Madison’s Lights on the Lake Festival Review: A Venetian Night Boat Parade

Where land meets water and boats meet light, there you will find the boat parade of night.

If you’ve been reading BT for a while, you already know that I visit Madison pretty regularly, so imagine my surprise when I learned that a boat parade had been happening once a year, right under my nose, along the shore of Lake Mendota since 2009! Seriously, parade people, have you heard of advertising?

Usually I find out about such events from friends or Google searches, but I’ve gotta give credit for this one. After joining the Madison Energize Activities group a few months ago and checking out their calendar, I saw that someone was hosting a “Lights on the Lake boat parade” party, and a little bell rang in my head. Yes! How could I forget? I’ll have to make that a priority, I thought.

So I did.

Bringing an Intention into Reality

Last week, that intention became a reality when I arrived at a charming house on the edge of the lake, the home of a generous and kind gentleman named Pete who was hosting the meetup event at his home. I’d met him the night before, actually (at a thoroughly enjoyable Blue Moon party). More people had come for this event though, and soon dozens of fold out chairs crowded the edge of the lake.

I passed the time by chatting with people who I felt intuitively nudged to talk to. Most in attendance were part of the Energize group, too; and I soon realized that I was the youngest person there (further adding to my suspicion that bad Coke Cola reduced fertility in the 1980s, although that’s another article altogether). But don’t get me wrong. I don’t allow age, or the perception of age, to become a barrier between positive connections. Indeed, I had a lovely talk with a fellow writer that night.

A Photography Challenge

Once the sun had finally set (and I had eaten more hummus than I’d like to admit), we finally saw the Dane County Sheriff patrol boat, the first in a line of illuminated parade boats. However, because of the distance and the darkness, it was exceedingly difficult to get a decent photograph. The boats are supposed to follow the edge of Lake Mendota, but they don’t get that close to the shore at all. Even someone who had a better camera than me said he was only able to get colorful smears. (In fact, I took over one hundred photos that night, and I’m only sharing nine of them here. That’s how tricky it was.)

However, I am pleased at what I did capture. And I’ve got to give credit to Pete for lending me a small tripod which allowed me to take better photos. As any photographer knows, a long exposure time is an absolute must when it’s dark. (If you don’t hold the camera still for the length of the exposure, you get a lovely smear of light. Not exactly conducive to clear photography.) Having said that, I’m quite pleased at how the rainbow sailboat came out (4th photo below). Even though its motion produced a slight smearing of rainbow light, in this case it looks good!

Afterward, they even had a short fireworks show over the lake. Some of them looked like 12” shells, easily making them large enough to enjoy as they exploded in rich reds and oranges over the lake. A pretty lovely end to a pretty lovely night, I’d say.

Some Thoughts on Improvement

The boat parade isn’t without its shortcomings. Two practical suggestions that would really improve it:

  • Make it longer. There were only about 7-9 boats. Pretty short.
  • Come closer to the edge of the lake! What good is a parade if the attractions are tiny in the distance?

How to Attend the Venetian Night Boat Parade

That being said, it really is a one-of-a-kind Madison event. Also known as Venetian Night, nothing else is like it; and I really enjoyed it. The next “Lights on the Lake boat parade” is Sunday, September 1st, 2013 at 7:45 PM. And all you have to do is bring a chair and pick a spot somewhere along the shore of Lake Mendota. Try finding a spot behind UW Memorial Union on 800 Langdon st. (a public meeting spot by the lake which would provide a good view). And if you’re arriving by car, never fear: there’s a parking lot right off of Langdon street.

Bring your camera, bring snacks, bring foldable chairs, and consider bringing mosquito repellant. But most importantly, bring someone you care about.

Such a fun event is meant to be shared. 🙂


Man on pier beside Sailboat

Sunset behind Lake Mendota

Magenta Rock n Roll boat

Sailboat Rainbow Light Streaks

Orange Sherbet firework over Lake Mendota

— Bonus —

After you graciously hit the “Like” or “Tweet” button below this post (a courtesy for which I am very grateful), you may want to checkout the Lights on the Lake parade webpage for times and info over at the Drake & Company website. They even have some excellent videos of past parades.

All accompanying photos are in the Lights on the Lake Boat Parade photo gallery. With so much free, high-quality content, why not tell a friend and share this article?

4 bits on Madison’s Lights on the Lake Festival Review: A Venetian Night Boat Parade

  1. Really fantastic picture-post of yours about Madison’s lights on the lake festival. I like your article very much because of its beauty. Thanks for your photographs!

  2. Francis & Shalu, you’re very welcome. 🙂
    Thanks so much for spreading the word!

  3. Thanks for your comments and suggestions Andrew. I would love to talk to you personally so please feel free to call me, Kelly Starr-King, at 608-698-8000. We’re always looking for feedback to help us grow this event to its fullest potential!

    Take care Andrew ~ Kelly