Lighted boat parades mean huddling with friends along the shore and gulping hot chocolate while watching vessels adorned with lighted palm trees and crewmembers shivering in Hawaiian shirts. The magic of the holiday season is not reserved for towns with North Pole temperature. Vessels of all shapes and sizes illuminate our waters delivering Santa from sea to shore and simply creating an excuse to have a party.
From Thanksgiving weekend until Christmas, holiday flotillas abound. Host organizations – whether a yacht club, the local chamber of commerce or a non-profit organization – bring their communities together for a few hours. Some use the event as an opportunity to re-stock a local food pantry, bring awareness to marine initiatives or collect toys for those less fortunate.
The Merritt Island, Fla., Christmas Boat Parade began in 1985 when a dozen men decorated their boats, loaded their families onboard and paraded through the canals. Kim Johnson had been participating since 1989 and soon became an organizer. He increased participation by advertising in local papers and getting prizes donated. Since the parade wound through private canals, public viewing was limited. Johnson worked on changing the start location so that others could watch from the causeway.
“We have folks in the community calling us in July to get the date of our parade so they can begin planning their Christmas party using the parade as their entertainment,” Johnson said.
In Boot Key Harbour, Fla., the parade began 15 years ago as a game between two local skippers. Capt. Greg Absten’s family would head out in their Boston Whaler and pull alongside the Caribbean Queen, a dinner cruiser operated by Capt. Sam Nelson, to listen to the onboard entertainment. Absten’s two-year-old daughter would dance to the music as his dog barked. The captains thought it would be fun to get other boats involved in their evening ritual.
The resulting parade began with 14 boats participating for prizes donated by local businesses. The Marathon Power Squadron soon became a co-sponsor promoting local safe boating courses in the process. Absten says the whole community gathers at waterside restaurants, stands on a nearby bridge or watches from the nearby condos. Absten and Nelson accomplished what they originally set out to do: create a worthwhile excuse for a party and a good time for boaters and spectators alike.
Some parades have gone high tech. The Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., includes a live feed on the Internet at www.winterfestparade.com. Celebrating its 41st year, it is one of the largest lighted boat parades on the East Coast with 100 vessels parading 12 miles from the New River north on the ICW to Pompano Beach. Spectators will see anything from paddleboarders to local dive boat operators to boats featuring non-profit organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project.
“This year’s theme is Musical Memories, which could mean anything from the first time you saw Star Wars to your first dance to even singing Happy Birthday,” explains Winterfest Parade Director Kathy Keleher. The mission for this not-for-profit organization is to highlight the community and make sure that everyone is entertained. There are a variety of viewing options: watch the web feed, purchase a ticket in the grandstands, line the shorelines, or watch a televised broadcast on local channel WSVN or FoxSports.
There are so many events throughout our region that it is impossible to list them all. In Florida alone, there are at least 70 holiday boat parades. Some have already taken place in November. Here are some of the major coastal events you can still catch:
State by State Christmas Boat Parade Schedule
24th Annual Downtown Hampton Lighted Boat Parade – 7:15 p.m. More than 20 boats are expected to parade along the Hampton River. To hear the narration of the event, find a spot near the Hampton Maritime Center.
Yorktown Lighted Boat Parade – 6 p.m. Spend the day at the Christmas Market on Main followed by a spectacular flotilla of sail and power boats festively decorated with thousands of lights. Enjoy caroling around the bonfire, musical performances and complimentary hot cider.
Crystal Coast Christmas Flotilla – 6:15 p.m. Gather along the shores of Morehead City and Beaufort to watch yachts and workboats light up the sea. Wave to Santa as he’s delivered by boat to the Crystal Coast to kick off the holiday season.
Island of Lights Christmas Flotilla – 6 p.m. The Carolina Beach Boat Basin will twinkle with thousands of lights adorned on fishing boats and pleasure crafts.
28th Annual Coastal Christmas Flotilla – 5:30 p.m. New Bern Parks and Recreation hosts this magical event at Union Point Park in downtown New Bern. Santa will be on hand after the parade to greet children.
Washington Christmas Flotilla Celebration. Since 2002 the Pamlico River in downtown Washington has been filled with spectacular vessels all decorated for the season. You are requested to bring a toy for Toys for Tots as your entry fee.
