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Thousands gathered in downtown Riverside on Saturday, Nov. 18, for the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa Festival of Lights opening ceremony, which launched the event before Thanksgiving for the first time in its 31-year history.

The Festival of Lights, which usually kicks off the day after Thanksgiving, is one of the country’s largest holiday light displays, according to the Mission Inn. The spectacle covers the historic hotel in millions of lights and features live performances, vendors and other seasonal activities. One favorite — ice skating — is back after a seven-year absence. The festival continues nightly through Sunday, Jan. 7.

The crowd began forming hours ahead of the 5 p.m. ceremony, with many setting up picnic blankets and camping chairs in front of the Mission Inn to ensure they’d have a good view of the lights and fireworks. Others wandered the festival, visiting the carnival or buying cupcakes, churros and hot chocolate.

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Corona resident Ana Martinez and her daughter, Lina, 4, were among those who arrived early.

“I wanted to bring my little one,” Martinez said.

They’d seen the lights in previous years, she said, but had never come for the fireworks and switch-on ceremony.

“We’re excited for tonight,” she said.

The pre-Thanksgiving start date was chosen so the festival would overlap with students’ time off from school the week leading to Thanksgiving, and in hopes of spreading out crowds across more days. More than 400,000 attendees visited the festival in 2022, according to a presentation to the Riverside City Council.

Janice Penner, executive director of the Riverside Downtown Partnership, said the earlier start would be good for businesses, calling the Festival of Lights “their Black Friday.”

Riverside resident Amy Lambert and her family are repeat visitors to the annual festival.

“So far it’s really good — just really crowded,” Lambert said, “but this is the first day, so it’s gonna be.”

“I’m excited,” she said of the earlier start date. “We started putting Christmas stuff up early, too.”

“We’re trying to be more in the spirit. I know everybody tells us to wait (until) after Thanksgiving, but we just got excited.”

Riverside residents Wendy and Randy Blevins, 55 and 70, have attended the Festival of Lights for a number of years.

Wendy Blevins called the pre-Thanksgiving start “a little funky.”

“I asked my husband, ‘I wonder why?’ and he’s like, ‘money’,” she said, laughing.

Blevins said they also attend the Festival of Trees, which begins after Thanksgiving, and in previous years made a weekend out of visiting the two events.

“I guess it will just bring us down here another weekend,” she said, adding that maybe more people would have a chance to enjoy the Festival of Lights because of the longer run.

The couple said it was nice to see people out and about, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s just fun,” Wendy Blevins said. “We’ll be back.”

As the sky grew dark Saturday evening, a crowd gathered around the stage at Orange Street and Mission Inn Avenue for the switch-on ceremony, which the Mission Inn website says drew more than 50,000 people last year.

“As you can see, we ordered great weather,” Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson joked before the ceremony.

Saturday’s forecast showed a possibility of high winds and rain, and gray clouds loomed overhead, but in the end, Riverside stayed dry for the ceremony.

Lock Dawson said the festival’s earlier start would “give families something wonderful to do next week,” while kids are out of school and relatives are in town to celebrate Thanksgiving.

“As politicians and elected people, we always deal with so many heartbreaking things, difficult things,” she said, “and then you’re here, and it just reminds you that it’s really all about the people.”

Cindy Roth, who formerly led the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce, hosted the ceremony. Lock Dawson, special guest Cheech Marin, whose Chicano art museum is across the street, and Mission Inn owners Duane and Kelly Roberts were among the speakers.

“Thank you for making the Mission Inn what it is,” Duane Roberts told the crowd.

After the remarks, those onstage — including Santa Claus — counted down. Roth flipped the switch. And the historic inn lit up with fireworks and 10 million lights as “Winter Wonderland” played.

Last year, the inn’s roof caught fire during the fireworks show, but this year’s spectacle appeared to go off without a hitch.

It was followed by a concert, which included performances by Mark McGrath, the lead singer of Sugar Ray; Skip Martin, vocalist for the Dazz Band and former lead singer of Kool & The Gang;  Jason Scheff, lead vocalist of Chicago; Wally Palmar, lead singer of The Romantics; and others.

As the music continued, some festivalgoers took to the ice skating rink, located in the parking lot of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture, across Orange Street from the Mission Inn.

The crowd favorite, which has lost money in previous years, was discontinued in 2016, but city officials began planning its return months ago.

Among those waiting to skate was Violet Kuhlman, 10, who moved to the Riverside area from Illinois.

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