Gasparilla pirate parade snakes through mayhem and merriment

The pirate ship Jose Gasparilla wasn't exactly dodging icebergs. And for that matter, neither was the Unsinkable Krewe of Molly Brown.

But the beast that is the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates, that rollicking, ridiculous, rambunctious bastion of intemperance and studied imbecility, opened Saturday with temperatures chilly enough to make any pirate reach for a parka. Oh, sure, it was only in the 50s.

But this is Florida, matey.

The chill didn't dent the party. Thousands of hardy swashbucklers lined tony Bayshore Boulevard and downtown streets to scream and whoop in the traditional rain of plastic beads that erupted from a procession of floats.

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Coils of beads wrapped necks like unruly pythons. Drinks were swilled. Cannons boomed.

"For me," said Tyler Parenti, 25, of Jacksonville Beach, "Gasparilla is a spiritual experience."

And this being Gasparilla, when the kids and adults filled the sidewalks, the kids were the only ones acting their age.

• • •

The Gasparilla Pirate Fest opened the way invasions do — with the mayor at the waterfront fending off the marauders from the Jose Gasparilla.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn stole a page from the political news of the day as he prepared to offer the pirates a key to the city.

"You know what I think we can do?" said Buckhorn. "Build a wall and make the pirates pay for it. ... Do you want me to defend this city?"

Not far away, brothers Dave and Mike Fitzgerald talked of the pirate behind the festivities, Jose Gaspar. They are convinced, whatever the evidence to the contrary, that he really existed.

"He was a menace, a murdering marauder who pillaged and plundered in the pursuit of pleasure," Mike Fitzgerald said as he swaggered toward the parade in his oversized pirate boots. "Not a nice guy, but if he inspired all of this, we don't care."

The Fitzgeralds should have talked to Turner Ashby, 11, and two classmates from Wilson Middle School who were diligently tending their homemade Gasparilla snack stand nearby.

It's been a tradition for Turner for the past six years. "I've seen lots and lots of Gasparillas," he said. "The whole thing is just about bringing people together and celebrating Tampa's history."

Friend Ziggy Bereday, 12, said they had to write a paper about the fearsome Gaspar last week.

"He's definitely fake," Bereday said. "There's absolutely no evidence he existed at all. But I think Gasparilla is still pretty cool."

• • •

Heavy drinking is still the bane and spectacle of Gasparilla despite efforts by police to curtail this seedier aspect of the parade.

The drinking started early Saturday. By about 1 p.m., crowds of shivering pirates could be seen taking swigs from open bottles of Captain Morgan as they walked from as far away as Kennedy Boulevard to the Bayshore parade.

Crowds cheered pirates who stumbled to the ground but managed to pick themselves back up again. They took selfies with the less fortunate pirates who remained in heaps in the grass lining the parade route.

The cold may have damped the crowds. Police estimated 225,000 to 250,000 people attending this year, down from estimates as high as 300,000 in recent years.

The preliminary tally of what went wrong: Eight arrests, one each for disorderly intoxication, public urination, disorderly conduct, possession of an open container, criminal use of a personal ID, and battery, and two for possession of cocaine. Medics transported 35 people, one a trauma alert.

• • •

Going to Gasparilla was one of the first things Tampa native Heather Hershey, 22, wanted to do when she returned home from California as she retired from the Marines.

"We picked a bad place to stand," she sighed. "They're throwing all the beads to the left side!"

Her aunt, Lauren Filips, still lives in Tampa and has been through several rounds of Gasparilla madness.

"I feel like Gasparilla captures the feeling of Tampa, the heart of it," Filips said. "It's so specific and special to our city."

Savannah Egan, 34, admits that having a stepfather with a condo on Bayshore spoils her at Gasparilla, and she's invited friends and family to come on down.

"We have our own party, booze, food and music," she said. "It's great."

The downside — strangers who think her bathroom is public. "You have to be strict," she said.

• • •

While Gasparilla is a rowdy affair, it also is a time to honor those who served their country.

Each year, Tampa socialite Jill Kelley — yes, that Jill Kelley — and former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon host a party for wounded warriors at Kelley's Bayshore home, giving them a chance to see the parade from their own dedicated spots.

"Society has it all wrong," said Maddon, who led the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series victory since what seemed to fans like the first time since the erection of Stonehenge. "These guys are the heroes. They deserve anything we can do for them because of what they did for us."

Just for today, Maddon is forgiven his move to Chicago.

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Howard Altman, Libby Baldwin and Sara DiNatale, and correspondent Lenora Lake.

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