After sunset tonight, local schoolchildren will flip a switch and spark millions of twinkling lights fastened to the historic Mission Inn in downtown Riverside -- kicking off the holiday season in the Inland Empire.
For months, workers have been fastening more than 2 million tiny lights to the inn's facade. And to mark the inn's 100th anniversary, special red, white and blue fireworks called comets will be launched from the roof. There will also be scores of life-size Christmas figures, giant jack-in-the-boxes and an ornate 25-foot tree.
"I get a big charge out of it every year," said innkeeper Duane Roberts, "doing the countdown with the children and ... seeing their eyes bulge out" when the lights go on.
The 10th annual holiday lighting is expected to draw up to 20,000 people to downtown Riverside. The nearby pedestrian mall is turned into an old-fashioned holiday village. There will be carriage rides, choral groups and the Fox Theater will hold readings of Charles Dickens' work. Merchants will stay open late.
The light display will be on view through Jan. 4. The Riverside Transit Agency has set a $2 round-trip bus fare for local residents who want to view the spectacle. Buses will depart from eight communities on selected dates, from Saturday to Dec. 20. For more information, go to www.RiversideTransit.com.
The inn is also trying to organize transportation for senior citizens and disadvantaged children.
The holiday tradition got its start in 1993, after Roberts completed a $55-million renovation of the inn, which had fallen on hard times. It has attracted more viewers every year, making November and December the busiest months at the inn. This year, the inn is offering a deal to mark the inn's centennial: $19.03 for a buffet lunch, including tax and gratuity, and a docent-led tour.
Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge said there was no event to draw the community together until Roberts started the holiday lighting spectacular.
"It's a celebration of place, a celebration of family and a celebration of the holiday season," he said.