Float on! A behind-the-scenes look at Mermaid Parade float-building, costume-making and more

woman at materials for the arts working on mermaid parade dress
A designer at Materials for the Arts preps a mermaid-inspired dress for the Mermaid Parade.
Photo by Qianshan Weng

Over more than four decades, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade — the marquee summer event in Coney Island, a haven for artistic and off-beat New Yorkers — has become known for its extravagant, glittering aesthetic.

The parade is maybe the largest art parade in the U.S., according to Coney Island USA artistic director Adam Rinn. Thousands of spectators pack the People’s Playground every year, clamoring for a glimpse of the decked-out floats with their larger-than-life mermaids and sea creatures, plus marching bands, entertainers, and parade participants dressed to the nines in handmade costumes covered in glitter and scales. 

mermaid parade float
Dozens of floats drift through the Mermaid Parade each year. File photo by Erica Price

Some groups have become fixtures of the parade, and winners of many nautical accolades are awarded by a panel of judges at the end of the parade. 

The WuTang Clams, for example, have placed in the Best Motorized Float category for the past two years, while dance group the Tail Shakers claimed third place for Best Marching Group in 2023. 

“They’ve got well over 100 people in their group this year,” Rinn said of the Tail Shakers. “Imagine a synchronized dance with more than 100 people. It’s phenomenal to see.”

Many of those most dedicated Mermaid Parade devotees start planning their next move as soon as they step off the parade route, Rinn said, and spend 364 days getting ready. 

‘I’m very dedicated to the parade’

Ricco Rodriguez has been largely-singlehandedly building the award-winning Tractor Pirates float for 15 years, he said.

Born and raised minutes from Coney Island, Rodriguez “used to just be on the sidelines” watching the parade, he said. A mechanic with a penchant for fixing up old cars, Rodriguez realized he could do more than just watch.

“I said, ‘You know what, I want more attention,’ because I like to be the center of attention,” he said. 

tractor pirates
Ricco Rodriguez driving the Tractor Pirates float he built largely singlehandedly. Photo courtesy of Ricco Rodriguez

He fixed up an old trailer to use for the base of the float and got to work. The float itself is built with pressure-treated wood and heavy duty bolts, and Rodriguez takes the whole thing apart every year — then rebuilds in the lead-up to the parade. 

“Every year, I try to upgrade it,” he said. “I add to it, I built a second layer on it, I never like to do the same thing. I like to just change a few things up.” 

The Tractor Pirates used to be more of a family affair, but over the years, Rodriguez’s relatives started moving away — so now, it’s largely a one-man show.

“Believe it or not, I do it all on my own,” he said. “Everybody’s like, ‘How do you have time?’ I’m like, I make it. I’m very dedicated to the parade. It’s a lot for one person, but I do it all. It takes a lot to get me tired.” 

His float is now two levels, and strong enough to hold 18 people who ride along the route while he drives the tractor — including his sisters, Diana and Holly.

Some of those friends also help out with decorating the float – especially with the finer painted details. Rodriguez often makes stencils to help him paint things like mermaids or anchors, but gets some help with drawing out and airbrushing designs. 

mermaid parade float
Rodriguez’s float in 2022. File photo by Erica Price

On June 17, days before the parade, Rodriguez said his float for 2024 was “almost done.”

“Usually Saturday morning, I do my last-minute touches on it, the detail,” he said.

This year, his family is coming to stay for the weekend — they’ll sleep over the night before the parade and do their part to help finish up the float in the hours before the parade. 

The Tractor Pirates won first place for Motorized Float in 2022 and second place in the same category last year. 

“I don’t expect to win anymore, then people are going to really start to wonder, ‘Who does this guy know that’s higher up that he keeps winning?’” Rodriguez joked. 

New participants prep for their first Mermaid Parade

On June 14, just over a week before the 2024 Mermaid Parade, people packed into a Long Island City warehouse to help the team at Materials for the Arts prepare for their inaugural march in the parade.

Part of the city’s Department for Cultural Affairs, MFTA collects used or leftover materials from businesses and theaters and re-distributes them for free to artists, schools, and nonprofits — like Coney Island USA. 

volunteer working on mermaid parade jellyfish
Dozens of people gathered in Long Island City on June 14 to build jellyfish for Materials For The Arts’ first time participating in the parade. Photo by Qianshan Weng

Last year, DCA commissioner Laurie Cumbo was the Queen of the Mermaid Parade. 

