Downtown Riverside will be bathed in brilliant light  tonight when the 21st annual Festival of Lights gets underway, featuring  fireworks, ice-skating -- and nearly 4 million blinking, twinkling Christmas lights.

Ground zero for all holiday fare is the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, where a switch-on ceremony is scheduled at 5:30 p.m.

``Holidays are the most wonderful time of year,'' said Mission Inn owner Duane Roberts, who introduced the festival in 1992. ``Each Festival of Lights is bigger than the one before, but the event remains free as an experience families can enjoy together, like Disneyland but without the long lines and cost of tickets. 

``We are proud to gift our guests and the community with Festival of Lights yearly. It warms our hearts to see smiles across every face in the crowd as they gaze in awe at the sparkling lights.'' 

The festival, which concludes on Jan. 4, encompasses the entire downtown Main Street pedestrian mall, from University Avenue and Main to 5th and Main. 

The Riverside City Council this year allocated $389,000 in support of the event. 

``The Festival of Lights is always one of the highlights of the year in Riverside, and this year will be no exception,'' Bailey said. ``I look forward  to joining with thousands of Riverside residents to officially ring in the holiday season in what has become a great Riverside tradition.''

During the switch-on, Roberts will be joined by Mayor Rusty Bailey and other dignitaries in front of the hotel, where the innkeeper and his guests will make brief remarks, followed by a pyrotechnics extravaganza and instant illumination.       

A two-story Christmas tree will be on display in front of the hotel, where visitors will also encounter a 12- by 8-foot mistletoe. Some 400 animated characters, including elves, toy soldiers, nutcrackers and angels, will be visible on all levels of the century-old inn.          

There will be nightly horse-drawn carriage rides, carolers, pictures with Santa Claus and ice-skating on the mall, according to festival organizers. 

Last year's event drew more than 250,000 visitors, organizers said.

The switch-on will be broadcast via local cable channels and the city's web portal: http://www.watchriverside.com.