When pumpkin-shaped decorations have been packed away, and Thanksgiving leftovers have been devoured, the hills, or rather City Park and downtown San Marcos, come alive with the Sights & Sounds of Christmas.
Sights & Sounds of Christmas began in 1987 in downtown San Marcos, Texas. A small group of engaged and committed community members gathered on the front lawn of the courthouse to coordinate the simple affair: hayrides through an area of the city already aglow with Christmas lights, visits with Santa, and popcorn, tinsel, arts, and crafts. San Marcos’s Main Street Program had just taken hold, and a holiday-themed festival fit perfectly into the program’s vision to “foster a downtown that is a unique and culturally vibrant destination, where local businesses thrive and people of all ages can connect, create, and celebrate.”
Residents of San Marcos and the surrounding communities, as well as the students enrolled at San Marcos’s Texas State University, fell in love with the event almost immediately. They stepped up to volunteer and lead Sights & Sounds. Now a 501c3 charity, in the past 30 years Sights & Sounds has grown tremendously. As the number of rides, activities, and vendors increased, so did the need for space; to accommodate this need, the festival relocated to the more spacious and better equipped City and San Marcos Plaza Parks. The light displays along the San Marcos River have multiplied to include more than 900,000 twinkling bulbs, 90,000 of which light the famous Sights & Sounds tree. And most recently, after years of spanning just one long weekend, Sights & Sounds expanded to encompass two four-day weekends. The event welcomes between 45,000 and 70,000 guests annually, so one weekend simply could not support the substantial crowds. Because Sights & Sounds is held outside, inclement weather can easily impact whether the event is successful in terms of attendance and fundraising.
Recognizing that growth, no matter how necessary, is often accompanied or followed by a decrease in community ownership and quality of local events, Sights & Sounds’s leadership worked hard to protect its roots and maintain that small-town festival feel. Many visitors to Sights & Sounds have regularly attended for decades because the event, while larger in scale, continues to welcome them as one would be welcomed into an old friend’s living room.
Something for Everyone
A wide variety of holiday-themed activities means everyone can find something to love at Sights & Sounds. After soaring and spinning through the many carnival attractions, visitors can enjoy pony rides, a scavenger hunt, holiday-themed arts and crafts,
candle making, a petting zoo, ice skating, a light show at Santa’s House, the Reindeer Games play area, and photos with Santa. Visitors can also journey back in time to the town of Bethlehem, watch live performances by local youth choirs and dance troupes,
shop the holiday vendor booths in Santa’s Gift Shop, and indulge in festival foods like kettle corn, turkey legs, funnel cakes, cotton candy, hot cocoa, hot cider, and the ever-popular campfire biscuits with butter and honey.
Sights & Sounds is particularly well known for its nightly Santa entrances. “Santa Claus is our superhero, and we bring him into the park with the welcome he deserves,” explained Tommy Curtis, president of the Sights & Sounds Board of Directors. “The arrival of Santa energizes the entire festival, so the focus is on doing something new and different every night.”
From helicopters and fire trucks to river rafts and monster trucks, no form of transport is too ambitious or extravagant for Santa.
Sights & Sounds strives to make the experience an affordable one, especially for younger visitors. Children 12 and under are free, and admission for guests ages 13 and older is only $5 per night or $15 for an eight-day pass. Parking and ADA-accessible shuttles from nearby parking lots to the front gate of Sights & Sounds are also free. Once inside, many of the festival’s activities are included with the price of admission: enjoying the lights, visiting the petting zoo animals, making candles, playing Reindeer Games, and even photos with Santa come at no extra cost.
A Worthy Cause
Visitors can feel good about the money they spend at Sights & Sounds. The majority of the festival’s food booths are run by local charities, nonprofits, and scouting groups and the proceeds raised stay with each organization. The entrance fee, along with the profits from carnival rides and drink and cotton candy sales, go back into the event. After a good year, Sights & Sounds breaks even financially. After a great year, Sights & Sounds is able to donate surplus funds back into the community; in the past, the Board has made contributions to improve city parks, support local education foundations, and enhance the holiday season for families in need.
Nightly revenue stream cannot keep Sights & Sounds afloat on its own, so sponsor donations and community fundraising events bridge the gap and allow planning and preparation for the following year’s event to begin on schedule. The Jingle Bell Run 5K and “Kid K” welcome more than 1,000 runners annually to wind through historic downtown San Marcos buoyed by spirited holiday tunes. Santa’s River Race in September, modeled after the world-famous Texas Water Safari in which paddlers make the 260-mile trek from the headwaters of the San Marcos River to Seadrift on the Gulf Coast, guides participants on a seven and-a-half-mile race from San Marcos to Martindale. Sights & Sounds also hosts an annual Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournament, and the Board hopes to add a Bingo Night this year as well.
More than 800 volunteers each year make Sights & Sounds possible. Business leaders, community members, and Texas State University students come from near and far because they believe in the mission of the Sights & Sounds and want to ensure the success of the festival and be a part of the holiday spirit it brings to San Marcos. The all-volunteer Board of Directors is led by Curtis, who began volunteering fifteen years ago while attending Texas State, joined the board eight years ago, and has served as president for the past four years.
After decades of using physical tokens as payment for rides, games, and food, Sights & Sounds recently switched to an electronic token system called Magic Money Bands. These bands can be purchased upon entry into the festival, then loaded and reloaded from the Magic Money app and at Magic Money stations and kiosks throughout the park. They are also reusable; the bands and leftover credits carry over from one year to the next so regular visitors to Sights & Sounds should store their Magic Money Bands in a safe place to use again.
This season’s Sights & Sounds will look slightly different, and visitors should expect a few logistical changes because of construction on the roads surrounding the park. Visitors should also expect a few fun additions to the festival compared to years past; according to Curtis, this year up to 80 percent of the lighted trees will be programmable, allowing for light shows that will amaze visitors throughout the entire park.
In 2018, Sights & Sounds will kick off on Wednesday, November 28 and welcome visitors Wednesday through Saturday both that week and the week of Wednesday, December 5. While still remaining open to all guests, certain nights will be dedicated to families, Texas State University students, and members of the military.
If you live near San Marcos, there is no better way to celebrate the arrival of the holiday season than by visiting Sights & Sounds. As it has done for more than 30 years, the festival promises to delight all who walk through the gates with its stunning sights and beautiful sounds of Christmas joy.
If you go:
Wednesday, November 28 – Saturday, December 1
Wednesday, December 5 – Saturday, December 8
Times: 5 p.m. through 11 p.m.
Parking: Free parking is available at Bobcat Stadium West parking lot (Strahan Coliseum parking lot). There is a free shuttle every 15 minutes between 5 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. ADA-accessible shuttles run every 20 minutes directly to the front gate of the park.
Tickets: Tickets can be purchased online or with cash at the gate. Magic Money Bands can be purchased inside the park with cash or credit.