Tampa Bay invaded by historic Gasparilla festival

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Kate Murphy

Every January, downtown Tampa is flooded with about half a million people celebrating the city’s pirate history and Saturday, Jan. 26 marked the 104th Gasparilla Pirate Festival and parade. 

According to an article from Tampa’s WTSP, the pirate festivities began in 1904 with a surprise mock attack on downtown Tampa by people looking to promote the city. These people combined elements of the local pirate history with influences from Mardi Gras in New Orleans to create the festival. 

José Gaspar is a legendary pirate, known as the “Last of the Buccaneer’s”, who supposedly buried his treasure somewhere on Florida’s coastline before his death, though that treasure has never been found. Upon the discovery of Gaspar’s story in 1904, a group of people, self titled Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, organized a  citywide celebration in his honor. 

Elizabeth Rodriguez has been a resident of Tampa for 35 years and has friends who are part of the groups that organize the Gasparilla celebration. She compared these “krewes” to social groups like a rotary club, and she said that people are invited to join if they’re involved in Tampa’s civic life and community. 

“They ride into Tampa on the big pretend pirate ship,” Rodriguez said. “Then they pretend to kidnap the mayor, and the mayor gives them the key of the city. They basically pretend to ransack the city which is actually just a parade.” 

The group sails in to Tampa’s downtown port every year to capture the city on the only full- rigged pirate ship in the world, the José Gasparilla II. The “krewe” commissioned the building of the vessel in 1954, a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the group’s formation. 

During the year, the ship is on display at the Tarpon Weigh Station’s docks. 

In recent years, the festival has expanded beyond the pirate parade and features a Gasparilla season of events from January to April. Some events include a children’s celebration, distance race, music festivals, and car shows. 

The festival’s main attraction is the celebration of pirate extravaganza, which, according to a 2016 article from the Tampa Bay Times, brought in over 20 million dollars in revenue in 2004 alone. 

In spite of the development of the parade, the core purpose of the event is to commemorate Tampa’s pirate history and Buccaneer José Gaspar. 

“So, although 90 percent of the legend of José Gaspar is made up, it does have that 10 percent kernel of truth!” Rodriguez said.

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