TAMPA, Fla. — Dave Pagano started his life as a pirate a few years back wearing a white linen shirt with puffy sleeves and open neckline.
Then he bought a bandanna, a dredlock wig, a musket replica, a sword, a knife, and this year, $500 worth of beads.
Mardi Gras-style atmosphere — including bead-tossing by costumed revelers.
Pagan will be among them, wandering the crowds during three parades, handing out long strings of beads — some with rubber ducks attached. (The ducks also wear pirate hats).
"You cannot describe the fun you have doing it," said Pagano, a 50-something business consultant who even on New Year's Eve sat in a bar dressed in full pirate regalia.
Tampa and pirates go way back, long before Jack Sparrow or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team.
According to city lore, a Spanish pirate named Jose Gaspar terrorized the west coast of Florida in the 18th and 19th centuries. The swashbuckler's legend was unearthed in 1904, when some enterprising city leaders — having just returned from Mardi Gras in New Orleans — decided that Tampa needed its own street festival.
The festival organizers adopted Gaspar as a patron saint. Early Gasparilla parades featured a "krewe" — high-society social club members in full pirate regalia — arriving on horseback and "capturing" the city.
Later, krewes, which is also what Mardi Gras clubs are called, became more plentiful, the costumes more elaborate. Led by that first initial group, Ye Mystic Krewe, the krewes arrived via boat, floating from Hillsborough Bay into the city's downtown to seize the key to the city from the mayor, who always plays along.
With hundreds of thousands of people turning out to watch, it's easy to see why folks like Pagano tend to get a little pirate-obsessed all year round in Tampa.
But you don't need an elaborate costume to enjoy the Gasparilla fun. A pair of comfortable shoes and a little pre-party planning will do.
"The people who will enjoy Gasparilla the most will be the ones who plan ahead," said Darrell Stefany, the president of Event Fest, which produces the annual Seminole Hard Rock Gasparilla Pirate Fest.
The first event takes place Jan. 23, with the Children's Gasparilla Extravaganza. This is an alcohol-free event, with bike rodeos, children in pint-sized pirate costumes and fireworks. Held in the same location as the adult-themed parade a week later, the children's parade is family friendly and free, although you can purchase reserved seating.
The true bacchanal begins on Jan. 30, with a 10 a.m. "Invasion Brunch" at the Tampa Convention Center.
Stefany said out-of-town visitors planning to partake in the festivities on that day should decide ahead of time where to park; he suggests people leave their cars at Raymond James Stadium several miles away and take shuttle buses to the parade route.
The route has changed a bit this year. With former Tampa Bay Buccaneer player Mike Alstott as its grand marshal, the pirate parade will dock at the Tampa Convention Center at around 11:30 a.m. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio will hand the keys to the city to the pirates, then the 90 parade floats (which look a little like giant motorized ships) will proceed down Bayshore Boulevard and into downtown between 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
This is when the parade crush is at its heaviest, with scores of people vying for beads thrown by krewe members on the floats. Reserved bleacher seating is available for the parade, and food and drinks will also be sold. All proceeds go to local charities.
Many of the krewes are affiliated with charities and participate in parades and events year-round. Ye Mystic Krewe is the oldest and largest, with 700 professional men as members, but others are grouped around ethnicities (Irish, Italian, Spanish) or hobbies.
There's Krewe of the Peg Leg Pirate (which raises money for amputees); Krewe of Mustang Sallies and Ryders (fundraises for a local child abuse prevention council and the Animal Coalition of Tampa); Krewe of F Troop (men only, dedicated to "Good ol boy Fun.") There's Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley (named after a real female Irish pirate) and the Krewe of Pair O'Dice (people who like to gamble). And so on.