“We could not have had a more regal queen,” Rinn said.

This year, with Cumbo’s encouragement, MFTA is marching in the parade with some handmade sea creatures — massive jellyfish made out of old, broken umbrellas and decked out with other recycled materials from the group’s collection.

The jellies were designed by artist Niceli Portugal.

niceli portugal jellyfish for mermaid parade
Artist Niceli Portugal poses with a finished jellyfish for the Mermaid Parade. Photo by Qianshan Weng
volunteers at mermaid parade prep event
The jellyfish, built on old umbrellas, will hang above the crowd at the parade. Photo by Kirstyn Brendlen

At the June 14 event, Portugal oversaw groups of volunteers as they dug through bins of materials and decorated the jellies. MFTA had pulled out bins of specially-curated materials — glittering fabrics in blues, greens and pinks, seashells, ribbons, and more — for the jellyfish and for marchers looking to create their own outfits for the parade. 

In Peru, Portugal’s native country, jellyfish are called “malagua,” or “bad water.” 

“We use this game of words to spark conversations on how could we help our friends that live in the ocean,” Portugal told Brooklyn Paper. “But also, what can we do to protect the water?”

finished jellyfish
A finished jellyfish, made with old PPE and microfiche strips. Photo by Kirstyn Brendlen

One jellyfish, already finished, hung above the crowd. The creature’s long central tentacles are made from old personal protective equipment, or PPE, from the worst of the COVID pandemic, Portugal said, along with long strips of microfiche from the New York Times.

“We’re going to have them on poles, and they’ll be sort of floating above the crowd as we walk,” said John Kaiser, director of education at MFTA. “Just to remind people it’s made of materials that sadly do pollute our oceans. Maybe by making something with it, we might be teaching ourselves and others how to be better stewards of the ocean.” 

MTFA employee decorating umbrella for Mermaid Parade
MTFA Volunteer Coordinator Denise Flynch decorated a pink umbrella to match her pink and green mermaid tail. Photo by Qianshan Weng

MFTA’s volunteer coordinator, Denise Flynch, was decorating her pink jellyfish with pink and green ribbons and long strips of donated lace. Flynch has been attending the Mermaid Parade for a long time, but has never participated before, and wanted her jellyfish umbrella to match the pink and green mermaid tail she’s planning to wear on Saturday.

“I’m actually nervous,” she said. “Because when I visit, it’s amazing what everyone’s making. So I am very nervous. But I am looking forward to seeing all the kids looking up and like, ‘Oh my god, she’s so pretty!’ and stuff like that. It’s gonna be great.” 

maria canela hands on mermaid parade dress
Maria Canela experimented with different additions to a dress for Laurie Cumbo. Photo by Qianshan Weng

Maria Canela, meanwhile, was busy creating Cumbo’s dress for the parade. Just over a week out, the design had already been changed more than once, and she was surrounded by sequined fabric, old CDs, seashells, and a mermaid doll for inspiration.

She wanted to have the base of the dress finished before early the next week, when she would meet with Cumbo one last time before the parade. 

‘The biggest day in Coney Island’

Rinn said Coney Island USA expects up to 3,000 marchers at this year’s Mermaid Parade on June 22. That includes “no less than 10 marching bands” and a number of floats — mechanized floats, like Rodriguez’s, or push-pull floats propelled by bikes or shopping cart-like structures. 

“How many of those, it’s hard to say,” Rinn said. “We literally might not know until line-up begins at the parade. People are registering in advance, they’re registering day-of … it literally is the biggest day in Coney Island.” 

tails of glory dance group mermaid parade
The dance group “Tails of Glory” danced down the boardwalk in 2022. File photo by Erica Price

With spectators expected to number in the tens of thousands, Rinn encouraged attendees to be respectful of the neighborhood and to support local businesses during the parade.

“The amusement district, it’s certainly a boost to them, and we love our neighbors in the amusement district,” Rinn said. “But we also love our neighbors in the business district. That, to me, is really one of the most important things. Get here early, be safe.” 

Correction 6/24/24, 5:55 p.m.: This story previously referred to Rodriguez’s sister as Diane, not Diana. We regret the error.