Joni Cusimano remembers watching her first Gasparilla parade as a child and wishing out loud she could someday be a pirate and ride atop a float throwing beads.
"Little girls can't be a pirate, that's just the way it is," Cusimano's mother would say.
Back then, Gasparilla krewes consisted only of white businessmen. There were no krewes for women or minorities.
But decades later, Cusimano, now 60, wraps herself in bright swaths of silk fabric, laces up her bustier, slips on a colorful coat and boots and transforms herself into a female pirate for the Krewe of Queen Anne's Revenge, one of the newest all-female krewes, named after the flagship vessel of Black Beard the pirate.
"It's so exciting," says Cusimano, who formed the krewe with six other women in 2010. "It takes me about an hour to get ready. You even have to wear the right underwear."
Saturday, Cusimano and 100 of her krewe cohorts will pillage, plunder and parade down Bayshore Boulevard during the Gasparilla Parade of the Pirates, the city's annual pirate celebration.
The 108th anniversary of the invasion is Saturday.
Queen Anne's Revenge is one of about a dozen all-female krewes that are members of the Inter-Krewe Council (IKC). The council, which represents krewes all over the country, meets quarterly, trades information and keeps krewes connected.
The krewe tradition, started more than 100 years ago by the exclusive Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, includes more than 100 krewes representing diverse races and interests.
Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley was the first all-female krewe to make an appearance at Gasparilla in 1992.
That was the year after Ye Mystic Krewe integrated and allowed minorities into their ranks and women krewes were allowed to participate in the parade.
"Most women will tell you that being in an all-female krewe is an escape from everyday life," says Cusimano, who is serving on her second all-female krewe. "It's an escape from your kids and husband, and it lets you be who you want to be with, a group of women that share your same interests."
The lasses say there's nothing quite like the party that is Gasparilla, where they get to don pirate garb, ride on floats and sling beads to a boisterous crowd of thousands. And they say they party just as hard as their male counterparts.
"We absolutely have more fun than the men," says Bobbie Schofield, 66, one of the co-founders of Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley. "There's all this pressure for the men to dominate like pirates. We can just be ladies; it's much more fun for us and more relaxing."
In 1992, the most difficult part for Grace O'Malley was choosing a name.
"Our first idea was to call ourselves the Cuban Bread Drill Team because we're from Tampa," recalls Schofield. "The second name was Shopping Cart Drill Team, because we liked to shop. I think we were drinking bourbon punch while we were talking about it."
They finally settled on the female Irish pirate named Grace O'Malley.
"We wanted to represent a real female pirate," added Schofield. "And we wanted a woman who was strong and brave, just like us."
Like the women of O'Malley,
krewes dress in full pirate regalia or in elaborate costumes that represent the people — or theme — for which they are named.
The krewes will make their way down Bayshore Boulevard riding atop elaborate floats designed to look like castles and galleons, entertaining crowds and tossing beads.
"I flick (the beads) with my sword," says Camille Matthews, who co-founded the Bonney-Read Krewe in 1994. The group is named after female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read. "We don't just throw them out in the crowd. We like to select who we want to throw to."
"I try to make eye contact with the person I am going to throw them to," said Joan King, a charter member of Bonney-Read.
"If there are children screaming or signs that read "Pandora," we'll throw them some beads," says Celeste Stewart, 49, president of the Krewe of Pandora.
Sometimes crowds can get a little too raucous for the beads, and these salty women aren't afraid to give landlubbers a piece of their mind.
"I'm still shocked by the behavior of some of the crowd, more so than the other krewes," says Kelly Floyd, president of the Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley. "I see so many young men that pull up their shirts to flash us. If I'm close enough to speak to them, I tell them to put their shirts down and ask them what their mother would think. They usually look shocked."
The women say despite all the fun of being part of Gasparilla, the real reward comes from their community service. Many krewes raise money for charities, such as breast cancer research, domestic violence and child abuse prevention.
"We are a volunteer-based krewe," said Karen Bett of the Krewe of Agustina de Aragon,
which raises money for Special Olympics, Toys for Tots and The Spring, among others. "We were the first krewe registered in the city as a volunteer krewe. That's extremely important for us."
Stewart, of Krewe of Pandora, agrees. Pandora's charitable support includes The Humane Society of Tampa Bay, The Children's Home and Elves for the Elderly.
"I think that's the most important thing we do," says Stewart. "We make giving to charities part of our requirements. Our members have to participate and contribute to at least four charities a year to participate in the parade. It should be that way for all the krewes."
SEMINOLE HARD ROCK GASPARILLA PIRATE FEST
The event is in three phases. All events are free, except the Invasion Brunch.
The Gasparilla Invasion
When: Starts at 10 a.m. as the Jose Gasparilla ship is joined by other boats on a trip across Hillsborough Bay, then up Seddon Channel to the Tampa Bay Convention Center
Where: Good views can be had from the lower section of Bayshore Boulevard and the Channelside Drive Bridge. Best view is from the Invasion Brunch at the Tampa Convention Center, which runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tickets ($65 for adults and $55 for children) are limited. Go to the website at the bottom of this box for information, or call
Gasparilla Parade of the Pirates
When: 2 p.m.
Where: The parade begins at Bay to Bay Boulevard and Bayshore Boulevard, going along Bayshore into downtown Tampa, going north on Ashley Drive and ends at Cass Street.
On TV: Watch the parade, hosted by News Channel 8 morning anchors Gayle Guyardo and Rod Carter at 2:30 p.m. on WFLA, Channel 8.
Gasparilla Pirate Fest Street Festival
When: Acts begin playing at 10 a.m. Most shows are post-parade, including C-Nergy and The Skycoasters.
Where: Acts will play on two stages in downtown Tampa — the Pirate Fest Stage at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Ashley Drive and the Invasion Stage at MacDill Park at Ashley Drive and Whiting Street.
www.gasparillapiratefest.com for more information.