The Children's Gasparilla Parade promises to be as intoxicating as next weekend's invasion, but with tamer excesses: balloons, candy and entertainment.
Saturday's parade will feature about 100 units, bicycle safety clinics and food stands, and it will culminate with a huge fireworks display. About 125,000 people are expected to attend.
"This is the centennial celebration of Gasparilla. There will be some extra fun things," said Darrell Stefany, president of EventMakers Corp., which manages and markets the parade.
The parade kicks off the Gasparilla season, which continues with Pirate Fest Feb. 7 and other events, including the Raymond James Gasparilla Festival of the Arts March 6-7, Stefany said.
But kids come first.
One addition to this year's parade will be an air show featuring the Red Baron Squadron. The flock consists of World War II Stearman biplanes, which will zoom over Hillsborough Bay at 2 and 4 p.m. before the parade starts at 4:30.
Mayor Pam Iorio will serve as grand marshal.
While the parade has been part of Tampa's Gasparilla celebration since 1947, the children's segment was often an afterthought. The parade usually ran after the main Gasparilla celebration and bounced from weekend to weekend, Stefany said.
Gasparilla organizers took another look at the children's parade a few years ago as they began preparing for the centennial. They thought it needed a permanent date and to be tailored for children.
As part of the changes, organizers shifted the parade route from downtown to Bayshore Boulevard. They added a fireworks display and signed corporate sponsors. The result: huge crowds.
Last year, attendance rose to 125,000, up from a couple of thousand in 1999.
For the first time, the parade is providing a wheelchair-accessible viewing area and handicapped parking at the intersection of Howard Avenue and Bayshore. Parking will be by handicapped-parking permit only along Howard, west of Bayshore.
Another addition will be the Children's Dream Fund on the Red Baron's float. The St. Petersburg nonprofit group grants "dreams" to children ages 3 to 18 who have life-threatening illness. Dreams range from meetings with their favorite celebrities to shopping sprees.
About 35 percent of the wishes go to Hillsborough County children but only 20 percent of the revenue is generated locally.
"The Dream Fund thought the parade would be the perfect opportunity to have a presence," said Debra Kent Faulk, board member and chairman-elect of the fund.
The float riders will toss out beads featuring Clem Calzone, the mascot of the "Kids Who Care" program, which encourages children to raise money for the Dream Fund. Clem is a comic book hero created by Kevin LaPlante, a Crystal Beach 12-year-old who was granted his wish of playing video games with Robin Williams before he died in 2002.
Children who have raised money for the fund will ride on the float.
The parade includes 43 professional and homemade floats, incorporating the work of 35 krewes. The Unsinkable Krewe of Molly Brown honors Molly Brown, one of the legendary survivors of the Titanic tragedy. The float replicates the ship with four smokestacks, two masts, lifeboats and a tow decorated to look like an iceberg.
A 23-minute fireworks show will cap the evening at 7 p.m.
_ Denise Watson Batts can be reached at dbattssptimes.com or 226-3401.