WHY: Gasparilla's history
It doesn't have the religious roots of Mardi Gras, but the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates has a similar flavor with a raucous spectacle of bands, floats and beads. Lots of beads. How did we get here? The pirate invasion is more hokum than history, but it has grown so popular, Gasparilla is now a season of its own. A half dozen major events with the Gasparilla brand are sprinkled throughout the first three months of the year.
It started in 1904, when Tampa's city fathers and captains of industry wanted to throw an annual party glorifying the city. They chose the mythical Jose Gaspar, nicknamed Gasparilla. Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla — the prominent bunch of Tampa citizens who were the first to dress up as pirates to "invade" the city — still lead the friendly invasion aboard the Jose Gasparilla. The replica pirate ship, specially built for this in 1954, and a flotilla of hundreds of smaller private boats sail across Tampa Bay. After docking at the Tampa Convention Center a large parade along Bayshore Boulevard heads into downtown drawing some 300,000 people.
In recent years, Gasparilla has made a greater effort to transcend its exclusionary, white-male history. It was the 1990s before a black krewe joined the parade, but these days it includes women and people of color, and last year a float for people with disabilities to ride debuted.
If you want to learn more about Gasparilla's history, check out the exhibition running now through Feb. 24 at the Henry B. Plant Museum. It has vintage photographs, memorabilia and gowns worn by Gasparilla queens. 401 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. $10, $7 seniors/students, $5 ages 4-12, 3 and younger free. (813) 254-1891.
SCHEDULE: Invasion time
• Jan. 26,11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.: The fully-rigged pirate ship Jose Gasparilla and an accompanying flotillla sails into the south end of Hillsborough Bay and docks at the Tampa Convention Center, where the mayor will surrender the key to the city into the hands of the captain of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.
• 2 to 5:30 p.m.: More than 140 units of floats, marching bands and pirate krewes walk along Bayshore Boulevard from Bay to Bay Boulevard north into downtown Tampa, ending at Ashley Drive.
• 9 a.m.-9 p.m.: Live music will be on four stages along the Riverwalk, at MacDill Park, the Sail Pavilion, Curtis Hixon Park and Ferg's Live.
• Sunday 10 a.m to 4 p.m. Gasparilla JazzFEST in Curtis Hixon Park.
Seating: The parade is free, but you can buy reserved seats and buy tickets to the invasion brunch at gasparillatreasures.com.
JAZZFEST: New music option
This year brings an all-new Gasparilla JazzFEST on Jan. 27 in Curtis Hixon Park. With live entertainment from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., JazzFEST is family friendly and free to attend. There will be several vendors and food trucks on site with a variety of brunch options.
Headliner Najee is smooth-jazz royalty, a Grammy-nominated saxophonist with chart-topping albums. He performed at Nelson Mandela's birthday celebration in South Africa in 1998, at the White House for President Bill Clinton and spent three years touring with Prince starting in 2000. Jeanette Harris and Althea Rena open from 10 a.m. to noon, followed by Najee from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. and Omari Dillard closes the day from 3-4 p.m.
SPOTLIGHT: Celebrities on parade
Extra host Mario Lopez and his dimples will serve as grand marshal, along with "Community Hero" retired U.S. Army First Sgt. Valerie Ellis Lavin. Her military background and her experience as an entrepreneur has given her a unique perspective, and she works to help veterans who want to become business owners. In her 21-year military career, Lavin collected the Bronze Star and Army Achievement Medal, among many others. Lopez was last in the grand marshal's perch at Gasparilla in 2015. The Saved By the Bell star is a popular celebrity draw at Tampa parties.
But who are we kidding? The real parade celebrities will be the Budweiser Clydesdales. The gentle giants with legs that look like furry white marching boots will be among the first 10 units of the parade. If you miss them they will be back Feb. 7-17 at the Florida State Fair.