February 22, 2024

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Pirates roam seas and streets of Tampa, offering family-friendly entertainment today

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Pirates roam the streets and waterways of Tampa today — offering unique family-friendly entertainment, adventure and attractions on Florida’s Gulf coast. 

From the city’s NFL franchise, the Buccaneers, to its traditional Gasparilla festivities — named for the legend of colonial-era marauder Jose Gaspar — pirates loom large in Tampa lore.  

“Pirate culture is a way of life here,” T. Truett Gardner, captain of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, which has organized the city’s annual pirate-themed festival since 1904, told Fox News Digital.  

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“The swashbuckling revelry and tradition have become the signature fabric of our community,” he said.

The Gasparilla Invasion and Parade, held on the fourth Saturday of each January, is the centerpiece of the city’s marauder-themed merriment. 

Think Mardi Gras with mateys. 

A child attends the Gasparilla parade in Tampa, Florida, an annual "pirate invasion" that dates back to 1904 and has become one of the largest parades in the nation. 

A child attends the Gasparilla parade in Tampa, Florida, an annual “pirate invasion” that dates back to 1904 and has become one of the largest parades in the nation.  (Keir Magoulas/Visit Tampa Bay)

Ye Mystic Krewe, following more than a century of tradition, “kidnaps” the mayor of Tampa and demands the keys to the city.

The “pirate invasion” begins when the gloriously flag-festooned Jose Gasparilla II, a three-masted, 137-foot-long pirate ship, sails into downtown Tampa, followed by a flotilla of hundreds of boats. 

“Pirate culture is a way of life here.” — Captain Truett Gardner, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla

The procession by sea is followed by a massive parade of over 100 floats on land.

Organizers claim it is the third-largest one-day parade in America, behind only the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City and the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California.

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“To celebrate their capture of the City of Tampa, the Captain and his Krewe share their wealth — glittering beads, treasures, and doubloons — with a lively, enthusiastic crowd along the 4.5-mile parade route,” Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla announces on its website.

The Jose Gasparillia II sails into Tampa, Florida, each year to kick off the city's annual pirate invasion, a tradition dating back to 1904. It's named for mythical Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar. 

The Jose Gasparillia II sails into Tampa, Florida, each year to kick off the city’s annual pirate invasion, a tradition dating back to 1904. It’s named for mythical Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar.  (Keir Magoulas/Visit Tampa Bay)

It’s preceded a week earlier each year by an alcohol-free Children’s Gasparilla that kicks off pirate season in Tampa.

The children’s festival is highlighted by a fireworks display of “pirate-technics,” as they’re cleverly called in local lingo.

“Gasparilla season” concludes each March, when Ye Mystic Krewe returns the keys to the city to the mayor before its annual Outbound Voyage — with the threat to return and make merry the following year.

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The 2023 Outbound Voyage takes place March 4, departing from Sparkman Wharf, a hotbed of waterfront activity on Tampa’s Garrison Channel. 

Given that pirates are so essential to local lore, Tampa attractions featuring them are found year-round.

Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, boasts a pirate ship in the north end zone as its signature attraction. The deck is filled with crew members in pirate garb who fire the ship's cannons when the hometown team scores.

Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, boasts a pirate ship in the north end zone as its signature attraction. The deck is filled with crew members in pirate garb who fire the ship’s cannons when the hometown team scores. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

The Pirate Water Taxi is a public ferry that delivers guests by sea and river from one Tampa location to another. 

The Bay Rocket is an ocean thrill ride aboard a menacing speedboat splashed with pirate logos.

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Families can tour area inlets and coast on pirate ship Royal Conquest from nearby John’s Pass. The ship’s website (boattoursjohnpass.com) even offers tips for throwing a pirate-themed party. 

Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, offers year-round tours that include a chance to board its signature north end-zone pirate ship. 

The ship is crewed by pirates during Buccaneers games, who fire its cannons each time the NFL football team scores.

“The Buccaneers’ skull-and-swords pirate profile exploded in 2020 when the team acquired quarterback Tom Brady.” 

