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Gasparilla: where history meets hedonism

This weekend, drunken college students, excited teeny-boppers and sword-wielding, gun-toting businessmen will come together on Bayshore Boulevard in the name of a Tampa Bay tradition that’s more than 100 years old.

Gasparilla has been an excuse to cut loose and get in touch with one’s inner pirate since 1904 when Miss Louise Frances Dodge, society editor of the Tampa Tribune, decided that the traditional May Festival was a bit tired. According to, George W. Hardee suggested she theme the event after the fictional pirate legend Jose Gaspar. She agreed, and Gasparilla was born.

The first festival was centered around a group of men on horseback who called themselves Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, invading the city and capturing it in the name of Jose Gaspar. The event was such a success that the citizens of Tampa Bay voiced a demand to make the group permanent. The city conceded and both the krewe and the festival are alive and well today.

Through the years, the festival has changed a bit. The staged invasion has left the horses behind and instead gone nautical, taking to Tampa Bay with a fleet of ships including a 165-foot replica of an 18th century West Indiaman. The festival has also switched dates, moving from the second Monday in February to the last Saturday in January in order to better accommodate a week of festivities. The one thing that has remained consistent is the prevalence of krewes.

What exactly is a krewe? To the casual observer, it may seem that they are simply groups of rowdy professionals looking for an excuse to participate in some organized drunken debauchery. While this may be partially true, there is much more to the krewes than meets the eye. The Tampa Bay area is host to more than 50 different krewes, each with a different motto, theme and rules for membership.

The largest and oldest of these krewes is the previously mentioned Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, which was founded in 1904 and now boasts a membership of 700 men and counting. Similar to a fraternity, a krewe charges annual dues and initiation fees. Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla has some of the highest costs, with an initiation fee estimated at $5,000 and dues estimated at $1,000.

With such high costs, one may wonder what could possibly possess someone to spend thousands of dollars for the privilege of dressing like a pirate. The answer lies in status.

Members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla share the Saturday spotlight with a number of prestigious alumni. George Steinbrenner was crowned king of the krewe in 1996. Other famous members include former Tampa mayor Dick Greco and former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Hugh Culverhouse. Couple that with ostentatious floats and the personal satisfaction of throwing countless strands of plastic beads to eager parade goers, and what you have is a formula for success.

That may sound all well and good, but what if none of the 50-plus krewes seem to catch your fancy? You could start your own. According to the Web site of the Inter-Krewe Council of Tampa Bay – the recently established governing body of the krewes – all one has to do is meet a few simple criteria and submit an application. Come up with an original name, put together some crazy, unique costumes and make sure the group has been incorporated for at least one year. After all that is done, you can apply. If you start by next Gasparilla, you could soon be strutting the streets with the faux swashbuckling greats or riding along in your very own handcrafted float.