Home » Features » The Winterfest Parade In Fort Lauderdale Is A Spectacular Holiday Event, But It Takes Lots Of Volunteers, Law Enforcement And Planning To Make It All Happen


The Winterfest Parade In Fort Lauderdale Is A Spectacular Holiday Event, But It Takes Lots Of Volunteers, Law Enforcement And Planning To Make It All Happen

With more than 1 million live viewers, Winterfest is considered the seventh largest spectator event in the U.S.—up there with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and Mardi Gras. Here, we go behind the scenes of the Winterfest Parade to look at the volunteers, the law enforcement officers and the planning that go into this celebrated holiday event.

Two years ago, before the start of the Winterfest Boat Parade, a dog—enticed by the rippling water—jumped into the New River, getting dangerously close to the boats.

A few years earlier, before the parade moved to downtown Fort Lauderdale, a cruise ship almost overtook a small vessel as it patiently waited to enter the parade route.

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Last year, a train bridge lowered earlier than expected nearly hitting a stalled boat.

You've likely never witnessed these hiccups, but they happen every year during the annual Winterfest Boat Parade. Each time they're smoothly remedied—marine patrols rescued the dog; the cruise ship was radioed to back off; and controllers quickly opened the bridge to its upright position.

As the parade approaches its 44th year on Dec. 12, we take a behind-the-scenes look at the volunteers, the law enforcement and the months of planning that go into making each parade a memorable and safe success.

The Winterfest Parad

Since the parade started in 1971, it's grown to encompass more than 100 boats, covering 12 miles of the Intracoastal, enthralling nearly 1 million cheering spectators, making it the largest one-day spectator event in Florida and earning it a spot in the top 20 parades in the world.

No one is more closely associated with the event, and those impressive stats, than longtime president and CEO Lisa Scott Founds. “I grew up watching the parade,” says Scott Founds, who started volunteering with Winterfest in 1987 before working her way up to CEO.

Today, she's the brains and the power behind the operation, and is credited with the controversial decision to move the parade from its original location by the port to its current position along the New River. “It was the best thing that I ever did,” she says.

So who better to show us the inner workings of the 44th annual parade than the woman who's lived and breathed it for more than 20 years? For Scott Founds, that means going back to May 2014 when planning for this year's Winterfest Parade began.

The Winterfest Parad

Step 1 — A Theme

Winterfest wouldn't be anything without a theme—boats are decorated in colorful lights to reflect that concept, and it's important to get it right.

One year, the Winterfest Board decided to go with “By the Lights of the Silvery Moon.” Big mistake, Scott Founds says. Everyone decorated the boats in silver and white lights so there was little variety.

Scott Founds says the Winterfest Board, which features 50 local powerhouse players, looks for an idea that's “topical” and that families can relate to and “grab ahold of.” “It's important for Winterfest to always push that refresh button,” she says.

So at the 2014 retreat in May, they settled on “Fairy Tales Afloat” to fit with the trend of retelling fairy tales through TV shows and movies, such as “Maleficent” and “Into the Woods.”

The Winterfest Parad

Step 2 — A Popular Face

Next up is the fun part—getting a celebrity on board to serve as Winterfest's grand marshal. Even with such notable past grand marshals as Regis Philbin, Kelly Ripa, Shaquille O'Neal, Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump, the festival manages to out-do itself each year.

This year's grand marshal, Nick Cannon, takes over the job from the 2014 grand marshal, Flo Rida, who impressed everyone by singing throughout the entire 12-mile parade route.

“It woke us up a bit to the entertainment factor,” Scott Founds says.

Step 3 — The Events

Talk about party season. Winterfest begins in late October with the Winterfest White Party and continues on until Dec. 12 with a series of parties including the Black Tie Ball at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino—considered the largest holiday gala in Fort Lauderdale.

Step 4 — The Big Day

But none of these steps matters unless everything goes smoothly on the big day.

So that means on Dec. 12, you'll see Scott Founds and more than 100 volunteers on the New River at 7 a.m., prepping for schedule changes and ushering non-parade boats out of the way. Large yachts, like the Lady Windridge, are pulled backward into their starting spots.

Once the boats are staged in one of eight zones along the New River and released one by one into the parade, the real action happens up in the control room. There, marketing and parade director Kathy Keleher along with law enforcement officers track the parade boats and supervise the 1 million spectators.

Remember the dog that jumped into the water a few years ago? This is where an emergency call was radioed into an operator who then dispatched help to a certain area. Keheler says it takes a village to keep everyone safe—35 agency boats, 120 police officers on land and water, two boats and five land crews for fire rescue, 27 radio operators, 40 controls boats, eight bridge tenders, 12 towboats and 35 emergency volunteers.

Still, mistakes happen: often there's too much space between boats, lights go out and some boats have mechanical failures and break down. “These things happen,” Scott Founds says. “You just have to be ready to react.” This year, the parade will be more equipped than ever to handle difficult situations during the 2.5-hour event—ACR Electronics will be on hand to assist with the navigation and safety of the boats.

The goal is for all of the boats to successfully cruise past the grandstand viewing area at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, where the judges are stationed. Finally, they'll continue to Lake Santa Barbara in Pompano Beach where the parade route officially ends.

So on Dec. 12, as you sip cocktails overlooking the parade from a waterfront restaurant or make your way to the grandstand viewing area, remember that you're not watching just a local parade. You're watching a parade that's considered one of the best in the country. “It's not a pop-up parade. It's like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day or Mardi Gras,” Scott Founds says.

And of course, Scott Founds says, remember to have fun.

The Winterfest Parad

Winterfest By The Numbers

This is the 44th year of Winterfest.The parade features 100 -plus boats, barges and yachts.Winterfest has had an economic impact on Broward County of more than $48 million per year.More than 1 million viewers watch the parade live.The parade route is 12 miles long.It's the 7th largest 1-day spectator event in the country.It's the largest 1-day live audience in Florida.The first parade was in 1971.

The Winterfest Parad

If You Go: Winterfest 2015

Date: Dec. 12

Parade Start Time: 6:30 p.m.

Theme: “Fairy Tales Afloat”

Grand Marshal: Nick Cannon

Cost: Free; $25 for grandstand viewing ticket at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park

Information: winterfestparade.com