Cannons blazing, guns flashing heading into a sea of red and black. The streets are blocked, people of all ages strategically maneuvering, or more accurately desperately squeezing, themselves into any somewhat open crack in the fortress of people in an attempt to get to the front, reaching for glistening strings of beads flying through the air from passing floats in celebration of Jose Gaspar and his takeover of the city of Tampa. As one of the crazy, pirate-enthused, party-seekers this year being squashed into the crowd, I can say it has undoubtedly been an experience to remember.
Similar to early football games at UM, just because the event starts at 12, doesn’t mean the celebrations start at 12. The Jose Gasparilla (The ship, not the pirate) makes it’s way into Hillsborough Bay to signal the start of the takeover reenactment and corresponding day of festivities at 11:30 a.m., so naturally parties and pre-games commence by 8 a.m.
With two colleges having residences in the city, driving more than five minutes without seeing at least a few parties was impossible. Donning pirate hats, eye patches, red and white-stripped pants and even parrots, the residents and visitors of Tampa were excited and ready to party. Here drinking rum before 10 a.m. doesn’t make you an alcoholic or even a rowdy college student, it makes you a pirate. Captain Morgan was not the pirate hanging around; the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow was out to play as well. During the course of two pre-games, at least 17 men claimed to be the “One and Only” Captain Jack Sparrow. I have to say some of them were impressively convincing, especially those stumbling around asking, “Why’s all the rum gone?”
Of course the rum was never actually gone, contributing to the disappearance of friends as the day progressed. I don’t know what it is about drinking that makes us all run off in different directions. My crew consisting of nine before the pregame, dwindled to three before we made our way to the parade. To make matters worse, we had lost the birthday girl, who after we spent an hour searching for, texted us to let us know she ended up in the complete opposite location from where we were. Meeting up with her became an immediate lost cause. The group didn’t stay at three for long, gaining new members within five minutes of scrambling in a chain of handholding to get to the front of the crowds.
Cars and giant ships rolled past covered in decorations. Men and women of all ages keeping in theme, standing on top waving and smiling, throwing in a few “Arghs” and “Ahoys” as they yelled out to the overflowing sea of people. An eclectic group, there were pirates of all ages and ethnicities, families and college kids. The energy was truly palpable, but again as it is with most groups, after twenty minutes into the parade half the crew was over it and pushing to head back up to the main streets for the frat parties and bars.
MacDinton’s Irish Pub seemed to be the desired destination for all our friends, but of course, we would not make our way there without stopping by at least a couple of frat parties. Between the keg-stands and endless games of flip-cup, the group again split and untied with a new crew. On the home stretch of the journey to pub, I was shown of how frequent it “snows” in Tampa. While most people know Miami has it’s frequent snowstorms, Tampa is on a whole other level. In every bathroom stall, Chipotle and pizza shop line, behind every tree and at every corner, it was an inevitable sight.
With the strung-out crowd and unavoidable girl drama, I had again lost my crew and had a 7 percent charge left on my iPhone. Fantastic. Knowing my guy friends were somewhere amidst the crowd and that they are always exceptionally more reliable, I dropped a pin and sent it to one of them with a very simple S.O.S attached. Coming to the rescue just as my phone was about to die, I united with my saviors and headed into MacDitons’s (only four hours later than originally planned), eventually running into almost all of the original crew. Playing every ’90s baby’s favorite hits, the pub was an interesting sight to see. Pirates’ jamming out to Lil Wayne raps and TLC’s “No Scrubs” is a memory I will not soon forget.
The night wouldn’t be complete without losing all of my friends, again, and sleeping an hour away at the house of a friend who happened to find me at the pub, but I suppose I really should have seen that one coming. Total chaos, pirate costumes, good music and endless adventure, Gasparilla Festival is worth doing at least once, though for me I think once was enough.
The festival has a tendency to turn into a day-long party all over the city of Tampa for everyone who partakes but this is not the only purpose of Gasparilla. Celebrating the rich history of the city and it’s takeover by a pirate named Jose Gaspar and his crew, the Tampa Convention Center sells tickets to those wanting more cultural experience. The Convention Center hosts a brunch and also provides a more private seating section for the takeover reenactment. As the reenactment comes to a close, the parade begins, and lasts for well over two hours. If you don’t mind the crazy crowds and being a little squished, this event is easily accessed along the entirety of Bayshore Boulevard. If being packed into the crowd doesn’t sound like a good time, tickets are sold to the event which provide seating on the bleachers. Closing out the day, the city hosts a Pirate Fest Street Festival and Charity Concert in the evening benefitting the Gasparilla Community Fund and The Human Society of Tamp Bay.
Want to experience Gasparilla for yourself? Make sure to bring a portable phone charger. There are many areas with no service and cell phones tend to die fast. I would also suggest bringing water and eating before heading out for the day. For anyone planning to stop by the bar scene, all bars in the city require two forms of identification for anyone who even looks to be under the age of 25, and there is also a cash only cover charge. To avoid the crowds and enhance the overall historical experience, check out the festivals website, www.gasparillapiratefest.com for better seating and maps of the area to plan out all the main sites and events.
words_chelsea harrington. photo_matt may.