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Tales of An American Gondolier

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Behind the Scenes of the Naples Island Boat Parade

This was our 72nd year of the Naples Improvement association organizing an incredible boat parade here in our own Alamitos Bay and the Canals of Naples Islands.  I have personally participated in about 50 of them, 36 of them in a Gondola.  It was EPIC once again!  We certainly have had the random years of wind, fog and rain, but usually, its PERFECT!  My definition of perfect is basically this.  INKY, INKY, INKY…..  What I mean by this is that the water on the bay takes on an Inky look.  Not a breath of wind so that the water is a sheet of glass.  At night, that sheet of glass looks like a bowl of ink.  Thick and black!  This takes all the variables away that can mess with organizing more than 100 entrees that include, kayaks, gondolas, canoes, floats, outriggers, yachts and basically anything that floats.  Just 5 knots of wind can throw the whole thing askew.  I am not talking about just a regular boat doing a normal thing.  These are (sometimes barely) floating balls of light with generators, flags, giant blow up figures, speaker systems and Hot Toddy’s!  A little sprinkle, lights out.  A little wind, no steerage, a little fog, everything STOPS dead in the water.  These are weather patterns that are  usually synonymous with WINTER!

Now,  I have been operating the Gondolas for 36 years now.  December is our busiest single month of the year.  We are the official nightly “cruise of lights” in the Naples canals  touring a “Norman Rockwell Holiday Painting” type of scene.  Based on our 36-year history, we average a loss of only 3 days due to weather.  Just another testament to the life here in Southern California.  That being said, these weather disturbances are always looming as we get close to the parade date and time.  It is funny how the parade is planned with none of these weather conditions in mind.  You just can’t plan on it raining on the parade.  The show must go on!

The Planning for the parade starts with picking a date.  People always ask why the time frame is always different.  Does it coincide with the 2nd St. parade, the Seal Beach parade, the Huntington Harbor boat parade?  NOPE!  Mother Nature decides, it’s always based on the lowest tide in December during a Saturday at about 7PM.  Did you know that we even know the tide times 100 years in advance?  Of course, that doesn’t take into Global warming or freezing!

See, our small boat parade passes underneath 8 bridges.  That is probably a record in So Cal and even maybe anywhere in the world other than our Sister-city Venezia! Hmmm, based on historical data I wonder if low tide means inky perfect conditions.  I think I’ll do a little research on the bad weather during parades.  Maybe the tide just wasn’t low enough!  Ha ha


Next is the theme.  Easy Peasy, Not!  The NIA board is the decision maker, but being that we represent the community, we hear all the options and opinions.  One year I thought a good theme should have been “Too many cooks in the kitchen.”  The theme picking is high on the difficulty list.


The Invite list is pared down and invites are sent to the City and State dignitaries, Miss Long Beach, Miss California and the annual winner of the Contessa di Napoli, our own Island “Picking of the Queen.”  This is a treasured invitation because you lead the parade on one of the 12 Gondolas that are donated by the Gondola Getaway.  Special signs are created so as to have “your name in lights” as you pass by the 10’s of 1,000’s of adoring and cheering fans.  The VIP pre-party is also a highlight, where we have a grand buffet of antipasti and Pasta specialties that I prepare each year.  Along with the local Dago Red, we have special Egg Nog and Wassail to warm the crew for the winter floating Sleigh ride on a Gondola.  Of course, Non-adult beverages for the youngest of Queens.


Now comes the permit process.  Though we have done this parade 72 times, the process always seems to start from scratch.  The parade doesn’t change much, but Permit staff and policies seem to change almost daily.  I have a list of 100 things that need to be tackled including the permits.  Fire dept safety meeting, Police patrol/headquarters duties, barricade company logistics to block off the Island at one point.  The Port-a-Potty placement, doors not facing street.  The Company that we use claims to be #1 in the #2 business!  Security company meeting regarding keeping people out of traffic lanes on the bridges along with Boy Scout logistics of trash can placement and pickup. The insurance meeting is always interesting.  The Island almost sinks with the 10’s of 1000’s of spectators and party goers and the bay almost floods with the additional “displacement” of the 500+ boats on the bay.  Add 100’s of gallons of eggnog and Wassail and present that to your local insurance company. I usually have a little of both before the meeting and try to slip the agent one also.

Skippers Meeting

The Wednesday before the event is the famous Skippers meeting.  Though all info for the parade is online where registration and payment can be done weeks in advance.  Everybody shows up on Wednesday to ask the questions, register and pay in a hully bully atmosphere.  Imagine that.  We jokingly remind them of the age-old adage, “When all else fails, follow the directions” which goes in one ear and into the rum drink.  It’s all good stuff, the regulars calendar it as part of the parade experience.

The Santa Claus float

We have a rental garage that basically houses the equipment for our two big events on the Island.  The Pancake Breakfast in June and the Christmas Parade in December.  Christmas stuff includes the décor for the famous Santa Claus Float.  Sleigh, Dolphins (Aquatic Reindeer) and all the candy canes and décor items.  The “Float Crew” digs deep into the garage and trucks it all down to the docks for a day of decorating.  Next to the tool box is a bloody Mary bar.  The mood slowly becomes Holiday spirited and the float goes from K-Mart to Neiman Marcus in just a few hours.  It’s the Sunday breakdown and return to garage that loses a bit of juice!  God Bless the Santa Float folks, they put together the float that oozes our 72 years of tradition.

