Every year since 1904, Tampa has celebrated its nautical heritage with the Gasparilla Pirate Festival. The heart of the festival is a staged naval ‘invasion,’ featuring a flotilla of boats from around Tampa Bay, and led by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (modeled on the krewes of Mardi Gras). When these ‘pirates’ land each January, they celebrate their victory with a parade down Bayshore, complete with marching bands and one heck of a party.
Gasparilla was inspired by the legend of Jose Gaspar, a Spanish pirate who, legend has it, patrolled South Florida in the 18th century. Supposedly, Gaspar was an accomplished officer in the Spanish Navy before falling on the wrong side of the crown. He then spent nearly four decades ransacking every ship that came anywhere near the southern reaches of Florida, then ruled by Spain.
There’s not much evidence that Gaspar was a real person, but over the past century he’s become a powerful symbol for Tampa Bay – we have him to thank for everything from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to bars like Gaspar’s Grotto in Ybor City. And Gasparilla is a very real boon to Tampa’s economy – the festival brings in nearly $20 million from partygoers every year.
Gasparilla has expanded grown over the years to include satellite events in addition to the main invasion and parade. There’s the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, which makes landfall in Curtis Hixon Park this year on February 28th, and features an increasingly diverse array of fine and craft artists from Florida and the globe. The Gasparilla International Film Festival kicks off on March 24th, and features not just a raft of new films, but workshops and panels on the entertainment industry.
Whether or not Jose Gaspar ever plundered the waters of South Florida, he’s become an indelible part of Tampa Bay history and culture, bringing together tens of thousands of people for a raucous, piratical good time every year. Whether you’re new to the area or just haven’t made it out to a Gasparilla yet, you owe it to yourself to head out and get your keel wet.