For many of the devoted visitors to Coney Island, summer doesn’t really start till the Mermaid Parade marches down Surf Avenue. Promoted as the United States’s largest art parade, the Mermaid Parade encourages parade participants and bystanders to dress up in a dazzling array of costumes, usually nautical themed.
The parade started in 1983 by the “unofficial mayor of Coney Island” Dick Zigun with the intention of fostering community pride and artistic expression. The Mermaid Parade has since grown to be one of the major parades in New York City, with over 3,000 people participating from all over the city and beyond.
An early forerunner to the modern Mermaid Parade were the Mardi Gras parades that amusement promoters hosted in Coney Island from 1903 to 1954. The current promoters of the Mermaid parade also cite traditional African water festivals and ancient Greek and Roman pagan revelries as inspiration.
Much like other parades, the Mermaid Parade features floats, antique cars, marching bands, and costumed parade goers. Trophies are given to parade attendees for various categories. The competition is friendly, but the judges heavily encourage bribing.
A King Neptune and Queen Mermaid are crowned as part of the festivities. Past honorees include hip icons such as Deborah Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie, Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, Lou Reed, and Laurie Anderson. The king and queen start the parade by throwing fruit off Steeplechase Pier into the ocean as an offering to the gods of summer. The royal couple later dance the night away at the Mermaid Ball after the parade.