TAMPA — Facing an unforgiving economy, Gasparilla organizers feared bleacher seat reservations for this year's parades would drop 12 to 15 percent.
But heading into Saturday's children's parade, interest has picked up, so this week workers added more grandstands.
"This is a last-minute town," said Darrell Stefany, president of Event Fest, which stages the two-weekend pirate festival.
Two Saturdays of Gasparilla events will bracket the weekend of the Super Bowl this year.
Festivities start Saturday with the alcohol-free Gasparilla Extravaganza. The children's parade, canceled last year amid a fierce thunderstorm, begins at 3:30 p.m. Fireworks follow at 7 p.m. The Gasparilla Pirate Fest, the annual seaborne invasion, comes Feb. 7.
If the weather is good, Saturday's extravaganza could draw 200,000 people, Stefany said. And attendance for all events could reach nearly a million.
The sheer scale of the parades stands out, with 100-plus floats and more than 50 participating krewes. In contrast, during Mardi Gras, krewes in New Orleans hold separate, smaller parades.
"It's kind of like the supersized of all supersized parades," Stefany said.
Gasparilla often reflects the mood of the times. It was called off completely for several years during World War II. After 9/11, it featured New York firefighters as honored guests.
This year, the recession has churned up the ranks of Gasparilla sponsors. A few dropped out (Chevrolet and Red Baron frozen pizza), as others stepped up (USAmeriBank and Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino).
As a result, there might be a reduction in sponsor tents along the parade route, but only by a few. "People love their pirates in Tampa," Stefany said.
Reservations for Saturday's parade, where seats cost $14, should be at near normal levels, Stefany said. For the Pirate Fest, where seats cost $28, the numbers are a little off the usual pace, but could pick up at the end.
For some veterans of Gasparilla, the children's parade is the event most like the Gasparilla they remember from childhood.
Until 1988, the event took place on a Monday and was a Tampa-centric event. Then Ye Mystic Krewe moved it to Saturday to draw bigger crowds.
Today, the Pirate Fest draws so many people that one church, St. John's Episcopal, runs a Safe House for teens and others who drink too much or otherwise overindulge.
Last year, the Safe House, at 906 S Orleans Ave., gave out 400 bottles of water and offered refuge to more than two dozen people who were hurt in the event or overcome by it.
This year, the church has increased the number of portable toilets from two to 10, has arranged to have emergency medical services on hand and will have officers' cell phone numbers handy in case of trouble.
"It's a ministry that you don't look forward to, but at the end of the day, you know it's the right thing to do," said St. John's youth director Leland Baldwin, a former prosecutor who has coordinated the Safe House for five years. "It's extraordinarily emotionally draining."
Denise Vaughan, a lawyer who grew up in Tampa and lives in Palma Ceia, said she plans to catch the children's parade, "which we'll love."
But on the day of Pirate Fest, she will take her family to Islands of Adventure in Orlando.
"I don't need to do two parades," she said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5311.