Gasparilla Pirate Festival

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Gasparilla Pirate Fest 2003 - Pirate Flagship Invading Tampa.jpg
Gasparilla Pirate Festival
Official name Gasparilla
Observed by Residents of Tampa, Florida and the greater Tampa Bay area
Begins late January
Ends early February
2014 date January 25
2015 date January 31
2016 date January 30[1]
Frequency annual
Downtown Tampa and the convention center during Gasparilla
A parade float crewed by pirates in 2013
An example of a typical parade float between events

The Gasparilla Pirate Festival is an annual celebration held in the city of Tampa, Florida. Held each year in late January or early February and hosted by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and the City of Tampa, it celebrates the apocryphal legend of José Gaspar (Gasparilla), a mythical Spanish pirate captain who supposedly operated in Southwest Florida.

Over its first few decades, the Gasparilla parade was often scheduled to coincide with the Florida State Fair, which was held at Plant Field near the traditional parade route. Since the fair moved to a larger location several miles east in the 1970s, new supporting Gasparilla-themed events have taken its place, including a children's parade, a film festival, an arts festival, a road race, a music festival, and the Sant'Yago Knight Parade in Ybor City.


Parades and pirates[edit]

The theme and focal point of Gasparilla is an "invasion" by Jose Gaspar and his crew. On the day of the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates, members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (YMKG), accompanied by a flotilla of hundreds of smaller boats, sail across Tampa Bay to downtown Tampa on the Jose Gasparilla, a 165' long "pirate" ship which was specially built for this purpose in 1954.[2] The mayor of Tampa then hands over the key of the city to the pirate captain and a "victory parade" ensues down Bayshore Boulevard along Tampa Bay.

During the parade, members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and the dozens of other krewes throw beads, coins, and other souvenir trinkets to the throngs along the sidewalk. In the past, members of YMKG would also fire .38 six-shooters loaded with blanks into the air and toss the empty shells into the crowd. This tradition was restricted in 1992 and ended entirely several years later.[3] However, trained members of YMKG still fire loud mini-cannons mounted atop several parade floats. The main parade is broadcast every year on WFLA-TV, and has been since 1955; station WTVT-TV also covered the parade from 1955 to 1980.

Two smaller pirate-related parades are held in the weeks before and after the main Gasparilla Parade of Pirates. The Gasparilla Children's Parade, a more family-friendly event, is generally held the Saturday prior to the main parade in downtown Tampa or along Bayshore Boulevard. The Sant'Yago Illuminated Knight Parade (sometimes referred to as the Gasparilla Night Parade), is generally held a Saturday or two after the main parade along 7th Avenue in Ybor City.[4]

In all parades, area high schools and universities provide marching bands, majorettes, and drill teams as part of the festivities. Many local businesses and organizations participate by entering often-elaborate floats and joining the krewes in throwing beads, coins, and other trinkets to the crowd.

The "Outward Voyage Home" is the culminating event of the Gasparilla season which was revived in 2008 after being discontinued in 1964. During this ceremony, the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla's pirates return the key of the city to the mayor, then climb aboard the Jose Gasparilla and "sail away" across Tampa Bay, reversing their route from Gasparilla day several weeks previously.[5][6]

Related events[edit]

Tampa hosts a variety of other Gasparilla-themed events in the spring, including the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, the Gasparilla Film Festival, the Gasparilla Pageant and Fashion Festival, the Gasparilla Music Festival, and the Gasparilla Distance Classic, a road race along Bayshore Boulevard.[7]

Economic impact[edit]

The average crowd at the main parade is over 300,000 people, with over 1,000,000 attending at least one Gasparilla event. According to a 2007 study, the main Gasparilla parade effected a local economic impact of almost $20 million, and the combined events brought in about $40 million.[8][9]


Sketch of José Gaspar from 1900 brochure


Main article: José Gaspar

The theme of the Gasparilla Festival was inspired by the local legend of José Gaspar, a Spanish naval officer who turned to piracy. Different legends say that he was either a nobleman and adviser to King Charles III of Spain who was exiled after a romantic scandal in the Spanish court or an ambitious young officer in the Spanish navy who was driven to mutiny by a tyrannically cruel captain. In any case, the stories agree that he stole away in the late 1700s to the sparsely inhabited coast of Southwest Florida and made a secret island base south of Tampa in Charlotte Harbor. Gaspar is said to have plundered many ships and taken many female hostages in almost four decades of roaming the Gulf of Mexico and the Spanish main aboard his stolen flagship, the Floridablanca. His exploits came to a sudden end in 1821 when, to avoid being captured by the schooner USS Enterprise, he wrapped himself in the ship's anchor chains and threw himself overboard while shouting ""Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy's!"[10]

Despite this colorful history, there is no evidence that a pirate named Gaspar or Gasparilla ever operated off the Florida coast or anywhere else. Although the USS Enterprise was indeed attached to the pirate-hunting West Indies Squadron in 1821, the United States Navy has no record of an action with the mythical buccaneer.[11] In fact, researchers have found no contemporaneous records either in Spain or the United States that mention Gaspar's existence, and no physical evidence of his presence in Florida has ever been uncovered.

