Gasparilla will not change overnight. But Saturday's event was not the liquor-soaked chaos that had come to mark the annual pirate festival. The heavier police presence in the neighborhoods, additional public toilets, zero tolerance for underage drinking — and, indeed, the rain — toned down a tradition that had spiraled out of control.
The city and event organizers allowed the ugliness to carry on too long, but they deserve credit for moving swiftly this year to clean up Gasparilla. Extending the festival into downtown gave paradegoers along Bayshore Boulevard more breathing room. The extra police helped to reduce vandalism to property and crude behavior in the neighborhoods leading to Bayshore. Of course, the rain helped to keep tens of thousands of people away, which reduced lines for portable toilets and the scrum for beads.
Many factors contributed to better order. The city spent weeks alerting the public that the free-for-all was over. The police showed common sense by issuing most offenders a warrant to appear in court rather than hauling them off to jail. The goal Saturday was for the police to be visible, and for the message to go out that times have changed. This may take years, but Mayor Pam Iorio, who leaves office in 2011, has made a start. The next mayor needs to continue this new Gasparilla tradition.