On The Shore On The shore — 04 December 2015
Behind the scenes at Winterfest Boat Parade

By Emily J. Minor

How hard can it be to throw a holiday parade, right? You summon some Girl Scouts, adorn them with red tinsel, and ask the local marching band to tag along. Voila. Parade time.

But Kathy Keleher knows better.

For years, she’s been running the Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade, an annual event of gigantic proportions. This year’s Dec. 12 parade, “Fairy Tales Afloat,” is expected to draw 1 million people. The economic impact on South Florida is estimated at $48 million.

Plus, it took practically all year to plan.

Traffic police. Portable potties. Drawbridges that have to be up at just the right moment. Order of procession. Water depth. Positioning of the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats.

“When people watch the parade, they don’t see the logistical side of it,” says Keleher, Winterfest’s marketing and parade director. “We have to worry about the length of the boat, the beam of the boat, the draft of the vessel.”

Luckily, all we see is sparkle, beauty and holiday cheer.

For 44 years, South Florida – both city dwellers and visitors alike – have looked forward to the annual evening of boats and lights, water and music. Old timers know the secret parking spots. (They disappear quickly.) First timers are amazed at the people and the lights and the weather.

Can it really be December?

And then there’s the simplicity of the event’s grassroots history.

It was 1971 when the Fort Lauderdale boating community – small but mighty – launched their tradition of decorating their boats with lights and tinsel and puttering back and forth on the city’s waterfront. It was nothing super fancy. Imagination, holiday spirit and cocktails ruled the roost.

“They had their old record players on their boats and they would go up and down the canal,” says Keleher, who’s been directing the parade for 14 years. “At least that’s the original story, and we’re going to stick with it.”

Through the years, the parade has gained a reputation in Florida and California, two of the most popular settings for holiday boating events. Keleher and her team call it “The Greatest Show on the H20.” The evening is broadcast live on WSVN-Ch. 7, and later broadcast in 34 markets. And that economic impact figure she likes to trot out? Keleher loves to tell the story about the Publix deli near downtown that’s super busy on parade night. “It’s all those little things that add up,” she says.

This year’s grand marshal is Nick Cannon, a noted comedian, actor and philanthropist revered – and that’s no overstatement – for using his star power to help children’s causes. Cannon joins a long list of indisputable greats who have led the parade: Bob Hope, Joan Rivers, Regis Philbin, Willard Scott. But even with all this growth, the event is still considered small-town fun. This year’s 100-plus parade entries range from small, simple and nostalgic to big and extravagant, including moving displays of princesses, villains and a mechanical dragon.

“They’ve helped us create some really wild entries,” Keleher says.

It’s almost like the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade, except in December – with warm weather, on the water, and right in our own back yard.

Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade

The main grandstand is located at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park at A-1-A and Sunrise Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale. (Tickets: $25/adults; $20/children.) The 12-mile route starts at 6:30 p.m. in downtown Fort Lauderdale along the New River, then runs north on the Intracoastal to Lake Santa Barbara in Pompano Beach. The parade passes the grandstand around 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit winterfestparade.com or call 954-767-0686.

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