By Celeste Leibowitz
From a modest beginning in 1983, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade has grown to become the largest art parade in America and one of New York City’s most popular summer events. This wild and wacky parade draws thousands of spectators each year on the first Saturday of summer. It’s modeled after the long-ago Coney Island Mardi Gras that revelers enjoyed from 1903 to 1954.
Marchers dress in homemade costumes, almost all of them with a nautical or marine theme. Mermaids and mermen predominate, but just about anything goes. Self-styled Vikings, Hawaiians, sailors and pirates are all represented. A large contingent of marchers dress as sea creatures, “denizens of the deep.” Whales, sharks, octopi, shrimp, and sea jellies are popular choices, as are costumes incorporating puns. Thus, in recent years costumed Marine Antoinettes, French Mer-Maids have joined in the fun.
Each year a different pair of celebrities represents King Neptune and Queen Mermaid, and kicks off the parade. Recent Kings have included Ron Kuby, David Byrne, Curtis Sliwa, and David Johansen. Queen Latifah has served as Queen Mermaid. Following the King and Queen comes a contingent of antique cars revving their engines and burning rubber.
After the cars come the floats and marchers. There are costumed marching bands and many local groups and business associations are represented. Adults and children can march with a group or individually, and the judges choose the best costumes each year. There’s an exuberant, whimsical spirit to this parade that’s positively infectious.
The Mermaid Parade begins at 2 PM, but it’s best to arrive early and get a good viewing spot. The parade is easily accessible by subway, so don’t bring a car, but do bring a camera. Children are welcome as spectators and marchers, but there’s a good deal of semi-nudity in this parade, so be aware.