TAMPA — In the middle of more than 100 floats at last year’s Gasparilla parade was one that looked like a red-brick replica of the J.C. Newman Cigar Co., the only cigar factory still in operation in Ybor City.
The float had a working clock tower that was actually its bathroom in disguise. While Latin jazz played over the speakers, Luis Martinez, a master roller for the historic cigar company, was at work. He rolled more than 80 cigars live on the parade route as the reigning Miss Tampa danced to the music.
“I think it was a world first,” said Drew Newman, a lawyer for the cigar company that his grandfather founded in 1895. “It was just so Tampa. We’ve got Cigar City and Gasparilla all in one package.”
The annual Gasparilla parade has grown from a handful of Tampa’s founders on horseback in 1904 throwing coins and spent bullet shells to one of the largest parades in the country. This Saturday, some 300,000 people will be eagerly catching the beads and trinkets from a 120-unit parade that takes four hours to complete.
There were only a handful of krewes when the event started. By 1999, there were 22. This year there will be 53 krewes in the parade and 115 parade floats representing companies, clubs and a variety of social and ethnic groups.
And along with that explosive growth of the parade has been the appearance of new floats that have grown more elaborate, putting Broadway set designers on notice for creativity.
There are floats that have smoke and cannon fire, treasure chests that open and close, waterfalls that cascade over a pirate skull. Several of them have working bars on board to serve the krewe members and intricate set designs that may be hard to notice as the parade passes by.
These floats can cost as much as a home extension, from $20,000 to more than $100,000 for one that has enough space for dozens of people, a bathroom, a generator for music and lights, and more. Some are self-propelled, but parade organizers recommend they be pulled by a truck with a driver who can better navigate the road and the crowd.
The sponsors of the floats are more than just community groups and those with corporate interests. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has one of the biggest. It is a multistory float with deputies and staff and even families from the community who can win a chance to ride along.
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“We have used this float in numerous parades, from Gasparilla to the Strawberry Festival and the Pride Parade,” said sheriff spokesperson Phil Martello. “Sheriff Chronister knows how vital it is for our deputies to be able to interact with residents in a positive environment, fostering a sense of unity. Participating in these events allows us to build trust and humanize our deputies, breaking down any potential barriers.”
Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the private club that started the event in 1904 and still organizes it to this day, has a warehouse in South Tampa that houses its many parade floats as well as the floats of other krewes that need the covered space to shield them from the Florida elements the rest of the year.
Because this original krewe is so large, it can’t be contained to one float. They will have 12 floats in this year’s Gasparilla Parade of Pirates.
The “float barn,” as they call it, contains dozens of parade floats, from multiple krewes, some of them retired that are still sometimes used for community displays. One of the retired floats, a favorite built in the 1950s, looks like an octopus. There’s a 2-foot window where the driver of the float can see out from his perch below the main deck.
One of their most popular current floats is called the Skull and Treasures, which has a spinning scene within the mouth of a giant skull. A waterfall cascades over the skull’s teeth to a pool below.
It is reminiscent of scenes at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Walt Disney World.
“Oh no, Disney is reminiscent of us, not the other way around” said Tim Rivers, who has helped his father build Gasparilla floats since 1988 for the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. “We were here first.”