Parades are a classic way of celebrating the holiday season in the U.S. and among the most impressive are those that take place at night on U.S. waterways — holiday boat parades. Despite the challenges of 2020, many of the most famous and popular boat parades are going forward this year—and Florida is a top spot for them given its splendid coastline, bays and rivers, and warm winter weather. Dedicated boat owners are busily decking out their vessels with hundreds of colorful lights, trees and characters for the festive floating celebrations that will be held across the state, in cities both large and small. Participating vessels span the gamut from yachts and tugs to motorboats and kayaks. Read on to learn more about the fun and captivating visual feasts in Florida and beyond. You’re sure to find at least one that floats your boat.
Masks and social distancing are required at all the parades.
Fort Myers Beach Christmas Boat Parade
Dec. 5, 2020 at 6:00 PM, North Matanzas Pass in Fort Myers, Florida
A Florida (and nationwide) favorite is the Fort Myers Christmas Boat Parade, which ranked fifth in 2019’s USA Today 10Best for holiday parades. This year marks the 32nd parade for this luminous spectacle and the participating decorated boats will come in all shapes and sizes. Viewing this floating procession is a cherished holiday tradition for locals and visitors alike. The parade, which starts at Salty Sam’s Marina, passes numerous back bay restaurants that make for perfect viewing perches including Parrot Key Caribbean Grill, Original Shrimp Dock, Matanzas on the Bay, Nervous Nellies, Bonita Bill’s, Dixie Fish Co and Doc Ford’s. You can even watch the parade from the water on a cruise boat (check out Salty Sam’s Pirate Cruise and the Sight Sea-R Cruise).
Expect to see not only amazing lights and classic Christmas decorations, but also illuminated plants and animals and other figures evocative of tropical, water-based surroundings such as sharks, palms and Disney characters. Oh, and expect to hear lots of cheering, clapping and music, too.
After the parade, onlookers have an opportunity to vote for their favorite boat.
Tarpon Springs Illuminated Boat Parade
Dec. 4, 2020 at 8:00 PM on the Anclote River and bayous in Tarpon Springs, FL
The best viewing spot for the Tarpon Springs Illuminated Boat Parade is Craig Park. Kids attending this event can expect treats from Santa in Spring Bayou at around 8:00 PM. The boats deemed ‘best decorated’ will win a trophy.
Holiday Lighted Boat Parade
Dec. 19, 2020 at 6:30 PM along the Riverwalk in Tampa, FL
Judges and parade marshals located at Sparkman Wharf will be assessing the standout boats in this downtown Tampa boat parade and will award 1st, 2nd and 3rd place trophies to their top picks in both small and large boat categories. The public has a choice of five viewing spots along the Hillsborough River-focused parade route.
Treasure Island Holiday Boat Parade
Dec. 5, 2020 at 6:20 PM on the Intracoastal Waterway in Treasure Island, FL
One of the largest holiday lighted boat parades in the Tampa area, Treasure Island Holiday Boat Parade dazzling event is marking its 35th year in 2020. There’s a pre-parade benefit party, multiple viewing areas along the parade route that begins south of the Treasure Island Bridge and finishes at John’s Pass, and an Awards Party for boats that are the best decorated.
Apollo Beach Lighted Boat Parade
Dec. 12, 2020 at 6:00 PM, starting at the TSS Deck in Apollo Beach, FL
Sponsored by the Tampa Sailing Squadron, a private member-owned sailing club, the Apollo Beach Lighted Boat Parade will feature fabulous lighted boats and award best-decorated prizes in three categories. The event typically includes a chili cook-off and caroling, but this year the affair will be limited to the boat parade and the club facility will only be open for members, who must wear masks and remain socially distanced.
Gulfport Christmas Boat Parade
Dec. 12, 2020 at 6:30 PM on Boca Ciega Bay in Gulfport, FL
The annual Gulfport Christmas Boat Parade turns 35 this year and locals and visitors alike are all set to celebrate the milestone and amp up the holiday joy. There’s an entry fee for this parade but it’s all for a good cause. Bring either a check or two or more unwrapped presents, which will be donated to Operation Santa, an annual toy drive benefiting area children in need. Local businesses are also sponsoring prizes for every boat.
