TAMPA — Led by a crew of zombies and followed by fire slingers and horse-drawn carriages toting vampires and ghouls, the Mama Guava Stumble headed down Seventh Avenue at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, signaling the start of Ybor City's annual Guavaween celebration.
This year's parade differed from those of previous years, with no motorized floats, which prompted several Tampa krewes, the mainstay of other local parades, to drop out of the event.
Not so the Krewe of Blues, a group of men from the Tampa Bay area who improvised with a cart carrying a coffin that doubled as cooler.
"That's our answer to the non-motorized parade," said Blues crew member Tom Brubaker.
Organizers said they made the switch to save money spent on security and barricades, and to return Guavaween to its roots.
The previous more rigid format "takes the party away," Teri Cox, of CC Event Productions, told Ybor business owners at a meeting last week. Without the barricades, they could expect more business, and an event that harked back to its origins.
"This is Guavaween," she told them. "This is not every other parade."
Gregg Bancroft, 57, wearing a kilt, said Saturday was his 20th Guavaween and he remembers the days before it turned into a Gasparilla retread.
"I kind of like this," he said. "But it seems kind of quiet."
Larry Robinson, who was working the sound booth at the 98 Rock stage where Nonpoint and Sevendust were scheduled to play later in the night, said this was his 14th year working Guavaween. As the parade passed about 9 p.m., he remarked about the relatively sparse crowd: "Ten years ago it would be packed at this point."
Created in 1984 as a fundraiser for the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce and a theater group, the event billed itself as a way to take the "bore out of Ybor."
Event founders, a group of edgy artists, set the parade up as a spoof of traditional parades, and promised no floats and no dignitaries. Its grand marshal was Mama Guava, a character who claimed to be the love child of Jose Gaspar and a scrub palmetto. Organizers encouraged costumes with intelligent creativity that poked fun at life in Tampa. Some old highlights: a gas-emitting black bean, singing jars of guava jelly and dozens of people in cardboard cars who dubbed themselves "the Dale Mabry-Waters Avenue intersection" and crashed into each other.
Back then, events were concentrated at the Cuban Club and Ybor Square. Founders envisioned a time when it would rise to the level of Mardi Gras.
By the mid 1990s, it had become a fenced-in party that required paid admission. This year, revelers paid $17.
Some Ybor business owners want no more gates.
Alan Kahana, who owns several Ybor businesses and was among those who launched Guavaween more than 25 years ago, said he'd like to see tiered ticketing that would range from $10 to $30 and provide access to venues featuring bands. "We need a new model," he said. "It needs to be more of a music festival not just getting drunk in the street."
Tom DeGeorge, co-owner of the Crowbar on 17th Street, sat in his nearly empty bar and said he was "extremely disappointed." The event is supposed to benefit all of Ybor, but the focus is on Seventh Avenue, he said, and a proliferation of street vendors kept people out of restaurants.
Others, though, like Guavaween just the way it is.
"I love it more than anything," said Cassie Turner, 28, who came to her third Guavaween with a large group dressed as clown zombies. She was "a little bummed" about the lack of floats, but "I love the chance to pour blood on my body," she said. "If I ever move away from here I would probably come back for Guavaween."