The formal name is The Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest® Boat Parade, with a capital “T” and the little “R” doohickey to signify the checks that have been written to pricey trademark lawyers. But, as is the case with any great South Florida event, we usually refer to it with more warmth and affection.
It’s “Winterfest,” conjuring visions of an Alpine gala with flutes of bubbly, for those who want to add a little seasonal elegance to their waterside dinner party. But for most locals, and organizers put the number of spectators this year at 1 million along the 12-mile route, it’s just “the boat parade,” a homegrown party best viewed in shorts on a blanket with a Frisbee and a cold drink nearby.
This year’s 41st annual parade is the biggest yet, according to Winterfest CEO Lisa Scott-Founds, with nearly 100 boats signed up, 20 more than last year and pretty much the most they can handle due to limited space in the staging area, Scott-Founds says. The 4,000 reserved seats in the bleachers at Birch State Park sold out last week, also a record pace.
Here’s a look at Fort Lauderdale’s boat parade from a few different angles:
Lisa Scott-Founds is a Fort Lauderdale native who grew up in Rio Vista and is now in her 18th year as president and CEO of the not-for-profit Winterfest.
How long does it take you to get ready for Winterfest? “I actually started working on next year’s boat parade a month ago. It’s all about continuity, getting the word out to sponsors, giving them a sense of the magnitude of it. It’s so much more than the boat parade. … We’re an international event, with a $48 million impact on the South Florida economy.”
What’s your biggest challenge? “Typically, it’s getting the boaters in early enough. But, personally, it was six years ago, moving the boat parade to downtown. … There was so much backlash … about the [river] current, the train bridge. … I’m a native, and I was always wondering why it couldn’t be in this vibrant, amazing downtown. For me, it’s about kids and families showing up early along the river with a blanket, throwing a football.”
Favorite moment? “My mom would make sandwiches, and we’d walk down to the end of the street [10th or 11th streets in Rio Vista]. One year, my mom took us to the old Marina Motor Inn … way back. I’ve seen every boat parade.”
THE BOAT CAPTAIN
Mark Messingschlager is the gregarious owner and captain of the “Mr. Bobb,” a 60-foot Hatteras (pictured above) that is a perennial winner of the parade’s Best in Show award. He’s been in the parade since 1988 on the “Mr. Bobb,” an explosion of lights and sound that is the waterborne version of Messingschlager’s house, an eye-popping holiday landmark on the north side of Davie Boulevard just east of the bridge. You can’t miss it.
How long does it take you to get the boat ready for Winterfest? “Three weeks! The hardest part is hanging all that crap on the tower. … This year, I’m taking some things out of my yard.”
Biggest expense? “Hell, I don’t know. The lights? It’s in the thousands. Fuel? Sure, I’ve got 56 people on the boat! Like people are always asking me about the house, what I spend. … It’s probably $3,000 for the season.”
Biggest worry? “Haven’t had anyone go overboard yet. They all come back, though not all of them in the same state of mind. … Rain will screw you up big time, especially the generators for the lights.”
THE PARTY PLANNER
Mark Semple is the director of catering at the Riverside Hotel, which has three popular 6-8 p.m. watch parties, including a stadium-seating area ($30); the VIP dock party ($75, with open bar); the River Patio party ($129, with open bar, hors d’oeuvres and dessert); and the afterparty at Laurel Ward Park (DJ, cash bar). The no-nonsense Semple says the hotel’s Winterfest planning started months ago.
What is your biggest challenge? “There is really no challenge. We have the three parties … But this is my fifth year, and everything is pretty organized and methodical. We have it down to a science.”
Biggest expense? “I’m really not sure. Probably the stadium seating. It’s a party for up to 500 people … We rent them.”
Favorite moment? “Probably when the parade begins. The huge fireworks display. … We have the best view in town, because you see the parade begin right where it starts. The fireworks, the excitement — it’s all right there.”
THE TV HOST
Lynn Martinez of WSVN-Ch. 7 has been the personable host of Winterfest so many times she can’t really remember how many. “Somewhere in the teens,” she says. This year, she’s back with co-host Louis Aguirre for live commentary that will be telecast by WSVN on Dec. 22, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.
How long does it take you to get ready for Winterfest and what are you wearing? “It’s a process, baby! But, really, just a little more time than it takes to go on the air [for her news-anchor shift]. An hour and a half? … I’m wearing a beautiful red gown by a local designer, Tanya Marie. It’s very Christmasy. … It has this tie in the back, so if I have an extra cookie, I can let it out. It’s very forgiving.”
Favorite moment? “My most memorable moment was, gosh, I don’t know how many years ago, but the weather reports said there was a chance of rain … And it started to drizzle, and all of a sudden, it turned into a monsoon, with a tornado like out of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ … The rain was blowing sideways, our monitors went out, and we couldn’t see the boats. We’re sitting there, I think it was Belkys [Nerey], and we’re getting drenched, doing the show. We’re girls, so we don’t like to get wet, right, but we’re laughing and just sort of guessing which boat is out there.”
Biggest challenge? “Probably making sure I get all the names right. All the people work so hard on their boats and the designs, I want to make sure I pronounce their names right. I don’t have any problem getting in the spirit. It’s one of the coolest events of the year.”
IF YOU GO
The 41st annual Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade begins on the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale at 6:30 p.m., moving north on the Intracoastal to Lake Santa Barbara in Pompano Beach. One of the best spots to watch is at Birch State Park on Sunrise Boulevard, east of the Intracoastal. It is $3 per person to enter the park to watch (Winterfest directs some proceeds to the park); the grandstand seating is sold out. Info: WinterfestParade.com.