6 festive boat parades to light up your holidays

Everybody loves a parade. But in many places, people ring in the holidays on the water, not along Main Street. Boat parades feature all manner of vessels, decorated from stem to stern, floating through harbors, rivers and canals. Here are six that are worth a view.

1. Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, Newport Beach, Calif.

(Bleu Cotton Photography)

Welcome the season Orange County-style with actress Leslie Mann and singer Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray, who serve as grand marshals of the annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, the longest running lighted Christmas boat parade in America, which runs for five consecutive nights beginning Dec. 17.

The parade has more than 100 entries festooned from top to bottom with lights, decorations, moving displays and even dancers, with some owners spending as much as $50,000 to deck out their vessels. Look for a new entry this year from the Rowing Club of Newport Beach Sea Base, which will transform a rowboat into Santa’s sleigh, with each of the nine rowers dressed as reindeer.

Though you can see the parade from any of the public beaches around Newport Harbor, Carolyn Clark of Newport at Your Feet boat tours suggests staking a spot on Balboa Island, where warm cookies and cider are available. Snagging a reservation at a waterfront restaurant is another ideal option. Or, new this year, you can buy reserved grandstand seats at two locations along the parade route.

2. Winterfest Boat Parade, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

(Courtesy of Michael James)

The Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade is all glitz and glamour, turning the waters of downtown Fort Lauderdale into a festive stage full of floating performers. Billed as the world’s most watched boat parade, with a million spectators along the 12-mile route and countless more millions watching on TV on Dec. 13 at 6:30 p.m. ET, the event’s theme this year is “TV’s Greatest Hits.”

While the best seat in the house may be aboard a boat, you can also sit in the Grandstand Viewing Area for $25. Or, for $225, you’ll have an unbeatable view at the Black Tie Ball. Even better, if you’re lucky, you’ll be invited to a swank party at a local waterfront home.

3. Parade of Lights, Ventura, Calif.

(Ventura Harbour Annual Parade of Boats)

While the Parade of Lights boat parade is the centerpiece of this year’s 38th annual festival, there’s a wealth of other activities to enjoy before and after. The parade of boats, kicked off by Santa and his sleigh flying across the sky above the harbor, courtesy of Aspen Helicopters, begins at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 12 and 13.

Other events include a carnival with rides on the Ventura Harbor Village Main Lawn, visits from Santa and Mrs. Claus with their live reindeer, a holiday marketplace and faux snowfall. Fireworks fill the sky at 8 p.m. at the end of the parade.

Parking is free along Spinnaker Drive in Ventura Harbor Village and in the Ventura Harbor beach lots, and a complimentary trolley will be running to surrounding areas. For great seats, try a public boat cruise with Island Packers or Ventura Boat Rentals, or dine at one of the harborfront restaurants.

4. San Diego Bay Parade of Lights, San Diego, Calif.

(Courtesy of Bob Yarbrough)

Held on two Sundays, Dec. 14 and 21 at 5:30 p.m., the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights is a family tradition that features more than 100 boats and 80,000 spectators. It begins at Shelter Island and then sails past the Embarcadero, Seaport Village and ends at Ferry Landing in Coronado.

Save a spot at the north or south end of the Embarcadero or along the pathway at Coronado for a good view that is less crowded. Other hot spots on land are Shelter Island, Harbor Island, Seaport Village or Marina Park, or you can join the Parade of Lights Paddle for a kayak tour of the parade, the downtown San Diego skyline and the Coronado Bridge. Organizers recommend taking San Diego Public Transit to the busy bay area.

5. Holiday Parade of Boats, Charleston, S.C.

(City of Charleston)

Get a Southern take on the holidays at historic Charleston’s 33rd Annual Holiday Parade of Boats on Dec. 13 at 5 p.m. Held in Charleston Harbor, the parade begins in the Cooper River, travels around the downtown peninsula past historic homes decorated in grand style for the holidays and finishes in the Ashley River.

Locals say the best place to watch is from the downtown Battery, on your own boat along the route or at the Charleston Maritime Center, which hosts a family-friendly party with food, drinks and plenty of Christmas caroling.

6. Parade of Lights, Santa Barbara, Calif.

(Visit Santa Barbara, Stacy Bloodworth)

Santa Barbara’s “American Riviera” coastline lights up at its free Parade of Lights on Dec. 14 at 5:30 p.m. Decorated boats of all shapes and sizes, from sailboats and motor boats to rowboats, leave from Santa Barbara Harbor and cruise past Stearns Wharf, which, along with the breakwater area, offers one of the best viewing spots.

Starting at 3 p.m., Stearns Wharf also hosts Santa’s Village, where kids can play in “snow,” visit Santa and his elves and collect holiday goodies galore. The grand finale includes a short fireworks display over the harbor at 7 p.m.