By Amy Wimmer Schwarb

The same vessels that troll Florida's waters take on blinking lights, animated characters and other holiday decorations during Florida’s holiday boat parades.

Dawn Marie Capone and her boyfriend live in Boston, where the holiday season brings a chill to the air and ice and snow to the streets and sidewalks.

But this year, for his 50th birthday, she's introducing him to a different wintertime scene of Christmas boat parades in Florida. They'll travel to Key Largo in December for a lighted boat parade – a tradition that Capone considers a distinct part of Florida culture.

"It's just so different," said Capone, who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but lived in Indian Shores and Melbourne, among other Florida locales, for a few years. "Christmas in Florida doesn't look like Christmas everywhere else. That's why it's special."

During Florida's holiday boat parade season, the same vessels that troll the Atlantic, the Gulf and all points in between on warmer days take on blinking lights, animated characters and other holiday decorations for December sojourns that please thousands of fans watching from the banks. Dozens of the state's oceanfront, Gulf-front or riverfront communities host opportunities for local boaters to bring the holiday spirit to the water.

"Boats of all shapes and sizes participate. The best use all things that assault the senses from a visual and sound standpoint," said Gary Guertin, past chairman of the Martin County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's just as much about the boat community as people on shore."

Gardner pointed out some communities that take their boat parades seriously: Tampa, for instance, hosts an enormous Holiday Lighted Boat Parade in December, and The Florida Keys are home to parades that include the Key Largo Boat Parade and the Schooner Wharf Bar Lighted Boat Parade.

Gardner enjoys venturing off the beaten path to discover small holiday and Christmas boat parades in Florida with local flavor. Among his favorites: northwest Florida's RiverWalk Milton; and Boat Parade of Lights and Holiday on the Harbor in Carrabelle, a northwest Florida river town.

Another favorite is the Holiday Regatta of Lights in St. Augustine, held in the historic district overlooking Matanzas Bay. "You've got the historic city with the Bridge of Lions in the background," Gardner said. "And St. Augustine has a personality all its own."

One of the biggest of Florida’s holiday boat parades is the Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade in Fort Lauderdale. Called the "greatest show on H2O," this holiday tradition has an annual theme; a history of big-name grand marshals such as Shaquille O'Neal; and over a million viewers along its 12 mile parade route.

For those who can't stake out a free vista along the parade route, grandstand seats are available.

"I'm confident in saying they have the biggest and probably one of the best boat parades in the country," said John Kazaliauskas, founder of and a frequent spectator or participant in boat parades around the state. "The ones I've participated in have had something for everybody, so regardless of your age or your culture or your background, everybody has a good time one way or another."

And frankly, Kazaliauskas adds, boaters who decorate their boats for the parades aren't just trying to entertain onlookers; they're also looking for a boating fix.

"It's a good excuse," Kazakiauskas said, "to go boating in the winter and celebrate the holidays."

When you go...

Here's where you can check out a list of 50 Florida boat parades by

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