Holiday boat parades have always been a special winter tradition for countless boaters across the country. And when it comes decorating your boat for the holidays, there are the average families, then there are the fanatics. Think Chevy Chase from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation - but on a yacht. 

“I think most people spend a long weekend, maybe the Thanksgiving weekend, working on the boat,” says Alissa Freeman, chairman of the annual Palm Beach Holiday Boat Parade held in Florida during December every year. The 29th annual event was held this past weekend on Saturday, December 3, 2022 from 6PM-8PM to kick off the holiday season. Organized by the Marine Industries Association (MIAPBC) and presented by Compass, the route navigates up the Intracoastal Waterway from North Palm Beach to the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse. The judging of this on-the-water holiday parade is "based on three main factors: lights, enthusiasm, and themed decor". Thousands of dollars worth of prizes were given away to the top boats in every category, plus there is an annual Toy Drive benefiting Toys for Tots and Little Smiles. 

“They put in a good 20 to 30 hours decorating with all of their friends and family. But there are people who start planning right after the parade is over. They get ideas for what to do better next year, and they start drawing up their plans."

Many boaters in Palm Beach like to add a tropical twist to their boat decorations. This display includes a Surf's Up Santa.

Above: Many boaters in Palm Beach like to add a tropical twist to their boat decorations. This display includes a Surf's Up Santa. Photo: Leonard Bryant Photography.

During her 10 years of involvement with the parade, she’s seen it all—giant inflatables like snowmen tied to boat decks, handmade displays similar to floats in a street parade, and lights in places that can transform the look of a boat into something else entirely.

“The ones I love are the people who turn their boats into Santa’s sleigh,” she says. “They’ll have the reindeer, the inflatable reindeer out on the bow, and because of the lights, it will look like they’re pulling Santa’s sleigh. The people on the boat are dressed up like Santa and the elves, and it’s so cute.

santas sleigh

Above: Whether you have a pontoon, a sailboat or a cruiser, let your imagination run wild as you pile on the lights and the decor to show off your festive side. Photo: Leonard Bryant Photography.

“If you have a sailboat, I love when they decorate it to look like a Christmas tree,” she adds. “It’s perfect—you have the shape. They string the lights all the way to the top with a star at the very top.”

Sara Mariani, an administrative assistant at the Newport Harbormaster’s office in Rhode Island, often enters its Illuminated Boat Parade with her husband each year, on the day after Thanksgiving. They decorate their 30-foot Striker center console, getting ideas from fellow parade-goers as well.

“The blow-up lawn ornaments, we’ve used that on our boat,” Mariani says. “We’ve had a blow-up penguin, a blow-up Santa—and the more lights, the better. We tie the blow-ups to the cleats, and it takes us maybe three hours to get it all ready.”

santas sleigh

Above: Keep an eye to the sky to see Santa's Sleigh, but look out to water to find Santa's Express. Photo: Leonard Bryant Photography.

Mariani is particularly drawn to boats that incorporate music into their decorations, she says.

“One of the boats that enters, they play the bagpipes on the boat, and that’s always a fun boat to get near,” she says. “They’ll do an Irish Christmas theme on their boat, all orange and green lights.

“And a lot of people do speakers,” she adds. “It’s hard to hear on shore at the judging station with the wind and whatnot, but Old Port Marine here on the waterfront, they’ll put in a big tour boat that goes all out with decorations and music blaring. You can always hear their Christmas carols.”

Sometimes, Freeman says, lights aren’t the main event but instead act as glowing frames for cutout shapes that steal the show.

“We’ve had people who will make a manatee out of plywood, paint it and outline it in lights, and they attach it to the side of the boat,” she says. “Some people will also use wire and wrap the wire in lights. That way, it’s 3-D.”

Boat 5

Above: Santa isn't traveling by sleigh this can find him traveling by boat—with his reindeer too! Photo: Leonard Bryant Photography.

Her pro tip for anyone decorating their boat for the first time is to have a chat—before plugging in the lights—with an electrician at a local marina.

“Just make sure you have the correct generators on your boat,” she says. “That’s always an issue every year, people who have all these lights and awesome inflatables but not the generators to run them. You have to make sure you have enough power.”

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 2017 and last updated in December 2022. 

Written by: Kim Kavin
Kim Kavin is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer who specializes in marine travel. She is the author of 10 books including Dream Cruises: The Insider’s Guide to Private Yacht Vacations, and is editor of the online yacht vacation magazine