Some may argue grey clouds and gusts of wind would not be the ideal setting for a boat parade, but the overcast skies only seemed to brighten the glowing lights on the lagoons on Saturday, July 22, during Ocean City’s 63rd annual Night in Venice.
While this seaside town has numerous events on the beach and boardwalk, Night in Venice is an opportunity for the bayside to have its night in the spotlight. Thousands of spectators made their annual pilgrimage to Ocean City and gathered on street-ends and docks to watch more than 60 boats gliding through the waters and see some of the nearly 200 decorated homes that graced the island’s lagoons.
Night in Venice bills itself as one of the longest-running boat parades in the world. The first boat parade was in 1954 after a city official traveled to Italy, where he spent an evening along the canals of Venice. The experience was inspiring enough to bring a little of that ambiance across the pond and to the bayside.
There was no mistaking the “Rockin’ Through the Decades” theme. Boats of all sizes blared music as they navigated the twists and turns of the bay. Dancers decked out in ‘50s pink poodle skirts and varsity jackets boogied to “Greased Lightning” aboard the Miss Heather. A KISS-themed boat had teenagers showing their rebellious streaks with the group’s distinctive black and white comic makeup. Captain Collet’s “Prince: Party Like It’s 1999” was a musical tribute to the late musician Prince and the TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Boat #238 celebrated the 1920s and blasted “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” from the 2013 soundtrack of “The Great Gatsby.” Class of ‘57’s boat took a ’90s twist with its “Magnificent Boom Box Theme.” A Bruce Springsteen boat played some of “The Boss’s” No. 1 hits.
Ocean City Special Events Coordinator Michael Hartman said there was energy and enthusiasm among those on and off the water.
“I had an opportunity to go by houses on a boat,” Hartman said. “It was the most amped up audience and crowd I’ve seen in a while. There was a great positive energy from start to finish.”
Grand marshal Alfonso Ribeiro, a star of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” kicked off Night in Venice as the leader of the boat parade. Celebrity guests O-Town and Ryan Cabrera glided through the lagoons aboard the Miss Heiny. Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian and his wife Michele, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, City Council members and Martin Z. Mollusk also made appearances on the boats.
Some of the most poised ladies of Ocean City were also parade participants. The newly crowned Miss Night in Venice, Lindsey Moppert, and the other contestants, Elizabeth Andros, Gabriella DiMarco, Emery Hurst, Emily Keane, Sydnee Lisa, Casey McLees, Amara Mulloy, McKenna Sartori, Julia Plousis, Emily Torrence and Stellanie Yiannus, were in the spotlight as they cruised the waters of the bay. Miss and Little Miss Ocean City, McKayla Perry and Charlotte Erickson, respectively, waved from the deck of the Miss Leah. Even Miss New Jersey Kaitlyn Schoeffel, 24, made her debut appearance at Night in Venice.
“That was the first time I had really been in such a large public setting since I was crowned, and to feel the support of our community was amazing,” the Egg Harbor Township native said. “I think that this tradition is so beautiful, especially because it brings people together. It brings families together, and Ocean City is America’s greatest family resort.”
The O’Neill family, which has seen more than 30 years of Night in Venice, brought this familial element of Ocean City into their festivities and hosted four generations of family into their home.
Originally from Lafayette Hill, Pa., Ken and Trudie O’Neill and their three children, Kim, 37, Bill, 36, and Kate, 29, have lived on Midway Harbor since 1997 and have participated in Night in Venice festivities each year. They have spent more than a decade entering their house and boat in the contests and have the track record to prove it.
According to Kim O’Neill Banfield, her family has won an award almost every time they have entered the competition. Their boat and house have placed in several categories including best lighting and most original. Just last year, their home placed third for best decorated with their “Everything is Brighter in OC” theme.
Over the weekend, they celebrated Night in Venice with a tribute to Trudie’s 92-year-old father, Robert J. Foster, a year-round Ocean City resident.
“Since the general theme of Ocean City this year is ‘Rockin’ Through the Decades’, we’re ‘Rockin’ OC’ in the 1920s since my grandpop was born May 22, 1925,” Banfield said. “It’s a great way to get family and friends together for one night of year.”
Foster, when asked about his feelings on the tribute, smiled and said, “Well, what can I say? It’s very flattering, and flattery can get you very far in life.”
His grandson, Bill, added that Night in Venice is like “Halloween, Christmas, Fourth of July, New Year’s all rolled into one night.” He also said that throughout the years, people have gotten more involved in the event.
“Anybody, whether you have a boat, a house, a paddleboard or a kayak, or whatever it is, you can participate in it and come watch it,” Bill O’Neill said. “It brings everyone together. It doesn’t matter what your theme is. It’s like the biggest block party of the year.”
While the Coluzzis are not the most seasoned Night of Venice contestants, but since they purchased their home three years ago, the Marlton natives have placed in every Night in Venice for the best decorated house. This year, they went for the “three-peat” – winning first-place for three years in a row – and took home the gold for their “Grease” themed bayfront home.
Mike Coluzzi, 41, said that he thinks it was his home’s decoration and his guests’ enthusiasm that “really brought ‘Grease’ to life.” He attributes the win to his wife, Shannon, and her planning throughout the year.
“It’s really my wife’s side of the family that plans,” Coluzzi said. “Right around Christmas time, my wife and her siblings get together and think about themes. Once the theme is announced by Ocean City, they have another meeting. … Once all their ideas are brought together, it’s probably about a week of putting things together for Night in Venice. We started on Monday, and we were doing little things here and there, but Friday and Saturday is when we spent most of the time getting ready.”
Truly blending with the “Rockin’ Through the Decades” theme were the family senior portraits from different generations of family. Shannon and Mike Coluzzi were high school sweethearts. This detail was a testament to the familial emphasis the Coluzzis’ place on Night in Venice.
“I think just celebrating with family and friends is my favorite part,” Coluzzi said. “It’s really neat to see a lot of different generations having a good time. … Some people spend a lot of money on decorations, but really the fun part is getting people (together).”
Some participants “hop the fence” and bring their decorating expertise to the bay waters. Sharon Fainelli of Langhorne, Pa., entered her 24-foot pontoon in the Night in Venice parade and took home second-place for the best comical boat.
“Our theme was ‘Night in Venice is Fin-tastic.’ It was a spoof on sharks, you know, like ‘Sharknado’ and ‘Jaws,’” Fainelli, 61, said.
She said that last year’s Night in Venice inspired her to enter her own boat this year and that she felt like a celebrity as her boat glided through the lagoons.
“This was our first time being in the boat parade for Night in Venice. We’ve done the house decorating before, and we always have a house party for Night in Venice,” Fainelli said. “It was just a wonderful experience to be on the other side of the docks this time around and to see the time and decoration and the details that other people put into it.”