Here's why this holiday tradition deserves a place on your annual calendar, too.
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The Milwaukee Holiday Lights Festival is celebrating 20 years this season, and I’ve been riding the Jingle Bus through the twinkling streets of Downtown Milwaukee for at least 13 of them. I’ve seen the storied holiday Coach bus tour through waxing popularity and waning cookie offerings, but the tour itself is as unchanging as the sea.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is the Jingle Bus?
If you see an unassuming Coach bus idling outside Grand Ave Mall this holiday season, you are likely looking at it. The Jingle Bus is surprisingly un-festooned, a simple vessel for delivering 40-minute guided tours of Milwaukee’s Downtown lights displays.
The tour starts and ends at the Jingle Bus Warming House (aka the Plankinton Clover Apartments, just outside the TJ Maxx on Wisconsin Ave.) and ambles Eastward down Wisconsin Ave. toward the lake, looping back West on Mason St. and hitting three dazzling Milwaukee parks on the way.
The bus cost $2 to board this year and came with “refreshments,” which, over the years, have run the gamut from hotel lobby cookies to Swiss Miss in a Styrofoam cup. This year I was given a bag of miniature Chips Ahoy and a Capri Sun at the registration table.
If I’d never boarded the Jingle Bus before, the snack might have tipped me off that this was meant to be a children’s activity, but since I’ve been touring child-free for over a decade, my anticipation superseded my self-consciousness as I jammed the straw into my juice box.
In recent years, lines to buy tickets have gotten long and unless you go early, you’ll probably end up on one of the later buses. This year I went on a Thursday evening, however, and lines were more manageable.
I boarded right away and snagged a seat on the bus’s right side (if you’re facing the front — Starboard side). This is important, because the Jingle Bus route circles two of its three parks clockwise, and you’ll want a good view of “Santa’s Lighted Lodge” at Zeidler Union Square and “Community Spirit Park” at Cathedral Square.
Tours are narrated by Milwaukee Downtown’s Public Service Ambassadors, who point out light displays in bank windows, Christmas trees you can spy through passing alleyways and restaurants to check out after the tour.
Narration doubles as Milwaukee boosterism and history lesson, punctuated by Christmas tunes piped in between fun facts. This year, for instance, I learned about the meal specials at DOC’s Commerce Steakhouse. In previous years, I’ve heard the tale of Milwaukee’s 1845 “Bridge War” and learned a rhyme for interpreting the Gas Light building’s weather predictions.
By the time we rolled into the finish line, I’d seen Santa’s Mailbox in Cathedral Square Park, a Seussical display in the BMO Harris Bank lobby and more blue-lit chandeliers than I could count.
I descended into the cold winter night more fond of my city than before. Two dollars well spent.
The Jingle Bus runs Thurs.-Sun. through Dec. 30, from 6 to 8:20 p.m. Buy tickets and pick up the bus in the atrium outside TJ Maxx at 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. Tickets are $2 each, cash only.