On Saturday, June 17, hundreds of mer-folk and sea creatures of all ages flooded Coney Island’s Surf Avenue and boardwalk for the 41st Annual Mermaid Parade. Produced by the community arts nonprofit Coney Island USA with support from the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), the event has been a South Brooklyn tradition since 1983 to mark the beginning of the summer swimming season. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the parade took a two-year pause, resuming last year to the anticipation of devoted locals and newcomers alike.
An homage to the previous Coney Island Mardi Gras parade that ran annually from 1903 to 1954, the Mermaid Parade is known for its elaborate costumes, which range from sexy to strange but all somehow relate to the parade’s sea theme (though some are definitely a stretch).
This weekend’s event began at West 21st Street and Surf Avenue and then looped around West 10th Street, where participants made their way down the boardwalk. The parade finally wrapped on the beach with a brief yet mighty rainstorm that drenched everyone, making the aquatic costumes seem even more authentic.
From 1pm to 4pm, Coney Island’s signature amusement park rides were mostly empty except for a few thrill-seekers (a rare occurrence for the iconic seaside neighborhood) as the streets and boardwalk instead served as the main attractions. For hours, groups of half-naked dancers, musicians, and other performers dressed in ocean-inspired costumes partied their way down Surf Avenue and then up the Coney Island boardwalk, to the enthusiastic cheers and applause from parade-goers.
Even controversial DCLA Commissioner Laurie Cumbo joined in the seaside spectacle as this year’s ceremonial “Queen,” riding in a parade float alongside her son. (The role of “King Neptune” went to Bronx rapper and music producer Kool Keith, although he was nowhere to be found. Hyperallergic has reached out to the New York artist for comment.)
“This [year’s event] was a complete representation of what freedom looks like. Being free to be whatever you want, do whatever you want, dress however you want, without caring whether people agree or disagree,” parade participant Jocelin Williams told Hyperallergic.
Williams, a professional make-up artist and hair stylist who has lived in Brooklyn for 15 years, said she spent “two hours a day for two weeks” putting together her brightly colored costume for the parade, which she began attending in 2022.
“I loved the ending when all the participants and onlookers take pictures,” Williams said. “My favorite part was the dance line my group did with our band in front of the judges.”
Brianna Wanlass, who also wowed crowds with her head-to-toe sea blue costume, told Hyperallergic that she loves seeing the joyful faces of parade-goers.
“They get such a kick out of it and nothing puts a smile on my face like seeing parents with their kids light up in sheer delight at the sight of us,” Wanlass said. “Bringing people that joy is where it’s at.”
Originally from Mountain View, California, Wanlass and her husband moved to Brooklyn in 2009. After her friends encouraged her to march in a parade back in 2013, she said she’s been “hooked” ever since and has participated in six of the events. She said she began working on her outfit in 2020 during the beginning of the pandemic, initially thinking that the shutdown wouldn’t last long.
“Obviously we all know what happened and the pandemic lingered on, canceling events left and right including the mermaid parade for two years!” Wanlass explained. “Then, in 2022, its return was announced but I had to attend a wedding on that date. I knew nothing would stop me from marching this year, so I got back to work on my costume around February 2023.”
She said that her costume was inspired by “love for vintage glamour and fantasy.”
“Being a curvy girl and fan of Golden Age Hollywood film stars and sex symbols, like Marylin Monroe, I wanted my dress to sparkle and fit like a glove,” Wanlass said.
This year’s parade was especially significant given the recent reboot of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), which for the first time features a Black lead in the role of Ariel, portrayed by Halle Bailey. Everywhere around this year’s parade, children and adults alike donned The Little Mermaid memorabilia in celebration of the film’s revival. The new Netflix docuseries MerPeople, which debuted this year, may also be contributing to a heightened sense of mer-mania.
See more photos from the 41st edition of the Annual Mermaid Parade in Coney Island below.