The annual Gasparilla celebration is one of Tampa Bay’s biggest social events, drawing in hundreds of thousands of people to dress up as pirates and eat, drink and be merry.
Though people dressing up in costumes and “invading” the city may seem like silly fun, the tradition has also played an important role in Tampa’s high society.
This week on Florida Matters, we take a deep dive into the past and present of Gasparilla.
In the first portion of the show we speak with Rodney Kite-Powell, the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He tells us about the origins of Gasparilla, which Tampa first hosted in 1904.
Then we meet Don Barnes, Executive Officer of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the group that helped found the festival. He talks about what goes into putting on the massive event and how it has expanded over the years.
ORIGINS OF GASPARILLA
Louise Frances Dodge, who was society editor of the Tampa Tribune in 1904, came up with the idea for the festival with Tampa’s customs director George Hardee. They wanted to jazz up Tampa’s annual May Day celebration and decided to combine elements of a New Orleans Mardi Gras festival with new traditions inspired by legendary pirate Jose Gaspar.
Stories about Gaspar say he terrorized Florida’s west coast during the 18th and 19th century. Though there is no evidence he actually existed, Gaspar was adopted “patron rogue” of this new Tampa celebration.
Once they had the idea for Gasparilla, Louise Frances Dodge and George Hardee invited members of Tampa’s high society to form a secret group called Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. This krewe of “pirates” performed the first “invasion” in 1904, riding into Tampa’s May Day parade on horseback and throwing a big gala that evening.
Rodney Kite-Powell said the first invasion was a huge success. He said it took a few years for the festival to become a consistently annual event, but that organizers quickly realized it could be an asset to the city.
“It provided a new social outlet for Tampa’s middle and upper class,” he said. “Also, they saw pretty early on that this could be a neat attraction and a neat tourist draw to a city that didn’t really have much of a tourist industry aside from the Tampa Bay Hotel and the fact that the railroad did come here."
"You could have a vacation here but there was really no reason to. So they wanted to have this thing that could maybe draw people from outside the city to come into Tampa for a couple days and have a party.”
Most modern-day Gasparilla attendees picture the large “Jose Gasparilla II” pirate ship that sails into Tampa Bay each year for the invasion, but that was not built until 1954. In the festival’s early years the invasion was done on horseback. The first invasion by boat was in 1911.
Kite-Powell said it wasn’t always easy to pull off such an invasion by sea. Though there were plenty of boats in Tampa’s bustling port, pirates needed to find ships that were empty, which was difficult.
“Sometimes the ships they found weren’t in great shape, so they would run aground,” he said. “There is actually one example of when a ship wasn’t totally empty of its cargo and that cargo was livestock – pigs and chickens. And a few pigs and chickens didn’t make it from one end of the invasion to the other."
Check out this video of a Gasparilla parade from 1959:
GASPARILLA AND THE SOCIAL LADDER
As the festival grew in size and splendor, so did its role in Tampa society.
For most of the 20th century, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the only organization hosting the parade, was very exclusive.
Taking inspiration from Mardi Gras krewes, there was a hierarchy in place with a “king and queen” of Gasparilla crowned each year and debutante balls for young women.
For men, getting the chance to don a pirate costume and join the invasion could be a very valuable opportunity.
“Certainly as Tampa was growing in the 1950s and ‘60s, there was a great desire among new businessmen in the area, particularly people who were new to the area, to become a part of either Ye Mystic Krewe or join Palma Ceia Country Club or Tampa Yacht Club, so you can become established in society, but also in business circles,” said Rodney Kite-Powell.
“Because Tampa’s business community was still relatively small back then, you can look at people who were members of Ye Mystic Krewe and also see they were the heads of different banks in the area, they were the head of TECO, the heads of these big businesses.”
Gasparilla faced controversy in the early 1990s for being a mostly white, male event. The parade was even cancelled in 1991 over disputes about diversity.
Don Barnes, Executive Officer of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla said a lot has changed since then.
“There are 65 different krewes, a lot of family-style krewes, mixed krewes as far as male-female, cultural – I think that we have everything you could possibly imagine and if we don’t, we’ll find room for it,” he said.
LIKE MARDI GRAS, BUT NOT
Alcohol has long played a role in Gasparilla, as it has with Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans.
Looking at old photos from past festivals, you can see pirates with drinks in their hands, and the Jose Gasparilla II used in modern invasions is essentially a floating bar.
Attendees are welcome to drink openly along the parade route on Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard and surrounding bars and restaurants are packed with people drinking from morning to night.
But Barnes said things started to get out of hand and reached a low point around 2010, when the festival saw hundreds of arrests related to underage drinking and confrontations between drunk people.
He said Gasparilla organizers have worked hard to combat that with efforts like ramping up police presence along the parade route, doing educational outreach and limiting the amount of alcohol people can bring and buy.
“And as a result of some of those things, the police presence and the fact that we’ve restricted the amount of mixed drinks that you can just bring along the parade route, we’ve seen arrests go down to less than a dozen,” he said.
“We’re not like Mardi Gras – we’re fun, people are having a great time – but it’s much safer and much smarter,” he said.
LOGISTICS, LOGISTICS, LOGISTICS
Barnes isn’t one of the lucky men who gets to dress up in pirate costume and ride on the Jose Gasparilla II. Instead he said he spends most of his Gasparilla in a police car “making sure that all the complex chess pieces move at the right time.”
Floats need to be in place on Bayshore Boulevard early Saturday morning for the Parade of Pirates to start at 2 p.m. Barnes said this year’s parade will have 114 floats.
The pirate ship needs to be moved into place to begin the invasion at 11:30 a.m. Tugboats help move the ship, which leads a flotilla of over 1500 smaller boats.
Pirates gather at the Tampa Yacht Club the morning of to get their costumes and makeup on and do media interviews ahead of the festival.
Once the invasion begins, the boats need to arrive at the convention center within 90 minutes so the pirates can “confront the mayor” precisely at 1 p.m. He’ll “hopefully” hand over the key to the city so the parade can start and everything can wrap up by early evening.
Despite the fact that he’s pretty much working the entire day, Barnes said Gasparilla is still fun for him.
“Most importantly, if at the end of day, when I talk to the Tampa Police Department and the mayor’s office, (and they tell me) everybody got home safely, there weren’t significant numbers of incidents, people had a fun day and we showcased the rich, diverse culture of Tampa…I am just as happy as I could possibly be that we were able to pull off such an amazing event and that we’re able to do it year after year without significant incidents."
Planning to attend Gasparilla this year? Check out our list of street closures, parking info, etc. so you can be prepared.