Taking their cue from Rockefeller Center, Riverside city officials opened an outdoor ice skating rink and lighted 2 million Christmas lights downtown Friday evening at the start of its annual Festival of Lights celebration.
Carolers sang and vendors hawked roasted chestnuts, cocoa and eggnog.
This year’s beefed-up festival, which runs nightly through Jan. 1, replaced the county fair-style summer Orange Blossom Festival as the city’s signature event.
The city’s holiday festivities were particularly meaningful for Gaylene Kabel, 42, of Denver.
Five years ago, her husband, who grew up in Riverside, proposed to her as the two rode in a horse-drawn carriage through downtown.
On Friday, Kabel nodded appreciatively at the new ice rink on the city’s pedestrian mall, where her husband, Mark, and their son, Jack, 3, took a turn on the ice.
“I think it’s neat,” Kabel said. “Sometimes when we come here, it doesn’t really feel like winter, coming from Colorado. But this is a nice touch. Every year [the city] seems to do a better and better job of making it feel like Christmas.”
It took crews one week to set up the rink. There will be no ice-resurfacing Zamboni machine -- the rink, at 42 feet by 72 feet is too small -- but crews will push small resurfacing machines over the 6-inch thick ice every few hours.
Mimi Sterenberg, 9, of Redlands, was one of the first to try the ice after it opened at 2 p.m. and grinned as she left the rink.
“It was fun,” she said.
Others roaming the mall also seemed to like what they saw.
“There’s a nice feeling downtown -- the decorations, the lights,” said Craig McManigal, 73, of Riverside. Every winter, he brings his grandchildren downtown for hot chocolate and a carriage ride.
“There’s occasionally a little chill in the air -- which there isn’t in the summer -- and that makes it nice,” McManigal said.
At the Mission Inn, downtown Riverside’s main tourist draw, walls were decked with more than 200 animated figures, and entryways contained giant nutcracker dolls. In the hotel’s courtyard, a troupe of life-sized gilded angel dolls waved their hands back and forth from their balcony perches.
“Look at them, all twitching away,” said Brad Smith, 54, of Corvallis, Ore. “It’s so over the top it’s a hoot. But it’s fun.”
The festival will cost the city about $445,000. Revenues from the skating rink and vendor space rentals are expected to total about half that amount.
The ice rink will be open from 2 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 2 to 10 p.m. Friday; and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends. Skate rental is $3 and skating costs $10 an hour.