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A Dazzling Event:115 Years in the Making

Jill Thrasher

Jill Thrasher

Sherman Library Director

You may be familiar with the annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, but about 100 years ago, it was known by a different name, with a different purpose: Newport Beach’s Annual Tournament of Lights. Debuting in 1921, the Tournament of Lights was the city’s new and innovative strategy to draw crowds to the then Newport Beach which at the time only had a few hundred residents. It hoped that the event would aid in building the city’s population and bring in revenue for infrastructure. 

Prior to 1920, gondoliers would adorn their boats with Japanese lanterns and drift down the Newport Bay to the delight of spectators. The Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce recognized the public’s enjoyment of this event and decided to make it bigger. Letters were sent out to other cities, inviting them to participate in the boat parade. This brilliant marketing served two purposes: firstly, it would promote participating cities, and secondly, it would entice residents from other cities to come watch their respective communities be represented in the boat parade, giving Newport Beach much traffic and attention. In the chamber’s July 14, 1934 issue of the, Newport Harbor News, they announced the following:  

Is your city or community represented? If not see that it plans an entry for the “Big Parade” July 28th, 1934. It is not expensive to enter. Escondido spent $25.00 for materials, labor was done by the citizens. They won First Prize. The Newport Harbor chamber of commerce provides the float or barge, the community entering is required to provide the decorations, the lighting and the work [. . .] Remember 100,00 people saw the parade a year ago. A conservative estimate. It is growing in importance and value each and every year.

This issue was sent across the state to get cities to participate. The marketing worked extremely well and by the late 1930s, the Tournament of Lights had become an iconic Newport Beach event.

In 1937, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs successfully premiered, so in 1938 the chamber capitalized on its success and encouraged participants to dress or decorate their boats with Disney characters. The following year they used Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as inspiration. From that point forward, each year the chamber would come up with a novel theme and the parade’s popularity grew.

Though the original Tournament of Lights was a summer celebration, it was shifted to December post-WWII to celebrate Christmas. Because of the chamber’s clever tactics and careful advertising, Newport Beach now boasts over 80,000 residents and is a popular costal destination. It is estimated that last year’s parade was viewed by over a million people. It remains a holiday tradition that continues to draw crowds to the water’s edge even today.