Gasparilla Pirate Festival
|Official name||Gasparilla Pirate Festival|
|Observed by||Residents of Tampa, Florida and the Tampa Bay area|
|Begins||mid-January (Children's Parade)|
|Ends||early March (Outward Voyage Home)|
|Date||last Saturday in January (Parade of Pirates)|
|2022 date||29 January|
|2023 date||28 January|
The Gasparilla Pirate Festival is a large parade and a host of related community events held in Tampa, Florida almost every year since 1904. The theme of the festivities is an invasion by the mythical pirate José Gaspar (also known as Gasparilla), who is a popular figure in Florida folklore even though there is no evidence that he actually existed. The focal point of Gasparilla is the Parade of Pirates, which is held on the last Saturday in January and is often referred to as the Gasparilla Parade. Since its inception, it has been organized by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (YMKG), an organization modeled after the "krewes" that participate in Mardi Gras in New Orleans. On Gasparilla Day, members of YMKG sail into downtown Tampa aboard their large replica pirate ship accompanied by hundreds of private boats to demand that the mayor hand over the key to the city. Afterwards, they stage a "victory parade" along Bayshore Boulevard accompanied by dozens of other krewes and community organizations, with the festivities continuing into the nighttime hours along the Tampa Riverwalk.
Gasparilla began in 1904 as an informal pirate parade that was a small part of a larger community event, such as Tampa's May Day festival. It was first held as a stand-alone event in 1913, and after a hiatus during World War II, the Parade of Pirates has grown into the third largest parade in the United States with a local economic impact of over $20 million and an average attendance of about 300,000.
Two other major parades are held around the Parade of Pirates: the Gasparilla Children's Parade, which is held on Bayshore Boulevard one week before the main parade, and the Sant'Yago Illuminated Knight Parade, which is organized by the Krewe of the Knights of Sant'Yago in the historic neighborhood of Ybor City two weeks after the main parade. Each of these events typically draw about 100,000 revelers.
Tampa now celebrates an informal "Gasparilla season" which runs from approximately mid-January to mid-March. Besides the three large parades, the city hosts many other community events during this time, including the Gasparilla Film Festival, the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, the Gasparilla Distance Classic, and the Gasparilla Music Festival, along with a lineup of smaller events that varies from year to year. The Gasparilla Parade of Pirates was once closely connected with the Florida State Fair, as the parade route once ended at Plant Field near downtown Tampa, the site of the fair for over half a century. The fair moved to a much larger location east of Tampa in the mid-1970s, but it still takes place during Gasparilla season.
Parades and pirates
Gasparilla Parade of Pirates
The theme and focal point of Gasparilla is a friendly "invasion" by mythical pirate José Gaspar and his crew, which are played by members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (YMKG). On the day of the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates, members of YMKG, accompanied by a flotilla of hundreds of smaller private boats, sail across Tampa Bay to downtown Tampa on the Jose Gasparilla, a 165' long flat-bottomed "pirate" ship which was specially built for this purpose in 1954. The ship moors beside the Tampa Convention Center around noon accompanied by much cannon fire, after which the "pirate captain" and his crew disembark and demand that the mayor hand over the key to the city in a playful ceremony which has had different outcomes in different years. Whether or not the mayor actually "surrenders", the pirates hold their "victory parade" through the streets of Tampa, with most of the route running along Bayshore Boulevard into downtown. Since 2011, the parade route has ended near Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, where musical performances and other activities continue into the evening hours.
During the parade, members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and dozens of other krewes throw beads, coins, and various souvenirs to the throngs from more than 90 floats, most of them pirate-themed. Before the 1990s, beads were not commonly thrown at Gasparilla. Instead, many members of YMKG would fire six-shooters and other handguns loaded with blanks into the air and then toss the empty shells to the crowd. This tradition was restricted in 1992 and ended entirely several years later, with bead throwing quickly becoming a popular replacement. Though pirates on foot no longer fire weapons, trained members of YMKG still fire loud mini-cannons from the Jose Gasparilla as it sails across Tampa Bay and from atop several specialized floats during the parade.
In addition to the krewes, area high schools and universities provide marching bands, majorettes, and drill teams, and many local businesses and organizations build and enter their own elaborate floats and throw beads and other trinkets to the crowd. The main parade has been broadcast live on local television for many years. WFLA-TV has provided coverage since 1955, and WTVT-TV also covered the parade from 1955 to 1980.
Several semi-theatrical events around the "invasion" have become traditional:
- About two weeks before the Parade of Pirates, a US Navy ship volunteers to be "attacked" by small boats of the "Ybor City Navy" armed with stale Cuban bread and water hoses. The US Navy returns "fire" with their own water hoses but eventually surrenders to the Alcalde of Ybor City, who, as the story goes, has been hired by Jose Gaspar to clear resistance to his impending pirate attack. After the "battle", the navy sailors are treated to an evening on the town. This event began in 1956, and while it was temporarily discontinued after the September 11, 2001 attacks, it had been held most years since, with the museum ship SS American Victory usually standing in for the US Navy.
