The Austin Trail of Lights is a bit like Disney World: magical and exciting, but likely to cause meltdowns (of both the kid and adult variety) if you attempt to visit without a solid plan. Last year, more than 450,000 people flooded the 1.25-mile walk-through attraction in Zilker Park and this year, the 50th anniversary of the Trail of Lights, is sure to attract at least that many. The Austin tradition is a wonderful way to ring in the holidays, but before you go, you need to think strategy.
We asked readers on our Free Fun in Austin Facebook page for their pro tips, to share with first time Trail-goers. We’ll share some of those in a minute, but first, some basic information.
The Trail of Lights will be open Sunday, December 7 through Sunday, December 21, 2014, with the front gates open from 7-10 p.m. each evening.
The official grand opening ceremony of this year’s Trail is Sunday, December 7, 2014 at 6 p.m. and is free for guests of all ages (the gates will open at 7 p.m.). Beyond opening night, the Trail remains free Monday through Thursday evenings. Friday, Saturday and Sunday will require a weekend gate fee of $3 for individuals 12 and older.
Tickets may be purchased at an onsite box office, however, it is highly recommended that you purchase tickets in advance online or at area H-E-B stores.
ZiP Fast Pass tickets are available for $15 per person for ages 6 and over. These tickets provide access to the event 45 minutes before gates open for general admission, and front of the line gate entry at any time of the evening. (Note: For grand opening night, ZiP benefits will not provide early entry privileges due to opening ceremony festivities. ZiP patrons will enter at the front of the line following the grand opening ceremonies.) ZiP Fast Pass tickets also provide entry to the ZiP Lounge in the Hospitality Area featuring heaters, seating and private restrooms. ZiP Fast Pass tickets can be purchased online.
Shuttles – Avoid Trail traffic and get dropped off at the front gate by starting from one of these shuttle locations:
1. Republic Park (422 Guadalupe St., Austin 78701)
2. Burger Center (3200 Jones Rd, Austin, TX 78745)
Last year, lines for the shuttles were quite long, so it is advisable to arrive as early as possible. Shuttle lots open and start selling tickets at 5 p.m. You can also be clever and buy shuttle tickets online or at area H-E-B stores. There is a limited capacity per night and each lot will stop selling tickets when capacity is reached or at 8:30 — whichever occurs first.
The shuttle costs $4 on weeknights and $5 on weekends (lap children are free). Weekend bus tickets include the gate fee.
The first shuttle departs shuttle stops at 5:30 p.m. The last shuttle departs shuttle stops at 8:30 p.m. Return shuttles from Zilker will run until 10:30 p.m.
Paid Parking in Zilker Park – A limited number of parking places will be available in Zilker Park. This parking must be purchased online in advance. Parking is $15 per car. No parking will be sold on-site. If you do not have a pre-purchased parking ticket, you will not be permitted to park at Zilker Park.
Here is a map of the parking lot in Zilker Park, which also shows the location of the entrance to the Trail and nearby road closures. Traffic on the way to the parking lot will be frustrating, so bring your patience, or plan to arrive early (remember, you can visit the free Zilker Holiday Tree while you wait for the Trail to open).
Paid Parking at Austin High School – Consider using the parking lots at Austin High School for convenient access to the Trail, via the footbridge across Lady Bird Lake. It’s a bit of a hike to the Trail entrance (and there is some rugged terrain, which isn’t great for umbrella strollers), but you miss much of the traffic congestion this way, which is definitely a plus.
Parking will be available for $10 at Austin High School beginning at 6 p.m., Monday, December 8 through Saturday, December 20, 2014 (excluding Sunday, December 14), in both the east and west parking lots. The first week, the money will benefit the theatre program. The second week, it will benefit the orchestra. More information on the second week here.
Other transportation options – Bike, walk, take a bus or a taxi. Bike checks are located on Barton Springs at the entrance. CapMetro can get you close. Take the #3, #4, #30 or #338 bus lines to drop you a short walk to the park or hop on the rail which runs until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights! Hail a Yellow Cab from anywhere around town to get to the Trail of Lights in style. A taxi stand will be setup just west of the intersection of Barton Springs and Stratford. Note: Uber and Lyft will not be allowed in to the Taxi stand.
A few extra tidbits – Once you have survived the getting there, you will find plenty of free fun at the Trail of Lights. There will be crafts for kids, photo ops aplenty, free books from H-E-B, free candy in Candyland, and free photos with Santa (although, of course, the line will be long). There will also be splurge-worthy fun, including a ferris wheel next to the Zilker Holiday Tree ($6 per person) and food trucks both near the Tree and along the Trail.
And now for some tips from your fellow readers:
- Charge your camera/phone. Think about where to park if you don’t get a pass ahead of time. And think about the distance you’ll be walking with your little ones. – Pat
- Bring a carrier if your child is small enough. It is very crowded and very difficult to maneuver a stroller. – Amanda
- Get a zip pass. So worth it. You only need one for 6 and older. You get in 45 minutes before the crowds. It will be less crowded and you can see the displays up close. Last year they gave hot chocolate to all those with zip passes and we were done walking it before the crowd caught up. – May
- If possible, go on a weeknight Trail of Lights for maneuvering strollers. Weekends are VERY crowded. Lots of jostling and log jams. Difficult for you to get the strollers close to the sets. – Julia
- My advice: wear comfy shoes and extra layers of clothing. – Jessica
- Pay attention to the temperature before you go (bring mittens/hats if necessary.) And if you have little ones, there may be a long line, depending on when you go. Bring a stroller if that would help. (It may be too far/long to want to carry them most of the way.) – Nancy
- Leave 3 hours early to fight traffic; find a NON tow away parking spot. – Jessika
- Keep your kid(s) close and bring your own snacks! I usually do cheese chunks, apple slices, turkey bites and water. – Shannon
- Take the shuttle. Check the weather forecast and dress appropriately. Before taking the shuttle back walk across the street to the big tree. You can’t end the trail of lights without a good spin under the tree! Most of all, have fun! – Michele
- Take the shuttle buses is my advice! Trying to find parking can take all the fun out of it! – Lisa
- Make sure you take some covers for kids it gets pretty cold and wear comfortable shoes, long walk!!! – Frances
- It’s the best ever! I would recommend taking a shuttle! The parking is CRAZY! We took a bus shuttle last year. Drive to one of the locations, buy a ticket, they drop you off and pick you up, less of a hassle than traffic and driving in circles for hours. – Stephanie
- ARRIVE EARLY…to stand in line…be prepared…it’s worth it though!! – Necy
- No dogs. Plus it’s so crowded no dog would enjoy it. – Pat
If you want to learn from rookie mistakes, read my Trail of Lights survival tips from 2012, the year I was very pregnant and decided to take four kids by myself, on a school night, with no stroller. (Just keep in mind that the prices in that post are out of date now). There is also a great article over on CultureMap that includes details on how to arrive by bus, bike, or taxi.
Please feel free to leave more advice in the comments!
Austin Trail of Lights
Barton Springs Road (map)