Trail of Lights 2023: Selling Zilker Park at VIP prices, limiting hours of free access, and charging fees for children's "free admission on all event nights"

The 2023 Trail of Lights is an Austin institution. But it has changed hands over the years and is now controlled by the Trail of Lights Foundation director James Russell.

It's not your 2009 version, when I made this sweet video:

The recent editions of the annual Trail of Lights has become a hot mess of expensive VIP Privilege passes and ZIP Passes to cut-to-the-head-of-the-free-people-line. More and more attendees are beginning to notice the pain of having their plans change and not being able to get a refund or re-sell their expensive tickets. Some comments on the Trail of Lights (TOL) Facebook page show that attendees are noticing:

• "All about the $$$"

• "irresponsible"

• "Platinum ticket holders are not receiving what we paid for. That's $850 and our guests over 75 cannot attend with sub freezing temps."

• "I guess the Austin Trail of Lights isn't thinking about the 90% of the people who fund this event. The people with KIDS !!! .. Shame on you for not offering refunds tonight to the families."

• "Austin Trail of Lights knows there is no way of holding them accountable. So they simply don't care. It's sad."

• "I spent $200 w parking. Not cool."

• "Why is it taking so long to get a refund? Please advise."

• "Everyone needs to dispute the charges with their bank. This is so irresponsible of Austin Trail of Lights."

• "SOS from the longest shuttle ride ever, fast approaching 1 hour on the bus."

• "The parking this year was the worst ever."

• "5 VIP tix with nothing to show for it."

• "Impossible to contact anyone"

• "The line to get into the Trail was excruciatingly long"

• "ACL traffic wasn't this bad! Who planned this shit???"

• Austin trail of lights is a joke! Don't go people extreme rip off!!! Also you can't park anywhere they charge you which is ridiculous... Don't go."

You can watch this 2023 YouTube video made by two guys at the Grand Opening Party in 2023. If you're too busy, here are my takeaways from their observations:

Video: Austin Trail of Lights - Worth the Price?

YOUTUBE 2023 - watch @ 2:25 for description of fees and privileges:

Watch @ 2:25


“If you’re really fancy…” VIP Platinum

“If you spend a little bit more money, you don’t have to mingle with the common folk in the grand entranceyou get your own entrance..”

ZIP - you can get your own entrance.

Platinum - golf cart, platinum lounge.

“It’s up to you. You can get in free or you can spend several hundred dollars.”

“The proceeds here help to pay for the next year.”

“Outside the entrance (Preview night) they have an open bar for beer and wine. Cocktails are inside the park.”

“Vodka soda” “I’ll get another drink. We paid for this so we’re going to get our money’s worth” (referring to the open bar on this night).

Today: My issues with the TOL are limited to (a) contract compliance and CoA oversight, (b) poor financial terms for maintenance fees and damage deposits, and (c) public perceptions of "making visitors feel underprivileged" by the Organizer's intentional systematic monetization of social inequity (ZIP Pass with delayed opening hour).

If you're ready to dig into the weeds, check out my 02-12-2022 report to Mayor Watson, City Manager Jesus Garza, currently available at this link:

(03) - DP in-progress - Explanation of TOL contract violations - damage to social equity - insufficient maintenance fees post-event 2023  for Mayor Watson.pages.pdf 

How is City Hall responding so far?

Here's the official line:

Hello Ms. Prechter


Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I always appreciate your efforts to improve Zilker. I discussed your suggestion about the maintenance fee and environmental fee with the director. We have that in the agreement; but we see how we can make improvements. 


This year will be the 60th year of the Trail of Lights event and it has become beloved by Austin residents. The event occurs 7pm-10pm for 14 event nights and includes one public fun run night. Regarding the parent you referenced who came at 6pm, there is an early entry program from 6pm-7pm. As part of their funding obligations and commitments, the event created a two-pronged fundraising program which included a corporate and personal sponsor channel.  The corporate channel is a traditional large format corporate sponsors, and the individual program includes personal donations or purchasing a limited number of early-entry event tickets if chosen by the donor. There is no requirement to participate in this program as it is a separate program from the regular event. Anyone who attended on a free night, had access to free entry to the regular event during the hours of 7pm-10pm.


Regarding fees, below is some information that is based on the contract and/or Council resolutions:

  • The event is fee waived, with certain direct City expenses required to be reimbursed to the City (Police, Fire, and EMS for example).

Event fees -- Waived? Not according to the Contract:

There is a Contract distinction between: (a) fees, (b) permit fees. "Fees" are also distinguishable from "costs." Both "fees and cost" are to be paid by the TOL Organizer.  
For example, the TOL 2023 Contract says: 
(a) “fees”:

•  “Organizer shall reimburse City for the fees and cost incurred to date by the City “

• “all total fees and actual costs incurred by the City from the Effective Date of this Agreement, during the Event, and post-Event, as evidenced by an invoice to the Organizer, will be reimbursed and paid by the Organizer to the City within thirty (30) days after receipt of an invoice”

For example 

(b) “permit fees”:

• “Except for permit fees waived in this Agreement, the Organizer will reimburse the City for all actual costs “

(The PARD TOL Contract Addendum only has two: Sound and Alcohol. Sound Permit appears to be waived because it is blank in the PARD Final spreadsheet below; Alcohol Permit is $30.)

