Few communities tie their identity to pirates as deeply as Tampa does. Pittsburgh, of course, where they wield Louisville Sluggers in lieu of cutlasses. The whole Caribbean, thanks to Disney and Johnny Depp. The Outer Banks of North Carolina and the Louisiana bayou, the lairs of Blackbeard and Lafitte.
But in Tampa, where our ties to the so-called golden age of piracy are more hokum than history, swashbuckling has grown into such a popular pastime it rates designation as a fourth season, its coming each year more reliable than what the calendar calls winter.
History, in fact, is catching up. The Tampa Bay History Center, bowing to popular appeal, soon opens a major expansion titled, "Treasure Seekers: Conquistadors, Pirates and Shipwrecks," featuring a full-scale replica of a 16th-century sloop.
What’s more, the man who is the face of Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn, seems to embrace this thread of the community’s identity with unfettered joy, eager to play his role in the promotional pageant that revolves around the theft and return of the key to the city.
The local tourism bureau, Visit Tampa Bay, uses keys and a lock as its logo, alongside the motto, "Treasure Awaits."
The pirates who inspired it all, plying the seas during a surprisingly brief period straddling the 17th and 18th centuries, were greedy thieves and marauders, sometimes wearing the fig leaf of a warring monarch but driven largely by unenlightened self-interest.
Centuries later, though, they have indeed handed Tampa a treasure.
It all arises from Gasparilla — at first a party, then a parade, and now a series of half a dozen major events sprinkled throughout the first three months of the year. They are the children’s extravaganza, the pirate fest, the knight parade, the distance classic, the festival of the arts, the international film festival and the music festival.
Targeting such a broad range of interests, these events — especially the crowd-pleasing race and the arts festivals with their growing reputations — enrich life in Tampa. Taken together, they create the kind of sustained appeal that communities everywhere strive to achieve.
Some might wince at the idea of tying their community identity to unsavory characters who wore their vices like a badge. And while those who swashbuckle today have sworn off the pirate traditions of thieving and marauding, the rum cherished by their forebears and its modern alcoholic variations are as much a part of Gasparilla as beads.
Drinking and gambling, in fact — as in Budweiser, Captain Morgan, Tito’s and the Seminole Hard Rock Casino & Hotel — figure heavily in sponsorship of the Parade of Pirates that is the season’s main attraction.
But for good or ill, communities nationwide turn to such sources to pay for their major events. Credit Gasparilla’s organizers and community leaders with at least taking steps to move beyond the event’s reputation as strictly a drinkfest — steps including cautionary visits to school campuses and a zero tolerance for underage drinking.
Gasparilla also has moved to transcend its exclusionary, white-male history. Women and people of color now star in the parade, and this year, for the first time, a group debuts a float built so people with disabilities can ride. The Krewe of Sir Francis Drake says no one should be left out, and calls its contraption, appropriately, Treasure Chest.
The Parade of Pirates and the estimated 300,000 people it now draws has served as catalyst for the growth of the Gasparilla brand. Intrigued by the idea of associating itself with such a successful event, the National Hockey League is taking the rare step of sharing the stage downtown during its annual all-star weekend.
It’s not hard to imagine there will be more in store for the future of Gasparilla. It’s in Tampa’s interest to show the rest of the world we know how to have fun in a number of ways.