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Decorated boat parades have become a wildly popular part of many east coast communities’ holiday season activities. From late November through mid-December, participating boat owners festoon their vessels with colorful lights. Some owners create elaborate themes and even computer-controlled displays that mesh with onboard music. Businesses often join the festivities, trying to outdo each other and win a coveted prize.
Then, vessels cruise through the town’s harbor (or the Intracoastal Waterway, in south Florida). To prevent a nautical free-for-all, boat operators adhere to safety requirements (and even suggested safety practices).
Naturally, this highly publicized event draws quite a crowd, some watching from nearby anchored vessels. If you don’t have a boat, take advantage of easy boat rentals, and invite yourself to the party.
New England Coast
Mystic, CT: This iconic New England maritime center gets a jump on the holiday festivities, holding its lighted boat parade during Thanksgiving weekend. On that special Saturday night, spectators line the Mystic River to watch decorated vessels of all stripes parade past. Then everyone returns to Mystic River Park, where judges award prizes in several categories.
If you plan to attend a mid-Atlantic boat parade, prepare to stand outside in chilly (or even freezing) weather, often for several hours. Bundling yourself up in several layers, and sipping hot chocolate or a hot toddy (in moderation, of course) adds an extra element to the festivities.
Annapolis, MD: The Annual Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade has become one of the largest gatherings on the entire east coast. Held on Annapolis’ Spa Creek in mid-December, this longtime event draws so many boats that they travel the parade route in two distinct groups. Everyone is welcome, and you’ll see small sailboats, runabouts, and even dinghies decorated with lights.
At the other end of the spectrum, large motor-yachts fly computer-controlled light displays that often tell a holiday-themed story while an onboard sound system broadcasts festive holiday music. Thousands of spectators gather on their boats and line the Spa Creek Bridge. Some revelers book strategically located hotel rooms to watch the parade without becoming half-frozen.
Yorktown, VA: Before Yorktown’s Lighted Boat Parade, spectators gather around a beach bonfire, happily warming up with apple cider and caroling. During the parade, gaily decorated sailboats and powerboats cruise with Chesapeake deadrise workboats, vintage reminders of the region’s long nautical heritage.
Heading southward, the weather often becomes warmer, often allowing boat parade spectators to shed the heavy parkas and don lighter jackets. Once again, parade participants often reflect the region’s diverse nautical character.
Wrightsville Beach, NC: Wrightsville Beach throws a Thanksgiving weekend shindig that also includes several family-friendly landside happenings. Of course, the big event occurs on Saturday evening, when decorated powerboats, sailboats, and fishing vessels form a veritable holiday flotilla.
Once organized, boats proceed along the Intracoastal Waterway and nearby channels, giving judges plenty of time to choose the award winners.
Savannah, GA: Savannah’s long nautical history is on display during the city’s Boat Parade of Lights. During the event’s kickoff, dozens of lighted vessels take their positions on the Savannah River.
Next, decorated boats slowly cruise along both sides of the waterfront as spectators enjoy live music. A tree-lighting ceremony and fireworks cap off the evening.
Florida East Coast
Florida’s east coast boat parades reflect the wide assortment of boats docked there. Along with runabouts and mid-sized sailboats, you’ll see plenty of salty sport-fish vessels, lavish motor-yachts, and even some mega-yachts. With luck, you’ll see many intriguing vessels during the region’s popular parades.
Boca Raton: This upscale Florida city has chosen the Intracoastal Waterway as its boat parade route. Expect to see several dozen decorated vessels of all stripes and sizes, many sporting intricately detailed holiday scenes in vivid color. You might even hear your favorite holiday music, courtesy of a high-octane sound system.
Fort Lauderdale: The city’s Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade is an iconic event that is usually viewed by over a million spectators. Beginning in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the boats cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway for 12 miles, finishing the route in Lake Santa Barbara in Pompano Beach.
If you’re timing the event, it takes about 2 ½ hours to view all the boats from one vantage point. So, why not choose your own viewing spot? By booking your own boat rentals, you can decide where you’d like to settle in and watch the show.
Boat parade participants include almost every kind of boat afloat. Along with privately owned yachts, you’ll view corporate mega-yachts and huge commercial cruise vessels – all decorated in a riot of color and sound. For added entertainment, expect musical groups, beauty queens, and even a few celebrities.
Key West: Key West certainly knows how to throw a party, and that extends to its Annual Schooner Wharf Bar & Galley Lighted Boat Parade. The procession kicks off at Key West Bight, and spectators along the Harbor Walk of Lights have a great viewing spot for the display. Schooner Wharf pulls out all the stops for this event, hosting the reviewing stand and awarding some enticing cash prizes.