Back in 1904, city leaders in Tampa envisioned a signature event to lure visitors, using the campy fun of pirate costumes and the tale of a mythical pirate named Jose Gaspar who invades the city along with a parade of buccaneers.
More than a century later, more than 300,000 people are expected to line Bayshore Boulevard on Saturday, Jan. 27, for this year’s Gasparilla, a 120-unit parade of floats, bands and more than 50 krewes who will toss beads, trinkets and foam toys into the crowd.
The festival was founded by an elite group of civic leaders and a prominent club of Tampa businessmen called Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla that to this day is still the organizer of the event. They arrived by horseback a century ago and tossed coins and spent gun casings to the crowd.
The all-male, all-white founders bear little resemblance to today’s roster of krewes that now includes Latin, female, Black and LGBTQ+ groups, as well as other ethnic, cultural and historical themes. On Jan. 27, they will be joined by marching bands and colorful floats in a procession that stretches 2 miles from start to finish.
Pirate costumes will be worn by the crowd, the krewes and even their pets. The atmosphere will be loud with music, cannon fire and whooping revelers who will find alcohol stations all along the parade route.
The day starts with the first sighting of the fully rigged pirate ship Jose Gasparilla — actually a barge dressed up as an 18th century pirate ship that is pulled by tug boats. From 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., the movie-worthy ship with nearly 300 flags and three steel masts standing 100 feet tall will emerge at the south end of Hillsborough Bay with cannons firing.
As hundreds of members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla hang from every fixture of the 165-foot vessel, it will lead a flotilla of hundreds of personal boats and yachts to join the “invasion.” Tampa Fire Rescue boats will spray dramatic arcs of water in front of the ship as it heads to the Tampa Convention Center.
The theater continues after the ship docks and those aboard demand the mayor surrender the key to the city of Tampa to the captain of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. Once they have the key, pirates celebrate by parading through the city starting at 2 p.m.
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The parade will begin at Bay to Bay and Bayshore boulevards and end at Cass Street and Ashley Drive.
A Pirate Fest will take place along the Riverwalk in downtown Tampa with live music on two stages before and after the parade in Curtis Hixon Park and MacDill Park from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. After-parties will be going on all night in downtown Tampa and Ybor City.
Tips for going to Gasparilla
Parking: Streets around the parade route begin closing Friday night. City garages will charge $20 event parking in downtown garages, and $12 in Ybor and other outlying garages. The free TECO line streetcar will be available from 8:30 a.m.-2 a.m. running between Ybor and downtown. But be aware that some streetcar stations are closed to keep the loop moving faster. HART recommends boarding at Station 2 next to Centro Ybor. See gohart.org for schedules. Also, the free HART bus shuttle service will run 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. to transport people between Ybor City and downtown and also the Channel District and downtown Tampa.
For $4 (cash only or the Flamingo Fares mobile app) you can get an all-day pass for the HART park-and-ride options that take you to the Marion Transit Center, 1211 N. Marion St. in downtown Tampa.
Numerous schools and businesses in the area will charge to park near the parade, usually for $15 to $40 depending on the location.
Alcohol: A large wet zone will be set up along the parade route and in Curtis Hixon Park, stretching from Gandy Boulevard to Cass Street, but open containers are prohibited outside those areas.
Plan your day: Traffic will start getting busy as early as 9 a.m., so allow extra time to find parking so you can walk or ride a bike to your destination before the parade starts at 2 p.m. Pack some sunscreen, water, cash, hand sanitizer, tissues and snacks. Almost every bar in South Tampa hosts a “kegs and eggs” event that morning. Veteran paradegoers glug sports drinks full of electrolytes the night before because they know dehydration is a danger.
Bathrooms: There are hundreds of portable toilets lining Bayshore Boulevard and the Pirate Fest, so stay out of the bushes because police officers have no tolerance. Pack some hand sanitizer and tissues in case they run out of toilet paper. You can also use the restrooms at Publix, 243 Bayshore Blvd.; Hyde Park Village on the west side of Snow Avenue; and Kate Jackson Park at Rome and Snow avenues.
How to score some loot: Krewes will be tossing light beads, medallions and foam prizes such as footballs. The heavy and collectible signature beads and necklaces are handed out to the crowd in person for the people up front, so stick your cutest kid up front for those. Be mindful that by the time the floats turn onto Ashley Street, supplies are dwindling. Pro tip: Bring a poster or white board to write down your favorite krewe names as they pass you on the parade route. It can draw the krewe’s attention for more beads or special gifts such as bracelets or specialty beads.
The parade is free but there are reserved seats starting at $75 at gasparillatreasures.com. They are pricey but that puts you closest to the floats and the loot.
Safety: It can be easy to lose your group in the crowd, and it’s also common to have limited cell service when the crowd swells. Establish a meeting spot ahead of time in case you are separated. Take a picture of your child on the day of the parade. If you lose your child, alert the closest officer immediately. They will be stationed along the entire route.
Cellphones: Service is notoriously spotty if not downright gone at the height of the Gasparilla parade when you are surrounded by thousands of people who are also trying to text and post pictures to Instagram.
- Consider saving those videos and photos to post later when the signal is better. Another solution is to walk a few blocks away from the parade until you can get a signal, or find a business or bar that has Wi-Fi.
- Your battery life can also drop like a rock when there’s no signal because the phone is constantly working to find a connection. Putting your phone in airplane mode will save the battery for a bit. Carry a portable charger to juice up on the go.
- If you lose cell signal you’ll also lose your phone’s mapping guide. If you’re not familiar with the area, take a screenshot of a map beforehand showing as many street names as possible, so you’ll at least have a guide if your phone can’t tell you where to go.
Stay informed: The city of Tampa has set up text alerts for the event, if you text GASPARILLA to 888-777. Visit tampa.gov/gasparilla for helpful information.