Oriental’s Spirit of Christmas – 5:30 p.m. The lighted boat flotilla followed by the lighting of the Oriental Star kicks off a weekend of festivities in the sailing capital of North Carolina.
Southport Christmas Flotilla. Sit along the Cape Fear River from the Southport Marina/Old Yacht Basin to Kingsley Street to view the vessels “From the North-Pole to South-Port.”
Colington Yacht Club Christmas Parade – 5 p.m. Join the CYC on the Albemarle Sound for their lighted boat parade in the Harbor.
Charleston Parade of Boats – 5:30 p.m. Beginning in Mt. Pleasant, lighted vessels of all makes and models will parade the along the Cooper River, past The Battery and ending in the Ashley River.
Light Up the Night – 5:30 p.m. Join the Beaufort Sail and Power Squadron and Main Street Beaufort, USA at Waterfront Park along the Beaufort River.
Edisto Boat Parade. The 8th annual event leaves Live Oak Landing and cruises to Bay Point with optimal viewing at Bay Creek Park and Edisto Marina.
Floating Christmas Parade – 8:15 p.m. The fourth annual event launches from the Crab Shack in Savannah and is timed for the high tide.
A Creative Christmas Boat Parade in Port Canaveral – 6:30 p.m. View the parade from any of the Port restaurants.
Jupiter/Palm Beach County Holiday Boat Parade – 5 p.m. Bring the family to The Riverwalk Events Plaza along Jupiter Riverwalk for the best viewing location of the parade. There will be food, music and other festivities during the event. Bring a new, unwrapped toy for Toys for Tots.
Boynton/Delray Holiday Boat Parade – 6:30 p.m. Boynton Harbor Marina. Bring a toy for Toys for Tots.
36th Annual Holiday Boat Parade in Boca Raton – 6:30 p.m. Fifty boats are scheduled to parade along the ICW from C-15 canal to the Hillsboro Boulevard Bridge just south of the Palm Beach County line. A traveling fireworks display will lead the boats down the parade route.
27th Annual Bonita Springs Christmas Boat Parade – 6 p.m. The parade will begin and end at The Fish House
Bradenton Yacht Club Lighted Boat Parade and Fireworks – 6:30 p.m. Head to the BYC for the best viewing vantage point.
20th Annual Carrabelle Boat Parade of Lights – 5 p.m. Recreation and commercial boats will parade along the Carrabelle River in the Panhandle of Florida. Best viewing is along Marine Street.
“Deck the Hulls” at Key Largo – 7:30 p.m. Blackwater Sound at mile marker 104. Create your own special theme and have it selected to be used as next year’s main theme. Winner’s party at Sundowners.
Boot Key Harbor Lighted Christmas Parade – 6 p.m. What began with 14 boats wanting an excuse for a party has turned into one of the most popular events in Marathon. After watching the parade join the post party at Dockside Lounge.
26th Annual Holiday on the Harbor Lighted Boat Parade, Destin – 6 p.m. Spend the day at this fundraiser for the Destin History and Fishing Museum. Enjoy a festival by day, a parade by dusk and fireworks at night.
Apollo Beach Lighted Boat Parade – 6:30 p.m. The Tampa Sailing Squadron hosts this annual event along the shores of Tampa Bay.
Cocoa Beach Holiday Boat Parade – 6 p.m. Sponsored by the Cocoa Beach Boating Club.
Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade – 6 p.m. The theme of this 41st Winterfest is “Musical Memories.” The parade travels 12 miles from the New River in Fort Lauderdale to Lake Santa Barbara in Pompano Beach. This event is nationally televised to millions and streamed live on the internet. Fee.
Key West Schooner Wharf Bar & Galley/Ultimat Vodka Lighted Boat Parade – 8 p.m. A tropical tribute to the season. This is a huge family affair with festivities beginning at 6 p.m. at Schooner Warf. Vessels range from kayaks to schooners. Try to catch some beads thrown from the vessels or just sit back and admire their creativity.
