Mermaid Parade 2019: What to know about the Coney Island ritual

The Mermaid Parade brings out the artsy side of New Yorkers to the boardwalk at Coney Island.
The Mermaid Parade brings out the artsy side of New Yorkers to the boardwalk at Coney Island. Photo Credit: Liam Quigley

Woody Guthrie may not have seen a mermaid on Mermaid Avenue when he lived in Coney Island in the 1940s, but the stretch will be full of them come June 22.

The annual Mermaid Parade, where women and men dress as scaled and sequined mer-people, has named Arlo and Nora Guthrie, Woody’s children, as “King Neptune” and “Queen Mermaid” respectively.

Before they lead the procession down Surf Avenue and down the boardwalk this year, the Guthries will gather with their family members for a special unveiling of “Woody Guthrie Way” at the corner of Mermaid Avenue and West 35th Street, according to parade founder Dick Zigun.

The family lived on Mermaid Avenue between West 35th and 36th streets in the 1940s and early 1950s, when Woody Guthrie wrote “Mermaid’s Avenue” about the block “where the lox and bagels meet.”

Even though the Guthries grew up in Coney Island, they have never been a part of the Mermaid Parade — until now.

The parade’s record attendance is 830,000 people (in 2018), though it’s hard to say how many will show up this year since it is largely based on the weather, Zigun said. But when it’s sunny out, the parade is one of the largest outdoor events in New York City, according to Crain’s New York.

“That makes it bigger than the city of Boston,” Zigun said.

While hundreds of thousands of people will be in mermaid costumes, this year, Zigun has seen “a lot of interest in giant puppets” from those registering to march.

“I don’t know why, but I’m OK with it,” he said.

Puppet or not, make sure you’re fully prepared for the day of fins, sparkles and pasties. Here’s all you need to know:

Where is the best place to watch?

While the boardwalk is a popular choice for many, it’s not where the bulk of the entertainment takes place. Surf Avenue is really where you want to be, but it gets crowded (think of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, according to Zigun). If you don’t want to stay for the whole thing, stand on the north side of Surf Avenue (not the beach side). If you want to be comfortable, you can buy a judgeship that’ll allow you to be “one of the unique elite” who get to sit down in the shade and get the best view, Zigun said.

How should I prepare for the parade?

Zigun recommends bringing what you need for the entire day — sunblock, food, water — because lines are long.

Go in knowing that many streets will be blocked off by police barricades, which means you may have to walk away from the parade route initially to get into a good spot. This is a surprise to many first-timers.

Can I take pictures?

Yes, you can from the sidewalk, but if you want to have marchers pose, you’ll need to get a $40-$50 staging area pass. That’s where participants will gather from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., on West 21st Street and Surf Avenue. No one is allowed to be in the street taking photos except for the press.

Do people really march naked?

Yes, well, partially. The Mermaid Parade is famous for its scantily clad mer-people — many women (and men) go without tops.

If you feel uncomfortable with nudity or want a more family-friendly marching experience, there is a family assembly site with moderate noise and no nudity that you can sign up for.

How can I march in the parade?

Online registraion is now closed, so you’ll need to check in at the parking lot on Surf Avenue, between 21st and 22nd streets before 1 p.m.

You don’t need to be in a group to march — you can sign up as an individual for $35.

Getting there early is a good plan since traffic ramps up the closer it gets to 1 p.m.

And for the first time since its restoration, the Ford Amphitheater on West 21st Street will be open to marchers so they can have a place to get dressed, eat and use the restroom before the parade begins.

How do I win the costume contest?

You must blow the judges away (and maybe bribe them, too) — by coming up with a creative mermaid or merman costume that transforms you into a mystical being and maybe throwing them some booze, food or trinket. 

Bribing is a very real Mermaid Parade tradition. In the past, judges have been offered booze, food, “weirdo kitschy” gifts, crafts and even sex and drugs.

“Our ideal judges are inebriated, inept and corrupt,” Zigun has said. “That’s the way we like it.”

OK, so how can I be a judge then?

It’ll cost you. It’s $200 cash to be a judge, but you’ll get a ton of benefits: free admission to Sideshow performances and the Coney Island Museum all season long, a 20 percent discount on gift shop items, a judge T-shirt, a Coney Island tote bag, key chain or mug, and recognition on Coney Island USA’s website and materials.

Once the parade is over, then what?

Not only are you surrounded by fun (Luna Park, the Circus Sideshow, the boardwalk) but the ocean is right there, so make a day of it.

The Guthries will join Zigun in a ceremony to officially open the ocean for the season after the parade ends.

A West African ceremony for summer solstice takes place at the same time. The drummers leading the march carry baskets of fruit to be offered to the water gods, and when the parade ends, the king and queen cut four ribbons and Zigun holds up the “key to Coney Island” to open the ocean for the summer.

What’s the point of all this?

Glad you asked. The parade and all the hoopla is about the mythology of the sea, but it celebrates self-expression and Coney Island itself. It also serves to boost pride for the district, which has streets named “Mermaid” and “Neptune,” and give artistic New Yorkers a place to express themselves fully in public.

Also, how does Zigun get celebrities to take part?

It’s a big part of his job that he works on constantly.

“It involves convincing famous celebrities year after year to do the parade for free, which means I use my wisdom and only approach people who live in New York and don’t need transportation money and are already funky and sympathetic to parade,” he said. “Celebrities still have busy schedules, so I have to ask 50 people if they’re interested before I get the right people.”

How do I get there?
Don’t drive or you’ll be circling for parking longer than you’ll stay for the parade. Instead, take the D, F, N or Q subway to Stillwell Avenue.