- A few days before the Parade of Pirates, members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla in full pirate garb "kidnap" the mayor of Tampa, take them to a downtown park in front of local media and onlookers, and demand that the city surrender. The mayor playfully refuses, and the pirates declare that they will return with a full "invasion force" the following Saturday to steal the key to the city.
- The Outward Voyage Home is the culminating event of the Gasparilla season which was revived in 2008 after being discontinued in 1964. During this ceremony, the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla's pirates return the key of the city to the mayor, then climb aboard the Jose Gasparilla and "sail away" across Tampa Bay while festivities continue along the Tampa Riverwalk. The Outward Voyage usually takes place on the first Saturday in March.
The Children's Gasparilla Extravaganza is usually held on the Saturday prior to the main parade. It is billed as a "family friendly" event, as unlike during the Parade of Pirates, alcohol is not allowed along the parade route, which runs along Bayshore Boulevard and is about half as long as the main Gasparilla Parade. The Children's Parade was first held in 1947 and has grown over the years, usually drawing about 100,000 attendees.
The Children's Parade features some of the same krewes and floats as the main parade. However, many children of krewe members don costumes to ride aboard floats and toss beads and trinkets to the crowd, and various youth organizations such as sports and dance teams also participate. Various activities and events for children are held in and around downtown Tampa in the hours before the Children's Parade, including the Preschooler's Stroll, which is a short, informal parade of small children riding pirate-themed wagons, strollers, bicycles, and scooters that runs for a few blocks along Bayshore Boulevard. The day's festivities usually end with an evening fireworks display over Tampa Bay.
Sant'Yago Knight Parade
The Sant'Yago Illuminated Knight Parade (sometimes referred to as the "Gasparilla Night Parade") has been organized since 1972 by the Krewe of the Knights of Sant'Yago. It is held in the historical neighborhood of Ybor City on a Saturday night, usually two weeks after the Parade of Pirates in mid-February. The Knight Parade features a similar mix of participants as the Parade of Pirates, though most of the floats are brightly illuminated since the event begins after dark. Though it once had a reputation of being the most "adult-oriented" parade of Tampa's Gasparilla season, organizers have tried to reduce drunkenness and unruly behavior in recent years and have promoted it as a family-friendly event, with some success. 
Additional events of Gasparilla Season
Besides the Gasparilla Children's Parade (first held in 1947), the Sant'Yago Knight Parade (first held in 1972), and the many galas, parties, and fundraisers hosted by individual krewes, Tampa has long hosted a variety of other Gasparilla-related events from approximately January through March. One of the first was the Gasparilla Open, a PGA Tour stop which was sponsored by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (YMKG) from 1932 to 1935. The 1935 edition had the largest prize purse on that year's PGA Tour ($4000), but with the deepening of the Great Depression, the tournament was discontinued thereafter. It returned in 1956 as the Gasparilla Invitational Tournament, an amateur competition which has been held annually ever since.
Other large-scale events held during the Gasparilla season include the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts (established 1970), the Gasparilla Distance Classic (established 1978), the Gasparilla Film Festival (established 2006), and the Gasparilla Music Festival (established 2013), and the Gasparilla Bowl college football game (renamed in 2018). A changing lineup of smaller events held in Tampa during the first months of the year also use the Gasparilla name, with events ranging from beauty pageants to classic car shows to food festivals, with the Florida Department of State indicating that over 100 entities have used the name.
Use of the name "Gasparilla"
Most of the activities, organizations, events, and businesses that make use of the names "Gasparilla" or "Gaspar" are not affiliated with Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla or the City of Tampa, as these names are not legally controlled by any organization. While some feel that this "co-branding" helps to promote all Gasparilla-monikered events and the Tampa area as a whole, others feel that overuse of the name will "water down what it means", and that the potential failures or missteps of one event or organization could reflect poorly on all the others. In 2019, YMKG began an effort to legally to trademark the name Gasparilla to "protect" it for use by "appropriate community events", drawing complaints and counterclaims from others who have used the name or own the trademark for other, more narrow uses. As of the 2020 edition of the Gasparilla Pirate Fest, the issue was being considered by the United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.
The average crowd at the main parade is over 300,000 people, with over 1,000,000 attending at least one Gasparilla event. According to several studies, the Parade of Pirates has a local economic impact of over $22 million, and the combined events bring in over $40 million. The parade is the third largest parade in the US. Beginning in 2015, Visit Tampa Bay, the local tourist bureau, began a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign in the northern United States, Canada, and Europe to attract more visitors to Tampa during its "Gasparilla Season".
