Gasparilla Pirate Festival
|Observed by||Residents of Tampa, Florida and the greater Tampa Bay area|
|2016 date||January 30|
|2017 date||January 28|
The Gasparilla Pirate Festival is a large parade and a host of related community events celebrated almost every year since 1904 in Tampa, Florida. It is held in late January and hosted by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and the City of Tampa, and it celebrates the apocryphal legend of José Gaspar (also known as Gasparilla), a mythical Spanish pirate who supposedly operated in Southwest Florida in the early 1800s. As of the 100th edition in 2015, the parade was the 3rd largest in the United States and had an economic impact of $23 million on Tampa's economy. 
The Gasparilla Parade of Pirates once coincided with the Florida State Fair, which was held at Plant Field at the end of the traditional parade route in downtown Tampa. The close connection between the fair and Gasparilla ended in the mid-1970s, when the fair moved to a much larger location east of Tampa. However, the Gasparilla parade route still runs down Bayshore Boulevard and into downtown, and the city now hosts many other Gasparilla-related events besides the main Parade of Pirates, including a children's parade, a film festival, an arts festival, a road race, a music festival, and the Sant'Yago Knight Parade in Ybor City.
The theme and focal point of Gasparilla is a friendly "invasion" by mythical pirate José Gaspar and his crew. On the day of the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates, members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (YMKG), accompanied by a flotilla of hundreds of smaller boats, sail across Tampa Bay to downtown Tampa on the Jose Gasparilla, a 165' long "pirate" ship which was specially built for this purpose in 1954. Once the ship lands, the pirate captain demands that the mayor hand over the key to the city in a playful ceremony which has had different outcomes in different years. Whether or not the mayor actually "surrenders", the pirates hold their "victory parade" through the streets of Tampa.
During the parade, members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and dozens of other krewes throw beads, coins, and other souvenir trinkets to the throngs along the parade route. In the past, members of YMKG would also fire .38 six-shooters loaded with blanks into the air and toss the empty shells into the crowd. This tradition was restricted in 1992 and ended entirely several years later. However, trained members of YMKG still fire loud mini-cannons mounted atop several of their parade floats. The main parade is broadcast every year on WFLA-TV, and has been since 1955; station WTVT-TV also covered the parade from 1955 to 1980.
Several semi-theatrical events around the "invasion" have become traditional. Beginning in 1956, a small US Navy ship would volunteer to be "attacked" by small boats of the "Ybor City Navy" armed with stale Cuban bread and water hoses. The US Navy returned "fire" with their own water hoses but would eventually surrender to the Alcalde of Ybor City, who had, as the story goes, been hired by Jose Gaspar to clear resistance to his impending pirate attack. After the "battle", the navy sailors would be treated to an evening on the town. This event was temporarily discontinued after the September 11, 2001 attacks, but has been held sporadically since, with the museum ship SS American Victory usually standing in for the US Navy.
Besides the main Parade of Pirates, two smaller parades are held in the weeks before and after. The Gasparilla Children's Parade - a more family-friendly event - is generally held the Saturday prior to the main parade in downtown Tampa or along Bayshore Boulevard. The Sant'Yago Illuminated Knight Parade - a more adult-oriented event which is sometimes referred to as the Gasparilla Night Parade - is held in Ybor City about two weeks after the main parade.
In all parades, area high schools and universities provide marching bands, majorettes, and drill teams as part of the festivities. Many local businesses and organizations participate by entering often-elaborate floats and joining the krewes in throwing beads, coins, and other trinkets to the crowd.
The "Outward Voyage Home" is the culminating event of the Gasparilla season which was revived in 2008 after being discontinued in 1964. During this ceremony, the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla's pirates return the key of the city to the mayor, then climb aboard the Jose Gasparilla and "sail away" across Tampa Bay, reversing their route from Gasparilla day several weeks previously.
Besides the Gasparilla Children's Parade (first held in 1947), the Sant'Yago Knight Parade (first held in 1974), and the many galas and balls hosted by individual krewes, Tampa has long hosted a variety of other Gasparilla-related events from approximately January through March. One of the first was the Gasparilla Open, a PGA Tour stop which was sponsored by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla from 1932 to 1935. The 1935 edition had the largest prize purse on that year's PGA Tour ($4000), but with the deepening of the Great Depression, the tournament was discontinued thereafter. It returned in 1956 as the Gasparilla Invitational Tournament, an amateur competition which has been held annually ever since.
Other large-scale events held during the Gasparilla season include the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts (established 1970), the Gasparilla Distance Classic (established 1978), the Gasparilla Film Festival (established 2006), and the Gasparilla Music Festival (established 2013). A changing lineup of smaller events held in Tampa during the first months of the year also use the Gasparilla name.
Many of the activities, organizations, events, and businesses that make use of the names "Gasparilla" or "Gaspar" are not affiliated with Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla or the City of Tampa, as these names are not legally controlled by any organization. While some feel that this "co-branding" helps to promote all Gasparilla-monikered events and the Tampa area as a whole, others feel that overuse of the name will "water down what it means", and that the potential failures or missteps of one event or organization could reflect poorly on all the others.
The average crowd at the main parade is over 300,000 people, with over 1,000,000 attending at least one Gasparilla event. According to several studies, the Parade of Pirates has a local economic impact of over $22 million, and the combined events bring in over $40 million. The parade is the third largest parade in the US. Beginning in 2015, Visit Tampa Bay, the local tourist bureau, began a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign in the northern United States, Canada, and Europe to attract more visitors to Tampa during its "Gasparilla Season".
