Jolly by trolley

Best Christmas lights tours in the Ta

Story By Karen Long

A few decades ago, the families of yore enjoyed an annual holiday tradition of piling into the woodie station wagon and venturing out in search of the occasional decorated house. But in the 21st century, organized Christmas lights tours turn the excursion into a party on wheels whether by trolley, bus or even bike. Here are some of the best.

College Hill Holiday Lights Trolley Tour

The original trolley tour was founded over 15 years ago as a joint venture between the College Hill Neighborhood Association and East Heights United Methodist Church. Beaming riders congregate at the church on east Douglas to observe the living nativity and to feast on seasonal goodies and cappuccinos poured by the church youth group, whom the tour benefits. The heated trolleys pull up every 15 minutes and trundle around College Hill, first through the 100 block of Pershing where a forest of glowing swizzle sticks sprout from the ground and on through blocks lined in the neighborhood's traditional luminaries.

Throughout the 30-minute ride, docents "provide historical and architectural information about houses and structures along the way," according to Judy Hess, events committee chair of the neighborhood association. "It's a very, very fun family activity and a lot of families or groups of friends will take a half a trolley at a time and have a party, either before they ride the trolley or after."

This year the tour is on Sunday, December 11 from 5:15-9:00pm. Tickets are $6 and go on sale Monday the 5th at Traditions Furniture; purchase them on the first day or so to get your preferred time slot.

River City Trolley & Charters

"I love it. When I was young the trolley came to Augusta twice a day on the railroad track. Boy, I always thought that was way cool to ride on a trolley," says Homer Price, owner of River City Trolley & Charters. A lot of people must agree because Price is booked up every December, giving Christmas lights tours in trolleys swagged in holly and lights to patrons fortified with homemade gingerbread cookies and hot apple cider.

Price's tours begin and end at the Sedgwick County Extension Center at 21st and Ridge Road and roll through the west side of town for an hour and a half, focusing on neighborhood attractions like Candy Cane Lane near west Central and 119th St. where an entire cul-de- sac lights up every year. He avoids Lights on St. Paul, the spectacular drive-through display at Douglas and St. Paul, so as not to spend time waiting in line.

Many times groups will rent out an entire trolley, which seats 28, but Price reserves 4 nights a week for families or individuals who want to ride at $15 a head. "When people call us for Christmas lights they say, "Well, we just have 10 in our family, we can't do a whole trolley." I say, You start telling your friends and neighbors that you're going to do Christmas lights and I guarantee you can fill up a trolley in a week or so. Everyone wants to ride in a trolley; everyone wants to see the Christmas lights.

Unified Party Bus

Eight years ago Ivan (who's best known by his first name), owner of Unified Party Bus, did 18 tours his first year of doing Christmas Lights tours. Last year, the company gave 215 two-hour tours in 23 days. The driver pulls up in one of the signature lime green party buses at a location of the customer's choosing, such as a church, home, school or restaurant. Every year, Ivan scouts the latest and greatest displays, keeping the route fresh for the 30 of his business that is repeat customers.

Realtor Jeff Blubaugh is one of those customers. He hires Ivan every year to give tours to 300- 400 of his clients as the highlight of his annual office Christmas party. Another one is Erin Hutton who says, "We have him booked for this year. We have a tacky sweater party and then go look at Christmas lights with some of our friends."

Alicia Turner of Big Brothers Big Sisters hired out three buses in 2009 to give the "Bigs" and "Littles" the volunteers and their matches a unique holiday experience. "At one of the stops out west, there was a girl outside playing the violin," says Turner, "and she came on board each one of the buses and played a song. The Littles the kids watching her were really quiet and intent. They definitely enjoyed it."

This year there will be a new stop for Unified Party Bus riders, Illuminations at Botanica. Ivan has arranged free admission for all of his tours from Sunday through Thursday and will be pulling over for 20 minutes to allow riders to stroll through the luminaria-lined pathways, Christmas tree forests and light-reflecting ponds of the botanical gardens.

Ivan makes donations every year to support the non-profits, such as Botanica, who organize the major displays and to cover any riders who prefer not to donate. He contributes even more by giving away 20 Christmas lights tours, primarily to be featured in silent or live auctions to benefit charitable organizations.

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