The theme of the Gasparilla Festival was inspired by the legend of the pirate José Gaspar, who supposedly operated off the west coast of Spanish Florida from the 1780s until the 1820s. Different versions of the story say that he was either a Spanish nobleman and advisor to King Charles III of Spain who was exiled after a romantic scandal in court, a traitorous admiral of the Spanish Royal Navy who stole a ship and fled when his treachery was revealed, or an ambitious young officer in the Spanish navy who was driven to mutiny by a tyrannically cruel captain. Whatever his supposed origins, the legends agree that Gaspar fled to the virtually uninhabited southwestern coast of Spanish Florida in the 1780s and established his "pirate kingdom" on Gasparilla Island in Charlotte Harbor, south of Tampa Bay. Gaspar is said to have plundered many ships and taken many female hostages while preying on shipping in the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to the Spanish main aboard his flagship, the Floriblanca. His exploits came to a sudden end in 1821 when, to avoid being captured by the United States Navy pirate hunting schooner USS Enterprise, he wrapped himself in the ship's anchor chains and threw himself overboard while shouting ""Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy's!"
Despite this colorful history, there is no evidence that a pirate named "Gaspar" or "Gasparilla" roamed the Gulf of Mexico. Archives in Spain make no mention of Gaspar as a member of the Spanish court or an officer in the Spanish navy, the U.S. Navy has no documentation indicating that any of its vessels ever encountered a pirate named Gaspar or a ship named Floriblanca, and neither Gaspar nor anyone claiming to be a member of his crew are mentioned in the hundreds of naval records of piracy trials held during the era in which he supposedly operated. Also, no artifacts or other physical evidence of Gaspar's "regal" base, sunken ship, or lost treasure has ever been found in southwest Florida despite years of searching by amateur and professional treasure-seekers. These searchers have, however, caused "unimaginable" damage to local Native American archeological sites that are protected by state law.
The first written account of José Gaspar comes from an advertising brochure for the Gasparilla Inn in the tourist town of Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island in southwest Florida. The brochure was produced and widely distributed in the early 1900s by the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railway, which operated the resort. Besides promotional material and contact information for the Gasparilla Inn, the brochure prominently featured the "Story of Jose Gasparilla," the "last of the Buccaneers" who it said had terrorized the Gulf of Mexico for almost 40 years. This fictional biography was penned by publicist Pat Lemoyne, who combined and embellished tall tales attributed to a well-known but recently deceased local fishing guide named "Panther" John Gomez to create the legend of the pirate Gaspar, which Lemoyne freely admitted was "without a true fact in it." Among its many clear inaccuracies, the brochure stated that pirate's nickname "Gasparilla" means "Gaspar the outlaw" in Spanish when it is actually a feminine form of "little Gaspar", that the name Gasparilla Island came from the pirate when the name actually appears on Spanish and English maps from well before Gaspar's supposed arrival, and that skeletons of Gaspar's victims along with pirate gold had been found in local "Indian mounds" when no such find has ever been documented. The brochure also claimed that the bulk of Gaspar's vast treasure cache "still lies unmoved" somewhere in the vicinity of Boca Grande.
Various versions of José Gaspar's adventures have been told in various forms over the years, including pulp adventure novels, local tourist guides, and in the official histories of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, and all have their basis in the fanciful biography first relayed in the Gasparilla Inn brochure. Gaspar has also been erroneously mentioned in a few non-fiction books about piracy and Florida history, causing some confusion as to the authenticity of the legend.
The first Gasparilla parade was held in May 1904, after Tampa Tribune society editor Louise Frances Dodge and Tampa's director of customs George Hardee combined the legend of the dashing pirate with elements of a New Orleans Mardi Gras / Carnivale festival to give Tampa's relatively sedate May Day celebration a new theme with local connections. Early Gasparilla "invasions" was conducted on horseback or early automobiles, and though they were considered a success, the 1906 edition was the last Gasparilla parade held until 1910, when it was revived as part of a community celebration marking the opening of the Panama Canal. The 1913 "Gasparilla Carnival" was the first time that Gasparilla was organized as an independent event. Though the Gasparilla parade has been a stand-alone event ever since, the parade route once ended at the old Florida State Fairgrounds at Plant Field, drawing many thousands of participants to the combined festivities.
