The Gasparilla Pirate Festival has been somewhat of an institution in Tampa Bay for the past 100 years, and it’s definitely an exciting event if you find yourself in the area in late January or early February.
Today, although there are numerous events during Gasparilla, such as separate celebrations for the arts, music, film, a road race and others, the main attraction is the Pirate Invasion.
Today’s Gasparilla festival is based upon the myth of José Gaspar, a legendary Spanish captain, who supposedly ran his boat in the waters of southwestern Florida. Gaspar was apparently a Spanish nobleman and naval officer, who turned to the dark side of piracy.
As legend has it, Gaspar left Spain in the late 18th century and claimed the sparsely populated Florida coast, south of Tampa, as his new territory. Stories have him and his crew of the Floridablanca wreaking havoc in the Gulf of Mexico, pillaging ships and taking many hostages. The legend ends with Gaspar wrapping himself in anchor chains and jumping off his ship in order to avoid capture by the U.S. Navy.
No one doubts that the story is exciting, but there are numerous critics out there, as many aspects of the legend cannot be supported. Regardless, the tall tale has launched a tradition that’s lasted a century.
The modern day Pirate Invasion is led by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, aboard the Jose Gasparilla. The ship leads a flotilla of hundreds of local pleasure crafts along the coast of the Tampa Bay.
Eventually, the Jose Gasparilla docks in downtown Tampa (at the Convention Center) and the pirates on board invade. The mayor “surrenders” the Key to the City and a boisterous parade ensues.
In the early 20th century, in an attempt to liven up the city’s reputation for rather boring festivals and introduce some local culture, elements of the infamous pirates were added to the successful Mardi Gras celebrations found in New Orleans. The tradition of the highly coveted, plastic beads survives to this day, although baring one’s chest is prohibited.
Alcohol flows as freely as the water in the Tampa Bay and that will undoubtedly lead to drunken chaos. I even witnessed my first street fight. How exciting!
If you plan on attending the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, be sure to review the schedule of events. The Jose Gasparilla leads the flotilla along a designated route in the Tampa Bay in the late morning and eventually invades the city around noon. After the pirates have had a chance to disembark, the parade takes place along Bayshore Boulevard in the afternoon, starting near the Brorein St. bridge and continuing to Bay to Bay Blvd.
Many roads are closed and driving around downtown Tampa quickly becomes frustrating with all of its one-way streets. I recommend parking near Ybor City for free and taking the Trolley ($5 for an adult day pass) directly to the Convention Center.