Best Free Annual Parades for NYC Kids: Dragons, Mermaids, Bonnets and More
Aside from my curmudgeonly husband, I have never met anyone who doesn't love a parade. And in NYC, we have plenty of processions choose from. During the warmer months, there are parades practically every week celebrating a wide variety of cultures and causes, and all of them are FREE.
While it's always cool to watch the colorful costumes, floats and performers pass by, there are certain annual parades that are particularly great for families. These processions are either exceptionally vibrant like Chinatown's Lunar New Year Parade or the Three Kings Day Parade, or invite costumed kids to get in on the action (no pre-registration required) like the Earth Celebrations: Hudson River Pageant and a variety of small Halloween Parades that are much less intense than the big one in Greenwich Village.
Of the parades we're highlighting, I've been to five of them personally with my daughter (some we attend every year). The others all come highly recommended by families I know and are on my bucket list. This year, I'm putting all of them in my calendar in the hope that we can do them all!
Three Kings Day Parade – East Harlem
Around January 6. Visit the El Museo del Barrio website for up-to-date info on date, time and route.
Also know as Epiphany, Three Kings Day is the last official day of the Christmas season, or the "12th day of Christmas" as the song goes, and is primarily celebrated by Hispanic cultures. NYC hosts multiple Three Kings Day parades, including small ones in Brooklyn and Inwood, but the big bash is El Museo del Barrio's annual procession in East Harlem. Even when January 6 falls on a weekend, this parade takes place on a weekday since lots of local public school kids are involved. The highlights are the live camels and the massive Three Kings Day puppets, which lead the procession and stay on display in the museum after the event. My daughter and I have been many times and it's fun but modest. Find a spot at the start on 106th Street and Park Avenue (it's never crowded), watch for 15 minutes or so and then continue celebrating with a great Mexican meal at the nearby El Paso Restaurante.
Chinatown Lunar New York Parade and Festival – Chinatown
January or February, depending on when Lunar New Year falls. Visit the Better Chinatown Society website for up-to-date info on date, time and route. The 2013 parade is Sunday, February 17 at 1pm.
NYC also has three Lunar New Year Parades. But the processions in Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn pale in comparison to Chinatown's. Every year, more than half a million spectators line the streets for the colorful pan-Asian parade, which includes Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Malaysian and even Hispanic floats and cultural performances, plus traditional Lion and Dragon dances. It's a very festive, very crowded and very loud affair, with firecrackers popping and confetti flying everywhere you look, so it's probably a bit much for younger children. Afterward, you can hit the cultural festival in Sara D. Roosevelt Park at Canal and Forsyth Streets or grab some dim sum at a family-friendly Chinatown restaurant. Just be prepared to wait.
Easter Parade – Midtown East
Easter Sunday. The 2013 parade is Sunday, March 31 10am-3pm.
Fifth Avenue between Rockefeller Center and 57th Street
Calling this annual gathering a parade is quite misleading. Really it's more of a promenade as Fifth Avenue between Rockefeller Center and 57th Street is closed to traffic and opened to incredible headgear. There are no floats or procession. Folks just meander about posing for pictures. While many opt for traditional flower filled bonnets and their Sunday best, you'll see some really outrageous outfits and hats here. Since pictures speak louder than words, check out our Easter Parade 2012 slide show. My daughter and I go every year and we're already getting our costumes together for this year.
Earth Celebrations: Hudson River Pageant – Battery Park City to the West Village
Sadly, this parade isn't happening in 2013. Saturday in May. Visit the Earth Celebrations website for up-to-date info on date, time and route.
I've never been able to make this annual parade, which is described by its organizers as "ecological performance art to restore the Hudson River and address climate change." From what I've heard and the photos I've seen, it's like a mini-Mermaid Parade, as artsy folks in colorful costumes and giant, elaborate puppets march along the waterfront from Battery Park City to Gansevoort Street. There are performances along the way, a live fish release and a big finale featuring kayaks and rowboats "dancing" in the water. No pre-registration is required. Just put on your best environmentally-friendly outfit and join the parade!
New York Dance Parade – Chelsea to the East Village
Saturday in May. Visit the official website for up-to-date info on date, time and route. The 2013 parade is set for Saturday, May 18 at 1pm.
For some awful reason, NYC's annual Dance Parade often directly conflicts with the Hudson River Pageant. It's a shame to have to choose! This procession kicks off around Madison Square Park and ends in Tompkins Square Park. Along the way, 10,000 movers and shakers shimmy down Broadway in elaborate costumes doing more than 75 dances, including salsa, tango, waltz, African, Asian, the hula, break dancing and more. If you want to participate, you must register in advance and join a group. Otherwise, go and cheer them on and hit the after-party in Tompkins Square Park for dance workshops and performances.
