The Newport Beach Boat Parade: Over A Century of Lights
By Jill McLean

This year it’s all hands on deck with the 108th Newport Beach Boat Parade! The sparkly celebration is woven into the very fabric of our beach city and is known locally, nationally, and even internationally. Join us for five days of real magic as hundreds of boats parade their creativity through the waters of the bay, while homes and docked watercraft all along the way showcase their delightful imagination of color, decorations and lights in what is called the Ring of Lights. Starting on December 14, the event—hosted by the Commodores Club of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce—offers five full days of much awaited splendor and tradition. It is truly a sight to behold!

With a rich history of more than a century, our well-known and beautiful parade is a mix of tradition and modern technology, but it definitely has very humble roots. The man who started it all is John Scarpa (an Italian gondolier), and his forward-thinking ways in 1907 prompted him to take groups of summer visitors—traveling from Pasadena residences—across the bay in a gondola decked with brightly illuminated Japanese lanterns. The adventures delighted the people so much that Scarpa brought it back the following July and formalized it further. Collaborating with a few other boat operators, they designed a simple parade of 9 vessels (eight canoes and one gondola leading) with Japanese lanterns brightly lit, coining the name “Illuminated Water Parade”. The lovely event was taken to a brighter level in 1913 when the introduction of prizes and awards came into play, garnering excitement for participants and viewers that continues to this day.

Over the years, there have been two World Wars that interrupted the parade, but the people loved it so much that it stayed strong and re-emerged within good time. After one break from 1915-1919, Joseph Beek knew it was time to renew the sparkle and hope in the people, so he took leadership of the parade once again, calling it the “Tournament of Lights”, inspired by the “Pasadena Tournament of Roses”. Still largely a locals-only summer event, by the 1940’s it made a graceful shift into a winter holiday venue when Newport Beach City employees towed a gorgeously lit Christmas tree on a barge through the bay, complete with passengers caroling in beautiful voices to the spectators on shore. This was a turning point for the parade, and it suddenly became a way to bring visitors in from all around to partake in the sparkling community event. 

Today’s experience of what we now call the Newport Beach Boat Parade is an incredible display of imagination and creativity, with everything from LED screens, traditional lights and decorations, canoes and rowboats, fully-decked modern yachts, and everything in between—all showcasing inventive holiday sparkle. Bundled up in cozy winter wear and scarves, droves of visitors and residents alike can enjoy the festivities along shore in homes, restaurants and clubs, in addition to adding their own flair to the parade by decorating the houses and docked vessels as part of the Ring of Lights. Fireworks over the harbor illuminate the skies while Newport Beach glistens from a spectacular tradition that continues to bring joy and good cheer to all.