RIVERVIEW — Gasparilla fans who have never been able to ride the pirate parade's floats will have the chance to wave and toss beads for the first time Saturday with the debut of a giant treasure chest on wheels built to accommodate people with disabilities.
The Krewe of Sir Francis Drake, formed last February and creators of the float, calls it the first in the country to comply with the American with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Ben Ritter, an ex-Marine who lost the use of his legs in an operation, will ride on the float Saturday.
"This is a precedent-setting float that should be emulated by other parade organizers throughout the USA, for both veterans and non-veterans who use wheelchairs," said Ritter, co-chairman of the Tampa Mayor's Alliance for Persons with Disabilities.
Ritter was on the White House lawn when President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law.
The new float will go down as a benchmark in the history of Tampa's signature event, which excluded broad segments of the population for decades after its launch by prominent Tampa residents as a May Day festival in 1904.
It wasn't until 1992 that the founding organization Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla welcomed black members, and the all-female Krewe of Grace O'Malley paraded for the first time.
Gasparilla, in fact, was canceled in 1991 over concerns about the absence of racial diversity — a decision driven in part by Tampa's hosting of the NFL Super Bowl.
Since then, participation continues to grow and the number of floats fielded by the social organizations known as krewes now numbers more than 40.
Among the newest is the 53-foot, $85,000 float named "Treasure Chest," built to carry 120 people and featuring a wheelchair lift, room for four wheelchairs, an ADA compliant bathroom, wide pathways and an onboard automated heart defibrillator.
Money for the float came from donors including Renee Adams, president and pirate queen with the Krewe of Sir Francis Drake, and her fiancé Roland Wood, the organization's vice president and captain of the float.
Adams and Wood, who met two years ago at the Gasparilla parade , did much of the work on the float, putting in time on nights and weekends, and in Wood's case, during two weeks of vacation.
"We just want everyone to feel they are special," Adams said.
The couple also decided to name their krewe after Drake, the English sea captain who earned his reputation as a pirate, in part , through his privateering on behalf of Queen Elizabeth.
"He started the whole pirate culture, and his motto, 'From small beginnings come big things,' means so much to us," Wood said.
Wood is a clown for Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa and along with Adams is involved in a number of charities throughout the Tampa Bay area.
Dark brown in color and adorned with a kaleidoscope of beads, Treasure Chest has shiny gold coins embedded in its ceiling. The float first rolled publicly on Saturday during the Children's Gasparilla Parade, carrying several guests who have disabilities.
Among them was Alan Alvarez, 36, of Land O' Lakes, born with Down syndrome. During the float's christening the night before, Alvarez's mother Kathy Alvarez spoke about her son's giving heart and her wish for him to ride a float rather watch from the sidelines.
"This is God's blessing for all the joy he brings to others," she said.
Eleven-year-old Andrew Smith of Seffner, born prematurely with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, also was invited to ride during the Children's Parade.
At the christening, Andrew stood beside the float in awe with his Michelle Smith and said, "I'm very excited."
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