When local businessman Hugh Culverhouse prepared to bring a pro football franchise to Tampa, he held a public contest to choose a name. 

Many of the more than 400 submissions tied the idea to local pirate lore. 

The franchise’s current skull-and-swords pirate image exploded in stature in 2020 when the Buccaneers acquired “Greatest of All Time” quarterback Tom Brady and won the Super Bowl that same season.

A giant pirate flag with menacing skull-and-swords logo, outside Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa's NFL franchise, the Buccaneers, is a tribute to the region's pirate lore. 

A giant pirate flag with menacing skull-and-swords logo, outside Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa’s NFL franchise, the Buccaneers, is a tribute to the region’s pirate lore.  (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

The Tampa Bay History Center has a Treasure Seekers exhibit centered around pirate lore. 

Children can participate in “the pirate’s fate” in one interactive exhibit, learn to tie nautical knots beneath the bowsprit of a wooden pirate ship — or learn about ancient maritime navigational aids, such as the astrolabe or cross staff.

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The presence of so many swashbucklers in the region is credited to a mythical Spanish raider who haunted Tampa Bay in the colonial era and gave the city its treasured identity.

Legend says that Jose Gaspar was a Spanish captain wrongly accused of treason against King Charles III of Spain. His family was murdered while he was at sea. 

“Understandably embittered, he vowed to ‘henceforth be an enemy of Spain,” writes the Florida History Network.

“He began to prey on any ship he could find along the coastlines of Florida,” which was then under Spanish rule. 

Tampa's Pirate Water Taxi is a ferry with 17 stops that delivers passengers to key attractions throughout the city, from the Florida Aquarium at one end to Armature Works, a family entertainment hub, at the other.

Tampa’s Pirate Water Taxi is a ferry with 17 stops that delivers passengers to key attractions throughout the city, from the Florida Aquarium at one end to Armature Works, a family entertainment hub, at the other. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

His demise came at the hands of the U.S. Navy in 1821, after the Spanish colony became an American territory.

Gaspar was reportedly a very short buccaneer. Gasparilla, the name of the local pirate festival, is a Spanish word for “little Gaspar.”

“Tampa’s pirate history, as it relates to Jose Gaspar, is likely much more myth than fact.” — Historian Rodney Kite-Powell

The legend of the seaborne bandit makes perfect sense at first glance. Certainly, pirates roamed the Gulf of Mexico. 

The “region offered extremely rich pickings for private ships,” BBC History Magazine reported in a cover story in its new January 2023 issue. 

There is one problem with the Gaspar story, however.

It’s not true. 

“Tampa’s pirate history, as it relates to Jose Gaspar, is likely much more myth than fact,” Rodney Kite-Powell, director of the Touchton Map Library at the Tampa Bay History Center, and an authority in local lore, told Fox News Digital.

The Bay Rocket is a jet-propelled thrill ride that departs from Downtown Tampa aboard a pirate-themed speed boat.

The Bay Rocket is a jet-propelled thrill ride that departs from Downtown Tampa aboard a pirate-themed speed boat. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

“As far as everybody’s best efforts have gone, including my own, there is no trace of a real pirate named Jose Gaspar.”

Tampa was nothing more than a little fishing village with no treasure to attract pirates in the era Gaspar allegedly roamed the sea the historian said.

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Somebody apparently concocted the story to bring attention to Tampa in the early 1900s. 

The legend of Jose Gaspar was a very clever marketing scheme. 

It worked. 

The Tampa Bay History Center on Tampa's waterfront includes several interactive, family-friendly exhibits dedicated to pirate history. 

The Tampa Bay History Center on Tampa’s waterfront includes several interactive, family-friendly exhibits dedicated to pirate history.  (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

Tampa today is one of the fastest-growing cities in America — with a unique image of swashbuckling seaside town pilfered by pirates to add some historical gravitas to its relatively recent ascendancy.

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The suspect origins of Jose Gaspar, Kite-Powell added, “doesn’t mean we in Tampa haven’t fully embraced the legend.”

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