What is Gasparilla Anyway?
Gasparilla is a huge Tampa-exclusive annual celebration. Coming conveniently at the beginning of the calendar year in January (this year it’s Saturday, 1/25 and starts at 11:00AM). As narrated by Andrew Silverstein of The 813 Area, the story goes that Jose Gaspar “terrorized the coastal waters of West Florida during the late 18th and early 19th century. Fond on calling himself “Gasparilla,” Gaspar and his band of pirates lived a life of seizing and robbing merchant ships off the Gulf Coast until 1821.”
In his final showdown, an undercover U.S. Navy ship took down Gaspar and his band of sea thieves. His story became local legend such that in 1904, Tampa city officials and leaders turned him into the city’s patron. Plundering no more, now Gasparilla became a rich point of gathering, celebrating, and sharing. All starting with secret gatherings to develop to first crew entitled “Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.” They “invaded” Tampa with a mock pirate attack that surprised and delighted a town that was once terrorized in the same way.
These days, you can watch a fully decked out pirate ship (still manned under the same name- Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla) “attack” the bay while smaller boats defend Tampa. When the boats realize they are defenseless they surrender and join the pirate krewe. Together the small fleet docks at the Tampa Convention Center where they confront the mayor. With no choice, the mayor surrenders the keys to the city and the Gasparilla Festival officially begins!
It’s a pirate’s life for Tampa Bay!
What to See and Do: Gasperilla Pirate Festival
Prior to the big day, on 1/18, there is a Children’s Gasparilla specifically for parents and families to gather. For the little ones, there’s a (post-nap time at 1:30-2:45PM) Pre-Schooler’s Stroll along Bayshore Boulevard. Dress up is highly encouraged, or enjoy the spectacle of the mini crews! For the bigger kids, there’s the official Children’s Parade beginning at Bay to Bayshore and going north (ending at Edison Ave) from 3:30pm-6:00pm. Event details here! There’s plenty to do and see before and after as well. Check out the Gasparilla Air Invasion earlier in the day or the Gasparilla Piratechnics to conclude the day. This is a great day to beat the big rush and to do an event that is specifically for families and kids.
Tickets and Cost Per Person
When it comes to the big day, see the invasion! It’s free, and colorful, and a fun/funny tradition that is really fun for the whole family! Or if you’d like to beat the crowds or have guaranteed seating, there’s tickets available at $45-$60 per person. It’s not a long day, it’s bright and colorful, and you can easily leave when you need. After the invasion and the confrontation of the mayor at the Convention Center, the day’s festivities begin. First with a pirate’s victory parade throughout downtown. A note for the noise-averse: some parade floats fire (fake) cannons. So if you and your family wouldn’t find that suitable, skip that portion of the day or stand farther away when you hear those floats coming through! Otherwise, get ready to catch beads, coins, and other treasures that pirates throw from the floats into the crowds.
For those with little ones, the parade is typically around “nap time” so you may find it best to see the invasion first. Then take a break for lunch and nap, and come back around for the live music and street vending/evening entertainment.
Gasparilla Extravaganza: Father of Mine
A more structured (and less crowd crazy) alternative/addition to the festivities outside with a cause is the Gasparilla Extravaganza. The cause is for Father of Mine, a charity organization dedicated to providing children without the support and dedication of a strong father figure in their lives. At the Extravaganza, there is both food and an open bar. There is also live music, face painting, artists, games, raffle drawings, photo booth and a front row seat to the Gasparilla Pirate Invasion! If you choose to go, your family will be helping families as 100% of proceeds go to Father of Mine.
Having a little fomo because you can’t be there on the day of the event? Don’t even worry about it because the Gasparilla spirit is embedded in every Tampa fiber!
Here’s some of the many options you may be in store for:
Gasparilla Distance Classic
For the active in Tampa, this is coming up February 22-23 in 2020. And there are many levels to test ye olde skills! There’s the 15k, 5k, half marathon, 8k, Michelob Ultra challenges, 5k walk, 5k stroller races, and more. With over $40,000 in combined prize purses if maybe you’re a little competitive and money motivated! In any event, you and your whole family will have a blast (and this is another event with a great cause). Since its beginnings in 1979, it has donated $3.9 million to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa, Girls Inc. of Pinellas, The Friends of Tampa Parks & Recreation and youth running related programs. Register here now!
Gasparilla Festival of the Arts
This one is fun if you enjoy outdoor markets (think a gigantic and more interactive farmer’s market). Open February 29th (9AM-6PM)- March 1st (10AM-5PM), there is a full schedule of activities (including kids activities) on the official site. Artists are competing for a $15,000 grand prize with an additional $65,000 in prize money. There are also hundreds of artists with thousands of pieces to surprise and delight! There’s plenty of food and drink vendors so you can munch kettle corn or sip craft kombucha as you stroll through the endless stream of booths.
Gasparilla Music Festival
Music lovers will have a blast March 7-8th if you find yourselves in downtown Tampa at that time! There is a Kids Fest that is free for the kids and features a free pass to the Glazer Children’s museum. And, for the adult tickets that you’ll need to purchase, know that a portion of your proceeds go toward youth music education and enrichment in Tampa. The 2019 Kids Fest lineup is still posted on the official site, but the 2020 one is yet to drop so stay tuned! For the adults, make sure to grab your festival map as you plan your time at the GMF!
What to Eat and Drink
You may be interested in the Gasparilla Treasures brunch- which is more or less the official spot to brunch (tickets here)- and that goes from 9:30-1:00. Park at the Tampa Convention Center and brunch at 333 S. Franklin Street. Details will be on your ticket!
There are so many street vendors that one of the best ways to go on Gasparilla day is to wing it! There is no shortage of food and you can eat as the day inspires you. If you and your traveling family are a group of foodies, then the event on the 26th, the Gasparilla International Food and Rum Festival- just might be for you! That takes place in historic Ybor City and you can RSVP here!
And in terms of what to drink- for the adults just about every bar has Gasparilla happy hours and specials from brunch til dawn the next day! Might make you consider grabbing a Gasparilla eve babysitter. If you’re inclined, the Tampa Bay Times walks you through (literally- these are all walking distance) the best bars, pubs, etc. for proper pirate shenanigans! We’d skip straight to Edge on 1207 S Howard Ave for the only rooftop bar in the area. Then again you have Yeoman’s Cask and Lion downtown at 202 N. Morgan St. for $5 Captain Morgans. Add bonus points because it’s a restaurant you could get into Gasparilla spirit with the family. They feature art of amazing and iconic legends like David Bowie- it’s a great spot).
Where to get the best Souvenirs
The best souvenirs are available online to purchase to wear/bring to the event (plenty of ball caps, t’s and long sleeves for the whole family- and a plethora of commemorative accessories). There’s a whole section of beads! There you can load up on festive beaded necklaces that are worn layered. They are updated each year so you’ll never have the same ones twice. On the day of the festivals there are vendors that have plenty of souvenirs available for purchase. Pick a few up so that you can commemorate the day with.
How to Plan Your Visit
The official website to navigate your visit is: http://gasparillapiratefest.com
They have an Instagram and Facebook page. There you can see events in conjunction with Gasparilla (such as the event 12/17- Bourbon and Bowties Bangle Launch Party) that occur leading up to the big event! They also stream live events such as the Bead-Free Bay effort with Mayor Castor. Moreover, pirate crew detailing a joint campaign for the environment and marine life protection. Be sure to follow and connect with fellow Buccaneers!