Christmas tree lights. Photo by Colleen Park.
Christmas tree lights. Photo by Colleen Park.

OK, so Thanksgiving is over and it’s on to Christmas.

More than four million holiday lights will be illuminated at dusk Friday as an expected 75,000 people from around Southern California gather at the Mission Inn hotel in Riverside.

One of the Inland Empire’s signature holiday events — the “Festival of Lights” — will get underway with a ceremony that turns the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa into a brilliantly illuminated kingdom of Christmas-oriented entertainment.

The 24th annual festival officially begins at 4:45 p.m. outside the Mission Inn when owner and festival founder Duane Roberts, joined by the mayor and members of the Riverside City Council, will throw the switch on more than four million Christmas lights, followed by a fireworks extravaganza and Christmas music.

The city is anticipating up to 75,000 people will flood the Main Street pedestrian mall to take part in the affair.

“The Festival of Lights is one of the many things that make Riverside such a special place,” Mayor Rusty Bailey said. “The switch-on ceremony is an annual tradition for many Riversiders and inland Southern California residents, who gather with their family and friends for an illuminating night of fun, fellowship and holiday cheer.”

Crews began working round-the-clock shifts in early September, readying the hotel for the roughly six-week celebration that will conclude just before daybreak on Jan. 7. The festival began in 1992, after Roberts and his wife, Kelly, took over the Mission Inn.

Each fest opens with a pyrotechnics spectacular that illuminates the entire Main Street 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 line the way outside and into the hotel, where visitors also encounter “the world’s largest manmade mistletoe,” measuring 12- by-8 feet, according to festival organizers.

Nightly horse-drawn carriage rides are planned, along with performances by the celebrated Dickens carolers. Santa and Mrs. Claus will be fixtures in the area fronting the castle-like inn, where new attractions have been added for this year’s fest, including a Ferris wheel and a 36-animal “Colorful Carousel.”

The city complements the festival with light displays along Mission Inn and University avenues.

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

Last year’s event drew an estimated 480,000 visitors, organizers said.

— City News Service

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