How Marketing & Branding Floats the Gasparilla Festival

Each January, thousands of people from across the United States flock to the city of Tampa Bay to fly the jolly roger high and celebrate Gasparilla. It all started back in 1904 as a simple parade, but over the years has evolved into a multi-weekend franchise, creating a huge tourism uptick in the cooler months of the year. Starting from a small, well-planned marketing idea, Gasparilla shows the impact that a solid idea and great execution can bring.

The Legend of Gasparilla

The Gasparilla celebration’s namesake comes from a famous Spanish sea pirate named José Gaspar, who rose to fame for terrorizing the waters of Tampa Bay and the West Coast of Florida during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Many believe that the tradition of Gasparilla was started when José stormed the Tampa Harbor, but this isn’t the case. The Gasparilla parade was actually started by the society editor of the Tampa Tribune, Louise Francis Dodge, and George W. Hardee as a way to draw tourists to the area in 1904. Their goal was simple: bring in more tourists to the Tampa Bay area.

After many hushed meetings, a mock pirate attack from Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla took the city of Tampa Bay by surprise during the annual May Day parade. A crew of pirates “captured the city” on horseback, starting a tradition that would last for years to come. It just goes to show that all it takes is one groundbreaking idea to make waves.

An Idea that Changed Tampa Forever

The Gasparilla franchise has grown to become almost as big as New Orlean’s annual Mardi Gras celebration, but with way more pirates. Today, the celebration runs from the end of January all the way until March and combines art, music, film, and fun; and really, there’s something for everyone. The alcohol-free Gasparilla Children’s parade kicks off the festivities each year, drawing hundreds of children and their families dressed in their swashbuckling-best to the streets of downtown Tampa. The most widely attended and well-known of the events is the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates, in which thousands of people watch and celebrate in the streets as Gaspar’s pirate ship storms the Tampa Harbor and kicks off the parade.

This string of festivals and events brings in close to $40 million dollars each year for Tampa’s economy, and it makes sense. Visitors need places to stay, food to eat, beer to drink, and pirate apparel to adorn. An estimated 1 million people attended at least one Gasparilla event each year, and local businesses are eager to capitalize on these growing numbers.

A Unique Platform for Marketing

The popularity of Gasparilla has presented a unique opportunity for businesses to align their marketing with the fun and popular celebration. Walk into a Publix this time of year and you’ll likely see a pirate ship made from Coca-Cola boxes or various beers flanked by a pirate mannequin and snacks. Local restaurants and bars in the area claim to be “the official afterparty” spot after the parade, bringing in eager guests ready to support local business.


That’s not where it ends, however. Gasparilla consists of three different parades; the Children’s Parade, the Night Parade which runs through Ybor City, and the main event, the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates. Thousands of dollars are spent by local businesses on heavily branding and adorning parade floats for these events, getting beads to hand out, and creating swag to throw to parade go-ers. We also can’t forget the goodwill advertising that companies like Captain Morgan use, by pledging money to Lyft and Uber to prevent drunk driving.


Sponsorships are another integral part of the festivities as well, not only for the parades but for the arts and music festivals. Take the Gasparilla Music Festival for example. This concert takes place over the course of 3-days in Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa, and businesses know that this is a great opportunity to get their name out there. Hundreds of vendors and sponsors line the venue, handing out swag, raffling off prizes, and generating interest for their brand among attendees.

Social Media

In the weeks, and even months, leading up to Gasparilla, organizers of the main events take to social media to create excitement. Using channels like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter is a great way to get the word out at a low cost. Hashtags are used and created to generate interest in the event from all over the country. Hundreds of pieces of content are created for the event each year, in the form of pictures, videos, and blogs. Giveaways are also a big piece of this, particularly on Instagram, in which users are encouraged to like and tag friends in a post to be entered to win gift cards, tickets, and more.

No matter the tactic, it all goes back to knowing your audience and seizing the day to make the most of your marketing. What may seem like a small drop in the bucket, can make waves with customers for years to come. Here at Cape and Bay, we love our community and the businesses in it; even the “Bay” part of our name pays homage to sunny Tampa Bay. We’re here to help businesses like yours find their audience, and storm the harbors of Tampa with confidence.

Ready to make the most of your marketing? Let’s chat.