If you were to ask a Tampa native what the Gasparilla Pirate Festival was, they may say an event full of tradition, pride, excitement and debauchery. If you asked a newcomer what Gasparilla was, they may compare it to an outtake of a “Pirates of the Caribbean film.” Both would be right.
The annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival has been celebrated in Tampa Bay since 1904, and more than 100 years later, it is still one of the most anticipated events of the year. Located along Bayshore Blvd., the festival attracts around 300,000 attendees. There is one common theme among the crowd, regardless of age. Pirates. Almost everyone is dressed as pirates. For the Gasparilla veterans, this is much more than a hyped up costume party, it’s a lifestyle.
“I was born on Gasparilla in 1977, and the pirates came to the hospital and actually held me,” said Ryan Euhus, an avid Gasparilla goer dressed head to toe in elaborate pirate garb. “I’m my own pirate crew.”
Gasparilla is a time for Tampa residents to forget about their stresses, bond with their family members and actually party like it’s 1821. Where there is a horde of pirates, there must be a fleet of ships as well. That’s where the floats come in, with the parade lasting around 100 organizations, businesses or krewes. Pirate krewes, that is.
“I’m 37 and have been to Gasparilla every year since I was 4. The only year I missed was when I was pregnant,” said Heather Hughes, an excited crowd member.
Not everyone in attendance had experienced Gasparilla before. Most newcomers are college students who are originally from another city or state. They’re intrigued by the idea of a celebration revolved around dressing like pirates, drinking copious amounts of rum and removing garments of clothing for plastic beads.
“It’s my first time. It’s a little hectic but it’s a lot of fun so far,” said Jillian Olsen, a junior and resident assistant at the University of South Florida. “I’m expecting it to be elaborate and I want to get a lot of beads.”
Hectic doesn’t even begin to explain the crowd so large and lively, cell phone service literally goes down for hours. Good luck finding your Uber in a sea of drunken scallywags waving plastic swords. Even so, Tampa residents start counting down the days until next year’s celebration.
“It’s a time to have fun, and be proud of your city,” said Hughes. “It’s definitely something to experience.”