Tampa Bay is a paradise year-round, but “Gasparilla Season” is particularly pristine. Never heard of Gasparilla Season? During the first three months of the year, we’re enjoying not only clear skies, cool breezes and some truly epic sunsets, but also a bounty of cultural diversions that make us want to get outdoors. Tampa Bay begins the year with a bang. Gasparilla Season launches with an invasion of swashbuckling pirates, elaborate parade floats, fireworks and more. It draws to a close with red carpet splendor and an international film festival. The celebrations are unmatched as rousing good times! They offer something for everyone, from seasoned pirates to youngsters just getting their sea legs. Whether you arrive for the first invasion or dock just in time for the pillaging, it’s all waiting to be conquered by you.
“The Pirate Fest Street Festival … throws down a rousingly good time at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park with food, brews and performances by acts that often include big names.”
Tampa Bay is a paradise year-round, but “Gasparilla Season” is particularly pristine and begins the year with a bang. During the first three months of the year, enjoy not only clear skies, cool breezes and some truly epic sunsets, but also a bounty of cultural festivities that make you want to get (and stay) outside. Gasparilla Season launches with an invasion of swashbuckling pirates, elaborate parade floats, fireworks and more. It draws to a close with red carpet splendor at an international film festival. The celebrations are unmatched as rousing good times, offering something for everyone, from seasoned pirates to youngsters just getting their sea legs. Whether you arrive for the first invasion or dock just in time for the pillaging, it’s all waiting to be conquered by you.
The season begins with the Children’s Gasparilla Extravaganza, held the week before the renowned Pirate Fest. It’s a smaller, tamer (alcohol-free) version of the main draw, with family-friendly activities scattered up and down the Bayshore Boulevard parade route. The day begins with the delightful Preschooler’s Stroll, as families with children five years and younger amble down a half-mile path—pint-sized pirates as far as the eye can see—with festooned wagons and strollers instead of floats.
The “Para-Commandos,” the U.S. Special Operations Command Parachute Team, descend upon Bayshore next. Their Gasparilla Air Invasion marks the start of the Children’s Gasparilla Parade, which includes kids six years and up leading the assemblage of spectacular floats decked out by more than 40 krewes. Intermingled in the parade, there’s a spectacle of dance groups, marching bands and community organizations. In true pirate fashion, the Gasparilla “Piratechnic” Extravaganza over Hillsborough Bay—the largest fireworks display of the year—brings the entire extravaganza to an explosive end.
The following weekend, things really heat up with a total takeover for the adults. The Gasparilla Pirate Fest begins with an invasion. Celebrating Tampa Bay’s mythical Spanish aristocrat-turned-pirate, the 165-foot Jose Gasparilla sails up the Bay laden with pirates and accompanied by a flotilla of several hundred boats. After the ship docks at the Tampa Convention Center, the Pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla claim the key to the city and set the stage for the raucous parade ahead.
More than 300,000 spirited spectators, many clad in full-on buccaneer regalia, flock to Bayshore Boulevard for the Parade of Pirates—filling bleachers or claiming their piece of real estate along the four-mile parade route. Soon enough, vibrantly dressed marching bands invade the scene, and spectators dive for sparkling beads flung from more than 90 elaborate floats. There’s no plank walking required, but the competition for treasure can be fierce during the three-and-a-half-hour event, which is the third-largest parade in the country.
“For 40 years, the Sant’ Yago Knight Parade [has been] considered the biggest of its kind in the Southeast.”
February kicks off with a colorful celebration in Ybor City. For more than 40 years, the Sant’ Yago Knight Parade, the biggest of its kind in the Southeast, is a vivacious procession of illuminated floats, costumed participants and cavorting spectators as it meanders beneath light-draped ironwork trellises that extend over Ybor City’s Seventh Avenue. Hosted by the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’ Yago, the annual celebration is held on a Saturday evening in February and continues well into the night. Pro tip: don’t miss the after-parties.
Next up: the Gasparilla Distance Classic, a philanthropic foot race born in 1978. A favorite of both the running elite and hobbyist hoofers, the race encompasses family-friendly stroller walks, and more competitive runs that start at 5k and stretch to a half-marathon. Post-race parties and awards presentations with live music crop up at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park. Proceeds from the race support youth organizations and programs around Tampa Bay.
“It’s rare to see such a diverse array of high-caliber talent exhibiting so much work in one place.”
An explosion of creativity transforms the heart of downtown Tampa into a colossal outdoor museum with the top-rated, juried Gasparilla Festival of the Arts. It’s rare to see such a diverse array of high-caliber talent exhibiting so much work in one place. These artists are the best of the best whittled down from a thousand submissions to a few hundred. The hand-selected artists share their talent with discriminating enthusiasts and compete for thousands in prizes, including the coveted $15,000 Raymond James Best of Show Award. Toss in a children’s art show and activities, a tasty array of eats and local live music underscoring each day, and you’ve got a culturally rich festivity.
Then comes the music—four stages and two days at the family-friendly Gasparilla Music Festival. Voted “Best Festival in Tampa Bay” four years in a row, GMF recruits emerging locals and indie regional acts to play alongside well-known national talent. Recent festivals included indie rock band Cage the Elephant and New Orleans brass band sensation Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
More than a dozen independent restaurants feed the crowd, including everything from local farm-to-table landmarks to food-truck favorites and premiere fine dining restaurants. Vendors sell handmade wares and pour fine cocktails and craft beers. Kids Fest (a “fest within a fest”) kicks each day off with yoga, art projects, interactive music stations and live performances (Secret Agent 23 Skidoo has serenaded the youths at past fests).
Everything comes to a reeling conclusion with the juried Gasparilla International Film Festival. The festival is renowned for its varied film offerings, ranging from art house to mainstream fare, along with shorts, student and international films, documentaries and Florida-made films. They’re all screened and judged over the course of five days.
A red carpet reception and opening night screening launches GIFF. Big names grace the carpet and even bigger celebrations follow. In 2017, the drama Burn Your Maps, starring Oscar nominee Jacob Tremblay (Room), was the opening canon shot with director Jordan Roberts in attendance. It’s always a star-studded event. Familiar faces on screen included Sean Astin, Nicole Kidman, Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried. A remarkable number of filmmakers, performers and industry insiders attend GIFF every year, and they hold post-screening Q&As to share their wisdom on topics from filmmaking in Florida to raising production capital. These famous faces are also likely to make appearances at GIFF after-parties. The awards ceremony, closing night film and GIFF Wrap Party mark the festival’s end.
With so much culture to experience, and swashbuckling fun to be had, seek out the treasures in store during Tampa Bay’s upcoming Gasparilla Season.