The famed “Festival of Lights” will go ahead as planned in downtown Riverside during the Christmas season, but with limited activity because of the coronavirus pandemic, officials confirmed Wednesday.
“The Festival of Lights is a much-loved Riverside tradition,” Mayor Rusty Bailey said. “I look forward to a time when we can gather together again as a community to celebrate the holidays in this special way, but we have to make responsible decisions, even when they are difficult.”
The Riverside City Council voted Tuesday night to limit city funding for the six-week event to $60,000. It has generally received between $378,000 and $825,000 in recent years.
The city’s drastically reduced commitment reflects anticipation of ongoing public health concerns going into the fall, as well as the reality of less revenue to pay for elaborate holiday displays and entertainment, officials said.
Mission Inn Hotel & Spa owner Duane Roberts began the Festival of Lights in 1992, and he intends to continue the tradition this year, though he has acknowledged the affair will be scaled down to prevent large crowds and observe other precautions stemming from COVID-19.
An official switch-on ceremony will not take place. In the past, Roberts generally gathered with local elected officials for a pyrotechnics extravaganza at Mission Inn Avenue and Orange Street, marking the start of the festival. The usual turnout for the fireworks was 75,000.
“The lower-cost model for the 2020 festival includes some holiday decor in the area around the Mission Inn, including holiday-themed selfie stations, three holiday trees, large ornaments, a sleigh, bows and garland on lights and bridges, and an assortment of holiday-themed light displays, in addition to the lights that are placed on the Mission Inn,” according to a city statement.
“But there will be no programming, entertainment or attractions, no vendors and no horse carriages.”
There was a proposal to cancel the festival, but the council decided against that. The event routinely generates revenues of $450,000 to $734,000.
“We are grateful for creative efforts … to ensure this modified version of one of Riverside’s world-class, signature events can continue in these unprecedented times,” Councilman Steve Hemenway said.
The nightly festival, which traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving, features the century-old inn 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 line the way outside and into the hotel, where visitors also encounter a mistletoe measuring 12-by-8 feet.
The Dickens Carolers and live musical entertainment on the breezeway fronting City Hall have been part of the celebration in past years but won’t be this year.
The reduced city funding means there will not be carnival rides, an ice skating rink or children’s entertainment, such as bounce houses, at this year’s festival.
The Festival of Lights was selected as “America’s Best Holiday Festival of 2015” in USA Wednesday’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Contest.
An estimated 750,000 people visited over the duration of last year’s festival, which concluded on Dec. 31.
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