Florida Travel Diaries: Gasparilla Pirate Festival

For those of you who don’t know, Tampa Bay is the only community in the world that celebrates being conquered by bloodthirsty pirates! The main celebration of Gasparilla takes place in January of every year to commemorate the legend of Jose Gaspar. The Spanish pirate operated in the Gulf of Mexico, sailing into Tampa Bay and taking over the City. The event is hosted by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla which is fundamentally a civic organization with membership that consists of the first citizens of the City of Tampa.

It’s quite a sight to see the dozens and dozens of pleasure craft surrounding the ship “Jose Gaspar”, at first attempting to defend Tampa Bay, then joining the Pirates to pillage the city. The main event is the Parade that takes place after the flotilla docks. The various “krewes” and other organization form up and parade floats down picturesque Bayshore Blvd, tossing beads out to an average of 400,000 screaming people.

The day of the Parade is the only one where alcohol is allowed to be consumed in public in Tampa and it seems there’s a lot of pent up demand. Universities and Colleges from as far away as Orlando actually bus students in for the festivities.

If the notorious Night Parade in Ybor City, and even more decadent celebration of Tampa’s pirate-ness, isn’t your cup of bourbon, there are several other events that still allow you to participate in this unique holiday season:

The Gaspar Ballet

Developed by Tampa transplant Christopher Fleming and scored by Dr. David Goldstein, a local physician by day and composer by night, the Gaspar Ballet tells the story of Captain Jose Gaspar who discovers he’s not only a pirate, but royalty as well.

It’s rare to find a truly original, truly local production of this kind, let alone one that receives such great reviews so take advantage of it while it’s playing and get your tickets today! The Gaspar Ballet is showing 2 performances at the Straz Center on January 29th and is suitable for all ages.

Gasparilla Festival of the Arts

This annual event is popular with both art lovers and artists alike. Set in beautiful Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa, right across the Hillsborough River from UT and next to the Glazer Children’s Museum, this event gives local artists the opportunity to shine.

Past winners of the annual Gasparilla Festival of the Arts include Hoang Van Bui, who later went on to provide a sculpture for the Olympics in Atlanta, teach Art at the University of Tampa and win accolades around the world for his unique installations.

This year you’ll have to wait until March 3rd to see this particular display of Tampa culture, but it’s worth putting on your calendar today. Tampa Florida attractions like Gasparilla, the Gaspar Ballet and Gasparilla Festival of the Arts are what make the Bay area a unique and entertaining place to live and visit.

7 Things to do for Gasparilla

Ye Olde Krewes bring plenty of beads and pirate booty to the next big event in the list of Tampa Florida attractions. The Gasparilla Parade is widely known as a party to rival Mardi Gras, but there are also days designed for the whole family.

The Gasparilla events, spread out across January and February, bring friends and floats to Tampa to celebrate the annual tradition of a pirate invasion led by fictional pirate Jose Gaspar.

6:00 PM – Gasparilla Gala, Florida Aquarium

First up: the official Gasparilla Season Kickoff Party – Gasparilla Gala! This event features a costume ball along with vendors and sponsors showcasing all of their treasures.

The biggest VIP event in Tampa to kick start Gasparilla will include pirates and mermaids parading in costume, live music, fashion shows, the Official Miss Gasparilla Pageant, and more! Special appearances and autograph signing by the Gasparilla Calendar girls, other celebrity guests and live performances by the Weeki Wachee Mermaids. Dine and dance with the fishes and the rest of the sea life, all at the Tampa Aquarium!

Gasparilla Pageant, Straz Center for the Performing Arts

The Miss Gasparilla Pageant takes place at the Ramada Westshore Conference Center. Prizes include modeling contracts, terrific crowns and sashes and the opportunity to represent Tampa Bay all year long! The event includes Mr. and Miss Gasparilla, Teen Mr. and Miss Gasparilla, Mr. and Mrs. Gasparilla, and Little Mr. and Miss Gasparilla titles. Take the kiddies out to watch the fun! This event is a charity booster for Locks of Love, an organization whose mission is to provide custom-fitted hairpieces for ill children suffering medical hair loss.

Gasparilla Children’s Extravaganza, Bayshore Blvd.

The Pre-Schooler’s Stroll kicks off the busy day of the Gasparilla Children’s Extravaganza, with toddlers in pirate costumes trekking a quarter-mile down Bayshore. Unfortunately, walkups are not allowed to join.

