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Is Gasparilla really the third-largest parade in the U.S.?

Hundreds of thousands flock to Tampa each year for the pirate invasion, but other events across the country cast doubt on the ranking.
Patron vie for beads while attending in the 103nd Gasparilla Invasion and Parade of the Pirates presented by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla on Saturday, January 25, 2020, in downtown Tampa. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  TImes]
Patron vie for beads while attending in the 103nd Gasparilla Invasion and Parade of the Pirates presented by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla on Saturday, January 25, 2020, in downtown Tampa. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes]

TAMPA — As thousands of buccaneers nurse hangovers after plundering Tampa this weekend, Gasparilla’s event organizers are still waiting for a final crowd estimate.

The number is expected to be high. After all, the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates is known as the third-largest parade in the nation.

You’ll see this ranking listed in dozens of news articles (including stories on tampabay.com) and on the Visit Tampa Bay website. The distinction is even on the Gasparilla Wikipedia page.

“I believe it was the third-largest parade behind the Rose Parade and the the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade," said Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.

But does Tampa’s annual swashbuckling celebration actually earn that ranking? What are the other parades on the list? And who decided this, anyway?

EventFest president Darrell Stefany, who has been organizing the parade since 1992, said an industry special event magazine recognized Gasparilla as the third-largest parade for one-day attendance a few years ago. He didn’t recall the name of the publication. Corrada also couldn’t remember which publication compiled the ranking or when exactly that happened, but said he recalled more than 450,000 people attending that year.

Festivities that feature multiple parades, like Mardi Gras, wouldn’t count against the single parade that happened Saturday, Corrada said.

There is no authoritative single source on parade size — and no designated metric.

Crowd estimates based on aerial images from last year said about 300,000 people came out.

About 3.5 million spectators attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade every year. The Rose Parade in Pasadena attracts several hundred thousand in-person spectators, though crowds have proven hard to measure over the years.

Still, there are other single-day parades to consider.

In addition to the Thanksgiving parade, the New York City Pride March reportedly attracts about 2 million people each year. New York also hosts more than 2 million attendees at its annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

March 17 is routinely a big day, in general: Chicago’s river dyeing, which precedes its annual parade, sees 400,000 guests. Reports from Savannah, Ga., routinely cite around 300,000 at their St. Patrick’s Day festival.

While it’s possible Gasparilla could have been the third-largest parade in the nation whenever the anonymous ranking was bestowed, it probably isn’t now. But does it actually matter?

Gasparilla is still a major boon for the city. Visit Tampa Bay uses the parade to show potential clients the draw of hosting events in Tampa Bay, and thousands travel here for the festivities.

“Hotel occupancy last year around Gasparilla was over 82%, which means over eight out of 10 rooms and all the hotels in Hillsborough County were sold or occupied,” Corrada said.

Then there are all of the other events during “Gasparilla season,” a term popularized by Visit Tampa Bay in 2016. The Gasparilla Distance Classic race is coming up in February. March brings the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, Gasparilla Music Festival and Gasparilla International Film Festival. Plus, more parades: The children’s parade already happened January 18, and the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’ Yago Illuminated Knight Parade is in February.

“Our marketing has become about how unique and how different we are," Corrada said. "We don’t want to compete against beach destinations or theme park destinations.”

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