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In Tampa, rare Gasparilla beads are the real treasure

People will do just about anything to get their hands on the pins, heavy beads and necklaces that debut every year for the Parade of Pirates.
The heavy specialty Gasparilla medallions and pins are a special treasure at the parade.
The heavy specialty Gasparilla medallions and pins are a special treasure at the parade. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 26

The pirate treasures among Gasparilla krewe members are the beads and pins and necklaces that debut every year.

The Gasparilla holiday was created more than 100 years ago as a way to lure people to visit Tampa. It centers on a fictional pirate, Jose Gaspar, and a prominent bunch of Tampa citizens who “invade” the city. A parade follows with beads, doubloons and soft toys that are tossed into the crowd of some 300,000 people on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa.

It’s also a tradition among krewe members to swap and collect krewe logo and medallions, like the ones that prompt women to flash the passing parade.

The bangles are huge and elaborate, and they change from year to year. Some pirates own dozens from Gasparillas past.

“People will do just about anything to get their hands on these,” said Peter Lackman, captain of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the parade’s founder and organizer. “It’s not uncommon for parents to hoist their children over the barricades, Lion King-style, to get their hands on something fun.”

A hot Gasparilla medallion this year will be “JG200″ in honor of the 200th anniversary of the death of pirate Jose Gaspar. He’s the faux pirate said to have marauded the waters of southwest Florida before dying in 1821.

The "JG200" Gasparilla medallions and pins this year mark the 200th annivesary of the death of the pirate Jose Gaspar.
The "JG200" Gasparilla medallions and pins this year mark the 200th annivesary of the death of the pirate Jose Gaspar. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

After canceling Tampa’s signature event in 2021 over COVID-19 concerns, the Gasparilla parades are back in full function this year. And one of the ways they helped the small businesses and costume shops that make a living off events was to place extra orders last year.

Krewes preordered more than 100 costumes and related merchandise from Anne Bartlett, owner of the South Tampa Trading Company, and ordered double the typical quantity of beads from Jennifer Grindell at Buccaneer Beads.

“The krewes actively reached out in March of last year to their vendors to see how they could assist in supporting their business during the lockdown,” Lackman said.

Krewe members in the Gasparilla parade have to pay for what they throw. They spend hundreds of dollars each for their bag of loot tossed to the crowd.

Pins representing the more than 50 krewes have gotten more elaborate over the years and have prompted pin-trading events, similar to the ones held at Disney World, for people who want to wear distinctive Gasparilla gear.

If you think you’re getting the best strands just by waving your arms along the parade route, you’re mistaken.

The heavy specialty beads, which can cost $3 to $7 each, don’t get tossed.

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“You usually get a handshake or a hug” to earn one, said Greg Eckley, who marches with the Rough Riders krewe.

But think about bringing a white board or a poster if you want some loot.

“If someone is holding a sign up that says Rough Riders on it,” Eckley said, “they will get pelted with beads.”

Men dressed as pirates flash beads during the 2020 Gasparilla Parade of Pirates in Tampa.
Men dressed as pirates flash beads during the 2020 Gasparilla Parade of Pirates in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
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