Our Baby Boomer Road Trip hit Tampa on a momentous weekend. Unknown to us, we were arriving in the middle of the Gasparilla Festival, one of the biggest parties of the year. And we were lucky enough to score some VIP tickets to the showpiece of the festival, the wild and crazy Gasparilla Parade.
If you’ve never heard of Gasparilla, you might think of it as something like Mardi Gras with pirates. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to the Fat Tuesday festival: there are clubs called “krewes” that sponsor floats in the parade, a king and queen, lots of bead-throwing — even the famous king cake I sampled in New Orleans. And like Mardi Gras, the festival goes on for weeks: there are events right up until March.
Gasparilla commemorates Tampa’s colourful past, with a central story involving a mythical pirate called José Gaspar, “the last of the buccaneers”. He and his pirate crew invade the town once a year in a mock attempt to steal the key to the city. And the arrival of Gaspar’s pirate ship in downtown Tampa starts a day of full-on partying that would do the Big Easy proud.
The arrival is greeted by a huge crowd of spectators, many decked out in pirate gear. And when the pirate ship docks, Gaspar himself steps ashore to receive the key, at least for a day. This year, the pirate had a little extra booty to bargain with: since the NHL All-Star Game was in town, the pirates were carrying the real Stanley Cup — with its keeper close by to make sure it didn’t end up in the drink.
Once those formalities were over, it was time for the parade, which snakes its way along Bayshore Boulevard for miles before entering the city’s downtown. This is the third-largest parade in the United States, and it’s a big deal. Pirates, horses, mermaids, gladiators, sea creatures — you name it: the parade is a heck of a spectacle. And if you don’t come home with at least two pounds of beads around your neck, you’re not trying.
Here are a few images from my day at the Gasparilla Festival.