“It’s good you’re here! It’s literally the coolest party ever!”
That’s what Sam, in a full mermaid skirt and sequin bikini top, said to me while we were reapplying glitter, taking selfies, and hanging out with other parade attendees. Sam is one of the girls who “adopted” me right before the start of the 37th Coney Island Mermaid Parade. At the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, everyone is friends, and no one walks (swims?) alone.
The Coney Island Mermaid Parade is one of the most famous New York City summer events. It was started back in 1983 by the unofficial “Mayor of Coney Island,” Dick Zigun. Originally designed to pay homage to the Coney Island Mardi Gras parades of the early 20th century, today it’s famous for being the largest art parade in the country. More than 1,500 creative individuals celebrate the start of summer with costumes, floats, marching bands, and every other type of self-expression. Each annual parade has a King Neptune and Queen Mermaid (this year, Arlo and Nora Guthrie), and the celebration ends with a ceremonial dip into the ocean as the beaches are officially opened for the summer.
The Coney Island Mermaid Parade was actually one of the biggest inspirations I had for starting this bucket list. I’ve made it no secret that I love parades. I’ve always wanted to dress up in a crazy costume, but I’ve never had a real reason to. Alas, it’s been a few years since I’ve moved back to New York, and I’ve never thrown on some shells and made the journey.
For my first attempt at being an official mermaid, I didn’t have a clue where to begin in costume design. Coney Island Mermaid Parade costumes run from tame (there’s an entire “family” section to the parade) to insane (body paint. And nothing else.) to wild and artistic (think…a stick of butter and a lobster!), and you can spend months designing the perfect outfit. The wilder, the better.
I picked up some shells, sequins, a crown, and a bra, and went to work. And work. And work. Despite suffering from countless hot glue gun burns, making my costume was even cooler than I thought it would be. I might be obsessed with DIY costumes now.
Participating in the parade requires you to register as an official mermaid. Your registration cost goes towards Coney Island USA, a not-for-profit arts center based in Coney Island. You can register online in advance of the parade, or you can be like me and completely forget to do it until the day of. Either way, your first step as a parade participant is to check in at the registration area to get your fancy judge number. Anyone can be a judge if they register early, and I hear bribery is allowed/encouraged as you pass the judging station during the parade.
Much like the Village Halloween Parade, the Mermaid Parade starts with all the participants just…standing around. The organizers do a great job keeping things organized, with bathrooms available, and different sections where you can line up indoors in (general) number order.
While taking pictures, I stumbled onto Sam and her friends, who graciously adopted me when they learned that I was at the parade alone. We waited around, and they told me they come to the parade every year, each time in a different themed costume. Being a solo mermaid is probably fun, but I think this is one of those events where you should have some friends with you to keep your spirits up before and during the festivities.
Before we knew it, we were off and walking along Surf Avenue to the cheers of thousands of adoring fans. I thought my costume looked great, but I felt so basic compared to so many other people with their outfits. Playing along to the crowd is also big, so if you plan to walk next year, make sure that you have some type of giveaway things (beads, candy, etc.) for your seaside supporters.
Walking in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade has been one of the highlights of my bucket list journey so far, and I recommend it to anyone. But I also think you should spend at least one year just being a spectator - I missed so many costumes, floats, and performances because I was caught up in walking on my own!
Just make sure you come prepared - it is the coolest party ever.
Interested in more bucket list adventures in New York City? Follow along on Instagram at @fiveboroughbucketlist!