If you’re looking for flashing bright-colored bathing suits, elaborate funny floats, nautical themes, gay culture in its glory, kiddie participation amid adult-themed outfits and all sorts of exhibitionists, the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island is for you.
Over the years I’ve attended, I notice that although the costumes have gotten more elaborate and some of the themes change depending on politics and pop culture, not much has changed with the parade. Truth be told, the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade offers much more variety in terms of costumes. So why is it I’ve given up on the Halloween Parade and keep looking forward to coming back to the Mermaid Parade?
When Dick Zigun, the unofficial mayor of Coney Island, first proposed the idea of the parade to the city back in 1980, as he reminded attendees in a pre-parade press conference, they laughed at the idea of “mermaids in a parade.” It took three years to make it a reality, and even after it became an annual tradition, the city was still skeptical, forcing Zigun and his crew to up the ante and expand the parade. Now with about 2,000 marchers participating, thousands of people line the streets of Coney Island to witness the spectacle.
Anyone who’s gone to the Mermaid Parade before will notice that the same elements are always there. Marching along, there will be some of the same people (including a Carmen Miranda-like old guy with a multi-colored beard and parrot on his head), the same costumes (male and female Popeyes, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and, of course, mermaids), a bevy of umbrella and parasols done up as jellyfish, similar floats (party buses, bands on flatbeds), the same marching bands (Hungry March Band is a fixture) and many of the same local organizations take part.
Maybe you’d see similar outfits at the occasional costume parties going on at underground clubs in the city, but on smaller scale and generally inside at night — the Mermaid Parade is a much bigger, more open party that’s free to all (it’s run on donations).
Another Mermaid fixture are pasties, those small coverings over women’s exposed breasts), which were the same thing that got my older friend excited to be there and drove another friend away for fear that it would be too much for her 7-year-old daughter to see. At the same time, all sorts of toddlers were being carried, walked or dragged around on small wagons in the parade itself.
Each Mermaid Parade also features an honorary king and queen, and this year’s honor went to Mayor Bill De Blasio’s kids, Chiara and Dante; the mayor himself made an appearance dressed as a pirate. At the end, there’s prizes for best costumes (and the judges are fine with bribes), but by the time that the last float disappears along the route, the crowd always disperses.
The action then spills onto the legendary boardwalk where the parade ends and the beach, where performers mingle with the crowd, relax and keep the party going as the liquor flows, and they join the crowds hitting the water, even when it’s colder than you’d like (on Saturday, it was a bone-chilling 60 degrees).
And that’s where you find the secret and the attraction of the Mermaid Parade. It isn’t just the wacky, risqué outfits that draws the huge crowds there. It’s also the attraction of all of the rides at Luna Park — the enormous Wonder Wheel, the rickety old wooden Cyclone roller coaster and other newer death-defying rides like the Thunderbolt, which drew hour-long lines (and which I wouldn’t go on if the lines were one-minute long because I’m kind of chicken about that).
It’s also the famous boardwalk with the enduring tchotchke stores, bars and food, including Nathan’s, where I prefer the crinkle-cut fries to the hot dogs. Plus, there’s the beach, where you can watch the gayly-dressed (pun intended) Mermaid folks strut around even more and, as a bonus, if you happen to be by the pier, you can watch Zigun and company open the beach for the summer.
There’s also the beautiful summer weather that keeps happening on parade day. Even if Mermaid is as crowded as the Halloween Parade, it’s more low-key, and it’s much easier to find a good perch to watch the action.
Add it all up, and you have the formula for a perfect, foolproof summer day.
And there’s one more important thing about the Mermaid Parade that makes it an essential part of Gotham, even if it’s the same every year: It’s a strong reminder of the strange, creative side of the city that’s made it great and unique. This wonderful, oddball contingent fights for survival despite the developers trying to crowd and price them out of town. The Texas state capital has its own “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, and the same thing is needed for NYC. The Mermaid Parade is one way to do that and support that vital impulse.
I expect that much of the same things will be on display at the parade in 2015, 2016 and 2017. I also suspect that I’ll be back there to see and snap pictures of all of it, right before I humor my girlfriend by (God help me) going on the Cyclone and hitting the beach.
Now I ask you, what kind of underground party can offer that?
Jason Gross is the social media manager for TheBlot Magazine.