Gasparilla 2014 014

Gasparilla Pirate Fest is arguably the most popular  celebration that occurs annually in Florida comparable to Mardi Gra in New Orleans. It centers around the legendary pirate, Jose Gaspar, who patrolled the Gulf of Mexico waters along the west coast of Florida and Western Caribbean around the turn of the 19th century. While there are not many historical details of Gaspar’s life and endeavors as one of the last true pirates, it is believed he based his operations near what is present day Charlotte Harbor. There are accounts that he held prisoners on what has come to be known as Gasparilla Island. Some say he left behind buried treasure somewhere near the mouth of the modern-day Peace River perhaps even on the island itself! However that is more legend than fact much like Gaspar the man.

In 1904 the city of Tampa began a celebration to honor the last Buccaneer and it has grown in scale to a nationally recognized event. Pirate Fest begins on the last Saturday in January as the sun rises over Tampa Bay. The Jose Gasparilla pirate ship begins its journey up Hillsborough Bay toward downtown Tampa. As it makes its way north toward the Convention Center, hundreds of boat owning pirates forego their citizenship to join the flotilla. With cannons blazing the mock invasion begins. The Gasparilla passes the shores of Davis Island. The city police do their best to fend off the attack. It is hopeless.

The ship filled with hGasparilla 2014 017undreds of local business owners shredding the reality of daily life to dress in full
pirate attire is too much for the local municipality. The ship docks at the Convention Center where the pirates rush in cheered by tens of thousands of pirate wannabees. The mayor has no choice except to surrender the city to the fearless band of buccaneers.

With the pirates in control, the city erupts into a celebration that will go into the early hours of the next morning. The pirates parade down Tampa’s infamous Bayshore Boulevard hurling their booty into a massive crowd  that lines both sides of the street welcoming the city’s villanous arrivals. For nearly three hours floats sponsored by local businesses escort the pirates on their journey.  Food stands and beer tents box in the party so there is little hope of escaping hungry or sober. It is a good time for all whether you remember the details the next morning or not.


The invasion and parade of the pirates has become a phenomenon; yet it’s merely the climax of a series of events that span several weekends in late January and early February of each year. The festivities include outdoor concerts, arts and craft displays, a film festival, and a 5K run known as the Gasparilla Distance Classic . On the Saturday prior to the invasion, the future pirates of Tampa Bay are honored with the Gasparilla Children’s Extravaganza, a scaled down version of the mayhem to follow a week later. Alcohol is not permitted at this event, but the floats and costumes leave nothing to be desired. Fireworks 20110122183239illuminate the night sky ending the children’s parade and warning all that the granddaddy of all parades is on the horizon. And if you look hard enough as the sun sets just before the fireworks erupt, you may catch the silhouette of a pirate ship on the horizon patrolling Tampa Bay. There is no escape! The pirates are coming!



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