The first shipborne Gasparilla invasion came in 1911 aboard a borrowed merchant vessel decorated for the occasion. This was the usual plan until the 1930s, when Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla bought an old merchant sloop and repurposed it to be the Jose Gaspar, their official vessel. The wooden ship was in serious need of repairs and renovation by the early 1950s, so YMKG and the city of Tampa commissioned the construction of a $100,000 new "pirate ship", the Jose Gasparilla, which is an elaborately decorated and sail-rigged 147-foot-long (45 m) steel barge designed to look like an 18th-century West Indiaman. The ship has no engine of its own and must be pushed by a tugboat, though it is steered by an experienced harbor pilot to avoid collisions with the many small private vessels that accompany it on Gasparilla Day. The current ship has crossed Tampa Bay blazing its canons to lead every Gasparilla invasion since 1954 except in 1971, when high seas cancelled the sailing, though not the parade.
The Lee Roy Selmon Expressway was built near the mouth of the Hillsborough River in 1976. This prevented the Jose Gasparilla from sailing upriver as all versions of YMKG's ships had done for decades, as its 100-foot (30 m) masts do not fit under the bridge. Since then, the pirate ship has docked on the south side of downtown Tampa on Gasparilla Day, and has moored alongside the Tampa Convention Center since the early 1990s. While the ship is busy during Gasparilla season, it spends the rest of the year moored along Bayshore Boulevard, near downtown.
Dates and location
The Gasparilla parade was held in conjunction with various other local festivals in its early years, so its timing varied and it sometimes was not held at all. The first "pirate invasion" was held on May 4, 1904, and the dates of Gasparilla ranged from February to May over the next few occurrences. After a hiatus during World War I, the Gasparilla parade was regularly held in mid-February. In the decades after another hiatus during World War II, it was set for the second Monday in February. Gasparilla became an official holiday in Tampa during this time, with local schools and government offices closed for the day. In 1988, the Parade of Pirates was moved to the first Saturday in February to make it easier for residents of other communities to take part in the festivities. Since 2005, it has been held on the last Saturday in January except for 2021, when the parades and related events were postponed and then canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Gasparilla Parade of Pirates has been staged along Bayshore Boulevard almost since its inception. For many years, the route ran north up Bayshore toward downtown and ended at Plant Field, where the Florida State Fair was being held at the same time. The fair moved to a much larger location east of Tampa in 1976, but the basic parade route has remained the same, beginning near the southern end of Bayshore Boulevard and ending in or near downtown, approximately four miles in total. Since 2011, the parade has ended near Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park along the Tampa Riverwalk, where festivities continue into the evening hours.
Krewes and controversy
Much of the festivities during Tampa's Gasparilla season (including the three parades and other events before and after), are organized by "krewes", which are private clubs of local citizens organized into social and charitable organizations inspired by the krewes of New Orleans. Tampa's Krewes hold social events and parties throughout the year, often to raise money for favored charities and causes. Krewes tend to be most active during the Gasparilla season, with social events beginning as early as the latter part of December.
"Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla" (YMKG) was Tampa's first krewe, and its members have organized the Parade of Pirates since the first Gasparilla festival in 1904. YMKG's membership includes civic leaders and businessmen from Tampa, which for many decades meant that the organization was exclusively white and male, eventually leading to resentment among local African-Americans and other groups. The Krewe of Venus (which is a female-only krewe consisting mainly of the relations of YMKG members) joined the festivities in 1966, and the Krewe of Sant'Yago (which was formed by leaders of Tampa's Latin community centered in Ybor City) formed in 1972, but much of Tampa's diverse population was left out, and some observers questioned the image of the local elite dressing as pirates and pretending to plunder the city.
The issue grew into a heated controversy in 1990, when the Krewe and the city planned to move Gasparilla up a few weeks to coincide with Super Bowl XXV, to be played at Tampa Stadium in January 1991. The city and the National Football League put pressure on the Krewe of Gasparilla to admit African-American members before the event, but the organization refused and cancelled Gasparilla instead The city of Tampa hastily put together a replacement parade called "Bamboleo", which was billed as a "multicultural festival" and did not include pirates. A rainy day helped to dampen the crowds, and the replacement was considered a "flop". Later in 1991, the Krewe of Gasparilla agreed to accept black members and allow more krewes to participate in the parade, and Gasparilla returned for 1992
In 2001, Tampa again hosted a Super Bowl (Super Bowl XXXV), and the city again moved the parade to coincide with the game. On that occasion, there was no controversy, as an integrated Krewe of Gasparilla was joined by over 30 other diverse krewes for the parade, which drew a record crowd estimated at 750,000.
The number of new krewes has continued to grow in recent years. Many of these krewes are organized around various ethnic, cultural, and historical themes or favorite charity causes. Members often spend a great deal of money on elaborate costumes, beads, and floats, much like the krewes of Mardi Gras. Currently, over 50 krewes march in each parade, with smaller krewes participating on a rotating basis due to the limited number of available slots. Many of the same Krewes - large and small - also participate in the Gasparilla Children's Parade and the Sant'Yago Knight Parade.
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