The theme of the Gasparilla Festival was inspired by the local legend of José Gaspar, a Spanish naval officer who turned to piracy. Different legends say that he was either a nobleman and adviser to King Charles III of Spain who was exiled after a romantic scandal in the Spanish court or an ambitious young officer in the Spanish navy who was driven to mutiny by a tyrannically cruel captain. Whatever his reasons, the stories agree that Gaspar stole away in the late 1700s to the virtually uninhabited southwestern coast of Spanish Florida and established a secret base at Charlotte Harbor. Gaspar is said to have plundered many ships and taken many female hostages in almost four decades of roaming from Louisiana to the Spanish main aboard his stolen flagship, the Floridablanca. His exploits came to a sudden end in 1821 when, to avoid being captured by the schooner USS Enterprise, he wrapped himself in the ship's anchor chains and threw himself overboard while shouting ""Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy's!"
Despite this colorful history, there is no evidence that a pirate named Gaspar or Gasparilla ever operated off the Florida coast. Although the USS Enterprise was indeed attached to the pirate-hunting West Indies Squadron in 1821, the United States Navy has no record of any interaction with the mythical buccaneer or a person claiming to be member of his crew. In fact, researchers have found no contemporaneous records either in Spain or the United States that mention Gaspar's existence, and no physical evidence of his presence in Florida has ever been uncovered.
The first written account of José Gaspar was in a 1900 advertising brochure for the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad Company, a part of Henry B. Plant's railroad system that ran to Plant's Boca Grande Hotel in Charlotte Harbor. The brochure greatly embellished tall tales attributed to the late John Gomez, a well-known local fisherman and guide, to create the story of the pirate Gaspar, "The Last of the Buccaneers". It also mentioned that neither Gaspar nor his crew had ever retrieved his vast treasure cache, which was supposedly still hidden somewhere on Gasparilla Island, which was of course the location of the Boca Grande Hotel. Subsequent tales of the pirate Gaspar are based on that fanciful brochure, including several erroneous mentions in books about Florida history or real pirates.
The first Gasparilla parade was held in May 1904, after Tampa Tribune society editor Miss 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 to give Tampa's relatively sedate May Day celebration a new theme with local connections. The first "invasion" was via horseback, with the first sea-based invasion coming in 1911.
The Gasparilla parade was moved from May to February when it restarted following a lapse during World War I. This schedule coincided with the Florida State Fair, which was held at sprawling Plant Field near downtown Tampa. The events merged, and for decades, the parade route ended at the fair grounds, drawing many thousands of spectators to the combined festivities. Since the Florida State Fair moved to more spacious quarters east of Tampa in 1976, the parade route has varied slightly from year to year. It usually begins or ends in downtown and includes a long stretch along Bayshore Boulevard. The Gasparilla festivities were cancelled during World War II and resumed in 1946. With one exception in 1991 (see section below), it has been held every year since.
The Gasparilla parade was usually held on the second Monday of February in the decades following World War II. It was an official holiday in Tampa, with local schools and government offices closed for the day along with some businesses. In 1988, the Parade of Pirates was moved to the first Saturday in February to make it easier for residents of other communities to take part in the festivities. Since 2005, the event has been held on the last Saturday of January.
Much of the festivities, including the main parade and other events before and after, center around "krewes", which are private clubs of local citizens organized into social and charitable organizations inspired by the krewes of New Orleans. Tampa's Krewes hold social events and parties throughout the year, often to raise money for favored charities and causes. Activities center around each krewe's Gasparilla season, which can begin as early as the latter part of December.
"Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla" (YMKG) was Tampa's first krewe, and its members have long organized many of the events of Gasparilla and played the part of Gaspar's pirates in the main parade. Its membership is made up mostly of civic leaders and businessmen from Tampa. For many decades, that meant that the organization was exclusively white and male, which caused growing resentment among local African-Americans and other groups. The Krewe of Venus (which was a female-only krewe consisting mainly of the relations of YMKG members) had joined the festivities in 1966, and the Krewe of Sant'Yago (which was formed by the leaders of Tampa's long-established Latin community centered in Ybor City) formed in 1973, but these were smaller organizations which still left out large portions of Tampa's diverse population.
The issue grew into a heated controversy in 1990, when the Krewe and the city planned to move Gasparilla up a few weeks to coincide with Super Bowl XXV, to be played at Tampa Stadium in January 1991. The city and the National Football League put pressure on the Krewe of Gasparilla to admit African-American members before the next event, but the organization refused and cancelled Gasparilla instead
The city of Tampa hastily put together a replacement parade called "Bamboleo", which was billed as a "multicultural festival" and did not include pirates. A rainy day helped to dampen the crowds, and the replacement was considered a "flop". Later in 1991, the Krewe of Gasparilla agreed to accept black members and allow more krewes to participate in the parade, and Gasparilla returned for 1992
In 2001, Tampa again hosted a Super Bowl (Super Bowl XXXV), and the city again moved the parade to coincide with the game. On that occasion, there was no controversy, as an integrated Krewe of Gasparilla was joined by over 30 other krewes for the parade, which drew a record crowd estimated at 750,000.
The number of new krewes has continued to grow in recent years. Many of these krewes are organized around various ethnic, cultural, and historical themes or favorite charity causes. Members often spend a great deal of money on elaborate costumes, beads, and floats, much like the krewes of Mardi Gras. Currently, over 50 krewes march in each parade, with smaller krewes participating on a rotating basis due to the limited number of available slots.