AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Trail of Lights opens to the public Thursday after hosting private events and nonprofits in the days leading up to the grand opening.

After two years of allowing guests to only drive through the iconic Austin holiday lights display, the event is back to an upgraded walking tour.

It also comes after the Trail of Lights was nominated for USA Today’s 10 Best holiday lights displays and was named one of the best Christmas lights displays in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

KXAN’s Tom Miller talked with Trail of Lights Foundation President Nicholas Miller ahead of this year’s grand opening.

Tom: Trail of Lights gets a lot of good publicity. It was on a few lists as one of the best lights displays in the country. What does that do for you as a nonprofit?

Nicholas: It really brings some national attention to what we’re trying to do here as a big community event. That’s our biggest focus, making this a community event. But that national recognition really puts Austin on the map in another way.

Tom: This year is going to be very different from the last two years. (Before), if you wanted to go through here, you were doing it in the car. This year we’ll be back on foot. Can you talk about how that experience is different?

Nicholas: During the last two years we’ve had the opportunity to sort of review how the trail flowed and how things were organized along the trail. We’ve reorganized a little bit where we have a revamped Zilker Square area, which is going to be where the carousel traditionally is. It’s also now going to include a wine bar and food trucks and be sort of a hub with the live music stage. Then prior to that, along the trail will be Santa Station with s’mores. It’s really going to be broken up a little bit more along the trail, so you can kind of experience the whole thing as you go along, as opposed to all being lumped at the end. I think that it really gave us the opportunity to step back and reimagine how the trail needs to look and how it needed to flow.

Tom: This is year 58. It first started in 1965. Just how has this grown over the last 58 years?

Nicholas: Initially it was just the Yule Log, and then it went to a kind of a drive-thru program for a number of years. The City of Austin ran it up until about 2008 or 2009. Then whenever we had the downturn in the economy, it was a budgetary line item cut. The Trail of Lights Foundation came in a couple of years later and was able to kind of revamp the community event. It’s grown as this giant, wonderful thing every Christmas season.

Tom: So many people come out here every year to see the Trail of Lights. It’s a lot of money, a lot of ticket sales generated. Where does that money then go?

Nicholas: We’re very proud of the fact, and it is actually the mission statement of the board of the Trail of Lights Foundation – to keep half the nights free and the other half very low cost at only $5 for entry. In order to do that we have to support that through ticket sales and other vending items. When you come through the trail that also goes to support our Stars Program, which is actually coming up before the grand opening next week. That’s when we bring charitable organizations through, be it underprivileged children, hospitalized children or senior citizens, to get their own private tour through the trail, get their goodie bag. And that’s completely free to them. But it’s a cost to us to put on, and so that’s where the ticket sales go.

KXAN is a sponsor of Trail of Lights.