'Coney Island stew': Mermaid Parade kicks off summer by embracing the weird

Updated

NEW YORK – Coney Island is always a spectacle. And then there's the Mermaid Parade every June, a day when self-described Coney Island freaks set the bar for the rest of the year's whimsy and imagination.

“It’s the day where all the weirdos show up to try to impress all the other weirdos,” said Joe Hobaica, 56, who hasn’t missed a Mermaid Parade since 1989.

Despite a heat advisory that remains in effect through Sunday, more than 200,000 people converged on a slightly overcast Coney Island peninsula in southern Brooklyn on Saturday, according to parade officials. Families, teenagers and longtime New Yorkers said they were there to kick off summer and celebrate ocean life.

"Life is too serious," said Marta Berk, 38, who dressed up as a mermaid with sparkly rhinestones on her face and a bright pink wig.

Bambi the Mermaid, Queen of Coney Island, right, marches in the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.
Bambi the Mermaid, Queen of Coney Island, right, marches in the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.

The history behind the parade, which has been happening since 1983, also fills it with spiritual importance for many. The most serious and dedicated mermaids in attendance plan their extravagant costumes in line with a certain annual theme and look ahead to the parade as a time to express themselves to the fullest.

“This is our high holy day, and we've taken it up many notches," said the parade's Mermaid Queen for 2024, Whitney Ward, who hasn't missed the event for the past 30 years. “Even though the parade just goes on for this one day, it literally consumes our entire year," said Ward, 60, explaining how designers work on her costumes for months.

Hundreds of thousands transported under the sea

The enormous size of the parade means it’s the best day of the year to see the greatest number of people decked out in quirky, shocking costumes, and be celebrated for it. Iridescent fish scales, fantastical monster puppets and imaginary underwater creatures come to life on Coney Island’s Surf Avenue, making attendees feel like they’re in an ocean dreamscape, far away from reality.

A man dressed in an underwater and outer space themed costume marches in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.
A man dressed in an underwater and outer space themed costume marches in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.

Steve Henry, 28, said he came to the parade to celebrate the Earth's oceans and all the life they contain.

"It makes up most of the planet, it's most of the life on earth, and this is the only thing I can think of that really celebrates that," said Henry, who traveled from Sussex County, New Jersey, to attend the parade with a group decked out in lobster suits.

Kristen Henry, 28, center, watches the Coney Island Mermaid Parade with a group of friends dressed in lobster costumes on June 22, 2024 in New York City.
Kristen Henry, 28, center, watches the Coney Island Mermaid Parade with a group of friends dressed in lobster costumes on June 22, 2024 in New York City.

His twin sister Kristen Henry attended the parade for the fourth time because it always makes her feel like she's in an episode of "SpongeBob SquarePants," she said.

"It's just better to be among beautiful people like this, like a school of fish," said Henry, 28, who traveled from Dover, New Jersey. "Every person should go at least once, whether you dress up or not."

A woman dressed in an underwater and outer space themed costume marches in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.
A woman dressed in an underwater and outer space themed costume marches in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.

Michele Soto, 54, a hospital clerk who lives in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood, said she returned for her seventh parade to see all the pretty costumes and happy people.

"Everybody puts a lot of effort into it, it's fun, it's a nice environment," said Soto from beneath a bright green parasol, decked out in a mermaid costume accented by seashell and sand dollar jewelry.

Yuli Franklin, with her daughter Olivia Coger, aged 7 months, walk the boardwalk during the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.
Yuli Franklin, with her daughter Olivia Coger, aged 7 months, walk the boardwalk during the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.

Mermaid Parade celebrates Coney Island history

Coney Island has been a seaside resort for nearly two centuries, and many cultural touchstones Americans may take for granted – like fast food and roller coasters – have their roots in the amusement district, said Adam Rinn, the Artistic Director for Coney Island USA, the nonprofit that runs Coney Island's public events.

“Coney Island was always the home of spectacle, it was the birthplace of American popular culture," Rinn, 52, said.

Parade marchers hold a banner during the Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.
Parade marchers hold a banner during the Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.

In addition to the parade, Coney Island is known for its Sideshow, where performers like fire-breathers and sword eaters have been making audiences gasp for about the past 100 years. Burlesque dance performances are an "institution" at Coney Island, said Aurora North, who was crowned Miss Coney Island in September 2023 and marched Saturday as part of the parade's outer-space-themed celestial court surrounding the king and queen.

"All the freaks came here," North, 35, said. "Coney Island is a home and a refuge for the weird; it's really the island of misfit toys."

People in costume take part in the 42nd annual Mermaid Parade at Coney Island on June 22, 2024. The parade is Coney Island's way to mark the unofficial start to Summer.
People in costume take part in the 42nd annual Mermaid Parade at Coney Island on June 22, 2024. The parade is Coney Island's way to mark the unofficial start to Summer.

The Mermaid Parade has been going on for more than 40 years, making it just as much a part of Coney Island's history as many other well-known landmarks, like the Cyclone Roller Coaster and Nathan's hot dogs, Rinn said. For years, the event has been the largest art parade in the country, according to Coney Island USA.

"The parade continues the tradition of keeping Coney Island this fun, spectacle of a place," Rinn said.

People dressed as mermaids prepare to take part in the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.
People dressed as mermaids prepare to take part in the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade on June 22, 2024 in New York City.

Attendees like Kristen Henry said they plan to keep coming back every year, and the "Coney Island stew" of sea creatures will forever keep the weirdness going, said Ward, explaining how the parade brings people together over “this huge love for Coney and the beach and for New York."

"You realize you're part of something bigger," Ward said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is the Coney Island Mermaid Parade? Weird.

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