3:00-3:30 PM - The first big opening event for the Gasparilla Children’s Extravaganza is the Air Invasion show, which showcases a precision parachute jump from the United States Special Operations Command Jump Team.

3:30-6:00 PM - Gasparilla Children’s Parade take place on Bayshore Blvd. The Children’s Gasparilla Parade begin at Bay to Bay Blvd. & Bayshore Blvd., and proceed north along Bayshore, and end at Watrous/Orleans Avenues & Bayshore (approx. 1.4 miles). It is free to attend the events, although difficult to find parking, so head to South Tampa early.

7:00 PM - Piratechnic Extravaganza is the big event of the night! It is a 23-minute fireworks spectacular show over the bay.

Seminole Hard Rock Gasparilla Pirate Fest, Bayshore Boulevard

10:00 AM- 1:00 PM - Pirate Brunch – Tampa Convention Center, “Enjoy a close-up view of the spectacular pirate ship, the Jose Gasparilla, as it sails up Seddon Channel and docks “tableside” at the Convention Center.

This colorful event includes a buffet brunch, live entertainment and a reserved seat with the best view in Tampa of the historic Gasparilla Invasion, presented by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.”

11:30 AM- 1:00 PM - Gasparilla Invasion – Watch as the pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla “invade” from the south end of Hillsborough Bay. Event is free to the public. According to the website, “The parade begins at Bay to Bay Boulevard and Bayshore Boulevard. It continues along Bayshore Boulevard to Brorein Street, turns east on Brorein Street, then north on Ashley Drive. The parade ends at Cass Street & Ashley Drive.”

2:00 PM- 5:30 PM - Parade of the Pirates – All of the city Krewes come together on floats to toss beads out to the crowd on the 3.8 mile route down Bayshore. Event is free to the public; parking is limited.

10:00 AM-10:00 PM – Pirate Fest Street Festival - Even if you don’t take part in catching beads, watching Jose Gaspar’s ship sail in, or dressing like a pirate, you can still go out to the streets of downtown Tampa and enjoy a bustling street festival.

Krewe of Sant’ Yago presents the Pin Chasers Knight Parade, Ybor City

Many consider the night parade held annually in Ybor City to be the most exciting part of Gasparilla. The event draws a large young crowd and attracts over 100,000 spectators, according to knightparade.com. But along with being a night of frivolity for many, it is a night of charity for the Krewe.

“The Krewe of the Knights of Sant’ Yago’s largest fundraiser of the year, a portion of the parade proceeds benefit the Krewe of Sant’ Yago Education Foundation, now in its 17th year. The Foundation has contributed in excess of $1,000,000 to endow scholarships at local Colleges and Universities.”

But the real story for the Gasparilla Night Parade this year may just be that Jerry Springer of trashy talk show fame, will be the Honorary Grand Marshall this year.

Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic – Half Marathon

The Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic is a weekend sponsored by Publix and Nike, among others, which showcases community involvement and fitness through a variety of races along Bayshore Blvd, and is a big part of Gasparilla. Participants can choose from a wide variety of races, including 15k, 5k, 15k wheelchair, half marathon.

The Gasparilla Invasion and Parade, one of the Tampa Florida attractions you won’t find anywhere else, takes place this Saturday, January 28th! This event tops the list of Things to do in Tampa this weekend, of course. It’s remarkable the number of Tampa Bay area residents that haven’t witness either event, sometimes just because they don’t know how to get in and out of the area and where go once they get there.

The Gasparilla Invasion, where all the ships come into port and take over the city, takes place on the water running up to the Tampa Convention Center area. You’ll be able to get a good look from Harbor Island, Davis Island and the area around the convention center and where Bayshore and Platt St. meet.

The Parade starts at Bay to Bay and Bayshore Blvd, then goes the mile or so up Bayshore back towards Platt St. and up to Curtis Hixon Park.

Parking can definitely be a challenge, but if you pick your viewing spot in advance and get there very EARLY you’ll be just fine. Being patient in traffic will also go a long way to help make your experience a great one. The early bird getting the parking space especially applies if you’re going to try and see one of the 2 main event stages:

The Gasparilla Invasion Stage by Bayshore and the Platt Street bridge and the Gasparilla Pirate Fest Stage at Curtis Hixon Park.

