year’s River Lights Winter Festival and the latter is now saying thanks.

River Lights co-ordinator Sarah Van Grinsven presented a cheque for $500 to Park House curator Stephanie Pouget-Papak last Friday morning. Van Grinsven explained the donation was due to the fact the Park House has worked with River Lights on such events as the Holiday House Tours.

“Every year, the house tours committee chooses a community based organization,” said Van Grinsven. “We choose an association that could benefit from the exposure.”

With three other homes on the Holiday House Tours being in the vicinity of the Park House Museum, the museum was chosen to be the “tea room” on this year’s tour.

River Lights co-ordinator Sarah Van Grinsven (left) presents a $500 cheque to Park House Museum curator Sarah Van Grinsven.

River Lights co-ordinator Sarah Van Grinsven (left) presents a $500 cheque to Park House Museum curator Stephanie Pouget-Papak.

“This year, we chose the Park House, which was perfect,” said Van Grinsven.

Pouget-Papak said the money will be put back into the programming the Park House Museum offers. They currently still offer a Victorian Christmas exhibit with students that pass through the museum getting lessons from the Ontario curriculum, she added. A fur trade exhibit is planned for the spring, Pouget-Papak added.

The River Lights’ Gingerbread Warming House closes for the season this Sunday and Van Grinsven said the snow on the ground makes it a better experience.

“The lights look extra fabulous when snow is on the ground,” she said. “We want people to take advantage of it.”
The Park House closes for the season Dec. 21 though is open by appointment in January and February.

“Working with River Lights has been great,” said Pouget-Papak. “We’re building partnerships to make our community stronger.”

Van Grinsven agreed that the partnership has been a good one, adding the Park House was also a part of River Lights’ “Downtown Holiday Nights” at the beginning of this year’s festival.

Love at the Lights



By Adam D’Andrea

When one young woman went to meet her boyfriend at the Amherstburg River Lights, she never could have imagined what was waiting for her as she turned the corner.

Alicia Savoni strolled down the path in King’s Navy Yard Park last Thursday night to find her boyfriend Dan Lombardo and a marriage proposal she’ll never forget. Lombardo, with some help from his father, had constructed a light-up sign with the message “Will You Marry Me?” and placed it among the River Lights. Savoni’s reaction was best summed up in three words.

Dan Lombardo proposes to his girlfriend Alicia Savoni at the Amherstburg River Lights in King’s Navy Yard Park on Dec. 8. (Photo by Adam D’Andrea)

Dan Lombardo proposes to his girlfriend Alicia Savoni at the Amherstburg River Lights in King’s Navy Yard Park on Dec. 8. (Photo by Adam D’Andrea)

“Oh my God!” said Savoni, 24. She was expecting to walk by the River Lights and head to Barrel 67 for dinner with Lombardo, but was “definitely not expecting” an elaborate marriage proposal.

“I thought he was just going to do it the old fashioned way,” she said.

Lombardo, 24, got the idea when he was browsing the internet for interesting and memorable marriage proposal ideas. Following a call to the Town to check if there were any underground utilities in the area, he got the go-ahead and began planning.

Alicia Savoni shows off her engagement ring after accepting a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Dan Lombardo at the Amherstburg River Lights in King’s Navy Yard Park Dec. 8. (Photo by Adam D’Andrea)

Alicia Savoni shows off her engagement ring after accepting a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Dan Lombardo at the Amherstburg River Lights in King’s Navy Yard Park Dec. 8. (Photo by Adam D’Andrea)

“I just typed in ‘light up letters’ and found this,” he said. “I decided to put a sign together and I thought the Amherstburg Lights was a great idea because we come here every year.”