The Saturday Night Before Christmas Eve Boat Parade
Dec. 19, 2020 at 6:00 PM in Punta Gorda, FL
Touted as “the most fun anyone can have on the Saturday night before Christmas Eve,” the Saturday Night Before Christmas Eve Boat Parade is the largest annual event in the Punta Gorda Isles and boasts 4 miles of cheering crowds (to the accompaniment of noisemakers and sleigh bells). Viewers can position themselves within 50 feet of the boats anywhere along the route through the isles while also enjoying carolers and performers.
Cape Coral Christmas Boat Parade
Dec. 19, 2020 at 7:00 PM in Bimini Basin at Four Freedoms Park and through canals in Cape Coral, FL
Cape Coral’s Christmas Boat Parade is the centerpiece of a holiday festival that begins at 5:30 PM in Four Freedoms Park and features food, Christmas music, an outdoor family movie and Santa Claus. The boat procession starts out with paddle boats, followed by vessels of every type and size. You’ll not only love the shimmering decorations but also the holiday soundtracks that some of the boats blast out.
Naples Christmas Boat Parade
December 12, 2020 at 6:15 PM on Naples Bay in Naples, FL
The Naples Christmas Boat Parade is a themed boat parade and this year’s focus is “All That Glitters,” so you can only imagine the shine and shimmer that are to come—and how welcome and uplifting they’ll be this year. Head to one of the many public viewing locations along the route and boost your spirit with tons of fun. Judges from the Naples City Dock will bestow awards and gift certificates on the 8-10 best decorated boats in their category.
Mount Dora Lighted Boat Parade
Dec. 5, 2020 at 7:00 PM on the 4th Ave docks in Mount Dora, FL
This central Florida boat parade located 30 miles north of Orlando is a holiday standard and fleshes out the town’s other holiday offerings, which include a foot parade and a Christmas Walk.
Jacksonville Light Boat Parade
Nov. 28, 2020 at 6:00 PM on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, FL
The Jacksonville Light Boat Parade casts a very different sort of light on Thanksgiving festivities—as it takes place on Thanksgiving weekend. The parade has been a Jacksonville holiday mainstay for more than three decades and the magical hull adornments you’ll see just might have you thinking that a lighted-up ship makes for a better Santa vehicle than a sleigh. Viewers claim spots along the north and south banks of the St. John’s River. Capping off the event is a spectacular fireworks display launched at about 8:00 PM from a barge on the river.
Palm Valley Boat Parade
Dec. 5, 2020 at 6:00 PM on the Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Valley, FL
Going 27 years strong, the annual 7-mile Palm Valley Boat Parade in north Florida is a cornerstone of the community’s holiday celebrations. Lighted boats pass by hundreds of docks, local restaurants and various public viewing areas, creating wonderful memories for participants and spectators. Dock owners along the parade route lend an extra-vibrant land dimension to the event and vie for prizes through the event’s dock competition, judged by parade organizers and participating and non-participating boaters.
Daytona Beach Christmas Boat Parade
Dec. 5, 2020 at 6:00 PM on the Halifax River, from Seabreeze Bridge to the Halifax Harbor Marina in Daytona Beach, FL
Presented by the Halifax River Yacht Club, sponsorship proceeds of this long-standing annual town tradition benefit the Veterans Support Fund. The Daytona Beach Christmas Boat Parade is a holiday-season favorite of residents and visitors of Daytona Beach and the surrounding area, and they can enjoy the lights from various riverfront vantage points.
Greater Pompano Beach Holiday Boat Parade
Dec. 11, 2020 at 7:00 PM on the Intracoastal Waterway in Pompano Beach, FL
The beloved Greater Pompano boat parade, which goes from Lake Santa Barbara to Sullivan Park, has been a holiday staple for 58 years. The 2020 event will serve as a salute and thank you to first responders and essential workers. The best of the best boats will be acknowledged with awards and it’ll be a tough choice because the captains of the participating family vessels are known for going all out.