Anyone can be a judge at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Here’s how to do it, what it costs, and what to expect:
I am not a New Yorker. I’d never even been to Coney Island before. However, when my native New Yorker friend Keith told me about the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade in Brooklyn every June, I ended up planning my entire visit to New York around it. Mermaids, glitter, beaches, summertime–I was in!
When Keith told me we could be judges at the parade, that sounded exciting (and important!) I researched it online, and found only sparse information on the Mermaid Parade FAQ. From what I could find on the web page, being a judge requires a $200 membership donation (tax-deductible). In exchange, you receive a t-shirt, free admission to the Coney Island Museum and sideshow performances all summer long, and a seat on the judge stands. I could only assume that a seat on the judge stands meant not having to stand, and a killer view of the parade. At this point in my life, standing for three hours is not something I am able to do without quite a bit of discomfort, and I was not so interested in doing that in a large crowd in the hot sun without guaranteed decent view of the parade. While expensive, the mermaid parade judgeship was worth it to me for that alone. Keith got us the judgeship tickets, and we were excited.
*Tip: to guarantee a judge spot, book your judge membership tickets early. We bought ours in late winter once I had booked my flights.
Keith and his partner Mike were sent an email about a happy hour meet and greet for the mermaid parade judges in May, and they went. They said they had a great time, and reported to me back in Seattle that all the fellow judges they met were really cool and that they were really looking forward to the parade. Apparently, the happy hour included karaoke where the song choices were limited to Ramones and Rolling Stones songs only.
I made it to New York, we donned sailor outfits, and embarked on the two hour subway journey from Keith’s north Manhattan apartment to Coney Island on parade day.
Our sailor outfits got a lot of attention. We posed for several pictures for and with strangers. Since we were judges, I thought sailor outfits would be appropriate. There were going to be plenty of lovely mermaids at the parade.
The email communication Keith got a day or two before the parade instructed us to report to the judge stand area at noon (parade started at 1:00). After meandering around the boardwalk for a bit, we reported for duty.
We were given a program, judge badge, a t-shirt in the size of our choosing, and some other random swag like Swedish Fish and sunglasses. I was glad that we got there to choose our seats before the judge stand was full, because the stands were only partially shaded. I need shade or I’ll burst into flames.
Here are some more perks of being a judge in addition to shade and seating, now that I have had the experience:
- Porta-potties for the judge area only (rarely a bathroom line and not far from your seat!)
- If you are someone who wants to be up close and get great photos, you are not limited to sitting in the stands. You can walk up to the barrier and get a great front row view in a section only available to judges (no crowding from the general public). We were able to do this as we felt like it, without worrying about losing our spot on the stands or in the barrier area. There was enough room for everyone.
- Complimentary beer from Coney Island Brewing
- Complimentary salads and sandwiches. I didn’t get a good look at the food but it seemed that the options were some nice looking BLTs or vegetarian wraps, and salad.
- Bribing the judges is encouraged. Parade participants often give candy, crafts, booze, and other gifts to the judges. Some handed out individual gifts and some offered bottles of booze or treats that the MC put out for judges to partake in at their leisure.
*Tip: Bring a small bag to carry your t-shirt and mermaid parade souvenirs/bribes.
Our MC donned a judge robe and wig, and announced each parade group as they came down the parade route. We were given a judge sheet on which to write our top three picks for several different categories, including Best Mermaid, Best Sea Creature, Best Motorized Float, Best Musical Group, Best Neptune, etc.
The participants/groups in the parade all had numbers, but the numbers weren’t always well displayed, and it was hard to keep track of each group. To be honest, I was a pretty terrible judge and was more focused on taking photos and enjoying the parade than remembering to write down various categories.
I think it would be helpful for judges if a list of all the entries for each category were listed on the back of the form with their name/title of the group or costume and the number. Regardless, there were so many good costumes and groups that it was hard to decide.
The parade started leisurely, and included one marriage proposal in the beginning. It was sweet, she said yes, everyone clapped and cheered, the parade went on.
A bit later in the parade, the MC was trying to get everyone to pick up the pace. A second marriage proposal happened, and the proposer was trying to give a big romantic speech. The MC asked loudly into the microphone if they could propose while walking and to hurry it along. I felt kind of bad for them.
*Pro Tip: If you are a participant in the parade and want to propose to a fellow parade participant during the parade, try to make sure you are towards the beginning of the parade procession.
There eventually was a real wedding during the parade as well, which the MC obviously knew about because he alerted us to it ahead of time and officiated the (very quick) ceremony. It was short and sweet and fun. The groom’s ring was a giant inflatable ring that the bride adorned him with.
Towards the end there was a third rushed marriage proposal, and a tractor float had a tire roll off of it, breaking down and leaking brake fluid everywhere. The MC ended up having to try and direct everyone around the float and the parade fell apart a bit. Overall though, the parade was a fabulous display of creativity.
Once the parade was over, we turned in our judge ballots and walked towards the beach. The “Mayor” of Coney Island does an official beach ceremony to officially open the beach for the season following the parade, which we didn’t get over to the beach in time to see. The beach was open, and it was super busy. Lines for the beach bathrooms were very long, so we were glad we made use of our private judge stand porta potties before we headed to the beach.
Advice for Parade-Goers:
I would absolutely recommend being a judge at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, especially if you are from out of town like me and want to have a unique experience. If spending the dough isn’t for you, I think you can set up camping chairs along the boardwalk parade route, but you’ll need to arrive pretty early and be prepared for rain or shine (umbrella suggested).
Also note that the subway is very crowded to and from Coney Island right before and after the parade. Lines for metro card machines were also long, so be sure to have your metro card balance up before you go so that you don’t have to use the machine (subway is $2.75 each way). I would not recommend driving there if you have a car, traffic and parking I’m sure are atrocious.