The basic premise of Gasparilla is really quite simple. Close off two adjoining streets, parade a bunch of pirates down one of them, and invite people to come out and party on the other one. Sounds easy enough, but the reality is Gasparilla is a logistical bear that Tampa Bay has been trying to perfect for more than 100 years.
The big invasion can attract upwards of 350,000 people, and they don’t come to sit idly by. Nope, they come to party and parade their own versions of pirate garb to fellow marauding mateys, while collecting as many Mardi Gras beads as possible. Some residents, especially along the parade route, feel that Gasparilla is out of control. Having witnessed 3 such events I can hardly blame them for their concerns. The amount of trash that ends up on the streets and in the waters of Tampa Bay is staggering – the noise is deafening -there are inevitably fights and arrests – and you can be sure it attracts Tampa’s best and brightest. All of this has most self-respecting retirees fleeing for more sheltered pastures. But when I put my branding and marketing hat on I see it as a tradition the city can’t afford to quit.
Many cities struggle to define themselves. You’ll often see destinations go through rebranding exercises every time there is a new head of marketing because no one can truly agree on what best communicates the location. Tampa, on the other hand, is steeped in pirate lore and will always be closely tied to the many bays, rivers, and estuaries that served as hiding places for these buccaneers who now, by the way, can play a mean game of football. People love events that are done well, and it is clear Gasparilla has found the sweet spot.
The annual economic impact of Gasparilla is said to be $46 million annually. In an economy where people are struggling to put food on the table, that’s some much needed change. To alleviate some past transgressions, this year an additional 100 police officers and many more port-o-pottys were added to the parade route. Both were a welcome addition. The strategy of moving people downtown to the music stages was also a wise improvement.
All in all it was a fun time, and I certainly enjoyed capturing a bit of the revelry. The rain kept some people away, but for the most part it went unfelt. A few days later it appears concerned residents have returned to their soft, cozy homes, the streets are clean, parade floats have been put up, and some where a poor turtle is swimming along with a string of beads stuck in its throat, gasping for the next Gasparilla.