The 20th Annual Festival of Lights illuminates downtown

Jillian Rausa/HIGHLANDER

One of the many things that the city of Riverside takes great pride in is the annual Festival of Lights. This year the festival celebrates an astounding 20th anniversary.  The smell of sweet kettle corn, millions of lights, an ice skating rink, holiday window displays and the sounds of the season will be celebrated in downtown Riverside until Jan 5.

On Black Friday, the festival kicked off with the famous Switch-On Ceremony—a tradition that has successfully illuminated downtown Riverside and The Mission Inn for the past 20 years.

Arriving in downtown, two and a half hours before the ceremony, I decided to walk around and take everything in.  It was a warm day, and booths were already set up and streets were blocked from 5th to University and from Market to Orange.  The scent of sweet yet salty kettle corn was distinctly strong.  People were already claiming their spots in front of the Mission Inn for a prime viewing spot.  Kim Miller, a proud resident of Riverside who has been coming to the festival for over 10 years, was saving spots for 17 other people. Everyone who was patiently waiting for the ceremony seemed relaxed and content. Volunteers were everywhere, as identified by the bright colored vests, passing out programs and directing people. Volunteers from John W. North High School’s Key Club in Riverside were picking up litter and helping people with questions, demonstrating that any little thing could make a huge difference in crafting the ambiance on the event.

There was something for all ages to enjoy. Ice skating, bouncy slides, shopping and dining, and just basking in the holiday spirit through the music and other festive decorations. The Riverside City College marching band, the Marching Tigers, played a spectacular show before the commencement of the ceremony.  They filled the air with joyous sounds ranging from holiday music to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebrate.” They did a great job of getting the crowd excited as people buzzed with applause and dancing.  As time got closer for the ceremony to commence, more and more people gathered in front of the Mission Inn anxiously awaiting the lights and fireworks.  I couldn’t help but feel like a kid in Disneyland eagerly awaiting the fireworks display amidst a tightly packed crowd.

Finally, the the ceremony’s host, Cindy Roth, president of the Riverside Chambers of Commerce, came out on the stage next to the Mission Inn and welcomed the crowd.  Many thanks were issued to everyone from the volunteers to the sponsors, which are crucial for making a non-profit event like this just as magical and special for attendees.  Next on stage, Mayor Ronald O. Loveridge welcomed everyone to what he called our signature festival for Southern California.

Daming Ye/HIGHLANDER
Daming Ye/HIGHLANDER

Lastly, Duane Roberts, who owns The Mission Inn Hotel and Spa with his wife Kelly Roberts,  took to the stage. Many may wonder how the festival came into existence, and the answer is a simple one—he simply wanted to give back to the community. “I thought back to the days when I was a little kid, and my parents used to take us to the different neighborhoods that lit up their lights and had a kind of contest, and it would be shown in the Press-Enterprise newspaper and it kind of dawned on me,” said Roberts. The festival has grown each year and according to Roberts, is one of the top five Christmas lighting displays in the nation.  He even said it is comparable to Disneyland, but the best part is that it is free.

And who could forget the man in the red suit? Santa also made an appearance on stage as the crowd merrily counted down with anticipation.  With the flip of a switch by a few children who had won a coloring contest prior, millions of lights ignited, accompanied by an array of colorful fireworks. Gasps could be heard among the Christmas music as the hushed crowd watched the dazzling lights. Smiles were seen as a sense of warmth and holiday cheer spread throughout the crowd that could make any holiday grinch warm with joy.

Kaylee, a six-year-old girl from Chino, said, “I think it was awesome and my favorite part was the fireworks.” She enjoyed her very first Festival of Lights with her grandmother, who works for the city and says she is no newcomer to the festival.  Tradition is a large part of the festival, as it is a main component of what brings the festival back each year and it is nice to see both young and old enjoy it.

The Festival of Lights, located just a few minutes from UCR down University Avenue, is a spectacle you don’t want to miss.  The city of Riverside takes great pride in its alluring lights that will brighten Downtown Riverside until Jan 5. Take advantage of Riverside’s very own winter wonderland!

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