By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN and MELIA BOWIE
A mix of the eclectic, the familiar and the gaudy lined a 3-mile stretch of Bayshore Boulevard and downtown Tampa Saturday for the annual pirate invasion and takeover of the city.
Gasparilla 2002 sent debutantes, politicians and local celebrities down streets tossing thousands of glittery baubles into outstretched hands.
It was a day for partying and patriotism, and of course, beads, beads, beads.
"I just love it," said Tammy Larson, a four-year reveler who knew to bring her own cooler and lawn chair. "You can't live in Tampa and not experience Gasparilla."
Many found it less rowdy than last year's, when Super Bowl fans mobbed the streets. Law enforcement officers guessed the crowd this year to be about 500,000.
"It's definitely a lot less crowded," said Debbie Tollar of Mulberry. "It's much better for the kids when you're not being crushed."
Tollar, her husband and three children came prepared: They brought honey buns, water and small stepladders to perch the young ones above the crowd. "We're here to see the firefighters," Tollar said. "But for the kids, the ultimate goal is to get the beads."
For newcomers, the rush for the plastic necklaces came as quite a shock.
"They fight for these beads like they're gold!" said Martha Allen of St. Petersburg. "I don't believe this!"
But not everyone was there for beads.
All a suntanned Stuart Alfonso, 27, needed to fit into the Gasparilla scene was the beer in his hand and the 4-foot python in his backpack. Circulating among the throngs lining Bayshore, Alfonso slowly worked his way toward the front of the parade, stopping for a tipsy passer-by who nervously petted the python.
"Pretty much, he likes to get out. He likes the people," said Alfonso, who lives in Town 'N Country. The python has joined him at the parade for the past six years. "He's a people person."
And then there were the homeowners along Bayshore, who guarded their property like the revelers guarded their beads.
Costumed in the colorful uniform of an 18th century Spanish soldier, an authentic sword at his side and a fake scar on his cheek, Tom Coonley surveyed the crowds creeping past his daughter's Bayshore home, his eyes peeled for revelers seeking to turn the front yard into a makeshift bathroom.
"I haven't seen a single float," confessed Coonley, who comes from St. Augustine every year to help patrol his daughter's home.
A twentysomething guy strolled up.
"May I use your restroom?" he asked, stepping onto the lawn.
"No sir," said Coonley, pointing to the rows of portable bathrooms.
"But there's a long line. I won't take anything," he cajoled.
Coonley sent the young man on his way.
Not all homeowners opted for hands-on security.
Ronnie Roth bought his Bayshore house four months ago, making this his first Gasparilla as a homeowner.
Inside, invited guests enjoyed barbecue. Outside, revelers were met by two off-duty sheriff's deputies guarding the home.
"So far, it's great!" Roth said from his gated drive. "Invite 115 of your best friends and get drunk together. Hire a couple of sheriff's deputies to protect you."
Authorities reported few problems. There were the usual fights, but not much else. Even the new ban on glass bottles appeared to be observed.
"Obviously, people got the word," said Tampa police Officer Doug Bingle.
That was good news for David Rulison of Clearwater. Instead of fishing for beads, he was on an expedition for aluminum cans.
The 59-year-old cake shop worker has picked up after Gasparilla revelers since 1979 and brings in several hundred dollars after each parade by recycling.
"The rowdier the better," he said, lugging a large black plastic bag down Bayshore. "They're drinking more and tossing more cans on the ground."
The day started out overcast, with a light sprinkle. But by 12:30, the sun was out, the sky was blue and people were squinting as they walked.
Enter the sunglass vendors. One hawker, who didn't want to give his name because he skipped an obligation in Fort Myers to sell $5 sunglasses at the parade, said he sold 42 pairs in just a few hours.
"I love it," he said, holding up four stacked trays of merchandise. "Everybody forgot their sunglasses!"
Twenty friends from Chamberlain High School had dragged themselves out of bed early to be in the middle of the fun.
"We parked really far away because we didn't think we'd be able to find a spot," said 16-year-old Kristen Brantley, who ended up a couple of rows back from the floats.
"This year is definitely a lot better," Brantley said of the event she has been attending for eight years. "I think because of what happened (on Sept. 11) there are a lot of people here representing America."
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