Holly Jolly Trolley Rolls 'Til New Year's Eve

Dec 20, 2018

Jennifer Combes, of Kalamazoo, and her daughters sit next to the Holly Jolly Trolley driver on the Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 Art Hop Night.
Credit Earlene McMichael | WMUK

Note: For the holiday season, WMUK rebroadcasts this story about downtown Kalamazoo's Holly Jolly Trolley. 

It originally aired on Dec. 7, 2017.

What’s it like to ride downtown Kalamazoo’s San Francisco- style Holly Jolly Trolley?

It has long been on Kalamazoo grandfather Kelly Casey's bucket list. “I wanted to do this for years, but I was working or having to get up early. So I didn’t have the opportunity." 

He's retired now.

Casey rode the trolley for the first time on Friday, Dec. 1st, just like me, during Art Hop. He came with his wife Patricia and grandson Thomas.

However, many of the people I met that night have been loyal riders for years. Some were there when the free Holly Jolley Trolley service started 13 years ago.

Cathy Keast says it was memorable.

“We live right downtown, and we got on and people were giving us high-fives and clapping because we got on. The people on the trolley were like, ‘Yah!’ They were just excited.”

The Holly Jolly Trolley arrives at Kalamazoo City Hall, its first stop, at the top of the hour, and 30 minutes after the hour. City Hall faces Bronson Park at a time of year when it is decorated for the holidays.
Credit Earlene McMichael | WMUK

Today four-year-old Miles is in the holiday spirit.

Miles breaks out running toward the golden and blue Holly Jolly Trolley as it pulls up to the curb at Kalamazoo City Hall. He comes every year with his grandparents Ron and Bette Hall, of Portage, and his 6-year-old sister Ruby. Bette says it’s become a holiday family tradition.

“It’s nice to come when the lights are on, and see the lights around town.”

Miles’ family boards, and Miles starts singing.

“Holly Jollies!....I LOVVVVVVVEEEE HOLLLLLEEEEEE JOLLLLLLEEEESSSS!”

Christmas music plays.

“There’s a party in here!” Miles shrieks.

The trolley can hold 24 people on its vintage wooden benches. Above them are stringed lights and garland. Passengers are known to break out in song on the outdoor porch in the rear of the trolley.

“There’s something about that back porch that makes you want to start caroling, I guess," says Sue Huggett, marketing manager at the nonprofit economic development agency Downtown Kalamazoo Inc. that oversees the Holly Jolly Trolley, which she says costs about $15,000 a year to operate.

There are nine trolley stops. City Hall is the first one. It faces Bronson Park, which at this time of year is decked out with lit holiday trees and decorations, and life-size candy cane arches. Huggett says there’s even more holiday lighting throughout downtown for trolley riders this year.

Just like families return every year, so do some of the drivers. In fact, many request the shift.

“A lot of times they’ll be, ‘Oh, the kids got so big.’ People will talk to specific drivers just about how things have gone for the last year.”

Gene Wright II is general manager for the B&W Charters that provides the trolley service, which is funded by grant dollars and area businesses.

He says people come from as far as South Bend, Ind., and from Michigan cities like South Haven, St. Joseph, Three Rivers and Grand Rapids.

What's the most interesting thing Cathy Caporossi has seen in her five years as a trolley driver?

"Last year, I had a proposal (occur) on here, and an almost one last night."

But while the Holly Jolly Trolley is an annual holiday tradition now, it was actually started in 2004 as a way to solve a temporary problem. A major parking ramp was closed for renovation during the holidays.

Vicky Kettner says she was part of a team at Downtown Kalamazoo Inc. that came up with the idea for the trolley.

“It was decided that a trolley would be a great idea to get people moving from point A to B, especially to other parking ramps that might not have been so close to the retail sector, that being the Kalamazoo Mall," explains Kettner, who was DKI's community relations manager from 2003 to 2012.

She says the trolley gave about 14,000 rides its first year.

“Its success that first season told us that we could not not do it again.”

You can ride downtown Kalamazoo’s free Holly Jolly Trolley Thursdays through Sundays until New Year’s Eve. Catch it on the hour, and 30 minutes after the hour at Kalamazoo City Hall, the first stop. Each year, trolley season opens in late November. For hours, a route map, Santa's Workshop details and sponsors, visit the Downtown Kalamazoo Inc. website by clicking here.