The Inland Empire’s signature holiday event — the “Festival of Lights” — will open Friday in Riverside, turning the downtown space into a brilliantly illuminated kingdom of Christmas-themed entertainment that will continue until the final day of the year.

The switch-on ceremony for the 27th annual fest is set for 4:30 p.m. Friday, when Mission Inn owner and festival founder Duane Roberts, joined by Mayor Rusty Bailey and other officials, will flip on more than five million Christmas lights, followed by a fireworks extravaganza and holiday music.

The city is anticipating up to 75,000 people will flood the intersection of Mission Inn Avenue and Orange Street to take part in the affair.

In 2018, the city allocated $800,000 for the fest, covering the cost of lights throughout the downtown area, decorations and carnival entertainment. The economic impact of this year’s roughly six-week celebration is estimated to range into the millions, according to officials.

The festival began in 1992, after Roberts and his wife, Kelly, took over the Mission Inn.

Each event opens with a pyrotechnics spectacular that brightens the entire Main Street pedestrian plaza. Afterward, the century-old inn is bathed in multi-colored hues, with some 400 animated characters, including elves, toy soldiers, nutcrackers and angels, visible on banisters, balconies and ledges.

Towering Christmas trees will line the way outside and into the hotel, where visitors also encounter a mistletoe measuring 12-by-8 feet.

Nightly horse-drawn carriage rides are planned, along with performances by the celebrated Dickens Carolers. New this year will be daily live musical entertainment on the breezeway fronting City Hall.

Santa and Mrs. Claus will be fixtures next to the castle-like inn. Other attractions include a “Century Wheel,” similar to a Ferris wheel, a carousel and a huge “snow globe” standing between Mission Inn and University avenues.

There will be bounce houses and a playground saturated with LED lights, where kids can hop on teeter-totters and swings.

Vendors will be selling a variety of goods along the pedestrian mall, day and night.

USA Tuesday named the Festival of Lights “America’s Best Holiday Festival of 2015” as part of the paper’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Contest.

About 750,000 visitors are expected over the duration of the fest, which will conclude at daybreak on Dec. 31.

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