TAMPA — When the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates rolls down Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa on Saturday, Jan. 27, keep in mind that one family of tinkerers and tradespeople has for 35 years been the primary reason elaborate floats are part of the scene.
After a career in the Air Force working on F-4 and F-15 fighter jets, Hewett Rivers got pulled in to helm the many parade floats of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. They included ones with a giant octopus and a cartoonishly Happy Pirate with a peg leg and a hook for a hand.
The Tampa retiree, now 72, chuckled at the oddity, but he said most people don’t realize that the krewe, a private club of Tampa’s elite that started the Gasparilla tradition back in 1904 and still runs the event today, has always built and maintained its own fleet of parade floats. The krewe owns 14 floats, which were built anywhere from the mid-1960s to 2018. Some of them are now retired.
It takes two years to design and build a modern float, and they can cost anywhere from $20,000 to more than $100,000 with moving pieces, smoke, cannons and more. Many have working bathrooms and some have a real working bar for the krewe members. There will be 115 floats in Saturday’s Gasparilla parade, some made by corporations or community groups and others by the 53 Gasparilla krewes.
Back in 1988, some friends asked Rivers to join the krewe to help build and maintain the floats. And over the past 35 years, the Rivers family, especially sons Christopher, 47, and Tim, 43, have helped with the concepts, engineering and overseeing the vast Tampa warehouse that contains dozens of the floats.
The rest of the Rivers kids (five in all) and grandkids are usually roped into working during Gasparilla season, Christopher Rivers said, as are more than 40 seasonal workers who help manage the march down Bayshore and maintain the floats.
The Cass Street “float barn,” as they call it in Tampa, is like a surreal fun house where an 8-foot skeleton skull is parked next to a giant octopus and an elaborate replica of an 18th century pirate ship.
Christopher, as the lead construction and developmental engineer, honed his craft in the custom yacht manufacturing business, where he learned to mold lightweight high-strength materials. His brother Tim, the lead architectural design engineer, is an artist who utilizes state-of-the-art 3D computer programs to bring his creative designs to life and ensure they fit on a moving vessel.
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“People think we created our own company or something but we didn’t. We just work for the YMKG krewe,” said Tim Rivers, who has never ridden on one of their floats in a parade because he said he is “too busy watching out to make sure we don’t hit a kid on the parade route.”
Despite corporate sponsorships from big entities like the Seminole Hard Rock and Chick-fil-A, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla still runs the event and builds and maintains its own fleet of parade floats. The krewe had 10 of them in the Children’s Gasparilla parade last weekend, more than double even the next-largest krewe. And it will have 12 floats in the big Gasparilla Parade of Pirates on Jan. 27.
One, called the Skull and Treasures, has a spinning scene within the mouth of a giant skull, in which a pirate is finding treasure on one side and a skeleton is surrounded by treasure on the other. The Royal Float has a giant king’s crown that provides a canopy for the krewe’s royal court, and the Gillie Gaspar shines in the sun with its sparkly gold-leaf coating on a float that replicates an elaborate pirate ship.
But Tim Rivers’ favorite is the “old junker” that looks like an octopus and was built in 1965. He loves it because it’s the only one still left that is made of papier-mache. It is now retired but used for displays sometimes.
“You can form anything with molds but papier-mache, when you think about it, that took a lot of work and somebody did a good job building that,” he said.
There have been floats that were self-propelled and ones that used a driver stashed under the top deck who had to see out of a tiny window. These days, the Rivers family recommends that floats be pulled by a truck so the driver has a clear view of the path ahead.
Hewett jokes that he retired from maintaining fighter jets at MacDill Air Force Base to oversee a fleet of pirate skulls and sea monsters.
“We created a lot of those more elaborate floats you see now. Well, they did, I didn’t,” he said, referring to his sons. “We’ve always been trying to push the boundaries of the floats.”