If you ever wish to visit the Tampa Bay area, set your sights for the end of January for a one of a kind experience. Tampa is home to the Gasparilla Pirate Festival named after legendary pirate Jose Gaspar. The festival along with its 3 main parades are quite a sight to witness!
The festival began in 1904 when the story of the hidden treasure of Jose Gaspar resurfaced and Louise Francis Dodge along with George W. Hardee worked with the government of Tampa to create a mock pirate invasion. They hoped that the festivities would draw a larger crowd to their May Day festivities; they had no idea the festival would blossom into the event that it is today! Jose Gaspar was a pirate who was said to have invaded Florida in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Gaspar was a Spaniard who was supposedly banished from the court of the Spanish king and began a life of piracy. He ravaged the town and left his treasure hidden away for future pirates to find. While the legitimacy of his existence has been questioned he has retained legendary status as the namesake of the festival.
The festival begins with an invasion by Gaspar and his crew, which are fancifully named “Ye Mystic Krewe”. For the first 7 years of the festival the pirates would invade via horse into the town, however, in 1911 they invaded via the port on a ship for the first time and they have continued this tradition up until the present day. In 1937 they commissioned their first ship the Jose Gasparilla I and 8 years later the Jose Gasparilla II was built and is now the world’s only fully functioning pirate ship. Along with the pirate ship other smaller privately-owned vessels follow along behind the Jose Gasparilla II, creating a sort of mini-parade in the Bay .
The Krewe and their ship sail into Tampa Bay (specifically the Seddan Canal) and they unload their ship where they meet with the mayor of Tampa who “surrenders” the key to the city to the invading forces. Thus, begins the “Parade of Pirates” which goes down Bayshore Blvd and continues into the downtown Tampa area and is known as the festival to see during the entirety of the event. The pirates and their companions continue down the streets throwing beads and other memorabilia to the surrounding crowds while music plays, and people cheer. Another focal point of the parade is the crowning of the Gasparilla king and queen who then ride on a float throughout the parade in their regalia.
There is also the “Children’s Gasparilla Extravaganza” which is held a week before the official parade; this parade is shorter and family friendly as alcohol is not served along the parade route. The “Sant'Yago Knight Parade” is the third Gasparilla parade and it is held at night in Ybor City two weeks after the “Parade of Pirates”. While these parades are also highly attended they pale in comparison to the main parade.
The Gasparilla parade is the third largest parade in the United States with hundreds of thousands of patrons visiting every year. It has an amazing impact on the Tampa community and brings in lots of revenue for a large number of local businesses. It is most definitely an interesting and unique experience that anyone who visits the City of Tampa should visit if they are able too!