Not unlike Mardi Gras, Gasparilla Pirate Fest has booze, beads and scantily clad women. But Tampa's bacchanal on Saturday also has a bunch of businessmen dressed in pirate outfits shooting off cap guns and loads of boats filling the channel for a party on land and sea. It's temporary insanity sailing in on a pirate ship, the Jose Gasparilla, swashbuckling its way ashore and taking the town (the mayor even hands over the keys). It's been going on for more than a century celebrating the legend of Jose Gaspar (nicknamed Gasparilla), a mythical Spanish pirate captain who supposedly operated in southwest Florida.
LAND HO! INVASION
Whatever you do, don't leave Harbour Island until you've seen the invasion, with all the drama of hundreds of boats led by the fully rigged pirate ship Jose Gasparilla storming the shoreline. If you don't want to huddle with the masses along the waterfront, get creative and look for options that have a good vantage point. Hotel balconies have great views, if you can find a way to get in. The invasion starts at 11:30 a.m. and the ship docks at the Tampa Convention Center about 1 p.m. Get more tips from Michelle and Katie in the Play Tampa Bay video at tampabay.com/things-to-do.
PARADE OF PIRATES
The 3.8-mile parade begins at 2 p.m. at Bay to Bay Boulevard and Bayshore Boulevard. The parade has more than 130 units, including more than 90 elaborate floats, 14 marching bands and 50 Krewes. To mark the 100th anniversary of the royal court of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, Tampa's first krewe, more than 30 past queens of Gasparilla will be on a float behind this year's court in the Parade of Pirates.
Go ridiculously early if you want to wade through the crowd and set up at a prime location. Or you can pony up for bleacher seats and sit above the crowd. There are a limited number of tickets available online at GasparillaPirateFest.com for $35.51 or $101 for a brunch at the Tampa Convention Center and a reserved seat. The marina area of reserved seating has added new three-row high seating on the land side of the parade route to accommodate a new pedestrian walkway area between Platt and Verne. The walkway is designed to keep the area from becoming too congested.
The big challenge is, of course, snatching the beads that are tossed from parade floats, but the most prized are the elaborate krewe logo medallions that change from year to year. It's a tradition among krewe members to swap and collect them. These are rarely thrown into the crowd because between the glass and the metal, they would be a hazard. The key to getting them is to barter — and that's where Gasparilla gets its shadiest rep. Buy an elaborate set of your own and then hope some pirate likes them enough to make a trade. Some parade marchers might give you a medallion for food, booze or a bottle of water. Or you can offer a hug, a kiss or . . . whatever flashes across your dirty mind.
A new addition to revelry this year will be an after-party in Curtis Hixon Park with a fireworks display. The Light Up the Night after-party will be from 5:30 to 10 p.m., directly following the parade. There also will be cover bands and food vendors, title sponsor Seminole Hard Rock Tampa announced.
An Air Force officer critically injured when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his helicopter in Iraq is the Gasparilla parade's grand marshal. Master Sgt. Christian "Mack" MacKenzie is assigned to the U.S. Special Operations Command's Care Coalition at MacDill Air Force Base, where he helps serve all of the Special Operations wounded, ill and injured.
This is the first Gasparilla since the bombing at last year's Boston Marathon, so expect camera surveillance, an increased police presence and a pre-event bomb sweep of all parade floats as part of enhanced security measures this year. Two "SkyWatch" posts, which will give officers an aerial view of the parade route, and surveillance cameras at locations throughout the city will be focused on the crowd.
Private parking lots throughout downtown Tampa will be open with varying rates. There's lots of free on-street parking north of Kennedy if you get there early enough. The public parking garages at the Tampa Convention Center, under the Crosstown, on Channelside Drive and elsewhere throughout downtown charge a flat rate per day upon entry. Another option to avoid crowds is to park away from the parade in Ybor City and hop aboard the TECO Line Streetcar. Extra streetcar, bus and trolley service is offered Saturday. See goHART.org or gasparillapiratefest.com for details on routes and fares.
This may be a boozy party, but there are still rules. Police have cracked down mightily in recent years on underage drinking, public urination and open containers. Police are fairly relaxed for people having a good time, with open containers allowed inside the event area and along the parade route, but not in the neighborhoods. And no large coolers allowed, only soft-sided coolers like for a lunch or a snack for the kids. (And that shopping cart with the keg disguised as a pirate ship? Steer it in at your own risk.)
There will be multiple DUI checkpoints and police boats ready for BUI (boating under the influence) arrests, so have a designated driver or a ride that will pick you up and drop you off near the party zone.
There are more portable potties than ever this year, with more than 1,000 lining Bayshore Boulevard, so stay out of the bushes. You can also use the restrooms at Publix, 243 Bayshore Blvd., Hyde Park Village's public restrooms on the west side of Snow Avenue and Kate Jackson Park at Rome and Snow avenues. Even better, join the party at some of the venues along the route and use their bathroom. You'll have to buy something or pay a cover, but sometimes it's worth it.
Cash is king. All the vendors along the route deal only in cash. There are ATMs, but they have steep fees.
The smart krewes have already let their pets enjoy playing pirates at Barkarilla. And while people do bring their dogs (we've seen several sporting beads), we don't recommend it because the cannons going off on the boats and floats are extremely loud.
There's an array of food vendors set up in the parade zone, some of them from Tampa's most celebrated restaurants including foodie favorite the Refinery, Cafe Hey, Malio's Prime Steakhouse, Ella's Folk Art Cafe, and food trucks such as Holy Hog BBQ, Hot Donut Cart, Stinky Bunz and more. If you're on Harbour Island for the invasion, they have multiple hamburger and hot dog stands set up to go with the beer vendors there.
10 a.m. to 10 p.m.: Gasparilla Street Festival features live entertainment and food downtown along Ashley Drive from Kennedy Boulevard to Cass Street. Free.
10 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Invasion Brunch, Tampa Convention Center, 333 S Franklin St. Parking available at the Convention Center and throughout downtown, but arrive early as parking fills up quickly. Reserved tickets required for adults and children over age 2. Details at gasparillapiratefest.com.
11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Gasparilla Pirate Invasion. The Jose Gasparilla sets sail at the south end of Hillsborough Bay about 11:30 a.m., sails north to Seddon Channel, docks at the Tampa Convention Center about 1 p.m. Free.
2 p.m. to about 5:30 p.m.: Parade of Pirates begins at Bay to Bay and Bayshore boulevards and ends at Ashley and Cass Street. Free viewing and reserved seating. Details at gasparillapiratefest.com.
5:30 to 10 p.m. after-party with fireworks in Curtis Hixon Park
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