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Bay area lets its hair down at 101st Gasparilla: 'I think it's the Mardi Gras of Florida — Tampa style'


The skies smiled and the pirates pranced the way swashbucklers do. Screams tested eardrums. Bedlam tested order.

Adults who are levelheaded every other day of the year threw plastic beads at one another and their inhibitions to the wind.

And the authorities stood by and let the city explode. And why not?

It's Gasparilla, Tampa Bay's annual excuse to let its collective hair down.

The 101st Gasparilla Invasion and Parade of the Pirates opened and closed Saturday with its usual verve as tens of thousands lined the streets of Tampa to spy floats and to catch those maddening, airborne beads. A riot of color and sound overwhelmed the senses.

And please, folks. No comparisons to Mardi Gras. To many, Gasparilla is something apart. Kelvin Dent gets it. The 19-year-old Mobile, Ala., native grew up going to his hometown's version of the bigger celebrations.

"I've never seen anything like this before," he said. "It's like I'm in a movie or something."

Mark Novak makes the trip down every year from Georgia. The University of Tampa grad hasn't missed Gasparilla in more than three decades.

"I think it's the Mardi Gras of Florida — Tampa style," he said.

• • •

The parade kicked off with the traditional invasion by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.

As they prepared to storm downtown to demand the keys to the city, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the city might have to build a wall to keep the pirates at bay.

Maybe even ban them, too.

With the requisite elan, the marauders leaped from their ship Jose Gasparilla, already laden under the weight of beer cans and spent shells. The mayor stood his ground. Briefly. Hizzoner finally gave in.

"The key is yours," Buckhorn said as he presented the pirates with a key to the city, if not his heart. "Just give it back tomorrow."

• • •

Like a cork out of a champagne bottle, the parade launched at 2 p.m. and the flight of the beads began.

Some folks snatch those plastic trinkets with the skill of Joe DiMaggio catching a fly ball in Yankee Stadium. Practice makes perfect.

Tampa's Carol Porter, 55, has worked at it for 20 years, and uses the beads to create colorful water jugs for her three great-grandchildren. This year, her arms were covered in beads as she stood on N Ashley Drive, while also carrying a bag heavy with them.

She does it for the great-grandkids.

"That way, they'll have something to remember me by," Porter said.

The parade certainly holds special delight for children. Some literally profit by the experience.

This is the age of the smart phone revolution. So Erica Muller, 11, didn't set up a lemonade stand at Bayshore Boulevard and Swann Avenue. Instead, she operated a phone charging station there, asking pirate and civilian alike for $5 to connect their iPhones and Android devices to her extension cord.

Business was slow early on, but Erica guessed it would pick up later.

"I think it's going to come towards the end," she said.

• • •

Some threw beads. Some threw kisses. And some, well some just threw up during a festival that for a few uninhibited souls can sometimes skirt the fuzzy thin line between fun and overindulgence.

Police ultimately cut the parade short for a number of people.

Tampa police arrested two people on felony charges, 21 on misdemeanor, according to a preliminarily count by officers. The charges ranged from marijuana possession to boating under the influence, underage drinking and others.

Workers at the Publix at 243 Bayshore Blvd. know all about that fuzzy line. The store's wine section was barricaded like a crime scene. Beer, however, was still sold, and it flew off shelves as if the cashiers were on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl.

A frazzled store manager held back one unruly customer as he tried to stroll out the entrance, a few apparently as-yet-unpaid-for beers in hand.

Preacher James McDonald of Pike, N.Y., was having none of that debauchery. He attended Gasparilla to lecture the throngs about the evils of alcohol and other vices.

"I don't drink," McDonald said. "I don't smoke. I don't party."

• • •

As it is every year, people-watching is good sport at Gasparilla.

A hostess named Jill Kelley held a soiree at her Bayshore home with former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Madden, currently the skipper of the Chicago Cubs, to support wounded veterans. Meantime, Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the chief of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, and wife, Charlene, enjoyed the parade from the city of Tampa's tent.

No word on whether the general paid a visit to the Kelley bash.

Gasparilla often serves as a chance for the city to express appreciation to veterans. This year, Romulo "Romy" Camargo, a quadriplegic veteran from New Tampa who was wounded in Afghanistan, served as Gasparilla's grand marshal.

He was serving his third tour when a bullet to the neck paralyzed him.

And it wouldn't be a parade without some politicians mingling among the voters. Among those spotted was Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

• • •

Best friends and Tampa neighbors Denise Fonts, 46, and Becky Cizek, 52, were covered in beads, happily bopping to the music as the Krewe of South Florida's float blasted the song Bust a Move. The two had small toy pirate swords they used to catch beads.

Cizek just moved to Tampa from Chicago two years ago, but said the parade makes her feel connected to the community.

"This is awesome," she said. "You can't put this into words."

• • •

Capt. Jack Sparrow worked the crowd, offering hugs and photos to parade viewers.

"Today I'm Jack Sparrow," the man said. "Tomorrow I'm Jeff Sicard."

Sicard has attended past parades, but this was the first time he attended the invasion — and dressed like a movie pirate. And he is sure it is an event that should be on everyone's bucket list. He wasn't in any krewe, and admitted he wasn't supposed to be in the street.

He couldn't leash his enthusiasm.

"Here's the thing," Sicard-Sparrow said. "You only live once, and Gasparilla is not worth missing."

Times staff writers Sara DiNatale and Jimmy Guerts and correspondents Kenya Woodard and Scott Purks contributed to this report.