The Stages will be less than 1 mile apart, but may be it will likely take some effort to navigate the crowds from one to the other. If you’re early enough, you may try parking at the Convention Center, but if you’re coming in from Brandon or points East, you may want to start with the parking garage at Channelside, then walk along the Tampa Riverwalk for what’s sure to be a some great sites on the water.

If you can’t get into that lot, there are many surrounding the St. Pete Times Forum that may be open, just make sure you bring cash and be ready to walk that 20-30 minutes to the event.

The best thing about parking in the Channelside area is the quick access to the Crosstown. Relatively easy in and easy out.

The other spot to park that will probably save you a lot of the traffic hassles closer in is in Ybor City. Ybor has many smaller parking lots as well as a large garage on 15th St. and 7th Avenue. You can easily get to Ybor City using the Crosstown Expressway or I-4 and getting off at the 22nd St/Ybor exits.

It’s a bit far to walk from Ybor City to the parade route, but the Teco Line Streetcar runs from there all the way to the Tampa Convention Center and it will have service from 9:30AM to 1:30AM. Just get the $5 all day pass. There will also be the Hart City Bus line 8 running all day and plenty of people on hand to help you figure it all out.

Keep in mind that the actual parade route starts at the corner of Bay to Bay and Bayshore Blvd.s in South Tampa. Then it runs up Bayshore Blvd back to the Platt St Bridge area. There’s plenty of room on this one-mile stretch to see the parade, but precious little parking. The following video is a few years old, but still has some good information:

If you’re very smart and lucky, you may snag one of the spots in the Hyde Park, SOHO or Bayshore Gardens neighborhoods. Many families decide to just go with the flow and sell a spot in their driveway or garage for the day. This can be a risky choice though because many of the streets are closed off. So if you don’t find a spot, you’re stuck in heavy traffic in a neighborhood with narrow streets and 400,000 people walking by.

The Gasparilla Knight Parade, strictly an adults-only event that takes place in Ybor City, is the last of the of the official pirate extravaganzas.

If you’re sharp, you’ll notice that while most people talk about the “Night” Parade, it’s actually a “Knight” Parade.

The Gasparilla Day Parade is put on by Ye Mystic Krewe, a collection of the city elites that don’t just power the huge economic impact that the event brings to Tampa, but also participates in a variety of charity events. The Gasparilla Night Parade, though, is sponsored by the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’ Yago. So, the Gasparilla KNIGHT Parade!

When is the Gasparilla Night Parade?

The Knight Parade takes place on 7th Avenue in Ybor City, which is Tampa’s Latin Quarter and one of our most unique Tampa Florida attractions. The Parade takes place at 7PM on Saturday, February 18th. It starts at Nuccio Parkway and ends at 22nd Avenue, running right through the heart of Ybor.

View Larger MapWhile the parade of 7500+ participants and up to 110,000 revelers doesn’t start until 7PM, you’ll start to see lane closures from 3PM on. Parking is sure to be a bit difficult.

There is a large parking garage on the corner of 15th St. and 7th Avenue. Valet parking and the usual pay-to-park lots will pop up all over the area, but you might also consider parking at Channelside or the Convention Center and taking the Teco Trolley into the area.

This Knight Parade has a well-earned reputation for being an adult’s only event. Ybor City after hours is usually a Rated R experience, but on parade night it gets an NC-17. Leave the kids at home and be prepared for New Orleans Mardis Gras type of experience. Complete with plenty of public drunkenness and occasional flashes of nudity. Over the years, though, the Tampa Police Department has kept it safe and fun!

Gasparilla Knight Parade Preparation:

Get Bleacher Seats – They’re as low as $22.50 and well worth it. You’ll want a place to sit where not too many people can spill their drinks on you and where you can see.

Arrive Early – I know it’s boring getting somewhere 2 hours or more early and just hanging around, but there’s a lot to see in Ybor City and you’ll have the chance to get the lay of the land before the parade.

Relax – Get a drink, or 3, and have a great time. If you’re easily offended, thin skinned or have a generally fuddy-duddy nature, stay home. The Gasparilla Night Parade is fun and exciting, but not for everyone.

If you’re coming to or happen to be in Tampa for the first time during the Gasparilla – welcome to the wild side of Tampa Florida attractions!

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