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Biggest Gasparilla ever? Organizers say people are eager after a year off.

The city of Tampa is preparing for a crowd of 300,000. But with COVID-19 lingering, practice “personal responsibility,” Mayor Jane Castor urges.
The ship Jose Gasparilla and its flotilla of boats bears down on Tampa for the 2020 pirate invasion.
The ship Jose Gasparilla and its flotilla of boats bears down on Tampa for the 2020 pirate invasion. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 11
Updated Jan. 11

The wait between Gasparilla parades disappointed many in the Tampa Bay area, but last year’s pandemic-forced cancellation may have hit Pete Lackman the hardest.

The pseudo-pirate, with event organizer Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, couldn’t bear the thought of staying on land the day scheduled for the event so he took to the water by himself.

To Lackman’s surprise, he wasn’t by himself: At least 20 other boats had the same idea, all decked out in pirate flags with crews wearing eye patches and fishnet stockings.

They’ll have more company this Jan. 29 when the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates returns to Hillsborough Bay, Bayshore Boulevard and downtown Tampa.

“Everybody already realizes how much they missed the parade last year,” Lackman said at a news conference Tuesday kicking off the Gasparilla season. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this year isn’t the biggest yet.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said preparations are being made to accommodate some 300,000 people.

Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic may still pose risks for those venturing into crowds, Castor urged paradegoers to practice “personal responsibility.” There is no mask mandate in effect but wearing one is still a good idea in tight groups, she said. She encouraged the immunocompromised to stay home.

Make no mistake, though, she said: “Gasparilla is back.”

“This is the signature event for the entire Tampa Bay area, and it’s an opportunity for our community to come together and celebrate safely,” Castor said. “It puts us on the stage for others to see we really do live in paradise.”

The news conference also featured representatives from law enforcement agencies charged with keeping order in the crowd, including the Tampa Police Department, Tampa Fire Rescue, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Events begin at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, with the 4½-mile-long Gasparilla Children’s Parade. The festivities run through 7 p.m.

The main event kicks off at 11:30 a.m. the following Saturday when the ship Jose Gasparilla leads a flotilla into Hillsborough Bay and docks at the Tampa Convention Center. There, the mayor will surrender the key to the city to the captain of Ye Mystic Krewe.

Then comes the 6½-mile parade featuring hundreds of floats and marching bands, all rolling out at 1 p.m. Attendance is free along the parade route. Reserved seats also are available.

Castor encouraged those attending with children to give them some form of identification they can carry in their pockets.

“Let’s make sure we take care of the little ones,” she said. “They always seem to get lost.”

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Castor also urged people to keep beads out of the water, noting that the strings of plastic are “worth a million dollars” on parade day but damaging to marine life once they make it into the bay.

More information on parking, drinking areas and bus service can be found at the Special Events tab on the city of Tampa website. Real-time updates on traffic, events and more are available on parade day by texting Gasparilla to 888777.