Gasparilla Pirate Festival: Tampa Bay’s Mardi Gras

UPDATED January 2014 This month, along with thousands of fellow Tampanians (and foreigners alike), I will be celebrating the Gasparilla Pirate Festival in the Sunshine State. Thus, for Cultural Tidbits Monday this week, I wanted to tell you all about the history, events, and where to stay when attending this popular series of events in Tampa, Florida.

Gasparilla Parade 2010

some of my college friends & me at Gasparilla Parade 2010

Overview

Just like almost every other celebration of a “local hero,” Gasparilla (as it is locally known) has unfortunately gotten the bad rep of being nothing but a fest of debauchery — and for a reason. With girls flashing their upper assets and beads thrown everywhere, plus several shots and beers drunk in-between, Gasparilla can be easily dubbed Tampa Bay’s Mardi Gras. Minus the pirates, of course.

Gasparilla 2011

I have no idea what he was doing

The Events

The real name of this multi-day event is the Gasparilla Pirate Festival. Therefore, not only it includes the wildly-popular “adult” events (read: drink fests), but also a kids’ parade the preceding weekend, including a great fireworks display called “Piratechnic Extravaganza.”

We must be honest here, though: While the kids’ parade and fireworks display have good attendance, the main events of the Gasparilla Festival are the two adult-oriented parades. First off is the day parade, also called “The Invasion,” which typically takes place the last Saturday of January every year.

"The Invasion" day Parade ship

“The Invasion”! (Christopher Hollis for Wdwic Pictures)

The Invasion and Captain Gaspar

“The Invasion” honors the legend of José Gaspar (also known as Gasparilla): a Spanish pirate captain who allegedly invaded the Bay area (Florida’s west coast) between the late 18th – early 19th century. No evidence of such “attack” or even the captain himself appears in writing until the late 20th century though, which makes his existence dubious.

Regardless, Capt. Gaspar is honored during the Gasparilla Fest by starting the day parade with a reenactment of his “invasion,” landing a 165′-feet-long pirate ship nearby Downtown Tampa. Then, the current mayor of the city hands a key to the pirate, kicking off the parade of floats and bead-throwing down Tampa’s celebrated Bayshore Blvd.

day parade float

typical day parade float

Gasparilla Parade 2011

one of the *least* crowded sections of the Gasparilla parade (2011) down Bayshore Blvd.

The Gasparilla Night Parade

About a week after “The Invasion,” the Sant’Yago Knight Parade takes place in the Channelside and Ybor City districts. While such event is supposed to be a parade of illuminated floats, it has been severely overshadowed by hard partying. In a nutshell: If you thought the day parade was utter debauchery, you will really want to avoid Ybor’s night clubs this weekend. Conversely, if you are all about a messy drinking fest, this is an event not to miss when visiting Tampa Bay this time of the year.

Tampa Mardi Grass parade outfit

me in my parade get-up!

Gasparilla logistics: Where to Stay?

A rule of thumb for any popular festival is to make plans and book your accommodation at least a year in advance. When it comes to Gasparilla though, you may wait up to 6 months before the event.

The prime areas are Harbour Island and Bayshore Boulevard, although the latter is mostly made up of private residences. Personally, I recommend hotels close to Jackson’s Bistro (601 S Harbour Island Blvd, Tampa, FL 33602), such as the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and the Westin Harbour Island. This way, you’ll be able to join and leave the festival as you wish, having private facilities within walking distance. Better yet? Book a bay-facing room at one of the aforementioned properties in order to witness the festivities without even leaving your hotel! Although that’s considered cheating 😉

What about Downtown Tampa, you may ask? You could stay by the Uniiversity of Tampa, but please be aware that traffic will make the Harbour Island district impenetrable on parade day, so I recommend hailing a cab there no later than 9:30 AM.

Another fun alternative is to stay in St. Petersburg and take one of the ferry tours that make it down to Harbour Island for the Gasparilla Invasion. Most of them include unlimited beer, wine, and soft drinks making it a great all-around day trip. Still, I advise you book a hotel close to your ferry’s dock, as it’s unlikely you’ll make it back sober. Safety first!

Downtown Tampa and Convention Center during day parade

Downtown Tampa view during the day parade (Christopher Hollis for Wdwic Pictures)

Are you ready to party? Gasparilla’s “Invasion” day parade takes place Saturday, January 25th, 2014. While the event starts around 10 AM, heavily drinking & pre-gaming usually start around 5-6 AM at a house party near you (still, to this day, I do not know why…)

tipsy in Florida

’nuff said, eh?

Have you been to Gasparilla? Is there a similar parade in your city?

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