The Gasparilla Pirate Invasion and Parade has been a Tampa tradition for over 100 years. Named for the legendary pirate, Jose Gaspar — the last of the Buccaneers, who terrorized the coastal waters of West Florida during the late 18th and early 19th centuries — Gasparilla has, over the years, evolved into a series of week-long events presided over by hundreds of the city's most prominent men-turned-swashbucklers.
The celebration culminates in the rather rowdy day-long invasion, parade and street party that rivals Mardi Gras... including lots and lots of beads.
Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla
It all started with the legend of a fortune in buried treasure left somewhere along the Florida coast by Jose Gaspar when he died. Although that treasure has never been found, the story of the swashbuckler was unearthed and his memory revived in 1904 when Tampa's social and civic leaders adopted the pirate as patron rogue of their city-wide celebration.
Forty original members of the first "Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla" met in secret and planned a surprise mock pirate attack on Tampa. In full regalia — masked and fully-costumed — the first krewe arrived on horseback to "capture the city" during the Festival Parade. Surprisingly, the first invasion was so successful that a city-wide demand lead to making the Mystic Krewe organization permanent.
A tradition was born.
The Gasparilla "Invasion"
Whether by land or by sea, pirates will usually prevail. So they do in Tampa's annual Gasparilla invasion. Evolving from horseback to sea, a number of years saw a U.S. Navy ship bombarded by Cuban bread (being thrown from small boats) until the city eventually surrendered in defeat.
Today the water invasion begins at the south end of Hillsborough Bay and involves hundreds of boats that accompany a replica pirate ship into Tampa. The Jose Gasparilla, commissioned in 1954 by the Krewe, is the only fully-rigged pirate ship built in modern times. The ship is a replica of a West Indiaman used in the 18th century. She is constructed of steel and her three masts reach 100 feet into the air. At 165 feet in length, she makes an imposing sight as she sails the waters of Tampa Bay.
As the ship sails north to Seddon Channel (between Davis Island and Harbour Island) the cannons boom and boat horns bellow adding to the lively atmosphere. As the ship eventually docks at the Tampa Convention Center and the raucous hooligans disembark, it is clear that the city is no match, and the mayor presents the marauders with the key to the city.
In 2008, an old tradition was revived. Now the pirates, in the "The Gasparilla March Triumphant: The Return to the Sea" ceremony, return the key to the mayor, board the Jose Gasparilla and return to the sea. Don't worry. They're sure to be back next year!
Editors note: During the year, the Jose Gasparilla is usually docked at the Tarpon Weigh Station on Bayshore Boulevard, where it can be viewed and photographed.
The Gasparilla Parade
After the invasion of Tampa, the pirates take to the streets of Tampa in a parade. Over the years, the parade has grown to its present size of 90 floats, 14 marching bands and at least 50 Krewes (including some all women Krewes).
The parade begins at the scenic Bayshore and Bay to Bay Boulevards and marches north crossing into downtown Tampa on the Platt Street Bridge. The parade continues eastbound on Channelside Drive to Florida Avenue, north to Jackson Street and ends at Jackson and Marion Streets.
Hundreds of thousands of parade-goers line Bayshore Boulevard and Tampa's downtown streets to see the parade and it is televised locally by WFLA-TV News Channel 8.
A Week-long Celebration
In the past, Gasparilla was celebrated on the second Monday in February, but a break with tradition came in 1988 with a move to a Saturday festival.
In 2002, the festival was moved to the last Saturday in January. However, the celebration actually encompasses a full week's worth of activities held throughout the city.
In 2001, the Gasparilla Extravaganza evolved from what had traditionally been just a children's parade — a toned-down version of the regular parade, put on especially for the tots in town. The event has grown into an alchol-free family celebration featuring the Gasparilla Preschooler's Stroll, the Gasparilla Air Invasions (both day and night versions), the Children's Gasparilla Parade and the Gasparilla "Piratechnic" Extravagnza.
Other festivities include Krewe member-only balls and bashes, including the coronation of the King and Queen of Gasparilla that reign over the parade.