Yo-ho and a bottle of rum! Gasparilla season has arrived, an annual tradition invoking either excitement or dread among locals. But what about those who live in it? Not the pirates, but the homeowners—the landlubbers dwelling in the heart of the festivities!
Daniel Fernandez, a Tampa native and 20-year resident of Harbour Island, didn’t pursue his childhood dream of becoming a pirate. Instead, he followed a non-swashbuckling career path as a lawyer. Nevertheless, attending the Gasparilla parade amid chaotic crowds and bead-grabbing became a tradition—one he continues to uphold, just in a different way.
Having witnessed the parade from various vantage points, Fernandez emphasizes the distinct pleasure of watching the invasion from his Harbour Island home. Here, he and his wife invite friends and family to enjoy a front-row seat to the spectacle.
“Unless you’re a resident of Harbour Island or Davis Islands,” Fernandez says, “you just can’t fully appreciate the dynamics of the entire thing. It’s really remarkable.”
Their day begins at 6:30 a.m. with preparations for a breakfast and brunch gathering. Friends and family arrive at 8:30 a.m. to avoid traffic and secure parking. Some come dressed as pirates, adding to the excitement. For the Fernandez family, Gasparilla is a time to relive youth and revel in camaraderie.
“Twenty years of watching this and I’m still not tired of it,” he says. “You can be a kid again for a few hours.”
At 69, having experienced numerous parades and invasions, Fernandez’s favorite memory is the first after the COVID-19 hiatus. Living through the surreal times of the pandemic made the return even more special—a joyous return to normalcy.
As Gasparilla has evolved, Fernandez notes a shift towards a more family-friendly atmosphere, making the event accessible to families beyond Harbour Island.
Dr. Geoffrey Kwitko, originally from Montreal, has lived in the Tampa Bay area since 1991. While residing on Harbour Island for five years, he and his family also took advantage of the unique view by hosting Gasparilla watch parties.
The experience, however, wasn’t as relaxed when Kwitko moved from the island to the height of parade traffic on Bayshore Boulevard, which required a fence around the property and a police officer on duty.
Now in a condo located near the parade staging area, Kwitko and his family can simply walk down to the parade and retreat to their home, close the doors and windows, and shut out the commotion when they’ve had enough.
It’s no secret Gasparilla can get a little rowdy, but it’s a more family-friendly environment at the children’s parade.
Jim Pace and Janet Martinez, Tampa residents since 2018, moved to an apartment on the corner of Bayshore and Platt in 2021.
“Coming from Miami originally, we are a little more flexible and used to festival crowds and consider it the price of being so close to the festival but also advantageous because you can celebrate but get back home anytime you like without even having to worry about driving or parking,” Pace says.
Since moving, the couple has brought their five-year-old daughter, Penny, to the children’s parade, creating cherished family memories.
“The best memory so far has been the year 2021 when our daughter was 3 years old,” he says. “We were able to see her excitement with the parade, bead toss, and watching the festive costumes.”
In the midst of Gasparilla’s lively traditions, residents like Fernandez, Kwitko, Pace and Martinez create unique narratives, blending the past with the present. As Gasparilla continues evolving, it weaves together the threads of tradition and family, transforming Tampa’s pirate invasion into an enduring spectacle for all.