TAMPA — Some consider it a Gasparilla rite of passage: You're lost, confused. You turn to your cellphone and try to call your missing comrades. But it won't connect.
You call again. The signal drops. You try to send a text. It fails.
You double-tap a map app. It's blank.
At Gasparilla, the smartphone struggle is real.
More than 200,000 people are expected to pack into the 5 miles of open streets surrounding Bayshore Boulevard for the main parade Saturday. That means more than 200,000 cellphones will be within blocks of each other, simultaneously trying to use Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, check Google Maps and even do old-fashioned things like call and text.
Simply put, downtown's existing cell towers get slammed by the digital demand.
"It's kind of a compliment," said Darrell Stefany, president of EventFest, Inc., which runs Gasparilla. "It's one of the most photographed and unique festivals in the country."
Two of the biggest wireless providers in Tampa Bay, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, are well aware of the surge in data demand Gasparilla brings.
Verizon places temporary towers along the parade route to bolster cellphone reception. AT&T officials said at the end of 2015 they increased the capacity at existing towers along the parade's route, something Verizon says it's done, too.
Experts say that for smartphones, it's the equivalent of being on a crowded highway: There's only so many lanes and everyone wants to get through.
"A lot of people together in a small geographic area .... and they all want to share their experiences with photos, texts and tweets," said Verizon spokeswoman Kate Jay, "it becomes a capacity issue."
Parade-goers say they noticed some improvement in service last year compared to past years. Others, still scarred from getting lost because they lost cell service in Gasparilla parades past, say they've learned not to rely on their phones during the annual pirate invasion.
Meghan Mangrum's worst Gasparilla was in 2014 as an undergrad at the University of South Florida's Tampa campus. She said her then-boyfriend from Orlando (a Gasparilla rookie) got lost in the pirate mob after a few too many sips of Ciroc Red Berry Vodka.
He also took off with her phone by mistake.
Mangrum, now 24 and a journalism graduate student at the University of Florida, was with a friend when her boyfriend vanished.
She used her friend's phone to try to reach him, but several calls and texts wouldn't go through. When the parade dispersed, Mangrum lost the friend, too.
"I was homeless," she said, "and phoneless."
Not long after, she spotted her boyfriend by a palm tree — holding her phone aloft in one hand and his own in another. He had a hopeless look on his face.
"You could tell he was using both phones to no avail," she said.
The two aren't together anymore. Mangrum swears Gasparilla isn't at fault.
She'll make the pilgrimage to Tampa again for the parade this year, but now knows to use the buddy system and have backup plans.
"If all else fails," she said, "meet at the car."
Eric Ortiz. 23, of Tampa, said it's not Gasparilla if he doesn't get lost because of a weak cell signal. He said his friends pick a street or landmark to meet, aware that relying on phones to find each other is a gamble.
Ortiz said he had a little more luck with his phone last year than years before. A few years ago, he said, he'd get a "no results found" screen when he tried to use a maps application. Last year he got part of the map to download.
What Verizon does to increase its networks capacity for Gasparilla — such as adding antennas to main cell sites and temporary towers on Bayshore Boulevard, south of Rome Avenue, and at Bayshore and Bay-To-Bay Boulevards — is comparable to what it has to do to boost service at the Daytona 500, which was attended by more than 140,000 in 2012.
Bill Androckitis, 33, of Tampa, notices that during Gasparilla cell service starts to wane mid-to-late morning, when the pirate invasion kicks off, and get worse the closer it gets to parade time.
The AT&T user said his texts may be delayed for hours. His calls typically go through, but the parade is too loud to actually hear anything.
Despite failed meet-ups with friends he couldn't text, Androckitis said he doesn't fault the cellphone companies.
"There's only so much you can do" Androckitis said, "when you have that many people show up."
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.