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Pirates Take Over Tampa During the 118th Gasparilla Festival

On January 29th this year, and on the last Saturday in January since 1904,

pirates landed in Tampa Bay Harbor and “took over” the city. At about 1:00pm the pirate ship Jose Gaspar sailed into Tampa Bay harbor with cannons blazing and hundreds of pirates occupying every square foot of the deck, masts, and crow’s nest. The invasion had officially begun! The ship landed at a dock behind the convention center where the mayor of Tampa handed over a ceremonial key to the city to the pirate captain, and a day of pirate themed festivities began. Following the handover, a 4.5-mile-long Mardi-Gras-meets-pirates themed parade with over 100 floats proceeded up Bayshore Blvd., much to the delight of pirate outfit clad revelers, all clamoring for beads and other trinkets being thrown from the floats. Along the route are two parks featuring live music, food and beverages. The parade ended near Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park along the Tampa Riverwalk, where festivities continued into the evening hours.


History of the Gasparilla Festival

The first Gasparilla parade was held in May 1904, after Tampa Tribune society editor 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. The first shipborne Gasparilla invasion came in 1911 aboard a borrowed merchant vessel decorated for the occasion. Borrowed ships were used until the 1930s, when Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla bought an old merchant sloop and repurposed it to be the Jose Gaspar, their official vessel. The current ship has crossed Tampa Bay blazing its cannons to lead every Gasparilla invasion since launching in 1954. Following the Jose Gaspar into Tampa Bay Harbor are hundreds, if not thousands of pleasure boats. At times it seems as though one could walk across the harbor jumping from boat to boat.


The JAX FAX Pirate Krew

This was our first Gasparilla and we dressed in the role of pirates. It should be noted that not everyone who attends the festival comes in costume, but when in Rome… Being novices, we followed the crowds down to the waterfront to enjoy the invasion festivities. A fellow pirate approached us and asked if we wanted tickets to “get inside.” Not knowing what this meant, we initially declined thinking this was a scalper of some sort. However, he proceeded to tell us that he had bought two tables at the official Gasparilla brunch, had some empty seats and invited us to join him. I guess he liked our outfits, or maybe our pirate wenches. Either way, come to find out, this was THE PLACE to be for the pirate invasion. There were indoor and outdoor tables and a large buffet with a private cash bar. Even better, this gave us front row access to the hundreds of colorful pirates that led the invasion and draped our pirate ladies in beads as they passed. This is also where the ceremonial key to the city was turned over. 


For anyone coming to the Gasparilla Festival, I highly recommend buying tickets for this brunch. Price is $140. For another $35 this ticket can be combined with a ticket for bleacher seating from which to get a close view of the parade.


The Gasparilla Parade of the Pirates consists of over 140 units – including more than 103 elaborate floats, 5 marching bands, over 50 distinct Krewes and of course, those infamous YMKG pirates! “Make way, mateys!” shout Tampa’s original buccaneers as they wind their way down historic Bayshore Blvd. and into downtown Tampa. The Captain and his Krewe share their wealth – glittering beads, treasures and doubloons – with a lively, enthusiastic crowd all along the 4.5 -mile parade route.


Ashley Children’s Gasparilla

The Saturday preceding the Gasparilla Festival is the Children’s Gasparilla Parade which has been a part of Tampa’s Gasparilla celebration since 1947. This family-friendly parade takes place along Bayshore Boulevard from Bay Boulevard, moving north to Edison Avenue.


The Children’s Gasparilla Parade traditionally hosts more than 125 entry units, including krewes, marching bands, dance groups, school performance teams, and community organizations. Parade applications are open to the public!


For more information on the 2023 Gasparilla Festival, visit www.gasparillapiratefest.com

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