Published November 24. 2012 8:00PM Updated November 24. 2012 11:42PM
Hundreds of onlookers braving near-freezing temperatures watched Saturday night as about two dozen light-festooned vessels ranging from a kayak to a tugboat made a loop near Mystic River Park during the 10th annual Holiday Lighted Boat Parade.
"It was pretty cool," said Don Vendrillo of Colchester, who came with his wife Jen and son Chase to watch the boat parade for the first time.
Asked what he liked the best, 5-year-old Chase replied, "The pretty boats."
His dad, wearing a tight-fitting green hat with a pig snout that covered his ears as he clutched a hot cocoa in one hand, may have been one of the warmest attendees.
"It's very cold," said Trish Ratnecht of Oakdale, who also attended the boat parade for the first time.
For many, such as Kim Peabody of Fishers Island, the holiday boat parade, mixed with some downtown shopping, has become a family tradition.
And while several downtown businesses, such as Mystical Toys, closed as the boat parade got under way at 6 p.m., others, such as Mallove Jewelers and John's Café on Cottrell Street, hosted good-size crowds before and after the event.
Earlier in the afternoon, Mystic River Park hosted an appearance by Santa Claus as well as a slice of holiday magic with the appearance of dancers from Mystic Ballet's "Nutcracker." In the evening, just before the boats arrived, Santa returned for the lighting of the downtown Mystic holiday tree, followed by a big cheer and a chorus of "Jingle Bells."
A short distance away, 5-year-old Rae Anne Haberek, a distant relation to Stonington First Selectman Ed Haberek, couldn't contain her joy as she brandished a lighted sword bought from a nearby concessionaire.
"We saw Santa Claus!" she squealed to her grandmother, Kimberley Buck, finance manager for the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, who was manning a van to collect toys donated for needy families.
Boat parade entrants were expected to donate an item, Buck said, and several onlookers came by with gifts as well.
"It's very festive," she said.
This year, boats were forced to make a loop from Seaport Marine to the Mystic River Bridge and were unable to proceed up the river because the drawbridge is closed for repairs. The new route made viewing a bit difficult for shorter people not able to claw their way to the front of the crowd, but kids generally found perches atop the shoulders of moms and dads.
"I'm glad I came down," said Kathy McCabe of Old Mystic, who had the night off and attended the parade for the first time. "I always wanted to see the boats lit up. This is a great idea."