WATERVILLE — The downtown will be sparkling with lights Friday night as the 44th annual holiday parade launches the holiday season in the city and Kringleville opens at a new location.

Thousands of people are expected to fill the downtown for the Parade of Lights, which starts at 6 p.m. at Head of Falls.

“There are 35 units in the parade this year, so it’s going to be the biggest ever,” said Jennifer Olsen, executive director of Waterville Main Street, which organizes the parade.

Parade participants will include police and fire officials, faith-based groups, dancers, scouts, United Way of Mid-Maine Inc., Park Residences, Ray Haskell Ford Lincoln, nursery schools, daycare centers and construction companies. The floats will be judged according to number of lights they have and the magnitude of holiday spirit they express, Olsen said. First, second and third place ribbons will be awarded.

The parade proceeds from Head of Falls west on Union Street, turns south on College Avenue, goes down Main Street and reverses direction after the former Levine’s store and returns to Head of Falls via Front Street.

Santa and Mrs. Claus will arrive via the parade and be dropped off in Castonguay Square next to The Center.

They will go into the new Kringleville inside The Center to greet children; passersby on the sidewalk will be able to see them through the large window at 93 Main St.

In the past, Santa sat in his little North Pole house in Castonguay Square but organizers said children and their families had to wait out in the cold for long periods of time to see him, and putting him in The Center would be more convenient. Volunteers will serve cookies and hot chocolate to children in The Center before the parade.

Central Maine Photography will take pictures of children with Santa Claus and families may purchase the photos.

After the parade, Santa will light the large evergreen tree in Castonguay Square. The tree stays lit all winter long.

Some downtown businesses will also remain open late Friday night.

Jorgensen’s Cafe will host Vocal Traction, Waterville Senior High School’s 25-member show choir, for a 5 p.m. performance and remain open afterward.

Both Selah Tea Cafe and Downtown Smoothies will be open until 9 p.m. and sell coffee and hot chocolate on the sidewalk outside the businesses.

Mark Huard, an event organizer and owner of Central Maine Photography, said the evening promises to be fun.

“The Parade of Lights is a wonderful family event to kick off the holiday season here in Central Maine,” Huard said Monday. “It’s a very special and magical evening for many children.”

The parade and opening of Kringleville is a decades-long tradition that draws people to the city from all over the region, Olsen said. Last year, about 15,000 people lined the streets, she said.

“This is just great for Waterville,” she said. “It shows the community enthusiasm for this event and that this event is really thriving.”

Olsen recommends people dress warmly for the parade, as temperatures are expected to be cold.

Main Street will be closed to traffic after 4 p.m. Friday and motorists are encouraged to park on The Concourse or at Head of Falls, according to Olsen.

Parking spaces on The Concourse facing Main Street, in the area where the farmers market is held, are being made available for parade spectators who have mobility problems, Olsen said.

Meanwhile, the schedule for Santa visits at Kringleville during the holiday season is available at kringleville.com.

In the event of rain or snow, the parade will be held Saturday at the same time and place, Olsen said.

Friday’s events mark the beginning of a month-long holiday celebration that will include open houses Dec. 7 at businesses downtown, according to Olsen. Also, businesses are encouraged to stay open late on Fridays throughout the holiday season, she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247 [email protected] Twitter: @AmyCalder17