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Gasparilla under an umbrella

Hopes for a record-breaking kickoff to the city's Gasparilla celebration dissolved Saturday in the chilly rain.

More than 125,000 people had been expected but police estimated the crowd at only 25,000 for the Children's Gasparilla Parade and an air show on Bayshore Boulevard. The crowds shrunk even more, to about 500, for the evening fireworks.

Davis Winter, 13, and Peyton Kieffer, 12, arrived at the parade ill-prepared _ no umbrella, no coats, no gloves. They squeezed into a plywood Chevrolet display and covered their legs with black garbage bags.

"We figured it's the only dry place we could stay," said Peyton, a four-time Gasparilla attendee.

She didn't hesitate when asked where this year's Gasparilla ranks.

"Last," she said. "We're just so cold."

But the weather didn't soak all the revelry out of the event.

Early Saturday, aboard the SS Victory, the mock crew braced for the traditional drenching during the Ybor City Naval Invasion.

The annual battle pits Jack Shiver, the honorary mayor of Ybor City, against a U.S. Navy ship sent to protect against the invasion.

Shiver commanded a tugboat, dubbed the SS Ybor for the day, armed with powerful fire hoses and loaves of stale Cuban bread. The Navy fights back with its own hoses and bread.

Nine-year-old Jenna Gray, aboard the Victory, braved the attack under her Bratz umbrella. She and her sister, Emily, dodged the sprays that reached the ship, docked behind the Florida Aquarium.

"This is more fun than Gasparilla," said Jenna, a veteran of the Gasparilla Children's Parade, but a novice to the invasion. "Things actually get squirted. You get wet."

After the battle, the other festivities began.

There was a new emphasis this year on the children's parade that followed the invasion, with the route shifting from downtown to Bayshore.

The parade is the first of several celebrations for the Gasparilla season. It will be followed on Feb. 7 with Pirate Fest, and culminate with the Raymond James Gasparilla Festival of the Arts March 6-7.

Saturday's events, aimed at attracting kids and families, were not hampered by the uncooperative skies.

The aerobatic planes of the Red Baron Pizza Squadron drew circles of smoke in the sky.

Military planes flew so close that 2-year-old Asher King reached out trying to touch one.

"See, it's coming right at you, bud," father Larry King of Lutz said.

And then there was the main event, the parade, with its own downpour _ of beads.

Dozens of floats eased down Bayshore dispensing their treasures. Kids clamored for prime spots along the parade route screaming: "Beads! Beads! Beads!"

An hour into the parade, Jennifer Harrison of St. Petersburg, who was there with her children, had only one string of beads. She wanted more.

As the red, white and blue Krewe of Patriots float approached, she yelled: "Me! Me! Me! Oh please! For the kids!"

Her arms still flailing, she didn't realize a string of purple beads had fallen at her feet.

Another woman grabbed for it and Harrison reacted. After a brief tug-of-war, Harrison prevailed. The loser gave Harrison a cold stare and rejoined her family.

"That was rude," Harrison admitted after it was over.

Siblings Allison Harris, 8, and Andrew Harris, 7, of Town 'N Country had no problem snagging beads. They were weighed down by more strings than they could count. Their technique: Scour the ground for dropped treasures.

Andrew ran over to his mother, jumped up and down and announced: "I got a lot of beads!"

Mom Melissa Harris wasn't quite so pleased as raindrops hit them.

"We're going to go pretty soon," she said. "I'm soaking wet."

_ Letitia Stein can be reached at 661-2443 or lsteinsptimes.com. Rodney Thrash can be reached at 269-5313 or rthrashsptimes.com.

Charis Lee, 7, of Tampa whistles for attention and reaches to snag beads tossed into the wet crowd at the Children's Gasparilla Parade. Dozens of floats eased down Bayshore dispensing their treasures. Kids clamored for prime spots along the parade route screaming: "Beads! Beads! Beads!"

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