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Going to Florida in December? Wondering how to evoke the Christmas spirit when the Sunshine State of Florida is boasting balmy temperatures? Then do as the locals do and get into the festive mood at a Christmas boat parade.

Christmas tree lights decorate a boat.
Christmas tree lights decorate a boat.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Holiday boat parades are a Florida tradition. These free Christmas events take place in several waterside locations, including Fort Lauderdale, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, Boca Raton, the Florida Keys, Pompano Beach, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay, Fort Myers Beach and Panama City Beach. The Gold Coast region of the Intracoastal Waterway holds several holiday boat parades.

Each municipality holds its own Christmas parade and infuses it with local character. Some residents attend only their own area's holiday boat parade. Others collect holiday parades like charms on a bracelet.

The custom began in the 1920s, when citizens adorned their boats with candles and motored along the waterways of South Florida, singing Christmas carols.

Fort Lauderdale

Winterfest, in Fort Lauderdale, has the largest holiday boat parade, which takes place one or two Saturdays before Christmas. Participants include small family-owned boats, as well as luxurious commercial yachts, over 30 meters long.

All Christmas boats are festively decorated with garlands of lights lining the hulls, masts and rigging, giant bells, snowmen and, of course, Santa Claus. Music accompanies each boat. It can be pre-recorded Yuletide favorites, computer-synthesized holiday medleys or old-fashioned Christmas carolers.

Palm Beach Fl

One year, in exclusive Palm Beach, a large boat boasted an orchestra playing dance music, while women in long dresses and men in white tuxedos and top hats waltzed on the deck.

Lights, star and Santa's sleigh decorate a boat in Florida Christmas boat parade.
Lights, star and Santa's sleigh decorate a boat in Florida Christmas boat parade.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Families gather to watch, while enjoying picnics and steaming mugs of hot chocolate. It's almost as much fun watching the children as the floating parade. Red cheeked, from the cool air and excitement, they join in the songs and yell out Merry Christmas in joyful unison to the waving Santas on board. Every boat in the passing parade is a winner in their eyes.

Prizes for Christmas decorations

Judges select boats to win prizes in categories like best adaptation of theme, best use of lights, best commercial boat, most beautiful boat over 7.6 meters, most beautiful boat under 7.6 meters, most beautiful sailboat and most animated powerboat.

Prizes range from crystal bowls and trophies to dinners in local restaurants. Over the years, prize-winners have been as diverse as a boat decorated with pink flamingos and a floating version of the Super Bowl.

Just as with the Super Bowl, spectators can run into traffic jams getting there. It's especially important to leave early. If you're coming from the east side of the Intracoastal Waterway, bridges crossing the water are raised to allow the boats to pass. Once up, they are unlikely to come down until after the parade.

Best places for watching

If you're fortunate, you may be invited to a pre-parade party in one of the private homes lining the Intracoastal Waterway or along the coast, or better yet, on one of the participating boats.

Other prime viewing spots are seats in restaurants along the Christmas boat parade route. For the majority, the best vantage points are at waterside parks. Many set up bleachers. The seats are metal, and can be very cold, so bring blankets and dress warmly.

Santa and lights decorate a boat in Florida parade.
Santa and lights decorate a boat in Florida parade.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

You may hear the parade before you see it. Fireworks often start the procession and continue to fill the sky with explosions of color and light as the boats travel along the entire parade route.

This year, Florida's holiday boat parades will once again perform their Yuletide magic by drawing locals and visitors together to share in the Christmas spirit.


VISIT FLORIDA: www.visitflorida.com

More things to see and do at Christmas:

Bruges Belgium Christmas Events

Christmas Decorations Walking Tour

Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg

German Christmas Markets