The Best and Brightest Holiday Boat Parades Around the World

Santa doesn’t always travel by sleigh.

Santa doesn’t always travel by sleigh—sometimes he travels by boat. The North Pole icon is a frequent fixture this time of year, headlining festivals and posting up on shopping mall thrones all over the world. This is a guy who clocks more mileage than Taylor Swift on her Eras Tour, and he’s not taking a tour bus or a PJ. In order to make the myriad Christmas markets and holiday happenings on his stacked calendar, it seems as if Santa travels by yacht. Holiday boat parades are big business nowadays, offering an offbeat alternative to familiar Christmas fodder, in which bedazzled boats set sail with bright lights, merry music, and of course, characters aplenty.

These holiday boat parades are typically held after sunset, so the aforementioned lights can twinkle and shine. They can be found in lakes, rivers, and marinas all over the US, while a few can be found abroad. In some cases, they’re a way to put a tropical spin on holiday celebrations in warmer locales with far more sand than snow. In others, it’s a way to take the chilly cheer to a whole new level, complete with pop-up beer gardens, bedazzled bayous, and fireworks shows. Without further ado, here are the best and brightest holiday boat parades setting sail around the world.

Visit Alexandria VA

Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights Sponsored by Amazon

December 2, 2023
Alexandria, Virginia
From the National Christmas Tree to candlelit concerts, there’s no shortage of holiday cheer to be found in Washington, DC. But one of the most enduring traditions is one that takes place on the water. Now entering its 23rd year, the Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights transforms the Old Town Alexandria Waterfront Park into a veritable winter wonderland, even if snow isn’t in the forecast. Part of a whole weekend of events, the festivities get underway in the afternoon, with a pop-up beer garden from Port City Brewing Company, family games and activities, and food, followed by the parade at 5:30 pm.

Santa arrives, via fireboat, at the Alexandria City Marina at 3:30 pm, while the floating parade departs from the marina and sails southward along the Potomac for one mile to Ford’s Landing Park, which is host to numerous boats decorated with lights and baubles. On land, activities include ornament-making and a postcard station for writing letters to Santa, while dockside food vendors will be slinging everything from hot chocolate to empanadas to pizza by-the-slice to Santa’s favorite snack—cookies. There’s also a simultaneous Canal Center Holiday Art Mart, at Old Town North waterfront, with a sprawling holiday bazaar filled with arts, vintage items, food, and more.

Harbor Lights Festival

December 16, 2023
Kodiak, Alaska
Santa needn’t travel far for the Harbor Lights Festival in Kodiak, Alaska. Hosted by the Kodiak Maritime Museum since 2013, and held a snowball’s throw from the North Pole, the festival sees the area’s fishing boats and sports boats bedazzled with lights, tinsel, and tunes. Held this year at 6 pm on December 16, optimal viewing platforms can be found at St. Paul Harbor and St. Herman’s Harbor, and attendees are encouraged to cast their votes for “Best Decorated Boat” after the show at the Harbor Convention Center, while savoring cookies, hot chocolate, and live holiday music. Unlike most parades, boats at the Harbor Lights Festival are anchored at their docks for safety concerns (December in Alaska = total darkness), allowing for guests to walk around and get closer looks at the participants.

panoramic shot, of st. croix boat parade, in december

St. Croix Christmas Boat Parade

December 9, 2023
St. Croix, US Virgin Islands
It might be hard to get into the holiday spirit when you’re someplace where the average Christmas temperature is 82 degrees Fahrenheit. But on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, where sugary-white sand is the closest it gets to snow, a longstanding Christmas parade brings a boatload of cheer. Founded in 1998, and entering its 23rd year, the St. Croix Christmas Boat Parade has become one of the most iconic renditions of the form, born from the heartwarming desire to bring the holiday spirit to Christiansted—with a distinctly Caribbean twist.

An all-day affair, the event begins at noon on the Christiansted Boardwalk, with vendors selling food, drinks, and gifts, plus appearances from Santa. The parade kicks off at 6 pm, beckoning a spree of illuminated boats of all shapes and sizes, set to Christmas music as they sail across the historic harbor. It all culminates with a fireworks show, and an awards show and party takes place at Deep End Bar and Grill, with trophies given in different tiers, like sailboat, small power boat, and large power boat.

Christmas on the Bayou

December 9, 2023
Gulfport, Mississippi
After starting in 2000 as a small smattering of of jolly boaters cruising through a coastal Mississippi bayou, the aptly dubbed Christmas on the Bayou has ballooned into a majorly merry event that sees boats and homes alike getting in on the festive action. The parade itself, which starts from Gulfport Lake at 6 pm on December 9, floats down Bayou Bernard to the mouth of the bayou at Big Lake. En route, bleacher seating is available at Gulfport Lake and the Cowan Lorraine Bridge, and bayou-side homes are just as decorated and luminous as the boats themselves, decorated to look like sleighs, trains, and the North Pole, with lots of Santas, reindeer, and dolphins to boot.

bribie island boat parade participant, decked out with lights and dolphins
Annual Bribie Island Christmas Lights Boat Parade

Bribie Island Christmas Lights Boat Parade

December 9, 2023
Queensland, Australia
Santa is heading to the opposite pole this year for a lustrous boat parade through the canals of Birbie Island. Nestled off the coast of Queensland, this oasis of sand and sun is the setting for the Bribie Island Christmas Lights Boat Parade, running all day long on December 9. The festivities begin with Santa sailing through the canals and doling out candy to kids from 1:30 to 5 pm. Meanwhile, a Munch Market—a food-filled pop-up at the Pacific Harbour Marina—will run from 2 to 7 pm, just as the boat parade gets underway. At 7 pm, kaleidoscopic boats begin cruising the canals, clad in all manner of jolly decor. The public is welcome to enter their boats for free, and prizes are handed out for decorations.

