DESTIN — Booths selling everything from fruity coconut drinks and hand-blown glass ornaments to pearl leather jewelry and wine slushies line the walkways at Destin Harbor on Thursday night.
Families line up shoulder to shoulder to take sunset cruises on the Southern Star party cruise and Buccaneer Pirate Cruise. Other kids tug at their parents’ shirts, begging them to shell out $20 for a chance to soar across HarborWalk Village on a zip line.
It’s a Thursday night in July on the Destin Harbor, by most accounts one of the busiest times of the year. The draws of the harbor and HarborWalk Village bring in people by the thousands, especially for the weekly fireworks show.
At a time when tourism on the Emerald Coast, and especially in Destin, is at a record high, places like the Destin Harbor can seem especially crowded.
To park or not to park
Anthony Hernandez had to park on the side of Sibert Avenue with his family and take the crosswalk at busy U.S. Highway 98. The Texas family was staying at a condominium in Destin, but decided to venture out to the harbor for the weekly fireworks display.
“We thought it would just be something nice for the kids,” Hernandez said. “But the parking is insane. We almost just turned around and went back to the condo, but we were lucky to find a spot here.”
Parking is one of the biggest nuisances to any tourist wishing to visit the waterside hot spot. Although most businesses have parking lots and HarborWalk Village offers four floors of garage parking, the spots are few and far between compared to the many people wanting to park there.
Some entrepreneurs stand along U.S. 98 — which is so congested it becomes a virtual parking lot after 6 p.m. in July — with fluorescent pink and green signs offering harbor parking for $15.
Destin officials recently implemented a paid parking program at its lot on Marler Street, which offers prime parking for harbor visitors adjacent to one of the city’s new crosswalks. Thursday night is the lot’s busiest night, according to city public information manager Doug Rainer.
According to businesses on the harbor, Thursdays are the busiest nights, mostly due to HarborWalk Village’s fireworks display. The fireworks start at 9 p.m., weather permitting, after a Red, White and Blue celebration to recognize local heroes.
Christine Ramey and Maria Spotts operate a face-painting booth at the west end of the harbor. They’ve set up shop there for eight years, and they said the crowds get bigger each year. July is the busiest month, and Tuesdays and Thursdays are their busiest days.
“Well, Tuesdays they have the Mardis Gras parades and Thursdays they have fireworks,” Ramey said.
Spotts said the crowds have grown in recent years, although she said they generally are well-behaved and mostly made up of families and kids.
“It’s all families pretty much on vacation,” she said. “Generally, they’re all well-behaved, but late night is a different story. We try not to stay past 10 ’cause it’s hard to paint people who are drunk and can barely keep their eyes open.”
Demery Benedict, general manager of HarborWalk Adventures, which operates the zip line, rock climbing wall and arcade, among other attractions, said he would process about 500 transactions on Thursday night.
“Even though it’s so crowded, the thing is you’re surrounded by people with smiles on their faces,” Benedict said. “You have to try really hard to have a bad night.”
The main attraction
People lined up and down the harbor to catch a glimpse of the 10-minute fireworks show. The Ruiz family from Illinois said they came to the harbor specifically for the fireworks display.
“We just love fireworks, and it’s great for the kids,” said Evelyn, the mother.
Just a few months ago, it appeared as if the weekly fireworks display might be in jeopardy. Emerald Grande executives wrangled with Destin City Council members last winter about the necessity of the shows. Council members and Mayor Scott Fischer said the noise was excessive, while HarborWalk representatives said it drew in tourists and honored the military.
Now, a new noise ordinance is in the works, but curiously, the ordinance exempts permitted fireworks displays like the ones at HarborWalk Village, which obtains its permits through the Coast Guard.
Fischer, who worked closely on the new noise ordinance, insisted the measure isn’t targeting fireworks displays specifically, but is meant to give law enforcement the ability to tackle noise pollution in general.
“Of course on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve, (the city) has fireworks displays, and that was the main reason it was excluded (from the ordinance),” Fischer said.
He added that the ordinance is a draft and has not been reviewed by city staff or gone to council for a vote, but he could consider a measure that would require HarborWalk Village to obtain a permit from the city as well as the Coast Guard for its weekly displays.
For now, the fireworks continue to draw record crowds to Destin Harbor.
“This is one of our favorite things to do on vacation,” said Yvette Ronaldson, a visitor from Kentucky.
“It’s the harbor. It’s the essence of Destin.”