TAMPA — Driving in downtown Tampa as hordes of pirates descend on the city is a nightmare in and of itself. Now add a mess of road construction, a performance of The Lion King and a Little Big Town concert and things really get interesting.
But the city says it's ready for the congestion, armed with detours and traffic plans aimed to ease the worries of frazzled drivers who will attempt to navigate downtown during Saturday's annual Gasparilla parade.
In fact, this year should be better than last, which also included events at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and Amalie Arena, planners said.
Disney's The Lion King will forego the typical Saturday matinee — which would align with the chaos of the pirate flotilla — and only run an 8 p.m. showing.
Since the country concert doesn't start until 7:30 p.m., that gives the bandits aboard the Jose Gasparilla and the landlubbers laden with beads a chance to disperse before the event crowds come in that evening.
"(Gasparilla) grows every year and we deal with multiple events every year," Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said. "But the traffic plans that are in place are very effective and make it a smooth transition into downtown events."
The No. 1 recommendation: plan ahead. The City of Tampa has maps showing road closures, parking options, timetables and other information available on its website, www.tampagov.net. The Straz and the arena both are contacting patrons and providing advice on parking and arriving early.
This is the third time the Straz has had a show on the evening of the Gasparilla parade, said chief operating officer Lorrin Shepard.
"It's scary how well last year went," Shepard said of the Book of Mormon shows that fell on the same day, including a matinee. "There's been a plan that's been in place for the prior two times, and we'll simply reinstate it this time."
The Straz will contact each attendee to give them a heads up about conditions. Shepard said this is particularly important with a show like The Lion King, which has a broad enough appeal to draw in patrons from outside Tampa who might not be familiar with the logistics of Gasparilla.
Planning between the city, police, parade organizers and the big venues has been under way for months, and the experience helps each year go a little more smoothly, Shepard said.
The Gasparilla pirate parade is scheduled to come up Bayshore Boulevard into downtown over the Brorein Street bridge starting at about 2 p.m. It is expected to end at Cass Street and Ashley Drive at about 5 p.m.
In order to make the transition as smooth as possible, the city solid waste and public works departments follow behind the parade route and start cleaning the roadway and opening roads as the floats pass through each area.
"As that parade route starts moving to the north, we follow right behind," said Jean Duncan, city director of transportation and stormwater services. "Our goal is to get all the road closures and the cleanup done and bring things back to normalcy as quickly as possible."
Those carousers flocking in from St. Petersburg to take part in the festivities — pirate related or not — should beware of the traffic backlog on northbound Interstate 275 that has beleaguered drivers for weeks.
The backup, which frequently reaches across the Howard Frankland into Pinellas County, is a result of a traffic realignment put in place earlier this month.
The Florida Department of Transportation said the congestion will likely be around until the end of February when the next phase of construction begins. Commuters are encouraged to budget extra time.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.