The BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is an annual event that’s filled with holiday activities.
Considered the official kick-off of the Chicago holiday season, the fest features family fun, shopping, a lighting parade, visits with Santa Claus, live concerts and special offers at Michigan Avenue shops.
The Magnificent Mile in Chicago is beautiful year-round, but it is particularly magnificent during the winter and the holiday season. Each November, two hundred trees are festooned with one million lights, creating a winter wonderland in the city’s most famous shopping district. Every year the season is kicked off with a parade the Saturday before Thanksgiving, attracting millions of visitors and broadcast worldwide.
Pioneer Court is the epicenter of all the fun until the evening parade. Here’s everything you need to know about the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival.
Magnificent Mile Lights Festival
This Chicago festival of lights began simply, with a single tree erected in Water Tower Park in 1949 by the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association (GNMAA). The 50-foot tree was decorated with 1,500 lights. The stretch of Michigan Avenue from the Chicago River to Oak Street had just gained its now-famous nickname two years previously when real estate magnate Arthur Rubloff coined the phrase.
One of the anchor stores of The Magnificent Mile was Saks Fifth Avenue. Opened in 1929, it was the first branch of the New York department store to operate year-round. In 1959 the store made an indelible mark on Chicago by decorating the trees in front of the store with tiny white lights.
Over the years more and more stores followed suit until it became an official event in 1992, when Walt Disney joined in the festivities. The company became an official sponsor and the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival parade was born. More sponsors participated over the years, and while it is now known as the BMO Harris Bank Lights Festival, Mickey and Minnie Mouse lead the parade each year.
The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is more than just a parade. It’s a full-day affair with events beginning at 11 a.m. and running through 4 p.m. Pioneer Court, located at the base of the Chicago Tribune Tower, becomes Lights Festival Line. Children can get their photos taken with Santa. Kids of all ages can indulge in two Chicago favorites, Eli’s Cheesecake and Garrett’s Popcorn. There’s also a stage with live performances.
The highlight of the day, though, is the Tree-Lighting Parade. It begins at 5:30 p.m. on Oak Street. For an hour and a half spectators are delighted by forty different participants, including local sports teams, giant helium-filled balloons, marching bands, and Walt Disney World characters. The parade ends at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, just south of the river.
The Grand Finale of the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is the Fireworks Spectacular. The show begins at 6:55 p.m. and the fireworks are launched over the Chicago River.
Friday, November 16
4:00 – 8:00PM: Lights Festival Lane in Pioneer Court (401 N. Michigan Avenue) opens the evening before the parade with more than a dozen family-friendly activities from Chicago favorites and popular brands—plus live music and a visit with Santa Claus! Explore an interactive wonderland of holiday-themed activities, and sample treats from crowd favorites Garrett Popcorn, Frango, The Eli’s Cheesecake Company, and more.
Saturday, November 17
11:00AM – 4:00PM: Explore an interactive wonderland of holiday-themed activities at Lights Festival Lane in Pioneer Court (401 N. Michigan Avenue), including the BMO Harris Kid’s Zone. Santa Claus is always ready to greet guests, alongside more than a dozen holiday-themed activities.
ALL DAY: Enjoy holiday experiences and special offers at participating retailers, restaurants, and attractions around The Magnificent Mile District! Plus, being a BMO Harris customer has it’s perks!
As early as 3:30PM: Dusable Bridge (formerly Michigan Avenue Bridge) closes to pedestrian traffic.
4:00PM: North Michigan Avenue closes to vehicular traffic between Oak Street and Wacker Drive.
5:30-7:00PM: The BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival tree-lighting parade steps onto North Michigan Avenue at Oak Street. Grand Marshals Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse and their friends from the Walt Disney World® Resort in Florida travel down North Michigan Avenue to Wacker Drive, lighting one million lights along the way! The procession features spectacular floats, helium-filled balloons, marching bands and top musical performers. Look out for lively appearances made by Hubert the Lion, Benny the Bull and other well-known Chicago mascots from BMO Harris Bank.
6:55PM: Fireworks spectacular over the Chicago River at North Michigan Avenue.
You may be outside most of the day and the temperatures will drop as soon as the sun goes down, so remember to bring extra clothing. You’ll also want to bring a camera to record your experiences. Since you’re going to be in the shopping mecca of the Midwest, bringing your holiday shopping list is also a good idea.
Another helpful item to bring is battery charger for your cell phone and a printout of the day’s activities.
By The Numbers: Over 1.2 million people travel to Chicago for the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. It takes an entire year to plan the festival with the help of 600 volunteers. Each year the festival closes with a fireworks show featuring 10,000 shells exploding over the Chicago River.
Because there are so many people coming to the festival you’ll want to allow plenty of time. If you plan on enjoying the festivities in Pioneer Plaza you can take the Red Line to the Grand Station or you can take any of the other lines into the Loop and walk across the river. If you drive in there are several parking garages in the area. Use a service like Spothero to purchase your parking ahead of time. Not only will it be less stressful than trying to find a spot, reserving a space can also save you money.
To find discounted parking with Spothero, click on “Edit” below and enter the date(s) you’ll be attending the fest:
ACME Hotel Company – fun and affordable boutique hotel
Doubletree by Hilton Magnificent Mile – get a warm cookie at check-in!
Hyatt Regency Chicago – one of Chicago’s largest hotels
Intercontinental Hotel Chicago – an historic hotel on the Magnificent Mile
Loews Chicago Hotel – closest hotel to Navy Pier
Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel – located in one of the most distinctive buildings in Chicago
The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is one of the most anticipated events of the year. It delights children of all ages and heralds the beginning of the holiday season in Chicago.
Featured photo courtesy The Magnificent Mile Association