Manatee River Holiday Boat Parade

December 9, 2023
Bradenton, Florida
In the Tampa-adjacent community of Bradenton, Santa trades reindeer for manatees. Such is the case at the Manatee River Holiday Boat Parade, a non-profit organization that puts on its annual spectacle that “brings the heart of the holidays to our community.” Each year sees a fleet of boats, large and small, decked to the nines in holiday decor, with this year’s parade launching from Snead Island at sundown on December 9. Public viewing areas are centered around the Green Bridge and Palmetto Pier—prime perches for watching Santa and his elves sail by on their musical yacht. For something a little extra, waterside restaurants like Oak & Stone are hosting private viewing parties this year, with reserved tables on the rooftop deck, complete with food and drink. Once the parade winds down at 8:30 pm-ish, an after party follows at the Bradenton Yacht Club, where complimentary food and a cash bar are joined by live music, raffle prizes, and awards announcements for best dressed boats.

holiday boats, cruising, in lake havasu city, in arizona
Go Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu City Boat Parade of Lights

December 9, 2023
Lake Havasu City, Arizona
A holiday boat parade in the Arizona desert sounds like an oxymoron, but then again, this is the time of year for magic and miracles. In Lake Havasu City, the western Arizona community most known for its very own London Bridge (yes, really), a boat parade embarks on December 9 at 6 pm, transforming the desert oasis into a vibrant display of lavishly decorated boats and floating Christmas trees. Starting at 6 pm, the Lake Havasu City Boat Parade of Lights is a marquis moment from the month-long Festival of Lights, which sees more than 500,000 Christmas lights strung up along the London Bridge and all over the Bridgewater Channel. The parade is best viewed from Lake Havasu State Park, and it’s advised that attendees show up when gates open at 4 pm, since prime beach spots tend to fill up quick.

Holiday Boat Light Parade at Lake Lanier

December 9, 2023
Gainesville, Georgia
For one magical night in December, a lake in north Georgia transforms into a shimmering beacon of Christmas cheer. Welcome to the Holiday Boat Light Parade at Lake Lanier, where a lustrous lineup of vessels sail along the tree-lined shores of the lush region. The pageantry kicks off at 5 pm from north of Port Royale, sailing past Pelican Pete’s and Aqualand, before waving to the judges tables by Pig Tales. It all finishes at Margaritaville, where an afterparty includes live music, food, drinks, and an awards ceremony.

holiday boat, decorated for christmas, at the san diego bay parade of lights
San Diego Bay Parade of Lights

San Diego Bay Parade of Lights

December 10 and 17, 2023
San Diego, California
One of the longest-running boat parades, the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights has been parading around the Pacific Coast for 53 years. It’s such a seasonal showcase that there are two parades, held this year December 10 and 17, and attendance sees more than 100,000 San Diegans flocking to the bay to witness the spectacle. Upwards of 80 boats, each one extravagantly decorated and illuminated to this year’s theme of “Christmas Traditions Around the World,” will embark from Shelter Island at 5:30 pm, before sailing past Harbor Island, The Embarcadero, Seaport Village, The Pier at Cesar Chavez Park, and finally, Ferry Landing on Coronado.

christmas themed boat, floating past a tropical landscape, in hawaii
Photo courtesy of Hawaii Kai Towne Center

Festival of Lights Boat Parade

December 16, 2023
Honolulu, Hawaii
It might not feel like the holidays, temperature-wise, but it’ll sure look like it at the Festival of Lights Boat Parade presented by Hawaii Kai Town Center in Honolulu. Perfect for those who prefer sandals over snow boots, the annual Hawaiian tradition features an array of bedecked boats cruising by the Marina Docks. Held from 4 to 7 pm, the parade features boats of all sizes dolled up in their holiday best, vying for the title of the merriest in the fleet. On land, attendees can spin a prize wheel for the chance to win gift cards to area businesses.

boats decorated for christmas, float on the water, with fireworks in the sky
Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade

Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade

December 13–17, 2023
Newport Beach, California
An icon on the holiday boat parade circuit, the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade has been a seasonal tentpole for 115 years, since an Italian gondolier and a develop of Balboa Island started a modest Tournament of Lights. Over the subsequent century, the show has evolved exponentially, to include a bevy of boats, themes, and parade routes. Far more than mere yachts and sailboats, this is an all-encompassing event that sees all manner of water vessels—including kayaks and canoes—sail along the harbor over the course of five consecutive days.

Each night, from December 13 to 17, floating parades begin at 6:30 pm from Tip of Lido Isle, with the largest and best public viewing point being at the 10.5-acre Marina Park. There are also several waterfront restaurants, a.k.a. Dine & Watch locations, that are ideally located for dinner and a show. A fireworks display kicks things off on opening night, at 6:15 pm on December 13 from the Newport Pier, before culminating with a closing fireworks show at 9 pm on December 17 from Balboa Pier.

Dawson City’s Annual Boat Parade

December 17, 2023
Dawson City, Canada
When the boat parade is held someone so arctic that the river is too frozen to float, you know you’re in the right place. Dawson City’s Annual Boat Parade, held in a polar portion of the Yukon, is the rare boat parade that takes place on land. Since the nearby Yukon River is too icy, this real-deal winter wonderland simply tows boats around town on snow roads. This year’s event marks the 20th anniversary of this unique holiday outing, with decorated boats departing from the Visitor Information Center at 6 pm on December 17. Cars and trucks tug their boats all over town, and spectators can watch from the warm confines of their homes, cars, or hotels.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for sharing queer stories, exploring national parks, and visiting Disney World. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacyork.