SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — As bagpipes wailed outside from the parade a block down the street, Tanni Embric scrambled to keep up behind the bar with four growing lines of gaudy green St. Patrick's Day revelers thirsty for cold beer — with nearly an hour to go before lunchtime.
"So far it's been steady, and it's looking pretty good," said Embric, manager of Isaac's bar and restaurant in downtown Savannah. "We've got more of everything this year: more beer, more staff and more liquor."
And apparently no shortage of St. Patrick's visitors to drink it. Tens of thousands of revelers — some Irish, some not — swarmed the oak-shaded squares of Georgia's oldest city and packed the sidewalks shoulder-to-shoulder and at least four people deep for the procession of marching bands, shamrock-decorated floats and convertibles chauffeuring local Irish dignitaries that's billed as the nation's second-largest St. Pat's parade.
St. Patrick's Day traditionally marks the start of the peak tourist season in Savannah, where Irish immigrants held their first parade in 1824. Nearly two centuries later, Savannah draws up to 400,000 revelers in peak years for a celebration that rivals those in New York, Boston and Chicago.
Victoria Verspille, a college sophomore from Clinton, N.J., made the 13-hour drive to Savannah with a friend to celebrate St. Patrick's as part of their spring break. She said the 72-degree weather alone made the trip worth it.
"It's 50 degrees back home, so this has been paradise," Verspille said. "I've got a sunburn and I'm happy about it."
Andy Napolitano, a Chicago police officer, was making his second St. Patrick's visit to Savannah along with several other officers and firefighters from back home. They took in the sights while sipping beer from plastic cups on the street — a legal way to imbibe here.
"It's very friendly," Napolitano said. "It's a different atmosphere than we've got at home at our parades. It's a lot less regimented here."
For local merchants and hotels, a healthy turnout on St. Patrick's translates into the single most profitable day of the year. Hotels in the city's downtown historic district were mostly full Thursday at rates of about $300 per night. Bars and restaurants on the cobblestone riverfront were stocked to the rafters with beer, liquor, food and more beer.
"It's pretty much the kickoff for the 2011 season," said Fred Plantadis, general manager of Tubby's Tank House, a seafood bar and grill on the riverfront. "You're not motivated if you don't have a good St. Patrick's Day."
Plantadis made sure Tubby's was more than ready to open at 7 a.m. with green eggs, ham and Bloody Marys. He also had 12 extra workers on the clock, 75 cases of Bud Light being dyed for green beer and enough vodka to mix 4,600 shots at $1 a pop.
Savannah's counting on the party continuing through the weekend. Joe Marinelli, president of Savannah's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said downtown hotels started filling up Wednesday with many visitors staying through Saturday night. Flights departing the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport are almost sold out for Sunday.
"We are expecting a dynamite weekend," Marinelli said.
And that's without Savannah spending a dime on paid advertising to market its St. Patrick's celebration to tourists. Local tourism officials say the parade's popularity has traditionally been spread by word of mouth. It now spreads at a near-viral level with the visitors bureau using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, where its page dedicated to St. Pat's this year drew more than 32,000 visitors.
Leslie Devey of Woodstock north of Atlanta was among those taking advantage of St. Patrick's Day for a long weekend getaway. She, her husband and two other couples arrived Wednesday night and were staying until Sunday morning.
"Savannah has so much to offer, so you've got to stay," Devey said. "We've been planning this for a long time and were ready to come."