  • The event must fundraise to cover all required City or production expenses to produce the event (this includes examples such as fencing, employees, shuttle systems, ticketing systems, private security, lighting designers, and equipment).
  • The event must also maintain:
    • opening night is free to the public (no gate charge)
    • half of all event nights (7 of 14) are free to the public (no gate charge)
    • attendees under 12 are admitted free on any night (no gate charge)
    • anyone paying to ride a shuttle is NOT charged a gate charge on any night (additionally, children that are able to “lap ride” on a shuttle do not pay a gate or shuttle charge).


Additionally, the organizers further contributed to public attendance through creation of “Stars” nights, closed to the public, that bring through additional vulnerable populations served by local organizations such as the SAFE Alliance. They did this in excess of the contract requirements. 

What is my response? TOL denied FREE access to many people who were eligible according to the Contract Terms. They monetized the "free line" by selling social inequity in Zip Passes. I guess it depends on what the meaning of "FREE" is?

• "Half of all nights FREE" doesn't mean "PART of half of all nights FREE." It means "the whole night" and therefore, in 2024, if the Event opens on paid-nights at 6 pm to paid-customers, it must also open on FREE nights at 6 pm for FREE customers. Don't you agree that families with young children desire an early entry time? And that the Organizer has monetized the length of the "free line" as it grows from 6-7 pm to increase sales of ZIP Passes? At present, there is no guardrail to prevent the Organizer from assigning FREE admission to 8 pm. Please tell us that free nights mean from opening at 6 pm until closing in 2024.

ZIP Pass entry is a social inequity hurtful to the hearts of the FREE night customers. Please tell us that the ZIP Pass will not be in operation on FREE nights in 2024.

• "Children under 12 years old FREE on all nights. "Please tell us that VIP kids under 12 will be admitted FREE in 2024, not some artificial subset of VIP kids under 6 years old. There is no mention of "FREE under 6 years old" in the Contract.

Who got in FREE? The Trail of Lights!

A new problem has emerged: It looks like most Parks Department Fees were not even paid by the Trail of Lights in '22 and '23. The 2 year total is over $270K. If verified, then Zilker Park was leased for free and no maintenance fees were collected.

• The attached Contract Addendum and Final TOL Invoice spreadsheet is possibly evidence of something truly terrible: That the Addendum charges were not paid by the TOL Organizer to PARD in 2022 and 2023. Other than the "alcohol permit fee" of $30, no other itemized charge on the "Parks and Recreation Department Fees" of the Addendum is a "permit fee." The fees are: reservation fees, Zilker Park maintenance fess and Zilker Park damage deposits. The annual utility fee of $8K is not a different "type of fee" than all of the others listed with exception of Alcohol Permit Fee but utility fee $8K WAS invoiced and reimbursed by the Organizer.

If I am correct, then over $270K of unpaid fees appear to be owed by the TOL Organizer to PARD from combined 2022-2023 events.

If I am wrong, then please show me the Council Resolution which shows that all Addendum fees except "UTILITIES" were waived in 2023 by Council.

For reference, the 2023 TOL Contract states the following:
Except for permit fees waived in this Agreement, the Organizer will reimburse the City for all actual costs to ensure the Event is not produced with City funds.
* Unless otherwise waived by City Council action, all total fees and actual costs incurred by the City from the Effective Date of this Agreement, during the Event, and post-Event, as evidenced by an invoice to the Organizer, will be reimbursed and paid by the Organizer to the City within thirty (30) days after receipt of an invoice from the City, or by the last Monday in January following the Event, whichever is sooner. 

-- dp

Am I correct? City Hall says we will not know until mid-March:

Hello Ms. Prechter

In conversation with PARD staff the City was paid in full for the event in 2022.  


For the 23 event  

When you did the PIR for “Final Fees Paid”,  PARD staff stated at the time they did not have the final invoice. The document that you’ve attached is an internal document used by staff to balance all of information.  Since the final invoice had not been received it would not provide you an accurate picture of fees that were paid.


My request  to you is give the PARD staff 30 days to complete the process for that year. We have a few items they need to complete. I know you might ask why 30 days.  We sent the final invoice on February 14th and we need that time to closeout the books when the payment is received.  


Let me know if you have any questions

Well -- here goes another contract violation. PARD and TOL have missed the deadline for invoicing and final payments:

As per the 2023 TOL Contract:

1.  By the last Monday in January of each calendar year immediately following the Event, Organizer will deposit or remit a check payable to the City as the final payment from the Organizer to the City and will be in an amount sufficient to fully reimburse the City for its actual direct costs incurred by the City to produce the Event (for example: staff time, staff overtime, City staff vehicle use, fuel and energy costs, utility and permitting costs, and other costs described in the Schedule of Events). IN THE EVENT ORGANIZER FAILS TO PROVIDE FULL PAYMENT TO THE CITY 30 DAYS FROM RECEIPT OF FINAL INVOICE, THE CITY MAY, IN ITS SOLE DISCRETION, TERMINATE THIS AGREEMENT WITHOUT FURTHER NOTICE TO ORGANIZER. The City shall not be responsible or liable for any claims or economic damages incurred by the Organizer due to such termination.

Source documents follow:

2023 Trail of Lights Contract

2023 Addendum with Parks Department Fees

Link to pdf version of spreadsheet: 

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