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Holiday parades and light shows are going virtual or drive-through. Here’s how to experience them.

From D.C. to Austin, cities across the country are adapting their celebrations.

Trail of Lights in Austin. (Trail of Lights)

Parades and light shows have long been a part of the holiday season. Families huddle in the cold along sidewalks and tree lightings, but not this year. Perhaps the country’s most famous parade, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, adapted this year with socially distanced floats and virtual performances, and many other parades and events are finding creative ways to do the same.

Whether you want to drive through, experience at a distance or watch from your couch, here is how you can do these events this year.

Celebrate from your car or the road

Cities around the country are hosting drive-through or adapted parades and light shows. These are a few highlights.


Peppermint Parkway at Circuit of the Americas. (Brian Schwartz/Circuit of The Americas)

Dancing elves, roller-skating snowflakes, baton-twirling candy canes and a zip-lining Grinch are all part of the lineup at the Peppermint Parkway, a drive-through event outside Austin at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA), a Formula One racetrack.

The route is based around the animated story of event mascots, Pepper and Mint, delivering their letter to Santa at the North Pole. “We wanted to hit all of your senses,” said Courtney Young, executive producer of special projects at COTA, about the live actors and gigantic light displays. The inaugural event begins Nov. 27, and tickets can be upgraded to include a lap around the racetrack.

Also in Austin is the 56-year-old Trail of Lights, which had to be adapted into a drive-through event this year. It draws half a million people annually.

Trail of Lights in Austin. (Trail of Lights Photos)

James Russell, the executive director of the non-profit that operates the event, said they started brainstorming in April how to revert the walking event to a drive-through model, which was how the event operated during his childhood. Over the summer, the organization met with numerous city and health officials to implement a safe, feasible plan.

The Austin Trail of Lights is raising money online for the Central Texas Food Bank this year, which has had an increase in demand during the pandemic. Tickets start at $25.

Washington, D.C.

ZooLights at the National Zoo in D.C. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

In D.C., the Smithsonian’s National Zoo has adapted their annual ZooLights event, where guests could see the zoo grounds lit up with holiday lights. After discussions with the event sponsor, Pepco, a plan was devised to make the event mobile by using a 24-foot truck featuring light displays, a snow machine and holiday music.

Panda Claws, not to be confused with Santa Claus, has become an event favorite and will be decked out in holiday apparel on the ZooLights Express truck as it visits one of the city’s eight wards every Friday and Saturday night from Nov. 27 to Dec. 19. You can find the routes here.

Los Angeles

The Elf on the Shelf’s Magical Holiday Journey at the Fairplex in Pomona, Calif. (Alex J. Berliner/Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

In Los Angeles, the pandemic accelerated plans for an event based on “The Elf on the Shelf,” a famous children’s book (and the bane of so many parents’ existence during the holidays). “The Elf on the Shelf’s Magical Holiday Journey,” a drive-through experience follows a new story written for the event by the one of the book’s original authors, Chanda Bell.

“There’s this pretty extensive theatrical narrative that really anchors this experience,” said Marty LaSalle, co-head of Constellation Immersive, the studio behind the event. “It’s delivered through an app that you download in advance of arrival, and that you plug into your car.”

The story follows the journey of the elves as they repair Santa’s sleigh after an emergency landing at the Pomona Fairplex in Los Angeles County, with a cast of masked live actors and circus performers. The event runs through Jan. 3, and narration is available in both English and Spanish.

Watch from your couch

In lieu of canceling parades, cities across the country are holding virtual events to allow people to safely tune in from the comfort of their couch. Atlanta’s WSB-TV will air highlights from the last 40 years of the city’s Children’s Christmas Parade, the biggest holiday parade in the Southeast, on Dec. 6.

Nashville is following suit by airing past parade highlights along with live performances on local TV station WKRN on Dec. 5 at 9 a.m. While Raleigh, N.C., broadcast on Nov. 21 its 76th annual Christmas parade with live musical performances by Train and Meghan Trainor, a recording will be aired on Christmas.

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