The first year that Fort Lauderdale and the term “boat show” were linked was, as one can imagine, not about today’s dazzling extravaganza.
In 1954, “The Boat and Sports Show,” sponsored by the Downtown Kiwanis Club, was a benefit “for underprivileged children.” The vessels were cabin cruisers and sports fishing craft provided by local dealers. No yachts, and certainly no megayachts. They wouldn’t have fit anyway – this show was indoors, at the National Guard Armory. The following year it moved to the War Memorial Auditorium. Yet there was excitement on the floor displaying boats, nautical equipment, fishing tackle, even motorcycles. Who would reign among the six finalists for the “Miss Dream Boat” title?
This year’s version of the boat show traces its origins to a 1959 event and a major logical move forward – outdoors, on the water. One newspaper heralded it as “the opportunity for the pleasure boating business to display its wares in a two-day show at Pier 66.”
A dozen local boat dealers provided vessels, and the affair drew 3,000 visitors. It was free, staffed by volunteers and called The Pier 66-Marine Industries Boat Show. A 32-foot Hatteras was the star attraction.
By 1968, the largest boat on display was 53 feet stem to stern. That was on the way but a far cry from the 400-foot megayachts and even personal submarines of today. Boats added just 21 feet in nine years.
In the boat shows from 1959 to 1963, events took place in the daytime. In 1964, the boat show committee decided to spend $5,000 for lighting at Pier 66. Another step toward the modern era began with day and nighttime hours.
Growth sometimes comes with hiccups. In events like this, annual attendance figures are important for promoting next year’s show. But in 1966, the attendance figure of 35,000 was just a guess.
“There was a mixup in our traffic counter,” boat show committeeman Joe Schabo told the Fort Lauderdale News then. “Mixup” is an understatement.
“We got a 13,000 figure the first day,” he said. “Then a gardener’s motor cut the wire on one of the machines on Saturday. And all we got was the outgoing flow. And the final day someone pulled the plugs on both and we didn’t get anything.”
They were able, however, to get this sales count: 2,304 bottles of pop, 1,336 cans of beer and 2,760 hot dogs. That was apparently good enough to hazard an estimate.
By 1970, it had to happen. This is America after all. Admission was charged for the first time, for the boat show held at Port Everglades. Was that a jinx? According to a Miami Herald report, “An unpleasant incident at the show occurred Saturday when a docked freighter called The Gopher State blew its stacks and spread black soot over many of the 500 boats on display.” County pollution control officials were called in, and the boat left port before the captain could be strung up by sales reps.
As for those prices, they were $1 for adults and 50 cents for kids. Try getting a family in today, including parking, for under a hundred bucks. And that’s before buying food and drinks. (Especially now that the days of beer and hot dogs are long gone and epicurean and bistro dining have arrived. Had anyone even heard of sushi back then?)
Besides those rock-bottom prices, those early events had a certain provincial charm, like that Miss Dream Boat contest. Or, as a 1972 boating column reported, “For fishing fans the show will stage a wild ‘Purple Guppy Fishing Tournament.’ There are no rules, no boundaries … and separate divisions for men, women, seniors and juniors (12 and under).”
In the ensuing years, the venues shuffled around, from the Municipal Arena to Bahia Mar, back to Pier 66 and finally at Bahia Mar. There was even a stint, oddly enough, at the Dania Jai Alai fronton (inside, of course).
This far removed from those days of a dozen Kiwanis volunteers, the modern shows employ tens of thousands of people. An official of Yachting Promotions Inc. said a few years back, “It’s like putting together Disney World once a year.” Any way you look at it, our boating dreams and love affair with the water seem here to stay.