Mermaid Parade – Coney Island
Fourth Saturday in June. Visit the official website for up-to-date info on date, time and route. The 2013 parade is set for Saturday, June 22 at 1pm.
I don't even want to attempt to describe the Mermaid Parade. You're better off just looking at it. And if you think those pictures are awesome, wait until you see all the sea-themed sights in person, as thousands of mermaids, mermen, pirates, fish, showgirls, vintage cars, funky floats and a fair amount of topless ladies descend on Coney Island to celebrate summer solstice. While it's always a memorable time, I suspect this year's edition will be more raucous than ever as revelers honor Coney Island surviving Hurricane Sandy. I've been going to the Mermaid Parade for years, long before my daughter was born and I have a few tips. Make sure you opt for comfort over glamor (your feet will thank me) and pack plenty of water and food as Nathan's and the boardwalk are mobbed throughout the day. If it's sunny, bring a parasol and be prepared for lots of crowds, especially if you want to hit the beach or the rides afterward. Think it might be fun to march? Honestly, it's not. You do a lot of waiting under the hot sun and you miss a lot of the costumes. Better to dress up and watch from the sidelines. That's what we do.
West Indian American Day Carnival and Children’s Parade – Crown Heights
Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Visit the WIADCA website for up-to-date info on date, time and route.
While the big parade on Monday may be too much for children, the mini-procession on Saturday was created specifically with kids in mind. Children of Caribbean descent don elaborate garb as they travel through the neighborhood and onto the grounds of the Brooklyn Museum for a costume contest. There's usually a small viewing fee for the competition.
Ragamuffin Parade – Bay Ridge
Last Saturday in September or the first Saturday in October. Visit the Ragamuffin Inc. Facebook page for up-to-date info on date, time and route.
Why wait until Halloween to wear your costume? Since 1967, Brooklyn families have been putting on their outfits a month ahead of time to march in the annual children's Ragamuffin Parade, which marches down Third Avenue between 76th to 92nd Streets in Bay Ridge. There are also bands, cheerleaders and makeshift floats. Usually schools sign up their students to participate however individual families can find parade consent forms on the Community Education Council District 20 website.
Halloween Parades for Kids – Citywide
Forget the always insane Village Halloween Parade until the kids are teens. Instead, hit one of NYC's many family-friendly neighborhood parades that include stops for trick-or-treating at local businesses and homes. While it's hard to pick favorites since each one has its own flavor and charm, the biggies are the Jackson Heights Halloween Parade in Queens, which claims to be the second-largest Halloween parade in NYC (after the one in the Village); the Park Slope Civic Council Children’s Halloween Parade, which culminates in a party at the Old Stone House; the Cobble Hill Halloween Parade, which is usually led by the Jah Pan Steel Drum Band; and Williamsburg's Witches Walk, which is organized by local children's resale shop The Flying Squirrel.
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade – Upper West Side to Midtown West
Thanksgiving. Visit the Macy's website for up-to-date info on date, time and route.
I doubt I need to sell you on the kid-friendliness of this decades-old annual favorite. Really the only thing that isn't family-friendly about this procession of pop-culture infused floats and giant balloons is the fact that you need to arrive around 6am to claim your spot! Unfortunately there is no secret trick to snagging a good viewing location. Arrive early, or watch from way in the back. You'll still see something! Or find a friend (or friend of a friend) who lives on the route. I snapped those photos above from my pal's apartment on Central Park South. She throws a big party every year so all her friends (and their friends!) can get a great view. Ask around! You never know...
Santa Parade – Greenpoint
December. Visit the Town Square Inc website for up-to-date info on date, time and route.
Nonprofit community organization Town Square Inc organizes this annual Christmas-themed parade. It's a family-friendly alternative to SantaCon, which started out cute but has turned into a messy bar crawl for drunken singletons. Put on your holiday outfits, Santa hats, elf ears and reindeer antlers and join local families as they march through the streets in honor of the season.
East Meets West Christmas Parade – Chinatown
Adjacent communities Chinatown and Little Italy come together to celebrate the holiday season. Watch marching bands, Chinese Lion and Dragon Dance troupes, and other entertainers parade down the street. It's a fairly modest affair but definitely one-of-a-kind. The big trick is figuring out when and where it's happening as there is no official website. We always keep an ear out and when the info comes in we post it here.
Did we miss your family's favorite parade? Tell us about it in the comments.