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Florida Matters Preview: The History of Gasparilla

When the famous and infamous Gasparilla Parade of the Pirates invades Tampa on Saturday, Jan. 31, it will be the 100th such procession along Bayshore Boulevard and the streets of downtown Tampa.

On Florida Matters Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., we take a look at this year's invasion, and the history of this curious event. Our guests are Sgt. Jarrett Seal of the Tampa Police Department, and Shamus Warren, a pirate with Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.

"The best way to describe what Gasparilla is -- is Mardi Gras,”  said Warren. “Everyone knows what Mardi Gras is. For us, it's the signature event of Tampa."

He understands that many people across the country – and even here in the Tampa Bay area -- don't quite understand what Gasparilla is all about.

The event was meant to raise Tampa's profile, according to Warren.

“Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasprailla was a group of businessmen that came together in 1904, and along with the society editor for The Tampa Tribune at the time, they put their heads together and they really wanted to promote the city of Tampa and tourism,” Warren said.

Hernando Beach residents Greg and Carla Colaluca attended the Gasparilla parade for the first time a year ago. 

"The best way to describe what Gasparilla is -- is Mardi Gras. Everyone knows what Mardi Gras is. For us, it's the signature event of Tampa." - Shamus Warren, a pirate with Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla

“I'm still asking him what it's about,” Carla Colaluca said at the 2014 event. “So is it all about food and drinking and pirates?”

(See the full schedule of Gasparilla events here.) 

They made it for the morning invasion by the Jose Gasparilla, a fully rigged pirate ship with masts that stand 100 feet tall.

It sailed into Hillsborough Bay around 11:30 a.m., surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of other smaller boats.

“I thought it was kind of like mayhem. I mean boats don't have any brakes and they were all inside that little harbor,” Greg Colaluca said. “From really big ones to small ones, and it kind of looked like hard to keep control in there.”

“Oh yeah it was,” Carla Colaluca said.  “But that was awesome. That was the part I liked … the boats." 

With brightly colored flags flying and cannons firing, the pirates came onto land, for the formal invasion of the city of Tampa. In the historic event, the mayor plays along, surrendering the city to the pirates, who parade down Bayshore Boulevard and into the streets of downtown Tampa.

“This is a great event for Tampa. We love this event, and we love the partnership with the Krewe. But I can tell you as mayor, this is our signature event,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.


Along the way, about 9,000 people in the parade  shower more the more than 300,000 spectators with strings of beads that conjure up images of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

"I go to school like 20 minutes away from here, and everyone always talks about how Gasparilla's like this big … I don't really know what it is for sure, I know it's like a parade with a pirate ship,” said Gabrielle Paterson, a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

In recent years, Gasparilla has started to shed its wild image. At the 2014 parade, about 40 people were arrested; most were alcohol-related. That's down dramatically from 2010, when more than 400 were arrested. The official rules say drinking is allowed along the parade route, so long as you're 21 or older.

Police say they want spectators to come and have a good time, but they also want people to be responsible.  An education campaign reaches thousands of Tampa Bay-area students, according to Sgt. Jarret Seal with the Tampa Police Department. 

And while the police must focus on maintaining the law during such a massive event, they're still willing to play along a little. Earlier this month, officers received commemorative pirate badges from Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla to wear during the parades. 

“You all have heard there are two definites in life: death and taxes,” said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor. “Well, in the Police Department, we’ve got a more uplifting definite. And that is from the time you become a Tampa police officer, until the time you retire, you’re guaranteed you’re going to be working the Gasparilla parades."

Hear more about the history of Gasparilla, and what to expect at this year’s event this week on Florida Matters on WUSF 89.7 FM on Tuesday, Jan. 20 at 6:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 25 at 7:30 a.m. and at wusf.org/floridamatters.

Lottie Watts is our Florida Mattersproducer, and she also covers health and health policy for.
Carson Cooper has become a favorite of WUSF listeners as the host of "Morning Edition" on WUSF 89.7 since he took the job in 2000. Carson has worked in Tampa Bay radio for three decades.
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