DUNEDIN — Anyone longing to go to Mardi Gras, but lacking the funds for a New Orleans trip, should head to Dunedin on Tuesday. The free and family-friendly Dunedin Mardi Gras celebrates its 20th year with a festival of music, New Orleans-style food, arts and crafts, a parade and a theme of "Who Do Da' Voodoo?"
"We take a lot of pride in our city and our Mardi Gras," said Wendy Barmore, vice president of the Downtown Dunedin Merchant's Association. "It's a wonderful event and the weather will be beautiful."
Last year's Mardi Gras, attended by an estimated 15,000, was a chilly affair, with temperatures dropping into the 40s. People dressed in coats and wrapped up in blankets to watch the evening parade. With weather forecasters predicting warm temperatures next week, Barmore expects a crowd of 25,000 plus.
Since Dunedin's first Mardi Gras in 1992 — when sponsors and distributors were sparse — the event has morphed into a celebration that draws supporters, volunteers and partiers from across Tampa Bay.
"Ours is the largest Mardi Gras celebration with a parade in Pinellas County and tremendous time and effort go into its organizing," said Barmore. "We have around 150 volunteers this year and a record number of parade entries — 25 today and still counting."
The parade will begin at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Douglas Avenue at 7 p.m. and run north toward Skinner Boulevard.
Besides the Mardi Gras parade on Douglas, the aroma of seafood gumbo, jambalaya and other foods will create a Fat Tuesday atmosphere for the Mardi Gras celebration downtown from 5 to 11 p.m. Local restaurants and arts and craft vendors will set up along Main Street.
Music from Pioneer Park will add to the party mood. Tampa's own Swamp Logic will play New Orleans funk and blues from 5:30 to 7 p.m., followed at 8 p.m. by headliner Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble from Louisiana.
The grand marshal of this year's parade is WTVT-Ch. 13 personality Charley Belcher. This year's Mardi Gras queen is Amanda D'Rhod. Mardi Gras king Gregory Brady will ride on the WQYK pirate ship at the end of the parade.
Brady, owner of Main Street Hair, formerly Gregory's Salon, almost missed being crowned. He was flying home from Costa Rica on Feb. 27, the date of the Mardi Gras pageant. He had planned to be home early but landed in Tampa at midnight because of flight delays. The pageant was wrapping up at 12:30 a.m. when he walked in the door.
"They were ready to say that I wasn't going to be able to make it," said Brady, one of the original Mardi Gras organizers. "I'm really proud to represent Mardi Gras. It's a nice thank you and shows my work all these years has been appreciated."
Brady said Dunedin's Mardi Gras started as a grass roots street party but has become more sophisticated.
"The first year's parade we used beads we personally had from other festivals," said Brady. "Now, we order beads wholesale from New Orleans. It's become an airtight event, done well and enjoyed by the entire community."
The Dunedin Mardi Gras is promoted by the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association and the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.