Explaining Gasparilla to tourists who have never heard of Tampa’s Mardi Gras-style event — the boats, the beads, the parade of people in pantaloons — is a bit of a trick.
Tour guide Max Haid, his headset-microphone piping his patter to riders in an open-air golf cart as they tooled past the docked Jose Gasparilla ship, gave it a shot:
“OK, who likes drinking?” he asked. Enthusiastic response. “Who likes pirates?”
Next stop: downtown’s new Water Street, with its sleek high-rises and swanky restaurants, then off to Ybor City for history and hand-rolled cigars.
Tampa “is more than I thought,” said passenger Carrie Foster as they cruised past the mansions of Bayshore Boulevard.
Not long ago — before construction cranes became part of the landscape — golf cart tours would have seemed an unlikely business venture around what had been a sleepier downtown. But that was before Tampa started to morph and eventually scored, among other recent notable mentions, Time magazine’s World’s Greatest Places 2023.
Clint Bertucci, who operates a tour business in Italy, Greece, Thailand, Iceland and Peru, decided to try it in Tampa, the town where he’s lived for 40 years. In 2021, he opened the plainly named Tampa Golf Cart Tours, which last year got a Traveler’s Choice nod on TripAdvisor, running two-hour tours seven days a week at $50 a head.
“I like to say I loved Tampa and was here before it was cool,” Bertucci said.
To officially be a high-impact Florida tourism destination, an area had to hit $600 million in hotel revenue, said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. Ten years ago, that figure for Hillsborough County, including Tampa, was $423 million. Last year, the county hit a billion dollars, he said.
More evidence of Tampa’s trajectory: Smith Travel Research Inc. reported that the city is No. 1 in hotel occupancy at 79.9% this year through April in a convention city competitive set that includes Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, San Antonio, Texas, Austin, Fort Worth, Charlotte, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Nashville and Louisville, Corrada said.
“It means, as a destination, every hotel is being occupied,” Corrada said. “It probably means we need more hotels.” And presumably, more things for people who stay in them to do.
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On a recent weekday, Jerome and Dianne Greener, California retirees who moved to Naples and have been exploring their newly adopted state, climbed in with Foster, their daughter who’s in the surf shop business. Jerome Greener liked a tour they’d taken in Rome, so he looked up one for Tampa.
They smiled at Haid’s joke about buckling up for turbulence, and at 25 mph, began passing city scenes: Kids cavorting in fountains outside the Glazer Children’s Museum, a homeless woman talking to herself on a bench, a scenic stretch of Riverwalk where Haid told them you can get a special drink cup that allows walkers to imbibe.
”Let’s go straight there,” said Dianne Greener, kidding, this being the 10 a.m. tour, with two more later in the day.
Besides the dad jokes and restaurant recommendations — and the knowledge of where drinks are pricey and not — the guide’s patter was also rich in history: Henry B. Plant, bringing his railroad to Tampa and opening the grand minaret-topped Tampa Bay Hotel, now the University of Tampa’s Plant Hall. President John F. Kennedy, riding these very streets days before he was assassinated in Dallas.
Haid pointed out the cylinder high-rise office locally known as the beer can building. He noted the cheapest condo in a luxury tower about to rise on the river would cost $1.5 million, he said, on land once supposed to house a Trump Tower. The water below, he reported as they cruised over a bridge, was brackish. Highest local temperature ever in Tampa: 99 degrees.
Tour guides — the company has five running three eight-seater carts — take oral and driving tests and must score at least 90% on a written one, Bertucci said.
“I really feel like I’m seeing Tampa,” Dianne Greener said.
Over there was the Tom Brady house, here, the sprawling bungalows of Hyde Park, over there, the old streetcar barn that’s now the popular Armature Works complex. It was hot, with a lot of bottled water doled out. Sometimes passengers switch sides halfway through a tour to tan their other arms.
A frequent question when people book: Can we bring alcohol? No.
In the historic Latin Quarter of Ybor City, they heard about the cigar industry and the workers who rolled them while lectors read them newspaper stories from above. They saw chickens that strut the red brick streets with impunity, protected by city ordinance. They stopped to buy a hand-rolled cigar.
“It’s really good luck to throw a penny in that fountain,” Haid, who formerly worked on cruise ships, said at one point. “But it’s better luck to tip your driver.”
Bertucci said their customers are tourists both domestic and international, conventioneers and new college parents who want to know something about the town where they’re leaving their offspring.
At the end, Haid asked them to put their tray tables up in the locked position, getting a laugh and also a tip.
“I’ve got a real feel for it,” Dianne Greener said of the city.
Bertucci said he’s had customers ask at the end of the tour, “Do you have a Realtor?’” — as in, one he could recommend.
Corrada said he could envision bus tours in Tampa’s future.