Miami Outboard Club Holiday Boat Parade – 7 p.m. What began with a few dozen boats in 1998 has blossomed to nearly 100 boats parading around Biscayne Bay. Best viewing location is Bayfront Park.
Cape Coral Holiday Boat Along – 5 p.m. Approximately 100 boats will gather in the Bimini Basin before parading through the canals of south Cape Coral. Head to Four Freedoms Park to enjoy the parade, food, music and crafts.
Cortez Yacht Club 9th Annual Holiday Lighted Boat Parade – 6 p.m. Presented in conjunction with the Manatee Toys for Tots and the Christmas on Bridge Street festivities in Bradenton Beach. The parade begins on the north end of Longboat Key traveling along the ICW and finishing at the Seafood Shack Marina where the judging will be held.
Merritt Island Christmas Boat Parade – 6 p.m. Beginning at Sykes Creek traveling through Catalina Isle, Diane Shores, Waterway Manor and Villa de Palmas. Sponsored by the Citizen for Florida Waterways.
38th Annual Dog River Christmas Boat Parade – dusk. Mobile’s oldest and largest boat parade featuring Alabama’s tall ship Joshua which leads the parade out to the Dog River. Hosted by Grand Marine Marina and Restaurant.
27th Annual Gulf Shores Christmas Lighted Boat Parade – 5:30 p.m. The parade starts at LuLu’s Homeport Marina and ends at Zeke’s Landing Marina.
Light Up the Lake Christmas Celebration – 6:30 p.m. An entire day of festivities along Lake Charles. End your evening along the seawall with a spectacular lighted boat parade followed by fireworks.
Christmas Bayou Boat Parade – 6:30 p.m. Delcambre. The Christmas music begins at 4:30 p.m. along with beverages, gumbo and sweets.
West End Christmas Boat Parade – 5:30. New Orleans. Prizes awarded in sailboat and powerboat divisions.
Eden Isle Christmas Boat Parade – dusk. Lake Pontchartrain. Co-sponsored by the Tammany Yacht Club.
Port Isabel Christmas Lighted Boat Parade – 6 p.m. Hosted by the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce. Parade route begins at White Sands and ends at Louie’s Backyard on South Padre Island.
Corpus Christi Harbor Lights Festival & Boat Parade – dusk. A tradition since 1982, the bayfront marina area lights up for the holiday season. Entertainment, rides, food and of course the boat parade.
Port Aransas Carolers Afloat & Boat Lighting Parade – 6 p.m. Sing your way throughout the parade. Hosted by the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce
Kemah Annual Christmas Boat Lane Parade – dusk. Fifty-one years of holiday tradition on Galveston Bay. Best viewing area is on the famous Kemah Boardwalk. Sponsored by Kemah Chamber of Commerce
Port Arthur Lighted Holiday Parade – dusk. Sponsored by the City of Port Arthur.
Parade participants may compete for donated cash prizes ranging from $25 to $7,500, the Best in Show trophy, or just year-long bragging rights.
So what exactly does it take to have the winning vessel in a parade? Friends of mine used to paddle their kayak in a holiday parade doing rolls to expose lights on the bottom saying “Ho Ho Ho.” Simple but effective.
Utilize your vessel’s rigging, decks, hulls and added cutouts or props. For even greater effect, think outside the vessel with elements projecting outward. Don’t forget to think about costumes for the crew.
Over the years, sound has become just as important as the lights. It can be as simple as piping some pre-selected theme music to choreographing your lights to music. Whatever you decide, make sure your speakers are pointing towards your audience.
The most important thing is to get everyone involved. One year I saw what looked like the matriarch of the family dressed as Mrs. Claus sitting in a rocking chair that was mounted on the boom of the boat while young children dressed as elves danced on the deck below. Another year a boat was getting spectators to sing carols with them as they passed. For two hours, have fun and don’t take the world so seriously.
Call the organizers or check their web page to find their entry rules or requirements.
If you want a better view of a parade than peering over the shoulders of the crowds on shore, consider watching from the water.
Boating spectators should know where to anchor or have the ability to hold a position to avoid interfering with the parade. You should also have working navigation lights, adequate life jackets and all required safety gear. A charter plotter can be helpful after dark if you aren’t familiar with the local waters.