A celebration of the chill Tourism: A winter festival planned for mid-January in the Inner Harbor is meant to lure visitors and locals outdoors to spend some time and some money.

January 08, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Tiki torches will flicker by the palm trees as a steel drum band plays on the stage with a thatched roof. Along the midway, barkers will beckon with old-fashioned carnival games. Bagpipers and brass bands will blow their tunes.

It's a tropical carnival coming to Baltimore's Inner Harbor and it's the focal point of what organizers hope will become a nationally recognized winter festival.

City and state agencies, civic groups, businesses, tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants are throwing the weekend-long "Baltimore On Ice" Jan. 19-21 as part a new effort to thaw the historic deep freeze in the city's tourism industry.

It's all about changing the definition of winter getaway, says Michael Whipple, general manager of the Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel.

"Nobody wants to sit home all winter, and not everybody's going to go to the islands," Mr. Whipple says.

"Not everybody's going to be able to afford to go out West to go skiing. We're giving people a reason to get out of their warm, snuggly places and come on down to the city."

Organizers predict 15,000 to 20,000 visitors from the Baltimore area and surrounding states such as Pennsylvania, where the event will be advertised.

Baltimore On Ice serves as the centerpiece of a winter-long effort called Baltimore's Hottest Winter, aimed at luring visitors

downtown with a comprehensive campaign led by the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit business group.

The effort includes $1 million worth of advertising, mostly in the metropolitan area, and $500,000 in donations or in-kind contributions provided by Baltimore-area businesses.

The origins of Baltimore On Ice can be traced to 1988, when the city government, tourist attractions and hotels joined to promote the city during the winter with events near the Inner Harbor ice rink.

The city convention bureau said the effort contributed about $4 million in additional visitor spending to the campaign before public matching funds dried up last fiscal year.

This year marks the first weekend-long festival, inspired in part .. by successful winter extravaganzas in other cities.

How better to draw visitors to a traditional warm-weather destination, organizers reasoned, than by bringing the sights and sounds of summer?

Those who actually prefer playing in the cold need not despair: Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop plan to bring their snow-making machines to blanket Rash Field for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, not to mention volleyball (think of it as a white beach) and obstacle course competitions.

Children will get free animal noses and skate alongside their favorite costumed mascots on the popular Inner Harbor rink. Members of the Maryland Speed Skating Association will strut their stuff on ice, and artists will turn it into sculpture.

The Oriole Bird, other team mascots and professional athletes will be on hand. No, nobody's managed to book Cal Ripken Jr. -- yet.

But you can visit the place where he never misses a day of work: Oriole Park at Camden Yards will open Jan. 20 and 21 for tours to anyone who brings free vouchers that will be distributed at the festival.

While Quebec City's winter festival is recognized as North America's most famous, numerous other cities have organized festivals and events to lure visitors during the slow months of winter.

Ocean City's "Winterfest of Lights," now in its third year, beckons with more than 800,000 lights creating animated displays. The festival, which runs from mid-November until the end of January, also features concerts, dances and boardwalk train rides.

Ocean City's leaders took their cue from other towns such as Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Williamsburg, Va., which built festivals around winter light displays.

Cleveland just launched a $300,000, four-state ad campaign to attract winter visitors with discounts to hotels and attractions and activities from the rain forest to theaters and sports events.

Such festivals, says Baltimore On Ice director Melissa Gianiny, help prove to locals and out-of-state visitors that the chill's effect is greatly exaggerated.

"People just tend not to get out and get going during the winter months," she says. "We need to get them out and celebrating the season. I think they'll see there are fun activities outside, and we'll get them out of the house."

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