Sunday, April 03, 2011

Gasparilla Pirate Festival

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
Ahoy! Pirates invading Tampa Bay!

In my endless pursuit of Florida pirates, I drove up to Tampa in January to check out the annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival, which features a pirate "invasion" and a parade.

The event dates back to 1904 when a group of the city's social and civic leaders adopted the legendary pirate's name for a city-wide celebration involving a royal court and parade. The "Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla" was formed and invaded the city on land until the commission of an authentic pirate ship replica in 1954 made the krewe seaworthy.

José Gaspar's existence is doubtful. According to legend, Gasparilla the Spanish pirate may have called Charlotte Harbour and surrounding islands home in the 18th century, but there's no definitive documentation. And if there's one thing the Spanish were really good at, it was keeping records of everything that happened in the New World, especially when they were running the show in Florida.

So Tampa took over the story of a certain Spanish rogue, one who allegedly had ties to royalty and the military, and romanticized the legend. But whether or not this pirate existed really doesn't matter -- the fanciful story with an equally fanciful name translates today to a wild event in Tampa, a city with a rich history often overshadowed by its east coast counterparts. Everyone talks about Henry Flagler; no one ever talks about Henry Plant, another railroad tycoon who helped build Tampa, but that's another story.


I arrived at the Tampa Convention Center for a $10 parking spot around 8:30 AM. I stayed at the Sheraton Suites, a great hotel only ten minutes away by car, but I had been warned about traffic later in the day, what with the throngs of folks attending the event. Getting around downtown would be impossible and this was no surprise -- by 8:30 AM all the parking spots were full on the lower level.

By 9 AM, different krewes were on their boats firing gunpowder weapons either docked by the convention center or tooling around the bay. The outdoor café was serving reasonably priced beer and Bloody Mary's (excellent call, City of Tampa). It was all good, except that I had to wait another couple of hours to enjoy the official Gasparilla brunch. The wait was worthwhile, but it would have been more fun with travel companions. Nevertheless, the air was filled with not only the sound of gun shots, but also with an intangible, buzzing anticipation. I had no idea what I was in for; it was interesting to be a Gasparilla virgin!

By 1 PM or so (yes, at this point I was ready for a nap after a Bloody Mary and couple of vodka tonics), the pirates arrived in Gaspar's ship. The invasion was nothing short of eye-popping spectacular. The vessel, laden with pirates, docked at the convention center followed by an entourage of smaller ships, all of which were firing gunpowder. Hundreds of members of the Mystic Krewe disembarked and then a mass of humanity walked over to the parade, which went for miles, much of it on Tampa's gorgeous Bayshore Drive.

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
Wow. Just wow. They were dressed to the nines hours before the parade. It's all about the beads.

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
A friendly Tampa bartender, serving drinks in the morning.

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
This fella was greeting everyone at the door for brunch.

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
A beautiful ship. The gun shots were actually quite loud.

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
A boat load of pirates invading Tampa at the convention center.


Because I had a press pass, I was allowed to hang outside police lines on the street. I found a friendly officer and staked out my position, but only to wait another two hours standing on my feet for the first floats to go by. The wait was tedious for me and unfortunately the officer, though handsome and single, was quite busy. Note to self: next time, do this with a bunch of friends and not as a reporter.

By 5 PM, I had seen five arrests from drunk and disorderly revelers. The police man told me that the paramedics had already done the round of the drunk frat kids by 11 AM, who set up kegs illegally further down the parade route. (It's illegal, but somehow it's tolerated.)

I saw one of those kids coughing up blood on the way to the live music show after the parade.

But it wasn't all mayhem. In fact, considering the number of people flocking to Tampa Bay that day (up to half a million or more, I was told), the crowd was quite tame and under control.

Behind me were families standing with their kids, all eager to pick up beads, which parade participants were flinging from their floats. I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with those kids, especially since I was the only idiot who went to the parade in costume. Several drunken fools also asked to pose in photos with me and I played good sport, wishing, at this point, that I was just as drunk. (I stopped imbibing when I knew that my only relief was a port-a-potty shared with several thousand people.) Festival attendees don't do costumes on the invasion day though, so lesson learned.

Also, I loved the live music at sunset on Tampa's Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park -- a gorgeous expanse of public space on the river, right smack in urban downtown -- where I was able to finally sit down and relax.

At this point, you've probably noticed I haven't talked much about pirates. That's because even though there were pirate krewes, floats and participants in costume, this was not a traditional pirate festival like the one in St. Augustine -- it's more flashy a la Hollywood -- without the painstaking reverence to historic authenticity. In fact, I met Gasparilla pirates in St. Augustine who told me "yeah, we're all about the bling." As gaudy as it seemed compared to the event in the nation's oldest city, Gasparilla does get major points for street party though, and if that's something you love, you'll be in heaven here.

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
Just about every float was as colorful in character.

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
Gotta pay tribute to Anne Bonney and Mary Read!

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
I can't stop laughing about the I <3 Publix button under the Jolly Roger.

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
This pirate was scary!

I only kept two bead necklaces, one with roses and the other with skull and crossbones, which were handed to me personally by two different gentlemen. My pride and joy, of course, was the skull and crossbones tattoo stamp I got from a member of the Mystic Krewe when I flashed just a tiny bit of cleavage from under my buccaneer coat.

Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa Bay
The closest I'll ever get to a tramp stamp!


If you attend the Gasparilla invasion, it's definitely worth staying walking distance to the events either downtown Tampa or Harbour Island, so book a hotel room early. If you book on the outskirts of the bay, plan ahead to use public transportation or downtown parking.

The parade itself is free, but I recommend paying for the brunch as you'll have the best seat in the house for the actual invasion. Then pay for a bleacher seat at the parade, as it will be too crowded by then to stake out a spot. Coolers are allowed and so is alcohol but don't bring glass bottles or cups.

If you've got little ones, a kid friendly version of the festival takes place around the same time. But there were plenty of kids in the invasion parade as well; just make sure they can deal with crowds.

Make a whole weekend out of it. Tampa gets back to normal rather quickly after the festival and there's much more to do in the area. To name a few: shopping at International Plaza, touring historic Ybor City, dinner at Columbia (try the salad, you'll thank me) and Charley's Steakhouse (mouthwatering), sunsets on Clearwater Beach (the causeway drive is beautiful), and a visit to Tampa Bay History Center to learn about the Gulf Coast's role in Florida's history.



Many thanks to Tampa Bay and Company, GM in the Southeast (they provided my ride -- a sweet Chevy Cruze) and Sheraton Suites Tampa for supporting Sex and the Beach's pirate expeditions!

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