Parade day

Ok, all in place….. Insurance, Barricade’s in place, porta potty’s distributed, Police headquarters set and deployed, Lifeguards briefed, Last minute Registration handled, VIP food prepped and ready to present at the Gondolas, Dock party prepped with 400 meatballs, 12 Gondolas and 3 Duffy’s decorated and ready for the VIP’s.  Gondoliers dressed and ready for action as the bay begins to fill with small, big and anything that floats with lights dripping from the rigging.

The tide must be low enough!  INKY, INKY, INKY!  A deep breath can be taken.  With perfect weather,  it’s a follow the leader night from here on out!

The Party is in full tilt mode on the Gondola Dock as we load onto the lead boat, Lucky Charm!  We race (at 5 knots) over to the start by the Appian Way bridge to lock in behind the lead Lifeguard boat for the 6:30 start.  The basin is filled with lights, lights and a few more lights.

Historically speaking, two of the old-time favorites of Christmas parades past, were the fire breathing dragon of the Neptune divers and the Wilson drum corp.  The band has been out of the parade for over 20 years and the dragon at least 8 years of no show.  Well, at last the drums are back!  A Wilson drum corp. alumni group rallied and put 17 drummers on a barge reigniting the “sounds” of the locally world-famous Naples Islands Christmas boat parade!

They locked in right behind me for the entire parade, making it one of the greatest parades for me in a long while. At low tide, the echo of the drums is surreal, and loud!!  The spectators are literally dancing on the sea walls.  It may not need to be amplified but it is still electric!

I changed up the format just a bit this year.  The VIP Gondolas always have had trouble over the last 36 years keeping up with the parade over the almost 5-mile route.  Gondolas have always meant to be in the canals, so this year that is where I had them start.  They gathered at the colonnade about 30 minutes before the small boat parade arrived. While there they enjoyed music from the “actual” Wilson drum corp. and a small “winds” orchestra from Wilson high.  A few singing Gondoliers added to the “concert” to make it a new musical tradition for the parade.  As we approached the colonnade with the small boat parade, I sent the lifeguard boat ahead to allow the Gondolas to slide in behind him, enabling me to fall in behind the Gondolas.  It was awesome because we were able to condense the boats together to create a seamless line of boats through the entire canal.  Many might not realize that the length of the parade is usually exactly the length of the entire Rivo Alto and Naples Canal.  So as the lead boat leaves the canal at the Colonnade after a full lap, Santa enters the canal to do their lap.  Between about 7 and 8 O’clock, the parade is viewable from every inch of the Naples Canal!

So as the parade leaves the Colonnade, it pretty much disperses in many directions, though it is supposed to travel all the way back to LBYC.

I head back to the Gondola Dock and make sure all the Gondolas are still in one piece, ha ha and drop off the signage from my boat.  We then secure all the VIP signs in the Leeway building and then……. The Gondolas get back to business!  We tell the customers that they luckily chose this night for a Gondola cruise cause they picked one of the greatest nights to cruise the canals.  This is by far the liveliest night in the Canals.  Every house is having a party and if So Cal has a winter wonderland of Christmas festivities, it is right here on the Rivo Alto post parade nights.

One last thing to do is to get over to the Naples Canal entrance to re-open for business and public.  It was a classic scene of Duffy’s and other boats piled up against the closure buoys wondering what to do.  Pulling the buoys aside was like a plunger clearing a drain.  The canal instantly drained itself of confused neophyte boaters.

I finished off with the traditional canal party hop, parked the boat and then egg nog hopped by foot on terra ferma.

The Day after


Why is it always foggy the day after the parade?  Well, not really, it just seems that way. Chuckle, Chuckle…. Santa float is in full dismantle mode by 8, trucks loaded and headed for storage. The other side of the bay has trucks getting loaded with all the signs and parade gear and headed for the storage also.  All parade gear including the Santa Float Dolphins are tucked away for their year of hibernation until Parade day, Dec. 14, 2019.  Thanks to all who helped produce this classic Christmas event!  A special thanks to John Schumann who (over his years of tenure of this event) has put together the 100 pt. list of things to do for a successful parade.

Until then…….. Merry Christmas!

Michael O’Toole

The American Gondolier

Michael OToole – Founder

Michael OToole – Founder

Tales of an American Gondolier

My name is Michael O’Toole, founder of The 37 year-old business “The Gondola Getaway.”  It started as College project at U.S.C. and has turned into lifelong business and passion.  The business has taken me to Venezia, Italia over 45 times now.  I have had the opportunity to live, eat, drink and row in the Laguna di Venezia being guided by the most local of Venetians.  I have rowed and sailed over 1,000 miles through the lagoon on almost every type of Venetian boat, stayed or visited almost every Island in the lagoon, eaten and learned to cook every classic dish and made the closest of friends. I have been able to bring so much of my experiences back here to Naples Islands, Long Beach and be shared with all the Gondola Getaway customers and locals of Naples Islands and Alamitos bay.

This blog will share tales from my experiences from the Venetian lagoon and how they have shaped my life.  You will find recipes, traveling tips, techniques, comparisons, funny stories, sad stories.  All the stories will be a reflection of my life that has, is and will be a blend of Venezia and home here in Long Beach and Southern California.  This will be my own unique blend of cultures that I hope you will enjoy!  I sure have!!

Michelangelo Otolini

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