Tampa pirates fest, Super Bowl expected to draw major crowds

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TAMPA -- Outside this area, many people have never heard of Gasparilla. But that is about to change.

In 2001, the Mardi Gras-like revelry of pirates and a parade will be held Jan. 27, the day before the Super Bowl, which will be held here at the 66,000-seat Raymond James Stadium here. That schedule is expected to swell the normal crowd of 500,000 revelers.

The Hilton Garden Inn-Ybor City opened last year in Tampa -- the first new hotel in Ybor City in more than a century. The rowdy event draws onlookers who do their best to persuade cigar-chomping pirates riding parade boats to throw them strands of plastic beads.

Visitors should keep in mind that the Southwest Airlines Gasparilla Pirates Fest -- which in addition to the parade includes a much-ballyhooed arrival of a pirate ship followed by a flotilla of local boats docking on the river -- can create massive traffic jams during a normal year. More problems are expected with addition of a Super Bowl crowd.

To avoid getting tangled in the masses, clients can either pay $16 for a reserved seat on the parade route, park several blocks away and walk or take a taxi to the parade vantage point.

Although the Super Bowl is sure to provide a temporary boost to tourism, the Tampa area is banking on permanent growth, which explains the presence of many construction cranes.

Tampa, at long last, is getting an anchor hotel for its convention center.

"If we had any image in the past, it was sunshine and maybe a little bit of history. But we really didn't have an image," said Gary Hughes, director of marketing for the 717-room Tampa Marriott Waterside.

The anchor hotel already has handled some groups and began accepting individual reservations on March 3. The grand opening is scheduled for April 16.

"We anticipate our group business will be 80%, but we don't know how strong the leisure market will be downtown. It's untested," Hughes said.

The Marriott, set on the Tampa River, with most rooms overlooking the water or downtown skyline, is a "business hotel with a resort feel," he said.

Rack rates range from $189 to $260.

The hotel is across from the 600,000-square-foot Tampa-Hillsborough Convention Center, a riverfront facility that is in the midst of adding another 16,000 square feet by reconfiguring space.

The Marriott itself offers 50,000 square feet of convention space.

A tour of the hotel revealed desktop power outlets (no stooping to plug in laptops); movable task lights, and ergonomic chairs. On the concierge level is a full-service business desk.

Tampa also is known for Ybor City, which once was deemed the "Cigar Capital of the World."

During the past decade, Ybor City has not only become a National Historic Landmark district but also a lively Latin quarter with wrought-iron balconies, brick streets, globe street lamps, boutiques, coffeehouses and nightclubs.

Its newfound popularity is underscored by the opening of the 84-room, 11-suite Hilton Garden Inn Tampa-Ybor City last year -- the first new hotel in Ybor City in more than a century.

Rack rates are $109 to $150, with some rooms priced at $99 starting in April.

In addition, a former hospital is being converted into the Don Vicente de Ybor Inn, a small bed-and-breakfast that will have two restaurants. No timetable was available for completion.

Also under construction here is Centro Ybor, a 210,000-square-foot, $45 million complex that will feature restaurants, retail outlets, a 20-screen movie complex and other developments, all slated to open this summer. Meanwhile, existing dining outlets offer distinctive atmosphere.

Free, escorted 90-minute tours are available on Saturdays from the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.

Tampa's venerable theme park, 40-year-old Busch Gardens, also is getting spruced up.

Its Serengeti Plain attraction, with 2,700 animals, is undergoing a renovation that will offer better views as well as 150 species of vegetation starting this spring.

One of the park's premier attractions is a safari-like truck ride through its Serengeti Plain.

For $15,(vs. $20 when the area is not under construction), guests can board a truck for a bumpy tour that includes stops for feeding lettuce to giraffes, antelopes, ostriches and other animals.

The best time to go is 5 p.m., near sunset. Reservations are necessary.

Roller-coaster fans should know that the longest waiting times for the park's six coasters are 30 to 45 minutes, even at peak times. Some coasters at the park can handle up to 1,800 people per hour.

CRS: All hotels can be booked through major systems.

Tampa Marriott Waterside
Phone: (888) 268-1616

Hilton Garden Inn Tampa-Ybor City
Phone: (800) 932-3322; (813) 769-9267

Ybor City Chamber of Commerce
Phone: (813) 248-3712

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
Phone: (800) 372-1797

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