Started in 1904, the Gasparilla Pirate Festival celebrates Tampa Bay’s alleged invasion led by the dastardly villain, Jose Gaspar. Each year in late January/early February, locals and visitors alike gather to honor Gaspar and his crew. The festival consists of parades, marathons, and music and film festivals. It all starts with a kid friendly parade in late January and ends with the (adult only) night parade in Ybor in mid-February, but the main event is the day parade on Bayshore Boulevard. The festivities begin early with the flotilla docking at the Tampa Convention Center, where the current mayor hands those scallywags at Ye Mystic Krewe, the lead pirate crew, the key to the city. The invaders then head to Bay to Bay Boulevard and Bayshore Boulevard to get the parade started. The entire route runs about 5 miles from Bay to Bay Boulevard to Curtis Hixon Park in downtown. The festivities begin with the invasion at 11:30 am, followed by the parade starting around 2:00 pm and wrapping up around 5:30 pm.
Over the years, I’ve watched the Gasparilla Pirate Festival grow and change. Gone are the innocent days of a local event that celebrated heritage, and now are the days of a large-scale, corporate event that attracts visitors from all over. I won’t say that I like it better the way it was – I’ll just say it’s different. Each year I watch new people experience the spectacle for the first time with eyes as wide as a kid at Disney, only to later see them passed out on the sidewalk, or worse, in the back of a Tampa Police Department (TPD) cruiser. With so much fun to be had, I thought it might be a good idea to help the newcomers prepare for an easy-breezy festival experience; so I tapped my network to bring you some survival tips from the locals.
This is a no brainer – but what does one need for such an event?
The following items are my essentials each year:
- Drink plenty of water the day before the parade, and throughout the event.
- Pack a survival bag
- Coordinate parking and group logistics prior to the day of the event. If you are flying solo, don’t worry, you will find a friendly group that will take you into their party.
- Have cash on hand
Florida weather can be bipolar this time of year; so my suggestion is to dress appropriate for the weather, but be able to adjust if needed. Wear comfortable shoes (I cannot stress this one enough), and think layers for your clothing. I love skinny jeans and stilettos as much as the next girl, but I assure you, you will regret that decision. I also recommend you wear a hat and sunglasses; one thing you can almost always count on in Florida is the sun beating down on you.
Pack a small survival bag
This might sound funny, but over the years I’ve learned to pack a small backpack with handy items. For example: bottled water, travel first-aid kit, toilet paper (I like these wet wipes), kind bars (these are my favorite), and an extra shirt and pair of socks. The shirt and the socks come in handy when someone accidentally spills a drink on you.
Purchase bleacher seats or tent access
Gone are the days when you could stake your claim to a piece of Bayshore with your lawn chairs, coolers, kegs in shopping carts and 40 of your closest friends. The event has grown to over 200,000 attendees, making it necessary for some rules. These days the Gasparilla Pirate Festival parade route looks more like a crowd of tweens at a Bieber concert. Because of this reason: no more coolers, kegs in shopping carts, roping off your designated piece of the parade route, and no more BYOB. Add to that, being in my 30s, and I say go for tent access. The tents normally provide drinks, food, and the coveted private restrooms. The access to private facilities is worth the expense in and of itself. If you can score a ticket to the Merrymaker’s tent you are sure to have a blast.
Stay out of trouble
This is a big event, with a lot of drinking, and competition over beads. You will see people do things for a 5 cent strand of plastic that will scar you for life. For these reasons it is wise to keep your wits about you and not engage with people out for a fight. There are police officers around the event looking for those type of people, and I’ve seen many people arrested. If you are looking to acquire beads you should position yourself at the start of the parade, and if you bring kids, they win every time, so place them front and center to maximize your bead game.
Stay out of the hospital
I said it earlier, but I think it warrants another mention, eat before you go and drink plenty of water the day before, and during the event. If you are not a professional day drinker (you know who you are), don’t try to hang tough with your other friends. Pace yourself, drink plenty of water, and you will be just fine.
Don’t count on your cell phone working
Anytime you put over 200k people in a small area you will have a hard time with cell service, and Gasparilla is no exception. There will be times throughout the day when you won’t have service, and you will need to contact your friends. In these cases it helps to have a plan. I recommend you set a meeting point with your group. If anyone gets lost they should go to the designated meeting place to join with the rest of the group. I like to set the meet area at the car, that way it’s easy to remember.
I hope these tips prove useful, and you have a wonderful time at the Gasparilla Pirate Festival.
Arr, mateys! What tips do you have for a successful Gasparilla weekend? Don’t be shy, it’s only fair to share!