A society columnist with the Tampa Tribune is credited with coming up with the notion of a festival in 1904 that first incorporated a pirate-inspired theme.
Early successes of an event first done on horseback led to the present day Gasparilla Pirate Fest, which draws up to a half a million people, some of them from distant places.
The event starts with a 165-foot-long pirate ship topped by three masts towering 100 feet above the deck steaming into the heart of downtown Tampa. The ship is flanked by hundreds of pleasure craft and vessels of all shapes and sizes.
Tugboats pull the pirate ship with its crew of 700, males only, as flags fly and cannons boom.
The event itself refers to Jose Gaspar, a legendary pirate who reputedly patrolled the waters of West Florida during the late 18th century.
A host of activities include the boat flotilla invasion and the Gasparilla Parade, where float-riding pirates, often smoking cigars and clutching beer bottles, throw out strings of plastic beads to an imploring crowd. It’s a tossup whether adults or children scramble the hardest for the beads.
The Tampa Tribune said about the event it’s hard tell “what is bigger – the beads or the beer.” From personal experience, I will say both are very popular.
The weekend event also features an arts and crafts show, a street festival featuring local entertainment on six different stages and a fireworks display.
In 2001, the Gasparilla Fest generally held in February was moved up to the last weekend in January to coincide with Super Bowl XXXV, which was the third time Tampa has hosted the event (other times were 1991 and 1984).