There's no shortage of urban legends: reports of cattle mutilations by the chupacabra, an end to construction on 290, and a tax bill that benefits the ninety-nine percenters are all up there, but rarely is there a ring of truth.
But when it comes to Christmas lights that are so spectacular they can be seen from the Space Shuttle, you're getting a little closer. But along with all that awesomeness comes another Houston mainstay: congested streets and traffic woes from all the looky-loos.
Lauren Barrash, owner of Houston's jitney service The Wave, says River Oaks is notorious for both great light displays and a high number of distracted drivers in the weeks leading up to Christmas. "It takes at least 45 minutes to drive through River Oaks; the traffic is atrocious. That’s really why you want to be in a bus."
Barrash is ready, too, lining up a fleet of rolling party buses to take Houstonians on the 8th Annual Holiday Lights Tour, including past one very special house in River Oaks. "He has a live Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus and elves and snow blowing and six constables manning his yard. Every night. Imagine having a staff of 12 to run your Christmas lights."
Even though it takes a while to drive through River Oaks, it's totally worth it, with some of the most amazing decorations that money can by. But be forewarned. "We see car accidents all the time," says Barrash. "People are looking at the lights, and all of a sudden somebody slams on the brakes. River Oaks really does take forever to get through."
The Wave team drives the routes in advance and pins down the best light displays for us, then makes another pass before the first Holiday Lights Tour. Barrash says that homeowners are even reaching out to her when they put together a Clark Griswold-worthy display.
Themes change from year to year, but she says that Astros pride is big this time around. "There’s this one fantastic house every year in the Heights," says Barrash. "In the Heights they typically don’t turn their lights on until Lights in the Heights [December 9]. The homeowner sent a picture. Every year it's off the wall crazy, one year he did Duck Dynasty. We never know but it's always fabulous. This year it’s a huge Astros theme. Fantastic."
Be sure to show up early because they try to sort the buses by party style, whenever possible. You might find yourself on a family-friendly bus full of kids and parents, a flask-toting crowd of adults in another, or a set of senior citizens ready for a night out on the town.
If the weather cooperates, the buses will stop so passengers can get out and take photographs. Barrash has even seen a proposal during one of their stops at Discovery Green. This year's winter art installation is "Hello, Trees! A Walking Serenade," a creation by the Montreal art collective Daily tous les jours that transforms voice messages into light and music.
If it's too cold, too hot or just plain drizzly and nasty, you're welcome to stay on the bus and enjoy the holiday music and tasty treats. At the end of the three-hour tour, there are plenty of opportunities to keep the party going with area pubs and eateries. Just be careful who you're standing next to in historic Market Square Park.
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"They have one of Texas’s largest mistletoe balls," says Barrash, about the kiss-friendly decor, as well as other holiday decorations, at the park. "It's really cool."
Pro tip: Be sure to visit the bathroom before embarking on the tour ("We can't exactly stop and knock on a door in River Oaks and ask to use the restroom," says Barrash.) and reserve your tickets in advance so they know how many buses to have ready to roll. And if the timing doesn't work out, consider signing up for a private tour. They can take groups as small as two or as large as 60. Barrash says they've got a larger transportation network and have access to any size vehicle.
The 8th Annual Holiday Lights Tours run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. December 21-24, beginning at historic Market Square Park, 301 Milam. For information, call 713-863-9283 or visit their Facebook page, $35.