How Storytelling Enhances a Motor Coach Tour: Intertwinging History, Folklore,Anecdotes, and insight with the Facts

As the West Virginia Storytelling Guild enters into 2019—with all of its opportunities to network, grow professionally and individually as artists and givers of wisdom—it seems fitting to begin with a special blog article that shares something of the treasures found within the borders of our own state. Most will agree that Oglebay is a West Virginia crown jewel. Read on to see how one veteran storyteller has put his imprint on storytelling at Oglebay and then look at some ways that storytelling can be re-invented for educational purposes as found in West Virginia ARTWorks, a publication for artists from the Division of Culture and History.

How Storytelling Enhances a Motor Coach Tour:

Intertwining History, Folklore, Anecdotes, and Insight with the Facts

by Richard Knoblich

For thirty-three years Oglebay Resort, operated by the Wheeling Park Commission, has successfully staged a major holiday light festival spread over three hundred acres of the park, featuring over one million LED lights. Motorcoach companies offer day visits or overnight trips to experience the Winter Festival of Lights staged each evening from early November to early January. Not surprising to storytellers, the creators soon realized that just looking at the displays is not enough. Guests want to hear about the creative backdrop that developed this amazing light show.

The tours have three different starting points depending on what the motor coach company has planned for its passengers. For an enjoyable sightseeing visit to the museums and shops, you can start at the Visitors Center. Perhaps a laser light show with 40,000 flashing LED lights choreographed to music is the main attraction, with the jumping off point as the Good Zoo. Or you can plan an extended overnight stay to visit historic Wheeling, Oglebay Resort, or the casino; in this case, a dinner buffet with a musical show would have you beginning at the newly renovated Wilson Lodge.

These locations are where the Festival of Lights tour guides step into the picture, literally. Joining the motor coach driver and tour escort at each starting point, the Oglebay tour guide climbs aboard to greet the seated guests with a hearty welcome. Here begins the light tour, carefully word-crafted by the storyteller to match the light show with backstory unparalleled. Doubting that this magnificent light show can be enhanced? Read on.

To paraphrase the manual description (which is factually straight forward) of one major display: ‘the candy cane wreath debuted in 1985. The wreath is over 50 feet in diameter and up to 47 feet high, with 18,657 lights.’ Huh? How many numbers did this brief description supply? With nearly one hundred displays, guests will only follow a narrative with so many numbers. And this is where the storyteller heightens the interest.

As a storytelling guide, I still contribute interesting information, such as which display is the tallest, longest, oldest, or heaviest. That information does not require storytelling skills. But along with the basics, I also intertwine history, folklore, personal anecdotes, and insight with the facts.

For example: How did the Winter Festival of Lights begin? When the Good Zoo began (founded by the generosity of the local department store family to honor their son, Philip), there was a need for revenue to help sustain the zoo. As a storyteller I weave the personal narrative of the family into the initial Good Zoo Lights Up For You extravaganza. Blending this narrative with the creative leadership development of the Wheeling Park Commission gives a satisfying answer for the motor coach guests.

During the evening tour I infuse historical perspective into the pageantry of the lights, even going back to when the property had Native Americans roaming the Ohio Valley, before the first permanent settlers arrived in the 1770s. In fact, logs from the first two-story cabin can be seen in the construction of one of the Wilson Lodge fireplaces. Along with the development of Wheeling, VA (later West Virginia), I detail how Colonel Earl Oglebay’s purchase of 25 acres with an eight-room red brick farmhouse quickly evolved into the classic Oglebay Mansion Museum that is open today. He grew the property from twenty-five acres into a 650 acre experimental farm where his family resided from July till early November.

Interspersed with the historical account are the anecdotes that amuse the tourists and highlight life at Oglebay. For example, when motoring past the farmhouse manager’s former home, I point out how he raised four daughters there. Next to the house is where the horse stables were located. As I tell the guests, “I don’t know much about raising four little girls, but I’d bet my next paycheck that a lot of sugar cubes disappeared off the kitchen table into the mouths of Earl’s horses.”

But along with the historical aspects of Festival of Lights, all the guides inject their own personality and especially humor into the narratives. Displays like Christmas Kittens in a Box (losing entry that year was Christmas Litterbox), Tyrannosaurus Rex (the newspaper headline read ‘Tyrannosaurus Wrecks Ford Mustang’, Cheerleader Pyramid (before sticking the landing she disappears into the night), Frisbee Dog Jake (sometimes the wires get crossed and it looks like a frisbee throwing a dog back to the little girl), allow for ample opportunities to infuse humor.

Before the tour ends, the tourists usually ask how I became a tour guide and resident storyteller at Oglebay. I relate how after I retired from teaching, I became a movie extra (Unstoppable, Super 8, Batman: Dark Knight Rises), a writer (search, and brought home 8 ribbons from the WV Liars Contest. It doesn’t hurt that I live in Ogelbay’s backyard, so an easy drive to work is also a major plus. In addition to the light tours, I also offer a variety of programs including a walking tour of the historic hilltop area. For me, Oglebay is a happy place!

Oglebay is so much more than tours and opportunity for tourists to learn more about our state. In the following article, we can see how Oglebay was chosen as the site for using storytelling in the learning process for children. Now consider where you live, what is available in your “neck of the woods”—libraries, schools, civic centers, parks, tourist attractions, book stores and much more—and determine ways to offer proposals for partnering with your community as a storyteller.Your own backyard awaits you!