OCEAN CITY - Dozens of extravagantly decorated boats navigated the bay waters off of Ocean City on Saturday, with their costumed crews dancing to blaring music as hundreds of people waved from themed house parties on the waterfront.
Since 1954, this sight has been known as "Night in Venice."
For many, like sisters Marilyn Lusch and Charlene Monastra, the parade and festivities involved represent a cherished family tradition. For others, it is another - albeit elaborate - excuse to party.
"Our parents started doing this for us. Then we did it for our own children, now our children are bringing their own little children. We're on our fourth generation," said Lusch, 59, of Ocean City, whose family owns the oldest house on Lagoon Road where 55 people were expected to attend a party on Saturday night.
"We used to go out on a boat, but now there's too many of us for that," Lusch said. "We would have to have a lottery to see who got to do it, and that's no fun."
The sisters, along with a dozen friends and family members, were already enjoying the festivities by 4 p.m.
Their party used to include humorous themes.
"Since we don't live here year-round, we have to take our trash home with us because Ocean City doesn't pick it up. So one year we protested and all dressed up in trash bags," said Bonnie Vawter, 62, of Downington, Pa. "Another year the theme was Nighty Night in Venice and all the guys dressed up in nighties with strategically placed balloons."
But these days the party is more conservative, as long as the weather cooperates.
"One year it was so hot we finished out keg before the parade even started," said Monastra, 54, of Westchester, Pa. "But this year is cooler, so we haven't had to tap it yet."
One aspect of the weather has been constant.
"It has never rained during the parade, and it never will," said Bob Vawter, 64.
With the weather at 5 p.m. being 86-degrees and sunny, this year's event was no different.
"Even if it was rainy or really foggy during the day, the tide has always changed so it was clear for the parade," Bonnie Vawter said.
Regardless of the scale of their party, the family and their friends vow they'll be mainstays for generations to come.
"The only way out of it is to be pushing daisies," joked Al Martin, 63, of Harleysville, Pa.
Mark Soifer, of the Night in Venice Committee, said the boat turnout for this year's parade was better than expected.
"We have at least 58 boats going and 185 homes decorated," said Soifer, adding the totals were down from last year's 80 boats and 200 homes. "Our guess is people are conserving money due to the economy. But overall it is better than we expected."
Soifer said many of the homes still went all out with decorations this year, especially Bill and Donna Dorney. This year the Dorneys decorated their home on the 17th Street lagoon with a space theme, complete with a 30-foot-high replica of a space capsule and people dressed as astronauts.
"They're always a perennial favorite," said Soifer, adding past themes the couple have done include elaborate gorilla and trolley displays.
The Miss Night In Venice Pageant raised $66,000 that will be distributed to The Sun Shine Foundation for Children, The Hero Foundation, the Ocean City High School After Prom Committee and Nurses Scholarships, Soifer said.
"The number of boats are down, be we still expect to have a great parade and a lot of fun," Soifer said at a sold out Bayside Center event that featured live music, face painting and Philadelphia Flyer Ian Laperierre - this year's grand marshal - signing autographs.
But for those who did participate, the event brought the same level of enjoyment.
Kim O'Neill and Summer Sarajian greeted friends and family members as they boarded the two-level party boat the North Star prior to the Night in Venice parade.
Some were wearing large wigs and tie-dyed shirts, while others were wearing peace-sign covered glasses and bellbottoms in honor of the group's theme - "Groovin' to the 70's."
"We tried to pick something that everyone could have fun with and, believe me, they are," said Sarajian, 32, of Philadelphia.
The friends used to buy tickets to get on boats like the North Star for the parade.
"Then a few years ago we decided to throw our own party and rent out the boat for ourselves," said O'Neill, 31, of Philadelphia, who has booked the North Star for the past four years for 115 of her closest friends. "This year we have people here from all over New Jersey, and as far away as Maryland and Georgia."
The North Star's captain Tim Barrus said his boat has been booked by March every year.
"It's a nice friendly atmosphere when people book out the whole boat, because everyone is familiar with everyone else on board," said Barrus.
And O'Neill said having a boat party, as opposed to a house party on the water, has an added benefit.
"You get have a good time drinking out on the water and see the decorations on all the houses, which you can't really see on land," she said.
But this year's parade also included a host of newbies.
Gene and Jennifer Dina usually rent out their vacation home in Ocean City for Night in Venice weekend.
But this year Gene wanted his family to enjoy the weekend themselves for once. So the couple teamed up with friends with a boat and picked a theme to go with the parade's "Broadway by the Bay."
"We just went to see ‘Wicked' on Broadway last month, so that was easy," said Jennifer Dina, 40, of Berlin, Camden County.
The two families, nine passengers in all, loaded a 23-foot Hydra Sport with witch hats, brooms and other "wicked" decorations onto their boat at the Ocean City Public Marina.
"This is the first time for all of us. So as long as we have a good time together, we're already winners," said boat owner Stefanie Richards, 47, of Berlin, Camden County. "But if we win anything, it would be icing on the cake."
Gene Dina said his goal for the night was simple: "To have a real fun time."
The boat he was boarding as he said that, coincidentally, was named "Reel Fun."
Contact Robert Spahr: