Originally started in 1904 as a theme for a May Day festival, the pirate invasion took on a life of its own. Inspired by a Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans and falling for the romantic aspects of a local pirate legend, the original parade organizers tried to create a similar feel for the mock invasion of the city.
Originally meant to be a one-time event, the invasion became so popular the group was encouraged to return the next year.
Every year in late January, the invasion begins when the “krewe” made up of residents of the city arrives on a 165-ft. long pirate ship, the Jose Gasparilla, in Tampa Bay and lands at the dock of the city’s convention center. The mayor then lends the key of the city to the pirate captain of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. Following the surrender of the city, a parade ensues down Bayshore Blvd., one of Tampa’s major streets and stretches into downtown Tampa.
Along the parade route, the krewes throw beads, coins and other items while shooting blank pistols from floats during the parade. The average attendance for the event is over 400,000 people. According the event’s official website, 2003’s Gasparilla parade affected an economic impact of nearly 23 million dollars to Tampa.
Krewe memberships are highly sought after in many social circles in South Tampa, and many celebrate ethnic and cultural themes. The Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the organization which founded the parade, is the oldest krewe involved in the parade, and among the most prestigious. Members of the many krewes that now participate spend a great deal of money on beads and floats.
Today there are more than 40 different krewes that participate in the event. The event has made large leaps in national attention in the last 10 years. Today, the krewe hosts the events known as Gasparilla, manning 11 floats in the Gasparilla parade.
A week before the invasion and the main parade, there is a family-oriented children’s parade and “Piratechnic Extravaganza,” with fireworks launched over Tampa Bay. A few weeks after the invasion, there is a more adult-oriented Sant’Yago Knight Parade (also known as the Gasparilla Night Parade) in Ybor City, held in the evening and running into the early morning. Krewes have social events and parties throughout the year for members and hold philanthropic events for favored causes.