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RIVERSIDE: Festival of Lights thrills crowds at Mission Inn

Fireworks explode over The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa during the 23rd Annual Festival of Lights Switch-On Ceremony in downtown Riverside, on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015.

Thousands of festive revelers and millions of lights turned the historic Mission Inn Hotel and Spa into a holiday wonderland during Friday night’s 23rd annual switch-on ceremony, a glittery kickoff to the region’s holiday season.

The ceremony, which included a fireworks display and a performance by the Riverside City College Marching Tigers, has turned into a national draw in recent years due to exposure on TV shows and in USA Today. And it’s become a highly sought-after backdrop for selfie-seeking locals.

“Now with social media, it’s gone crazy,” said Monica Puga, who took in the spectacle with her husband, Juan, and 3-year-old son, Andrew.
Andrew had one of the best seats in the house, taking in the scene from his dad’s shoulders. The Pugas, who hail from Moreno Valley, have been going to the ceremony for about 10 years.
They make a grand night of it, indulging in kettle corn, doughnuts and funnel cakes. When the crowd thins out, the Pugas make their way to the front of the historic structure to take in the awe-inspiring sight of a building bathed in the glow of almost 5 million lights.

“It’s the start to the holidays,” she said. “You start thinking about the lights you’re going to put up at your home.”

Oliver Unaka, the inn’s public relations director, said the crowd for Friday night’s extravaganza was estimated at 78,000.

Included in the number are international and national guests who have made a visit to the inn part of their holiday traditions and Southern Californians who drive in for the ceremony.
Unaka said the festival, which runs through Jan. 6, has helped boost the occupancy rate at the hotel to around 96 percent, up from 80 percent to 85 percent five years ago.
Some of the guests stay for a week at a time, he said, a fact that would bring a smile to the face of the hotel’s founder, Frank Augustus Miller, who packed the hotel with diversions to occupy a visitor during long vacations.
“This is our busiest time of the year,” Unaka said.

In response to the recent attacks in Paris, organizers bolstered the private security presence at the festival and the Riverside Police Department, apparently at the behest of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, deflected questions ahead of the event about the exact time the lights were scheduled to be switched-on and how many people were expected to attend.
At last year’s ceremony, a group of protesters attempted to disrupt the festivities by blocking traffic at Main Street and Mission Inn Avenue. The scene turned chaotic when a motorist trying to weave through the crowd hit some of the protesters.
There were no similar incidents this year.

Original Article