Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse lead the tree-lighting parade down North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, IL at The BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival in 2013. The Lights Festival is the official start of the holiday season in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Greater North Michigan Avenue Association/ Charles Cherney.)

Over 1.2 million celebrate the beginning of the holiday season in Chicago by watching Mickey and Minnie Mouse lead a magical evening lighting parade down The Magnificent Mile. Chicago’s largest single day event is free and an annual tradition for thousands of locals and visitors alike. This year’s BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival takes place on Saturday, November 22.

The holiday tradition, which celebrates its 23rd year, is so popular because kids young and old can enjoy the festivities. Prior to the parade start time of 5:30 pm, visitors can get into the holiday spirit by checking out the retail shops and restaurants along Michigan Avenue which are already decked out in their holiday best. Some family-friendly restaurants include Bandera and Bar Toma but, truly, there are so many good restaurants to try along the Mag Mile that it won’t be hard to find one.

The interactive wonderland of holiday-themed activities begins at 11:00 am on November 22 (Pioneer Court, 401 N. Michigan Avenue). Guests are invited to start by visiting one of three BMO Harris Helper Tents for inside tips and hand warmers.


Throughout the day until 5:00 pm, festival goers have the chance to visit with Santa, brought to them by Walgreens, as well as participate in a family-fun holiday photo session, engage with interactive activities and sample some delicious treats. The 2013 completed BMO Harris Bank Community Art Project mural will be on display along The Magnificent Mile during the holiday season.

Musical performers take over the BMO Harris Bank Stage during the afternoon’s live concert line-up. Performers include Justin Roberts and the Not Ready for Naptime Players, Jacquie Lee, presented by Radio Disney, and Kendall Schmidt. Nico and Vinz, Norwegian singer-songwriter duo from Oslo, is part of the line-up thanks to Southwest Airlines®.

While the entire day is filled with fun activities, the Lights Festival really steals the show and that’s the reason that families stake out their space hours before the parade begins to get an awesome view.

At the stroke of 5:30 pm. Grand Marshals Mickey and Minnie lead the tree lighting parade. As they venture down the Magnificent Mile, they illuminate more than one million lights on 200 trees along North Michigan Avenue. The parade features more than 40 magnificent floats, helium-filled balloons, classic characters from the Walt Disney World® Resort, seven marching bands from across the country and appearances from celebrities including Sabrina Carpenter (from Disney Channel series Girl Meets World), Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, Brendan James (from “America’s Got Talent) and Anna & Elsa from Disney on Ice Frozen.

The floats are just as exciting as the Grand Marshals. Crowd favorites return including Santa soaring above the crowds on the Illinois Office of Tourism float, the larger-than-life Hubert the Lion balloon from BMO Harris Bank and the world-famous scent of Garrett Popcorn Shop’s popcorn infused down the procession route from the shop’s float. Other visual masterpieces include a float made of life-size candy from Candyality and a Chicago Blackhawks trolley decorated with Chicago pride.

The BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival ends with a spectacular fireworks display over the Chicago River with more than 10,000 handmade fireworks shells from Lumina.

Holiday lights festivals are one of the many ways families and friends can enjoy the season together. Chicago isn’t the only city that hosts a lights festival. Cindy Richards, EmptyNest TravelingMom, shares where to see holiday lights displays in 2014.

Not in the United States? Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawan shares some of the best holiday lights displays around the world.