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Gasparilla season springs into Tampa Bay
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Gasparilla season springs into Tampa Bay

From January–March, dive into the pirate splendor that’s packed with celebrations for all ages

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.

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“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.”

Gasparilla season springs into Tampa Bay

From January–March, dive into the pirate splendor that’s packed with celebrations for all ages

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.

Children’s Gasparilla Extravaganza (January)

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 route—pint-sized pirates and wenches as far as the eye can see—with festooned wagons and strollers instead of floats. Then, the “Para-Commandos,” the U.S. Special Operations Command Parachute Team, descend upon Bayshore. The Gasparilla Air Invasion marks the start of the Children’s Gasparilla Parade. The extravaganza reaches its peak as kids six years and up lead the assemblage of spectacular floats decked out by more than 40 krewes, along with a spectacle of dance units, marching bands, school and community organizations and neighborhood associations. In true pirate fashion, the Gasparilla “Piratechnic” Extravaganza over Hillsborough Bay—the largest fireworks display of the year—brings the entire thing to an explosive end.

Gasparilla Pirate Festival (January)

The following weekend, things really heat up with a total takeover for the adults. The Pirate Fest Street Festival makes its move on the Friday before the parade, and throws down a rousingly good time at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park with food, brews and performances by acts that often include big names. Gasparilla Pirate Festival launches the invasion the next day. The Mardi Gras-style celebration of Tampa Bay’s mythical Spanish aristocrat-turned-pirate begins when the 165-foot Jose Gasparilla, laden with pirates and accompanied by a flotilla and several hundred boats, sails up the Bay in a truly impressive display of seamanship. 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 of Pirates ahead.

More than 500,000 spirited on-lookers, many clad in full-on buccaneer regalia, flock to Bayshore Boulevard for the parade—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 promenade, which, as of 2014, was the third-largest parade in the country.

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Sant’ Yago Knight Parade
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“For 40 years, the Sant’ Yago Knight Parade [has been] considered the biggest of its kind in the Southeast.”

Sant' Yago Knight Parade Sant' Yago Knight Parade

Sant’ Yago Knight Parade (February)

February kicks off with a colorful celebration in Ybor City. For more than 40 years, the Sant’ Yago Knight Parade, considered the biggest of its kind in the Southeast, has created 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. The bead diving here is more casual than at Gasparilla, but the after-parties are not to be missed.

Gasparilla Distance Classic (February)

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. It’s a fierce challenge to pack multiple runs and many miles into two days. 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.

 
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“It’s rare to see such a diverse array of high-caliber talent exhibiting so much work in one place.”

Gasparilla Festival of the Arts (March)

Gasparilla International Film Festival

March takes a more artful approach when an explosion of creativity transforms the heart of downtown into a colossal outdoor museum—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. Each year, art lovers of all ages flock there to check it all out (an estimated quarter-million). These artists are the best of the best whittled down from a thousand submissions to a few hundred national and international talents. 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, considered one of the country's leading cash awards. Throw in a children’s art show and activities, a tasty array of eats and quality local live music underscoring each day, and you’ve got a culturally rich festivity. What’s coolest is that the festival is entirely volunteer-run.

Gasparilla Music Festival (March)

Gasparilla International Film Festival

Then comes the music—four stages and two days worth at the family-friendly Gasparilla Music Festival. The youngest of all the Gasparilla events, GMF recruits emerging locals and indie regional acts to play alongside impressive national talent. Recent festivals included indie rock behemoths Modest Mouse and New Orleans funk-jazz-hip hop sensation Trombone Shorty. More than a dozen independent restaurants feed the crowd. Regulars are farm-to-table landmark like Fodder & Shine, food-truck favorite Holy Hog BBQ and fine-dining staple Malio’s Prime Steakhouse. Vendors sell handmade wares and pour fine cocktails and craft beers. A Kids Fest kicks each day off with yoga, arts-and-crafts activities and performances (Disney’s Choo Choo Soul with Genevieve and Ozokidz have serenaded the youths at past fests). The recently added silent disco adds a late night dance vibe to the festivities.

Gasparilla International Film Festival (March)

Everything comes to a reeling conclusion with the juried Gasparilla International Film Festival. After more than 10 seasons, the festival is renowned for its varied film offerings. Features range 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 five days.

Gasparilla International Film Festival

A red carpet reception and opening night screening launches GIFF. Big names grace the carpet and even bigger celebrations soon follow. In 2016, thriller Eye in the Sky, starring Helen Mirren, was the opening canon shot with Gavin Hood in attendance. Actress Rita Moreno received a lifetime achievement award at the screening of her comedy Remember Me. It’s always a star-studded event. A remarkable number of filmmakers, performers and industry insiders attend GIFF. They hold post-screening Q&As and share their wisdom on topics from filmmaking in Florida to raising production capital. They’re also likely to make appearances at scattered GIFF after-parties. The awards ceremony, closing night film, and GIFF Wrap Party mark the festival’s end.

With such culturally rich, swashbuckling fun to be had, the chief challenge is figuring out exactly how to fit it all in. So dust off that eye patch and seek out the treasures in store during Tampa Bay’s upcoming Gasparilla Season.

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