Last year around this time, it was an almost ubiquitous news item in Newport Beach: the proposed boycott of the annual Christmas Boat Parade by residents who opposed a new city-imposed fee hike on their docks.
The grass-roots group Stop the Dock Tax asked property owners to keep their vessels and homes dark out of protest. City Councilman Mike Henn used the Daily Pilot's opinion page to denounce the "sensationalized threats." As the furor escalated, the tourism bureau, Visit Newport Beach, ended up putting out a statement clarifying that the parade would go on as planned.
A year later, the effects of the boycott will still be visible — though, ironically, they'll take the form of light rather than darkness.
According to parade Chairman David Beek, the negative publicity inspired more residents to take part last year, and sign-ups this fall have been ahead of the usual pace. As of Friday, about 50 boats had been signed up for the parade and about 40 homes for the Ring of Lights home-decorating competition. The festivities this year will also feature fireworks on two nights — a tradition started last year in an attempt to counter the negative publicity.
The official theme for this year's parade is "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," submitted by residents Judy Candelaria and Michelle Stranak. In light of recent events, though, perhaps "Reverse Psychology" is the true guiding principle.
"Regardless of where you stood on the dock tax issue, the Christmas Boat Parade is the Christmas Boat Parade, and you don't want to convolute the two," Beek said. "So a lot of people didn't think that was right, and the way they showed that was by participating more in the parade."
The opponents of the dock fee increase are continuing to pursue their case in court, but Stop the Dock Tax leader Bob McCaffrey said he had no plans to call for another boycott. How much of a boycott actually occurred in 2012 remains unclear — none of the residents the Daily Pilot spoke with said they noticed an unusual number of dark homes, and McCaffrey himself said he had no idea how many people heeded the call.
"We sent advertisements out, paid for newspaper ads encouraging the people to remove their boats and not have their lights on," he said. "I know of no way to go around the bay and find out how successful that was."
Without another media frenzy, then, this year's focus may land solely on the event itself. On Dec. 18, the parade will get off to its 105th start with fireworks at the Newport Pier, and the final day, Dec. 22, will conclude with a similar show at the Balboa Pier.
In between, elaborately decorated boats will pass around the Balboa Peninsula, Balboa Island and Lido Isle, while homes along the shore glisten with their own displays. To call the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event a local tradition is an understatement — Yahoo! Travel named it America's second-best holiday lights destination, second only to Rockefeller Center, in 2011.
Boats that enter the parade are judged in 19 categories, with two new ones added this year: Most Entries from a Yacht Club and Sweepstakes Winner — Non Commercial, which recognizes clubs, families or other residential groups. Scott Flamson, who won the Best First-Time Entry and Best Powerboat awards in 2004 and has entered the parade for more than 20 years, said he learned to stay festive through the whole route — since the judges are situated throughout the crowd. This means no down time before passing the inspection point.
"You find you don't have to actually force it," said Flamson, who has dressed up as Santa Claus on his boat in the past. "It just becomes part of it."
Last year, Flamson's boat was one of 88 in the parade, an increase from 72 the year before. Beek said 80 boats are the event's annual goal — an impressive one to reach, considering the amount of time and money that owners put into their projects.
"It's easy to go, 'Oh, yeah, I'll be in the boat parade,'" he said. "Well, it's not that easy. So to get 80 people that are willing to do that, it's pretty cool. To get 100 people that are willing to do that, well, that's fantastic. And then everything above that is just a miracle."
If You Go
What: 105th annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade
Where: Around Balboa Island, Lido Isle and the Balboa Peninsula
When: 6:30 to 9 p.m. Dec. 18 through 22. Fireworks begin at 6:15 p.m. Dec. 18 and 9 p.m. Dec. 22.
Cost: Free for spectators
Information: (949) 729-4400 or http://www.christmasboatparade.comhttp://www.christmasboatparade.com