Just about everyone has heard of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Parade and even the Rose Bowl Parade but have you heard of Tampa’s Gasparilla Parade? Well, if you like parades and partying in the streets then let me tell you that you absolutely have to plan a visit to Tampa, Florida for the annual wild pirate invasion and all the festivities surrounding it.
The tradition started back in 1904 as an idea to boost tourism to the area and I am pretty sure the organizers of that first Parade had no idea just how big Gasparilla would become. What started out as a single Parade to boost an area economy turned into an entire full schedule of events lasting through a winter season.
The word Gasparilla means “the last of the buccaneers” and is the name Jose Gaspar, a pirate that terrorized Florida’s west coast in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, chose for himself. Part truth, part legend and part myth the story of Jose’ Gaspar is not necessarily a pretty one as he and his band of brutal pirates, robbed, seized ships and kidnapped women holding them captive until they were finally stopped by the US Navy in 1821.
No one is really sure why the founders of a parade chose a really bad guy and his cronies to celebrate but the idea did turn out to be an ingenious one as the Gasparilla Pirate Festival tradition has lasted over 100 years and now draws crowds into the hundreds of thousands. What started out as one parade of early automobiles and horses has now turned into 3 separate parades of grand floats, marching bands and yes, Pirates!!!
Because the main Parade or what is called the Pirate Festival, has become pretty wild and crazy over the years, the community felt the need to have a more family friendly version and the Gasparilla Children’s Parade was created. Held one week before and unlike the main Pirate Festival, alcohol is not allowed along the children’s parade route and the various activities that are held around the parade route are geared towards the little ones. It’s a festive day for the children and it ends in the evening with the area’s most spectacular and elaborate fireworks display of the year. If you have children that love all things pirate then this parade would be a real treat and is an absolute must do.
A day or two before the main parade which is held the last Saturday in January, a band of pirates completely dressed in pirate garb, show up at the mayor’s office in downtown Tampa and demand that the city of Tampa surrenders or suffer the consequences. The brave mayor is always adamant that the city will not go down without a fight and the pirates always vow to be back on Saturday because if there is no surrender then it’s a fight the city will get!!! Yea, there is never a fight but there is one gigantic party!!
Thousands upon thousands of people show up to welcome the pirate ship as it comes through the channel and into downtown Tampa and usually there is a lot of adult beverages involved in this welcoming committee. But at this point the party has already been going on for awhile, not just on land but at sea. It is a sight to behold and the Coast Guards worst nightmare as everyone in the city that owns a boat or even knows someone with a boat is out on the water escorting the pirate ship through the channel. Horns a blowing and cannons a firing, it’s one big party out there on the water and as far as the eye can see, boats everywhere and in the middle of all this is one big pirate ship. The crowd getting anxious, cheers on the approaching sail rigged 147 foot long ship complete with cannons firing and pirates waving. The Pirates have been partying on the water too and are ready to plunder the city as the ship docs alongside the Tampa Convention center. The awaiting mayor hands over the keys to the city and now it’s time for the parade to celebrate their conquest.
Colorful floats, marching bands and pirates galore stream down Bayshore boulevard in an all out celebration of the pirate victory over the city but of course it’s all about the beads. The parade goes on for several hours and the 4 mile route ends downtown, where just because the parade is over does not mean the party is. After the parade the party goes on into the evening in downtown Tampa with musical performances and other festivities.
If this is not enough partying for you than stick around because 2 weeks after the main parade is the the Sant’Yago Illuminated Knight Parade which is held in the historic Ybor City district. This parade held on a Saturday night is hosted by the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’Yago and celebrates not only the pirate take over but the multi cultural diversity of the Tampa Area. This parade sometimes called the Gasparilla night parade, has had a reputation in years past of being a more adult oriented type of event as it can get pretty crazy, but all in good fun.
Gasparilla season lasts into March with several other annual events such as the Gasparilla Distance Classic marathon and half marathon, The Gasparilla Festival of the Arts and The Gasparilla International Film Festival just to name a few.
The Gasparilla parade has grown into the 3rd largest parade in the Untied States and if you are planning a visit to the Tampa Bay area to attend then I suggest getting your hotel reservations booked early as rooms sell out quickly for this annual event.
- Children’s Parade January 18th, 2020
- Main Parade – Pirate Festival January 25th, 2020
- Knights of Sant’Yago Illuminated Parade February 8th, 2020
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