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Gasparilla Supersized

With an international audience swelled by the Super Bowl, the downtown pirate invasion thrills a record crowd.

By MELANIE AVE and SUSAN THURSTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2001


TAMPA -- They showed up before dawn, paid triple the norm to park and stood 20 people deep to see the festivities.

Even those who went by sea found themselves knocking into each other as they jockeyed for position in the waters of Hillsborough Bay.

Souped-up, and timed to coincide with Sunday's big football game between the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants, this Gasparilla Pirate Fest was like no other since the annual tradition began in 1904.

It was, far and away, the largest in history.

Police estimated 750,000 people turned out for the mock pirate invasion, parade and festival that brought downtown traffic to a standstill for hours.

"We definitely raised the bar this year," said Darrell Stefany, president of EventMakers, an organizer of the event.

Usually held in February, Gasparilla was moved up to take advantage of the Super Bowl. And take advantage it did.

Gasparilla, said Rick Polk, a 35-year-old from Baltimore on his first visit to the city, "really allows Tampa to show what it's got. This is great. I would come back here just for a vacation."

The day began beneath a hazy sky with the traditional pirate invasion at the Tampa Convention Center. The Jose Gasparilla, a replica of a vintage pirate ship, snaked through the waters of Hillsborough Bay surrounded by a huge flotilla of smaller boats.

The pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe, the 750-member all-male social club that sponsors Gasparilla, shot cannons and guns filled with blanks at the crowd.

As the ship closed in on the Convention Center, pirates rained necklaces and gold coins down on thousands of people chanting "beads, beads, beads."

The pirates plundered ashore and snatched the keys of the city from Mayor Dick Greco before leading other krewes to the parade that started soon afterward.

Crowds began arriving earlier than ever to get a front seat along Bayshore Boulevard for the parade. Many cordoned off their own sections for friends and family members.

Several people were disappointed the waterside section of Bayshore was reserved for corporate parties and pass holders, excluding the general public from prime real estate.

The well-heeled filled tents sponsored by corporations such as Southwest Airlines, Red Baron pizza, SouthTrust Bank and Capt. Morgan's Rum.

"It's all corporate bull crap," said Chester Burnett of Tampa, a fifth-generation Gasparillagoer.

Robert Coon, 27, of Ruskin spent more than $100 on purple and gold beads, some larger than Christmas ornaments and several hanging to his ankles.

"I'm doing it for the attention I guess," he said, as several teenagers begged him to share.

For the first time in the parade's history, military aircraft from MacDill Air Force Base roared overhead, sending thrills through the crowd.

Some drivers paid as much as $20 just to ease their cars into prime dirt lots near the parade route.

Others, like Shelby and Shirley Ridenour of Bradenton, opted for a quicker route through the thousands of people -- Rollerblades.

"It's much, much faster," said Ridenour, who had parked the couple's car on Harbour Island and skated to Gasparilla pushing their newborn daughter, Katie, in a stroller.

Despite the massive crowd, and the frustration of drivers stuck in gridlock trying to leave downtown, only a few minor arrests were reported by police, and no serious injuries.

Gasparilla was quite a sight for out-of-towners, some thrilled by the merrymaking and others simply bewildered. Men and women were drinking beer and pulling coolers packed with alcohol in front of sheriff's deputies.

Brawny men donned feathers, eye patches and ruffles as they tried their best to "aarrgh" like pirates.

A few dogs even sported necklaces.

Not everybody was on the hunt for beads, however. Baltimore Ravens fan Jim Jordan drove 13 hours Friday in the hopes of finding a seat to the Super Bowl. He went to Gasparilla to look for tickets.

"We're the crazies," he said.

Keith Wood carried a sign that said "I need tickets."

He was willing to pay $500 to $1,000 a ticket, and was optimistic something would turn up.

"There's always that fan out there who wants to get rid of a few tickets," said Wood, of Indianapolis.

Foreign journalists in town to cover the Super Bowl found their way to Gasparilla.

Austrian journalist Philipp Koenig, along with a cameraman, wove through the hordes, interviewing people about Gasparilla and the Super Bowl.

His employer, Austria's national broadcasting agency, sent him and a handful of others to Tampa to telecast the Super Bowl.

Standing in the middle of the rambunctious crowd angling for his attention, Koenig gave his thoughts on the partying and excess surrounding him.

"It's very America," he said.

-- Times staff writers Kyle Parks and Linda Gibson contributed to this report.

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