I first wandered around Downtown Tampa and the Bayshore area last year, at the start of February. For the life of me, I could not understand why so many houses were decorated in black pirate flags, seeing as how Halloween occurred 3 months prior. Then I was brought out of my out-of-towner ignorance by my co-workers, and was told about the Gasparilla Pirate Fest. Being the history lover that I am, I soon got into researching the history of Tampa and within my search, of course, I came across the history of Gasparilla.
A Tale of Mutiny
The festival is named after Jose Gaspar, a pirate who terrorized the west coast of Florida between the 18th and 19th century. The man was a lieutenant in the Royal Spanish Navy who deserted with his men, took a war ship, and set sail for Florida. Gaspar pillaged many ships and ports. Before retiring from piracy, he and his men decided to pull off one last caper. Turned out the ship they tried to pillage was an American War Ship in disguise. Ouch!
Gaspar died that day, but his legend lived on. In 1904 Tampa’s social and civic leaders decided to adopt Gaspar’s legend to celebrate the city’s first May festival. This gave birth to the first “Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla,” a group of forty people dressed as pirates, who surprised the un-expecting townsfolk by “invading” their streets and then proceeding to celebrate in style. And the crowd went wild! The people demanded that the celebration be brought back each year… and so it has.
A Kid-Sized Invasion
Each year, Tampa goes pirate, with men, women and children dressing up, building pirate-themed floats, tossing more beads around than there are stars in the heavens, and going nuts in all sorts of ways! A whole city… celebrating like pirates. Tampa people are crazy! And I love it!
What I love most is that there’s a family-friendly, G-rated invasion of the festival. I decked out my wife and kids in pirate gear, reserved front-row seats for the parade, and enjoyed one of the happiest days since we moved to Tampa. We ate, we sang, we danced, we drank (lemonade), we were merry, and we walked away with a great booty (291 beads)!
A City with Soul
I came up to Tampa after spending the majority of my life in Miami. Don’t get me wrong, Miami’s a great city, but, except for the Miami Heat winning a championship, I never saw anything even remotely close to the phenomenon of Gasparilla. We’re talking about rich and poor, executives and drive-thru attendants, young and old, dressed like pirates, carrying out a mock invasion of their city… just for the fun of it!
The experience allowed me to see that Tampa, though smaller than cities like Miami, has a huge soul. Am I glad the tides (of I-75) brought me to these Pirate-ridden shores? Well, I now own an eye patch, a pirate bandana, a black pirate flag, a pirate gun, and a pirate sword, so… aye! I be glad!
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