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Holiday by headlights: Here's what the drive-thru Austin Trail of Lights is like

Eric Webb
Austin 360

Every Christmas, I can't wait to see the walrus. 

No, that's not a nickname for Santa. It's not a cult thing, either. I'm talking about the giant walrus figure towering over Zilker Park on the Austin Trail of Lights, a reliably surreal sight at the city's annual holiday light display.

According to event organizers, the tradition started as a small gathering around the yule log in 1965. This year, the Trail of Lights is a drive-thru experience instead of a walking tour, just like in 2020. 

While organizers "had hoped to have guests walking through the lights in 2021, we had to look at the current large event guidelines at the time when we were planning," according to the event website. Organizers said that "the drive-thru format would be the most successful outcome for our multigenerational audience until proof of negative COVID test or vaccination status is no longer needed in order to gather."

More Austin holiday fun:Where to see Christmas movies in Austin, from 'Elf' to 'It's a Wonderful Life'

I mean, hey. I'd prefer the regular walkthrough version, too. But Trail of Lights from the car is better than no Trail of Lights at all — you might remember the event was canceled for several years beginning in 2010 because of a lack of funds. The nonprofit Trail of Lights Foundation took over the event in 2012, and the event has successfully kept the park merry and bright for the past several years. 

We got a sneak peek of this year's Trail of Lights the night before Thanksgiving. It opened Nov. 27 and runs for select dates through Dec. 31, and vehicle passes are now on sale at austintrailoflights.org. Here's what you need to know and what you should expect from this year's illuminated journey.

Austin360 editor Eric Webb snaps a picture on the drive-thru Austin Trail of Lights on Nov. 24.

Waiting to get in

If you take one thing away from this, let it be that there is only one way into Trail of Lights: via Lake Austin Boulevard, then Redbud Trail and onto Stratford Drive. Follow the official driving directions found on the event's website.

Your vehicle pass comes with an arrival time, and you have to get to the trail no earlier than 30 minutes before and no later than an hour after that time. Have your pass pulled up on your phone or a printed copy handy when you get to the entrance on Stratford. Cars will be staged single-file for entry to the trail on a first-come, first-served basis.

The whole experience should take about an hour, according to the event website, but the actual part with the trail and the lights will last about 20 minutes. So, you'll be waiting to get in.

From 2020:What it’s like to be Santa Claus in a pandemic

Bright tunnels and local love

The first thing you see when you drive in is a gorgeous rainbow tunnel bursting with stars. The Trail of Lights features more than 2 million lights, 90 lighted trees and more than 70 displays.

Nutcrackers greet you, and then it's a promenade of Austin attractions. Grocery mascot H-E-Buddy is there, and Maudie's Tex-Mex brought a jackalope. Austin Fire Department and Austin Police Department vehicles are strung with lights. 

Gang's all here

Yes, there's the seasonal crew: a dreidel, the nativity cast (including a very large baby Jesus, perhaps the size of four non-divine infants), partying penguins and the aforementioned walrus, a towering blue guy with a Santa hat who holds a sailing vessel in his flippers. Is the walrus a giant? Is the boat a toy? These are the questions that Trail of Lights begs us philosophers to mull.

But one of the best things about Trail of the Lights is the pure kitsch factor.

More Austin holiday fun:What to know about Miracle on 5th Street, the pop-up Christmas bar in Austin

You know how when you go buy a piñata, sometimes the character looks a little ... off-model? So it is at Austin's holiday tradition. Find all your favorite intellectual property or reasonable facsimiles thereof: Winnie the Pooh, SpongeBob SquarePants, Charlie Brown, Alvin (of "and the Chipmunks"), one of the "South Park" kids, Underdog, Dory and Nemo from "Finding Nemo," Ariel and Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" and more.

Even Bandit, the dog from "Jonny Quest," still manages to show up.

Trail of Lights features installations depicting everything from the nativity scene to Charlie Brown.

The season of puns

Toward the end of the trail, you'll find a lineup of elf-ified celebrities. (My second-favorite longtime installation behind the walrus.) There's Elf-Freeda Kahlo, Elf Scott Fitzgerald, Elf Patch-eeno, Elf-el Merman and many others, including Elf-vira, of course.

What about the show?

Since this year is a drive-thru, some of the traditional trappings of the trail got tabled. No Ferris wheel, no carousel, no live entertainment. The Trail of Lights will have a radio frequency playing Christmas tunes, if you'd like to tune in.

There will be concessions available to purchase from your car while you wait to enter. I know — it's not the same without the smell of funnel cakes wafting around a walrus.

Even though the Trail of Lights is a drive-thru event again this year, organizers pulled out all your favorite holiday decorations.

How to get a ticket

General admission vehicle passes will set you back $30-$40 per vehicle, with $65 Dash Passes available for early access and a box of holiday cookies. You can also bring your own snacks and such to enjoy in the car.

O, Tannenbaum

Of course, it's not the holidays unless you see the Zilker Holiday Tree. This year, there's no direct pedestrian access between the Trail of Lights and the tree, but once you exit the trail on Barton Springs Road in your car, make sure to drive the short distance to visit ol' tall 'n' bright.

The giant walrus display at Austin Trail of Lights is a kitschy favorite.