There aren't too many towns that celebrate pirate legends. Tampa, however, annually recognizes the antics of the legendary buccaneer José Gaspar (Gasparilla) and turns the legend into a festival extravaganza that is one of the year's most anticipated events.
Since 1904, the people of Tampa have been reenacting the actions of Gaspar, a supposed Spanish pirate captain who operated upon the waters of Southwest Florida. Each year, Gasparilla and his Mystic Krewe "invade" Tampa, coming ashore and causing lots of merriment as events associated with the festival unwind.
Originally, the pirate arrived on horseback but then switched to an arrival via the water, as was more logical. Also in the past, as Gaspar arrived, a US Navy boat would be "attacked" by small boats throwing black beans and Cuban bread at it, but after the World Trade Center disaster, organizers did away with that portion of the festival.
Today, the 165-foot-long Gasparilla pirate ship simply sails down Tampa Bay, accompanied by other ships, arriving near the downtown area poised to "take over the city." The mayor of Tampa presents Gaspar and his krewe with the keys to the city and the festivities begin.
The Gasparilla events are actually divided into two different days. A week or so before the "invasion", a family-oriented, non-alcoholic celebration takes place. (In 2009, the pre-invasion events happen on Jan. 24, a week before the Super Bowl comes to Tampa.)
The Extravaganza, as it is dubbed, consists of a variety of events that are perfect for families with kids of all ages. The day begins at approximately 11 am with a variety of street vendors and children's activities organized along Bayshore Blvd. This year's presentations include a Bicycle Safety Rodeo. This portion of the festival is followed by Part 1 of the annual Gasparilla Air Invasion, which includes vintage aircraft and demonstrations by the The United States Special Operations Command Parachute Team.
This year, a new event is scheduled for smaller children – the Gasparilla Preschoolers Stroll. Meant for the under 5 set, the stroll will give little ones the opportunity to don their pirate costumes and decorate their bikes and wagons and make their way down Bayshore Blvd. A second Air Invasion follows the Preschoolers event.
A tradition since 1947, the Gasparilla Children's Parades consumes most of the late afternoon hours. Organized by the Tampa Recreation Department, this parade features more than 100 units, including marching bands, dance troupes, floats, community organizations and, of course, members of the Krewe. Special reserved seating for this parade can be purchased in advance.
The day ends with an amazing display of "Piratechnics." The 23-minute show, accompanied by a choreographed musical soundtrack that is broadcast up and down Bayshore Blvd., pits Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla against the city of Tampa. While the outcome is always the same, the fireworks are, nonetheless, spectacular.
The official Gasparilla Pirate Fest generally takes place on the first Saturday of February or a week after the pre-invasion events, but because that coincides with the "big game" at Raymond James Stadium, this year's Pirate Fest is happening on February 7. This is the actual day of the "invasion", an event that attracts crowds of up to a half million people and generates much revenue for the city of Tampa.
The Gasparilla and her Krewe (chosen from many hopefuls!) descend upon the city in the "wee hours of the morning" (or about 11:30 am), entering Hillsborough with their "cannons a-boomin' and flags unfurled." The ship and those accompanying her make their way north across Hillsborough Bay and into Seddon Channel (channel between Davis Island & Harbour Island), finally arriving at the downtown area where Gaspar meets with the mayor and receives the key to the city. A reserved-seating brunch follows at the Tampa Convention Center.
Following the meal, the rowdy festivities begin – namely – The Parade of the Pirates. This year's parade will include 90 floats, 40 marching bands, and 50 different Krewes of pirates, all elaborately and colorfully dressed in their pirate finest. The parade begins at Bay to Bay Boulevard and Bayshore Boulevard and continues north along Bayshore Boulevard to the Platt Street Bridge, turns east on Channelside Drive, then north on Florida Avenue. Turning east on Jackson, it ends at Jackson and Marion Streets. The parade is free though reserved bleacher seating is available for purchase in advance.
In addition, the Pirate Fest Street Festival is in full swing during the entire day of the invasion. With rides, games, food and entertainment, the fun of the street festival begins at 10 am and doesn't end until 11 pm. Admission is free.
Tampa's Gasparilla Festival attracts both locals and out-of-towners so the city will be quite crowded during both the pre-invasion activities and on the day of the invasion. Reservations for lodging, special seating, etc. should be made well in advance of the event.
Parking is available in garages and lots throughout the city, but spectators should arrive early to ensure a place close to the action. Free parking at Raymond James Stadium is available and shuttle service ($10 pp) takes guests to the parade area. To avoid traffic, use public transportation and plan accordingly.