On June 10, 2015, the vacation world changed forever. Taylor Swift posted an Instagram showing herself and her then-boyfriend Calvin Harris cuddling on a giant inflatable swan, unleashing a swath of “swan goals” on unsuspecting pool goers and lake loungers alike. To this day, many cannot shake the obsession with giant floaties.
While inflatable pool accessories were once limited to water wings for toddlers and pool noodles to relieve the stress of treading water, enormous, cartoonish floats seem to be taking over bodies of water from coast to coast.
Celebrities, Swift included, post photos of themselves having the time of their lives on (or in) these products all the time. Swift’s original swan post (which has mysteriously disappeared off her Instagram feed), wasn’t a sponsored ad but an innocent, product promotion-free snapshot of her enjoying a summer day. We’re saturated with influencers’ social media feeds showing off meals, hotels, and products, products, products. So why, and how, did the inflatable swan and all its companions become indispensable to summer vacation pop culture?
Rising trends in floating
Call it the Swift effect: Google search data shows that in America, searches for inflatable swans doubled in the weeks after Swift posted her original swan pic, and the interest still spikes in the summertime.
Similar search terms, like giant inflatable swans and inflatable flamingo show a surge in interest in these big birds on holiday weekends. Though specific interest in swans and flamingos has notably decreased in searches this summer, searches for pool floats are at an all-time high (as are searches for inflatable unicorn) and searches for adult pool floats are at a five-year high, ever since Swift popularized the idea that anyone of mature swimming age can also use a floatie.
Big brands inflating the trend
Though the summer of 2015 marked a summer of sold-out swim floats in vacation towns, the two summers that followed have seen a saturation on the adult float market.
Swift’s float was traced to Swimline, a New York-based company that debuted its leisure-focused pool products in 1990. Swimline, along with several other start-ups and formerly unknown vacation accessory companies, have risen to prominence since that much-liked Instagram post.
Funboy, one of the most recognizable producers of luxury adult pool floats, produces enormous seahorses, unicorns and peacocks priced at $99 and up, launched in the spring of 2015, just months before Swift’s swan debut. While vacationing in the Carribbean the previous winter, co-founders Celeste Barrett, her husband Max Barrett, his brother Blake Barrett and his wife Raquel Barrett decided to quit their day jobs at startups and start a company of their own.
“It was really all about creating products that in this day in age you can experience with people,” Blake Barrett said over the phone. Rather than spending time on your phone playing games or scrolling through social media, The Barretts, who all enjoy time spent outdoors and on the water, wanted to create a product that would led to, well, fun.
“We create products that are a prop of the Instagram generation.” — Blake Barrett
Pool floats were the obvious answer. “You have to put your phone down to be in the pool,” Barrett said of the company’s in-the-moment mentality. Still, he attests that Funboy is just upgrading an old past time.
“Look back to old photos of Acapulco or St. Tropez in the 70s and 80s and you’ll see sexy people enjoying [their] holiday on a float,” Barrett said. “It was very jet-set chic and today we represent that same vibe.”
But still, Instagram “was a consideration” as Funboy developed its recognizable menagerie of dramatic, metallic floats advertised with models seemingly plucked right out of the pages of a fashion magazine having the time of their lives on the luxury inflatables. “We wanted to create something that people want to be seen on, share and post on social media,” Barrett said. “We create products that are a prop of the Instagram generation.”
What Funboy and their counterparts are selling, however, isn’t just a fun toy to relax with — it’s symbolic of an entire lifestyle. It’s the rosé-all-day drinking, (Funboy also started selling its own branded magnums of rosé this summer), flawless selfie-taking illusion of perfection that so many aspire to. This image-based lifestyle is often a digital manifestation of bliss, rather than a true reflection of one’s lived experiences. For the masses, it’s easier to emulate a Swift-esque lifestyle with a $25 Swimline swan from Walmart than vacationing in an infinity pool in a picturesque luxury resort.
Posting a photo on the attainable status symbol signifies you belong to the leisure class, or at least, have something in common with the vacationers, influencers and scions of society, similar to the way a Starbucks cup in hand means you have the time and money to spare on a $6 latte, even if the beverage was procured on a quick break in between jobs (and it’s really just hot water in the cup).
The future of floaties
“Pool floats are here to stay,” Barrett said, noting that Funboy has spotted some up-and-coming trends for summer 2018, though he won’t hint at what these may be. Because floats are a seasonal product, the enthusiasm dies down in the cooler months in most parts of the country. And as excitement for summer pool parties and lake vacations sets in again, so does an interest in a new or re-inflated unicorn float.
Perhaps above all, however, these floats are fun, they reignite a sense of youth and playfulness in adults normally bogged down with emails and laundry and responsibilities inherited years after you shed your water wings. Adults-only gatherings — like Floatchella, which hosted its second annual float-filled event at Tices Shoal near the Jersey Shore in July 2017 — encourage fully grown people to embrace the jumbo inflatable pizza. Celebrity attendees like Teresa Giudice and Melissa Gorga (as well as some familiar Jersey Shore faces) took to the only-accessible-by-boat festival’s “no basic floats” rule and joined over 1,000 other boats full of floaters.
“They’re like an accessory in a way,” Floatchella founder Nicole Cesario said of the popularity of these massive floats. She and co-founder Marissa Laudati generated the idea for Floatchella while floating on matching pizzas in 2015, just as the swans and flamingos started pervading every body of water in America.
“Everyone wants to have the best cars, clothes, jewelry, etc. and we kind of see this in the same light,” Cesario said of the floats’ appeal. “It’s cool to have something that stands out and that is unique and fun. You can’t use it every day, but when you do, it’s all floating eyes on you.” The inflatables, are, in fact, an attention-grabber. Is anyone going to bother inflating and boarding a human-sized golden seahorse just to spend time alone? Cesario thinks the trend is here to stay, with each summer bringing new designs and objects in inflatable form.
Those in need of encouragement to add some play things to their pooltime may want to follow Floatchella’s postscript: “Round tubes and noodles are not allowed unless they are donuts or seamonsters of sorts.”