Drive-thru Christmas lights festivals forced to go dark early as Ontario lockdown looms

Drive-thru Christmas light festivals will be going dark in Ontario weeks earlier than organizers planned under Premier Doug Ford’s stricter COVID-19 measures, which go into effect on Saturday.

And some organizers said any hope they might change the Ford government’s mind over the holidays was quickly dimming.

Andrew Gidaro, who co-produces Holiday Nights of Lights in Vaughan, Ont., said Thursday that what started as a “meaningful dialogue” with leaders seeking a possible solution became less reassuring as Christmas drew nearer.

He now worries about the “chaos” that will play out after the holidays as people pull into his glimmering lights showcase only to find out they missed an email notifying them their tickets were cancelled.

Several other light festival operators described the confusion that played out leading up to Christmas as the drive-thru spectacles they created suddenly became outlawed.

Monica Gomez, whose Polar Drive near Toronto’s Pearson International Airport was scheduled to run until January, says she was surprised to learn she would have to shut down.

Her region had already been operating under stricter grey-zone lockdown measures that started on Nov. 23, but drive-thrus were still allowed up until the announcement earlier this week. 

“It’s Christmas, this was put on us last-minute, and now people aren’t in office,” Gomez said of attempts to contact local officials.

‘This was about doing something for families’

“It wasn’t all about the revenue. This was about doing something for families. In our mind, we’re like, why would you take that one thing away from people right now?” 

Gomez said it doesn’t make sense that her contactless event isn’t allowed to continue while drive-thru fast-food restaurants can still hand out items through a pick-up window.

Ontario is grappling with rising COVID-19 infection rates, including a record high of 2,447 new cases reported Thursday.

Residents are being told to stay home as much as possible and only go out for essential services, even before the province-wide lockdown begins on Dec. 26. It will last at least a month.

The latest changes affected other businesses that relied on in-car experiences.

Drive-in movies, exhibits forced to close as well

Drive-in movie theatres were told several days before the opening of Wonder Woman 1984 on Dec. 25 that they could no longer operate, while the drive-in Immersive Van Gogh exhibit at 1 Yonge Street will be forced to close as well.

Some drive-in Christmas light events have already thrown in the towel, including Canadian Tire’s Christmas Trail, which closed up on Dec. 23 and cancelled all future reservations.

Daryl Driegen, director of operations at Glow Gardens in Fort Erie, Ont., says the timing couldn’t be worse.

The week leading up to Christmas and the week after the holidays are “prime” periods of activity for his three-kilometre stretch of lights inside Safari Niagara. He was planning to stay open into mid-January.

Staff being fired on Christmas Eve, says one operator

“This order is forcing us to fire all of our staff on Christmas Eve,” he said.

Driegen says Glow’s locations faced a similar hurdle in British Columbia, where drive-thru Christmas light events ran against regulations until a case was made to keep them open. 

He says with ticketed events, at least families are required to stay in their car. If they’re out spotting decorated houses in their neighbourhoods, he believes more people are likely to walk around and cross paths with other sightseers.

But without a solution to keep Ontario’s holiday drive-thrus open, Driegen only sees disappointment from thousands of customers he said purchased tickets for the coming weeks. 

Driegen said his customer service department got overwhelmed with requests from visitors looking to move their tickets to before the lockdown.

“But I can’t handle more capacity, so the people just couldn’t go,” he said.

“Families (may have) planned this as their one Christmas activity but now that’s snatched away from them.”

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