The first written account of José Gaspar was in a 1900 advertising brochure for the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad Company, a part of Henry B. Plant's railroad system that ran to Plant's Boca Grande Hotel on Gasparilla Island in Charlotte Harbor. The brochure invented and greatly embellished upon local folklore in telling the story of the pirate Gaspar ("The Last of the Buccaneers"), who had supposedly established his secret base and buried his vast and never found treasure cache somewhere near the hotel on Gasparilla Island.[10][12] Subsequent tales of the pirate Gaspar are based on that fanciful brochure, including several erroneous mentions in books about Florida history or real pirates.[10]

Pirate festival[edit]

The first Gasparilla parade was held in May 1904, after Tampa Tribune society editor Miss Louise Frances Dodge and Tampa's director of customs George Hardee combined the legend of the dashing pirate with elements of a New Orleans Mardi Gras / Carnivale festival to give Tampa's relatively sedate May Day celebration a new theme with local connections. The first "invasion" was via horseback, and the first sea-based invasion came in 1911[2][12][13]

As the festival grew, a US Navy ship would be attacked by small boats throwing Cuban bread and black bean soup. The Navy would respond with fire hoses but would succumb to the Ybor City Navy, and then surrender to the Alcalde of Ybor City. The sailors would be treated to an evening on the town. This was discontinued after the September 11, 2001 attacks. However, the invasion itself continues as "Capt. Jose Gaspar" and his crew of "Pirates" "attack" Tampa, surrounded by hundreds of other boaters as they sail the Gasparilla Ship through Tampa Bay, land near downtown and "take over the city."

Historically, Gasparilla was held on the second Monday of February. It was a holiday in Tampa, with schools and many businesses closed. In 1988, the main parade was moved to the first Saturday in February to allow more local communities to take part in the celebration. Since 2005, the event has been held on the last Saturday of January.

Krewes and controversy[edit]

Much of the festivities, including the main parade and other events before and after, center around "krewes", which are private clubs of local citizens organized into social and charitable organizations inspired by the krewes of New Orleans. Tampa's Krewes hold social events and parties throughout the year, often to raise money for favored charities and causes. Activities center around each krewe's Gasparilla season, which can begin as early as the latter part of December.

"Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla" was Tampa's first krewe, and its members have long organized many of the events of Gasparilla and played the part of Gaspar's pirates in the main parade. Its membership is made up mostly of civic leaders and businessmen from Tampa. For many decades, that meant that the organization was exclusively white and male, which caused growing resentment among local African-Americans and other groups.[14]

The issue grew into a heated controversy in 1990, when the Krewe and the city planned to move Gasparilla up a few weeks to coincide with Super Bowl XXV, to be played at Tampa Stadium in January 1991.[15] The city and the National Football League put pressure on the Krewe of Gasparilla to admit black members before the next event, but the organization refused and cancelled Gasparilla instead[16]

The city of Tampa hastily put together a replacement parade called "Bamboleo", which was billed as a "multicultural festival" and did not include pirates. A rainy day helped to dampen the crowds, and the replacement was considered a "flop".[15] Later in 1991, the Krewe of Gasparilla agreed to accept black members and allow more krewes to participate in the parade, and Gasparilla returned for 1992[17] (The Krewe of Venus had joined the festivities in 1966 and the Krewe of Sant'Yago in 1973, but they also were not the primary organizers of the event.)

Since then, many krewes have been established that include all facets of Tampa's diverse population, with many celebrating various ethnic, cultural, and historical themes. Members spend a great deal of money on elaborate costumes, beads, and floats, much like the krewes of Mardi Gras.

In 2001, Tampa again hosted a Super Bowl (Super Bowl XXXV), and the city again moved the parade to coincide with the game. On that occasion, there was no controversy, as an integrated Krewe of Gasparilla was joined by over 30 other krewes for the parade, which drew a record crowd estimated at 750,000.[15][18] In 2012, 56 krewes participated in the main parade.[13]



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