Trail of Lights

Lighting technician Clay Eads arranges part the Trail of Lights display in 2008, the last year the event was fully operational. Lack of funding inhibited the event in 2009 before it was phased out completely in 2010 and 2011.

Photo Credit: May-Ying Lam | Daily Texan Staff

Merry early Christmas, Austin. The Trail of Lights is returning.

Throughout Zilker Park, a million tiny lights will be strung this December.  They will be arranged in careful lettering, built into meandering tunnels, a sky-high Christmas tree and glowing walls. The grassy area that plays host to hundreds of musicians each fall for Austin City Limits music festival will be transformed into a winter wonderland yet again.

The Trail of Lights is a staple of Austin traditions. Historically, the Trail of Lights was held every December since 1967 in Zilker Park. Unlike South by Southwest and ACL, the Trail of Lights became a hallowed Austin event without the tourists.

“The Trail of Lights is our true, Austin winter holiday celebration,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell in a statement. 

If the holidays are a time for family, the trail of lights was our Christmas dinner.

Two years ago, though, the Trail of Lights never lit up.  After budget cuts in 2010, the City of Austin could no longer afford the lights, which cost a pretty penny to set up, take down, and — of course — run at such a high voltage for weeks on end. The trail remained dark for two years.

But last year, after partnering with the RunTex Foundation, the elaborate display returned. The Trail of Lights will return for a full two weeks in 2013, running from December 8-22. The Trail of Lights is now privately funded and ready to return for the 2013 season. 30 light displays, food trailers and all of the traffic await you.

It’s OK to be excited about spinning around under the 155-foot tall Zilker Holiday Tree while eating kettle corn and a funnel cake.

Check out these previous posts to read more about the Trail of Lights: 

Trail of Lights cancelled after lack of funding

Runtex Strives to bring Austin’s Trail of Lights to its former glory

Runtex founder Carrozza positive about company’s future despite Riverside eviction notice

Trail of Lights will come back for at least five years

Call me when the real Trail of Lights comes back (read: never)

The Trail of Lights is back on for the next five years, and I don’t care.

I know, I just spewed pure blasphemy from my fingertips as I typed that out. But let me tell you where I’m coming from.

I’m a native Austinite. For as long as I can remember, my parents took my brothers and me to the Trail of Lights every year. And I have glorious, sparkling memories of those nights. The beauty of thousands of lights arranged in spectacularly strange and wonderful ways is something that never ages.

I remember spinning under the giant Zilker tree until I thought I’d puke, melting in the searing heat of those huge fire pits, and being utterly confused by the bizarre winter wonderland display at the end of the trail that played eerie Trans-Siberian Orchestra-esque music while flashing blue and pink light against a glittery white lion. I even got lost there one year. It may have been only 10 minutes, but those were the longest 10 minutes of my life.

My point here is that the Trail of Lights will never be like this again. The now-minimalistic Trail of Lights’ displays pale in comparison to the glittering landscape of my childhood. Over the years, the displays have been cut away because of energy costs, taking the charm out of the trail. It’s hard to see something so awesome be turned into something so … anticlimactic.

I understand why the trail has been cut back. The amount of energy and money wasted through turning tiny lights into massive displays is mind-boggling. And as someone who has been so, so many times, I admit to being more than a little jaded about it. But until the trail returns to its former glory, I really couldn't care less.

Lighting technician Clay Eads arranges part the Trail of Lights display in 2008, the last year the event was fully operational. Lack of funding inhibited the event in 2009 before it was phased out completely in 2010 and 2011.

Photo Credit: May-Ying Lam | Daily Texan Staff

After last year’s glowing success, the Trail of Lights will be turned back on for this year’s holiday season and for several years beyond.

The trail was cancelled in 2010 and 2011 because of city budget cuts. In 2012 the RunTex Carrozza Foundation took up the mantle of bringing the trail back, raising funds through sponsoring and once again hosting the Trail of Lights 5K. The event brought twice as many visitors as expected, said James Russell, executive director of the RunTex Foundation. 

A resolution passed unanimously by Austin City Council on Thursday directed the City Manager’s office to execute a five-year contract with the foundation to run the trail. For this year and future trails, Russell said the foundation hopes to raise funds to extend the event from eight nights to up to 15, as well as keeping admission free to the public. 

“Historically it’s been a free event,” Russell said. “Our intention is to keep it free. We don’t have any immediate plan — nor do we really want — to right away start charging. That gets into a whole different deal and the whole idea of the Trail of Lights is that it’s an inclusive thing, not an exclusive thing. Once you start charging, I think you start walking down a path that’s hard to come back from.”

The Trail of Lights, an event historically held every December since 1967 in Zilker Park, includes intricate displays of lights along the park’s running trail leading up to the Zilker Holiday Tree. The tree is one of Austin’s moon towers draped with 39 strands of lights to form a 155-foot holiday tree, under which visitors often spin or purchase refreshments such as kettle corn. 

Advertising senior Kate Griffiths said because of the trail’s previous cancellation, she hadn’t heard of the event before last year, like many other current students, but hopes to go in the future.

“I only moved here four years ago so this is the first year that it’s happened that I’ve been in the area, so I didn’t know about it before this year,” Griffiths said. “I’m definitely going to try to go if it’s going to continue because it looks fantastic.”

Russell said the RunTex Foundation wanted to negotiate the five-year contract to use that time to create an independent, self-sustaining Trail of Lights Foundation to ensure the event will not be canceled in the foreseeable future.

