Spectacular designs, audience participation and surprise twists keep the Holiday Boat Parade fresh every time

By Joe Piasecki

Boat Parade announcers Mickey Laszlo and Lisa Osborn have a ball in Burton Chace Park every year
Photos by Ken Pfeiffer

Some seasoned veterans and nervous newbies prefer to avoid the throngs of Marina del Rey Holiday Boat Parade watchers who gather at Burton Chace Park in what has to be the thousands. While that makes for a more intimate parade experience, they end up missing out on a front-row seat to what energizes the parade’s festive atmosphere most: its announcers.

For going on 15 years, radio and voiceover talents Lisa Osborn and Mickey Laszlo have given the parade genuine humor and heart from their folding table on the shoreline of the park.

There are the funny moments, like when they might have spotted a public radio celebrity on deck (“Is that Larry Mantle? Larry, wave to us! … Well, he didn’t wave.”), or the time a talented lady elf pole-danced high above one entry’s deck (“Kids, cover your eyes!”).

But audience engagement is where Osborn and Laszlo truly shine. Each year they welcome kids to the microphone to sing upbeat Christmas carols with them and the crowd to sing along. As simple as it sounds, the result is authentic holiday magic.

The idea “was just kind of impromptu,” explains Osborn, a parade volunteer originally assigned to announcer duties in 2003 by the late L.A. County Department of Beaches & Harbors Boating Section Chief Debbie Talbot. “We needed something between the lulls, when maybe one boat has fallen behind another and is catching up. Every year we always say we’ll bring song lyrics. Most of the time we forget. You think you really know a song until you’re on the mic and you need to sing it!”

Osborn recruited Laszlo, a radio colleague and voiceover artist, to join her on the mic in 2004.

“There are always kids who want to sing and be heard — some who are very talented and some who’re just very cute — and our mic and arms are always open to those who want to spread joy in the park,” says Laszlo. “It makes things lively, and the parade is all about bringing the community together.”

Often they see some of the same kids coming back year after year, having practiced their song for weeks.

“Originally the kids were kind of shy, with their parents bringing them up,” says Osborn, currently news and public affairs director at Santa Barbara’s KCSB 91.9-FM. “The last couple of years they just get up there and perform. I think personalities have changed over the years because of YouTube and social media. They’re belting it out like ‘American Idol,’ which has probably also
influenced the kids.”

This year’s parade gives kids an even greater role than ever before. In keeping with the 2019 theme “Kids Make the Holidays Bright,” the 57th annual parade’s official grand marshal is “kids.” Though it’s not clear which lucky boys and girls will be riding in the parade, many entries are pulling out all the stops to dazzle audiences with interpretations of the theme.

One of the most ambitious and exciting entries gearing up for Saturday night comes from the Pacific Mariners Yacht Club. An all-volunteer crew is working to transform club member Tom Norris’ 42-foot Jeanneau sailboat into the engine of the Polar Express, towing no less than five dinghies outfitted as its train cars — a spectacle spanning as much as 100 feet!

Each lit-up train car is decorated in homage to a beloved holiday classic such as Frosty the Snowman, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and a ballerina dancing “The Nutcracker,” says creative director Elle Aland.

Last year Aland and her crew won the Best Yacht Club entry with an interpretation of the 2018 “Holiday Water Wonderland” theme. PMYC’s “A Great White Christmas” featured Santa and sharks to a mashup of Bing Crosby’s holiday classic and the theme from “Jaws.” Remarkably, they pulled it off in only eight days.

“The Polar Express,” inspired by the children’s book and the Tom Hanks movie version, is weeks in the making. Plans call for six generators to power a soundtrack mixed by London deejay and producer Mark Brown (listen for a sample of “Old Town Road” — “Kids love that song,” says Aland) and a blend of new LED and vintage lighting.

“We’re using everything in our storage closet, so now we know what’s in there,” quips Aland, development and partnerships director for the Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend-founded charity Teen Cancer America. “Ten different members have all pitched in and put their hearts into this. It’s really fun.”

As many as 60 boats large and small join the parade each year, ensuring plenty of variety.

“The beauty of changing up the theme each year is that even if the same boats enter again, there’s always something new. They put in so much effort to stay in theme, and that’s what makes it fascinating to watch every year,”
says Laszlo.

“I like the animations and the light displays that are really over the top,” says Osborn of her favorites. “And I love the way boaters work sea life into the theme, like Santa’s sleigh being pulled by dolphins or something like that. And the Grinch! The Grinch is usually there every year.”

Laszlo’s favorite entries involve choreographed routines by costumed crew members.

“I always love the big groups of people dancing, doing live music and singing — everybody on the boat having a good time,” she says. “Last year we had elves dancing in Speedos. That’s the one that made me laugh the most.”

The 57th annual Marina del Rey Holiday Boat Parade happens Saturday, Dec. 14, starting with fireworks over the water at 5:55 p.m. sharp. Contact parade organizers via mdrboatparade.org.