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Yo ho ho: Saturday is Gasparilla Day in Tampa

Bill DeYoung



The 165-foot "pirate ship" Gasparilla will make its way up to the Tampa Convention Center Saturday. Photo:

On the Pinellas side of the bay, you didn’t used to hear a lot about the Gasparilla Pirate Festival. It was a purely Tampa thing, since its earliest days well over 100 years ago. As the distance has (figuratively) shrunk over the last decades – “Tampa Bay” is now a single community, in the eyes of more than a few people – the whole Gasparilla thing has become part of our collective culture.

And since the 2022 edition is taking place this Saturday, here’s a quick primer on Gasparilla past and present.

On Saturday, a 165-foot, three-masted “pirate ship” will sail (technically, it’s towed, as it doesn’t actually move under its own power) from the south end of Hillsborough Bay at 11:30 a.m., then north to Seddon Channel (between Davis Island and Harbour Island) up to the Tampa Convention Center, docking at (or about) 1 p.m.

There’ll be around 700 “scurvy buccaneers” on board, blasting “guns” and “cannons” and otherwise making a lot of noise, and when the vessel docks, the guy playing top pirate Jose Gaspar will “receive” the key to the city from Mayor Jane Castor. This is the so-called Pirate Invasion.

There’s evidence that Jose Gaspar was a real Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico pirate, in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there are even more indicators in the historical record that he was just a folkloric creation who never existed at all.

Nevertheless, Gaspar is the central figure in all this, and since Tampa claims that 300,000 people attend the annual Gasparilla parade annually (making it the third-largest parade in the country), it doesn’t really matter if he was just a figment of some Chamber of Commerce president’s imagination.

It’s just a big party, an excuse for people to eat, drink and wave plastic swords around.

The 4.5 mile parade starts at 2 p.m., at the intersection of Bay to Bay and beautiful Bayshore Blvd. The parade winds along Hillsborough Bay into downtown Tampa, with 103 floats, several marching bands and more than 50 participating social organizations. Beads are tossed, shouts are shouted, music blasts and fun is had, and it’s been compared (favorably and in a family-friendly way!) with Mardi Gras.

Then it’s over the Brorein Street Bridge and north on Ashley Drive – and to the parade zenith at Cass and Ashley. There’s live music and all sorts of vendors at nearby Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park all day.

Related events: The annual children’s parade was held Jan. 22, and the Gasparilla Music Festival (at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park) takes place Feb. 25-27.

It’s free to watch the invasion and the parade. Here’s the Gasparilla website for details, info, tech specs, straight dope, FAQs and all the other stuff you might want to know.

Of course, you could just drive over the Gandy or the Howard Frankland, find a good spot and see what happens. That depends on how adventuresome you Arrrrr.

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