Gasparilla: Is It Just Like Mardi Gras?

When I retired to Tampa, I was introduced to several local experiences. One of the most notable was Gasparilla, a series of several events throughout the year, but mostly the annual invasion and parade on the last Saturday of January.

Since many locals consider Gasparilla to be “just like Mardi Gras,” I realized that most people just did not know the difference.  So, I volunteered to teach an audience of fellow seniors who were curious. I was eager to share my lifelong experience and new research on the similarities and differences.

How and why did each celebration begin? That was my starting point.

My Tampa students were shocked to learn about the great historical and religious significance of Mardi Gras. By dramatic contrast, Gasparilla began as a way to add an exciting dimension to an annual May Day Festival and State Fair that would attract tourists and entertain locals. In 1904, Louise Frances Dodge, the Society Editor of the local newspaper, discussed the possibilities with George Hardee who happened to be from New Orleans. He immediately suggested Mardi Gras as a model to consider. A connection with the Krewe of Rex resulted in the first Gasparilla celebration, guided by the expertise of and costumes from Rex.

Dodge’s name is almost lost in history, but Hardee became active in the local krewe and even served as its Captain.

Dr. Stephen Hales, Archivist and Member of the Krewe of Rex, informed me that, at about the same time, Rex helped several cities devise celebrations to increase tourism while also providing a festive experience for their citizenry. Those purposes have continued.

The group in Tampa accessed a local legend in selecting the mythological pirate, Jose Gaspar, as their inspiration. Thus, Gasparilla was born. Initially, they modeled themselves after the Krewe of Rex and were knights or reflected royalty. The photo below shows a prominent businessman in Tampa in the typical dress of a knight riding a horse, very much as Rex Lieutenants do to this day, as they precede the king’s float on Mardi Gras day.

Two men in costume on horses
Photo courtesy of Tampa Bay History Center Outreach

As Ye Krewe of Gasparilla grew, the all-male members decided to accent piracy over royalty, and today they are all pirates. In fact, many of today’s Gasparilla revelers don pirate costumes for the parade and related social events.  Of the 166 krewes in Tampa now, almost half of them also adopt a pirate theme.

The most majestic part of Gasparilla is the pirate invasion that occurs that morning.

The Jose Gasparilla pirate ship escorted by a flotilla of hundreds of local vessels
The Jose Gasparilla pirate ship escorted by a flotilla of hundreds of local vessels

It’s important to note that on Gasparilla Day itself, the parade is composed of up to 120 units.  Twelve floats of them belong to the Krewe of Gasparilla, the group that orchestrates the parade. Other krewes request the opportunity to be included and most of them participate, if they meet the criteria.  What shocked me was learning that each krewe has only one or more “floats” which are used every year.

A “float” is a flatbed truck that has a professionally-built ship on top of it (if a pirate-themed krewe).  Other krewes with other themes reflect their theme or identity.   Floats need to be low enough to go under several bridges along the route.

Other distinguishing features of the Tampa parade include the cars of local dignitaries, a few bands and a unique practice of krewe members either riding their floats or walking beside them. However, there are no “marching units,” such as the 610 Stompers, the Laissez Boys or the Muffalatas that are beloved marching units in New Orleans.

As Arthur Hardy likes to note in his speeches about Mardi Gras, “New Orleans takes fun seriously!”   I began to see that Tampa does, too!

The Krewe of Venus

The origin of the Krewe of Venus in Tampa also has a New Orleans connection. In 1965, when a member of the Ye Krewe of Gasparilla died, his wife, Lucille Cochran, not only became a widow, but also lost her opportunity to participate in the social life of the krewe. So, when she and several friends went to a national convention of Women’s Clubs and experienced as “entertainment” the replay of the ball of the Krewe of Venus of New Orleans, she determined that she would start a similar experience in Tampa.

She invited the entire Venus Court to Tampa to present their ball, which became the proverbial “picture that’s worth 1,000 words,” and served as the model for a new, co-ed Tampa krewe. Locals in Tampa remember how she brought glamour and bling to Gasparilla that continues today.  The costumes for the king and queen of the Krewe of Venus in Tampa are still made in New Orleans.

King and Queen of Venus in Tampa
The King and Queen of the Krewe of Venus  in Tampa. King Dr. Walter W. Lane. Queen Lesa Ann Summerall. Photo courtesy of Krewe of Venus, Tampa

Krewe of The Knights Sant’ Yago

This Tampa krewe is distinguished by having the best costumes of Gasparilla! In 1972, when five Latin leaders from the Ybor City area of Tampa were denied membership in Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, they began their own krewe and called it The Krewe of the Knights of Sant’ Yago.  This all-male krewe embraced the rich traditions of Spanish nobility, which is evident in their resplendent costumes.  Once a member achieves the status of knight, he develops a coat of arms that reflects his unique interests and priorities and is incorporated into his individualized costume.

Seven men in costume holding swords
The Krewe of the Knight of Sant’ Yago. Photo courtesy of the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’ Yago

So, is Gasparilla “just like Mardi Gras”?   While the practices may differ, there is definitely a similarity in spirit!

Beryl B. Byles, MBA University of Dallas, worked as an Executive Coach , challenging and supporting her clients in making growth oriented choices.  She wrote  a professional memoir called Authentic Leadership: An Inside Job.  Beryl co-teaches OLLI-USF’s leadership class and is the inspiration for the Operatunity SIG.


6 Replies to “Gasparilla: Is It Just Like Mardi Gras?”

  1. Beryl, I enjoyed reading this piece so much! It was a reminder of the wonderful talk that you gave at the Tampa History Museum in what now seems another lifetime! Thank you for sharing this with OLLI Connects!

  2. Enjoyed the read …thanks
    Will sometime tell the story here of how we – Ye Mystic Airkrewe of the Gasparilla Air Force formed to provide air cover for the Invading fleet.

  3. Thanks, Beryl. I didn’t get to go to your class, but I learned a lot from your article. I was particularly interested in learning about the parts of Mardi Gras that inspired Gasparilla..

  4. Thanks so much Beryl, I am tardy in reading your Gasparilla/Mardi Gras essay, I live on the Channel and used to give a Gasparilla Boat parade party every year for 20 some years. I found your history very informative. I finally had to stop the parties because I had an invasion of unknown party goers that would come into my house, pour large glasses of vodka and then tried to leave but chose the pantry door instead. The finale was when I found 2 men in my walk-in closet. You are a great source of information.

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