“We would establish its own board, it’s own everything, it’s own 501(c)(3),” Russell said. “We’re wanting the city to be a partner in that as well, to go toward the longevity of the event and to make sure that it’s there forever. I think having it independent like that is the first step in reaching that goal.”

Russell said the foundation plans to create an online system requiring those parking at Zilker Park to reserve and purchase their parking pass online. 

Council Member Chris Riley, who co-sponsored the city resolution to negotiate the contract, said the traffic problems resulting from last year’s success are a point of focus for improvement on the 2013 trail and beyond.

“The Trail of Lights this past year was successful beyond all expectations and that did entail some unexpected traffic problems,” Riley said at the Thursday council meeting. 

Lighting technician Clay Eads arranges part the Trail of Lights display in 2008, the last year the event was fully operational. Lack of funding inhibited the event in 2009 before it was phased out completely in 2010 and 2011.

Photo Credit: May-Ying Lam | Daily Texan Staff

Austin’s beloved holiday tradition, the Trail of Lights, will return this December after a two-year hiatus due to lack of funding.

The Trail of Lights, an event held every December in Zilker Park since 1967, will be returning this year thanks to a partnership between the City of Austin and the RunTex Foundation. An elaborate display of lights set up along the park’s running trail leads visitors to the Zilker Holiday Tree, which is one of Austin’s moonlight towers decorated with 39 strands of lights to form the 155-foot tree structure, according to the city of Austin’s website. City budget cuts made it impossible to support the event last year, and RunTex looks forward to being part of bringing it back, said founder and CEO Paul Carrozza.

“We’ll be working in collaboration with the city, finding local sponsors and having it benefit local charities like our normal model,” Carrozza said.

The trail was canceled again in 2011, even after attempts to find other marketing companies to raise money for the event.

“There was a company called [BrightBlue Marketing, Inc.] that had a contract for last year,” Carrozza said. “They weren’t able to raise the funds necessary to make the full Trail of Lights happen, and so we started the conversation that if it did become available, we’d be interested in taking it on as well.”

Carrozza said the RunTex Foundation plans to bring back many elements of the trail that were lost in the years leading up to its cancellation, including the Trail of Lights 5K, horse and carriage rides and a parade for city VIPs and sponsors.

“Our initial goal is to bring it back to the level it was at in 2007 or 2008, where it was the full Trail of Lights,” Carrozza said.

The trail has been free to the public in past years, which the RunTex Foundation hopes to continue this year, he said.

“If the council approves the final negotiation of the contract, we will go into fundraising mode to create the dollars from the community so that it’s free to the citizens of Austin,” Carrozza said.

Carrozza said the RunTex Foundation plans to continue funding the trail in future years in honor of its tradition and importance in the community.

“It was one of the Austin traditions that we participated in as a family and as a company,” Carrozza said. “It was one of those things where we just felt strongly about being part of a team that brings it back. We want to bring it back and keep it going.”

The cancellation of the trail in 2010 and 2011 was especially disappointing to Austin natives, said Plan II sophomore Mary Bryce.

“When [the trail] was canceled, I was absolutely crestfallen,” Bryce said. “I’m overjoyed that it’s coming back. The tree is my favorite.”

Printed on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 as: Trail of Lights schedule a comeback

This December, Zilker Park’s Trail of Lights will remain dark for the second year in a row because of a lack of funding.

This year’s Trail of Lights was cancelled after organizers did not meet a fundraising benchmark Wednesday of $250,000 to reopen it, said Amy Vercruysse, executive producer of the Trail of Lights program. Many companies could not plan donations into their budgets, and organizers only raised $78,000, she said.

“We reached out to literally thousands of potential sponsors,” she said. “People were excited but didn’t have room in their budgets. It’s a matter of economics.”

This year’s Zilker Park holiday events will include a Santa, a tree lighting and community groups performing at the Zilker Hillside Theater, Vercruysse said. Organizers are giving sponsors of the Trail of Lights the option to either put their donation toward the other free holiday events or the 2012 Trail of Lights display, or to accept a refund, she said.

“We’re moving forward with plans for a 2012 Trail of Lights,” she said. “We have a lot more time for companies to plan the Trail of Lights into their budget. I think we’ll be in much better shape.”

Austinites gathered in Zilker Park to celebrate the coming of the holidays with the annual Christmas tree lighting, a tradition since 1967.

Visitors traditionally spin under the large tree-shaped light-structure to see the swirling optical illusion.

Since 1992, the Christmas tree lighting has coincided with the annual Trail of Lights. This year, the city canceled the trail due to a lack of funding.

Regardless, hundreds gathered at the park and listened to performances by the Austin Civic Wind Ensemble and students singing Christmas carols from Barton Hills Elementary.

The mayor announced winners of an art competition, which included elementary students from schools in the Austin area.

Children sat on the lap of a blue-clad Santa, courtesy of Operation Blue Santa, an organization started by the Austin Police Department that provides gifts for more than 4,000 families with under-privileged children in the Austin area.

Scott Friedman, director of Field Services for the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, has been coming to the lighting for the past 15 years. He said he likes the family atmosphere, and brought his 7- and 10-year-old daughters, who like spinning under the tree.

“It’s good that [the mayor] supports this, especially in a downturn economy with budgets, because the Trail of Lights isn’t happening so it’s nice they have this,” Friedman said.