After 2-year absence, Austin’s Trail of Lights is back

It’s time to light up the night, Austin.

The Trail of Lights, a holiday tradition since the 1960s, is back after a two-year absence, kicking off Sunday night at Zilker Park.

The family-friendly event featuring almost a million twinkling Christmas lights continues through Dec. 23. Admission is free.

This year’s trail isn’t quite the same as years past, though. For starters, it’s not city-funded. Instead, organizers are relying on donations, big and small, from area corporations and members of the community.

“I’m very grateful for the commitment of a dedicated, civic-minded group of volunteers who have raised private funds and dedicated many hours of their time for what I’m sure will a great experience for Austin families not only this year, but in the years to come,” Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said.

The total cost, organizers say, is expected to be $1.2 million. Much of that cash already has been raised.

“It has taken many hands to make these lights work,” said Jay Watson, CEO of Forefront Austin, one of the groups that stepped up to revive the trail. “The next step is to turn them on. We want to bring the community together and have a good time.”

In a city where events such as the Austin City Limits Music Festival, South by Southwest and, now, Formula One have global appeal, the Trail of Lights is a uniquely Austin event — for Austinites, by Austinites.

“We’re known for throwing parties for the rest of the world,” said Abby Sandlin, Forefront Austin’s managing editor. “This is our celebration, the party Austin throws for itself. It’s for, of and by the community.”

Already, Forefront Austin and the RunTex Carrozza Foundation, which obtained the city permit required to stage the event, have put their own touch on the trail. Old-school lights in some cases have been replaced with energy-efficient LED bulbs that burn brighter, yet use 75 percent less energy.

Many of the 36 displays scattered across a 1.25-mile path through Zilker Park have been refreshed after spending months and months collecting dust in a warehouse.

More than 20 food trailers will also be on site this year, along with a shop featuring merchandise such as Trail of Lights sweatshirts and blankets. Together, food and merchandise are expected to bring in as much as $150,000 to help offset costs.

And more entertainers than ever before have been lined up.

“It’s going to be back in the exact same way people know it — and then some,” Watson said. “We’re working to enrich the experience. You’ll have the opportunity to spend 30 minutes there — or two hours.”

The most noticeable change, though, is the involvement of more than 20 Central Texas nonprofit organizations. The goal is to raise community awareness — and some money, too.

“We’ve taken an event with such a storied past and made it into a communication platform,” Watson said. “It’s a rare opportunity that we get to put groups like this up on a pedestal.”

Donations to the various organizations can be made via baskets scattered throughout the park or at the new Trail of Lights Village, where as many as eight groups a night will have representatives on hand.

“There are a variety of stories to tell,” Sandlin said. “It’s not just that the lights are back on.”

Forefront Austin promises, though, the event won’t be preachy.

“We’re trying to get just the right balance between entertainment and education,” Watson said. “The first year there’s definitely going to be some hiccups, but the idea’s right.”

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