Back in 1992, when Riverside was mostly a pit stop between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, the new owners of the Mission Inn decided to add some holiday decor to the block-size historic hotel.
“It was just a free gift to the community,” said Shannon Walters, vice president of sales and marketing. “So they put a pretty tree in the lobby and a few lights around the hotel, and they’ve built on it every single year.”
Boy, have they ever. That first modest display has turned into a six-block holiday extravaganza lasting more than a month and drawing 750,000 visitors in 2017, according to the city’s Festival of Lights economic impact report. About 75,000 visitors alone showed up for the switch-on ceremony during the start of the festival the day after Thanksgiving.
Consider that 43% of those visitors were out-of-towners spending an average $701 per pair during their overnight stay and it’s easy to see why city officials began partnering with the festival in 2006 and helped it grow:
Over the past 27 years, the Festival of Lights has become a holiday ritual for many locals and out-of-town visitors, Walters said, who have used the event for marriage proposals, family traditions and friend reunions.
This year, the city’s activities run Nov. 29 to Dec. 31 and offer plenty to do besides looking at lights. The city’s six-block Main Street mall will be crammed with vendors and artisans Thursdays through Sundays, a carousel and “century wheel” (a.k.a. Ferris wheel), horse-drawn carriage rides, live entertainment, and dozens of selfie opportunities, from giant Christmas ornaments to a walk-in 28-foot-tall snow globe provided by UC Riverside, featuring a 14-foot-tall replica of UCR’s bell tower. We hear Santa Claus will be making regularly scheduled appearances Nov. 30 through Christmas Eve.
For its part, the Mission Inn will be festooned with more than 5 million lights inside and out through Jan. 6. Highlights include the “world’s largest man-made mistletoe” and 400 animated figures hanging from the balconies, rotating in the famous Anton clock over the Spanish patio or building toys in a Santa’s workshop along one of the inn’s many walkways. The lobby will feature a 19-foot tree shipped in from Washington state and a life-size gingerbread house made out of real gingerbread, icing and candy.
The effect is a little nostalgic, like walking into an old-fashioned department store holiday window display, with lots of festive music, bug-eyed children, and people who can’t stop grinning, despite the crowds and Disneyland-worthy lines.
But the thing about Festival of Lights is that things are popping in downtown Riverside even without the festivities. Two new apartment complexes with a total of 130 units have opened in the past year and are almost entirely full “with a mix of millennials, professionals and empty-nesters with crazy incomes,” said Nathan Freeman, senior development property manager for Riverside’s Community and Economic Development office.
A new Game Lab by the old Fox Theater, a block from the Mission Inn, offers a techno walk through the decades with a variety of pinball, arcade and virtual reality games. The Riverside Food Lab next door has a big bar and lots of moderately priced restaurant choices. And on the Main Street mall, multiple new restaurant/bars are coming, three of which promise to open by Thanksgiving: the Fire-Up Grill Mexican food and bar, the Salted Pig gastropub and a fifth store in the popular Donut Bar chain which pairs pie-size donuts with ... wait for it ... craft beer.
These all join with longtime businesses next to the Mission Inn, such as Mario’s Place Italian restaurant, a local favorite, the Mission Galleria Antique Shoppe, where you can spend hours discovering (sometimes best) forgotten things from someone’s childhood or Mrs. Tiggy Winkles Gift Shoppe, a must-visit everything store that offers a riotous blend of exotic, hilarious and exquisite clothing, toys, kitchen items, accessories, soaps, holiday decorations and other merchandise you never knew you needed.
Starting Nov. 29, the crowds will be crazy on weekends and just a little more manageable on weekdays, but there are some tips for seeing the sights without waiting forever in line.
1. Arrive early
The lights come on by 5 p.m, but CeeAnn Thiel, the longtime owner of Mrs. Tiggy Winkles Gift Shoppe, recommends arriving downtown by 2 p.m. That gives you plenty of time to park and visit the stores before crowds converge around dusk.
2. Come by train
MetroLink is offering special Festival of Lights trains on Fridays and Saturdays from L.A.'s Union Station, Oceanside, and parts of Orange and Riverside counties. The trains are $7 round trip for adults and free for ages 18 and under. Once you get to Riverside’s station there are free shuttles to the Mission Inn. Unless you’re staying overnight, the timing for the trains allows just four hours of sightseeing.
3. Reserve a parking spot and watch your exits
For $7 you can reserve parking at two of the city’s Orange Street lots. You can also download a map to see all the possible parking options. Here are the city’s tips for avoiding the worst traffic: Stay away from the Mission Inn/University Avenue exits, which are always jammed during Festival month. If you’re arriving on the 60 Freeway, exit at Market Street. Or better yet, come in on the 91 Freeway and exit at 14th Street.
4. Make a reservation at the Mission Inn
You can stand in line with a jillion other people for a free tour of the exterior of the inn through its main entrance to its Santa Workshop walkway, but during the festival the interior is closed to visitors, Walters said, unless they are hotel guests or have a reservation at one of their six on-site restaurant/bars.
5. Take a tour of the Inn
The Mission Inn Foundation offers four daily tours of the Mission Inn’s interior on weekdays and five tours on Saturdays and Sundays, but during the Festival of Lights, the most popular is the 4 p.m. tour, which starts in daylight and ends around the time the lights come on. During the Festival of Lights, tour tickets are $25 for 12 and older, $10 ages 3 to 11 after 3 p.m. and $20 for 12 and older, $5 ages 3-11 before 3 p.m.
The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa’s 27th Festival of Lights
Where: Downtown Riverside on the Main Street Mall, between 4th and 10th streets
Time: Festival events Nov. 29 to Dec. 31. Mission Inn lights stay on through Jan. 6. Lights go on at 5 p.m. each night. Fireworks and live entertainment during the switch-on ceremony Nov. 29