The life long relationship between herpes simplex virus and its host hinges on the ability of the virus to aggressively replicate in epithelial cells at the site of infection and transport into the nervous system through axons innervating the infection site. Interaction between the virus and the sensory neuron represents a pivot point where largely unknown mechanisms lead to a latent or a lytic infection in the neuron. Regulation at this pivot point is critical for balancing two objectives, efficient widespread seeding of the nervous system and host survival. By combining genetic and in vivo in approaches, our studies reveal that the balance between latent and lytic programs is a process occurring early in the trigeminal ganglion. Unexpectedly, activation of the latent program precedes entry into the lytic program by 12 -14hrs. Importantly, at the individual neuronal level, the lytic program begins as a transition out of this acute stage latent program and this escape from the default latent program is regulated by de novo VP16 expression. Our findings support a model in which regulated de novo VP16 expression in the neuron mediates entry into the lytic cycle during the earliest stages of virus infection in vivo. These findings support the hypothesis that the loose association of VP16 with the viral tegument combined with sensory axon length and transport mechanisms serve to limit arrival of virion associated VP16 into neuronal nuclei favoring latency. Further, our findings point to specialized features of the VP16 promoter that control the de novo expression of VP16 in neurons and this regulation is a key component in setting the balance between lytic and latent infections in the nervous system.