New York’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and Pasadena’s Rose Parade: each uniquely fanciful.
But sail in Tampa’s Gasparilla. There’s nothing like it, mateys.
Tampa Bay’s signature parade, steeped in over a century of tradition, invades Bayshore Boulevard later this month. Hosted annually by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, Tampa’s merry pirates, Gasparilla Pirate Festival and parade occurs on the last Saturday of January—preceded by the Children’s Gasparilla Parade on the second to last Saturday of the month.
YMKG’s captain, Truett Gardner, will lead the legendary invasion. Truett shares treasured Gasparilla memories, extending from his childhood to ones made with his children, along with what he’s looking forward to for the 2024 Gasparilla season.
Share some of your Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla family history.
Truett Gardner: My grandfather was in the Krewe and both my father and younger brother remain active in YMKG. My mom served on the court. As kids, my brothers and I were pages on the court—essentially serving at the pleasure of the King and Queen of Gasparilla. We resembled Lord Farquaad so thankfully costumes have evolved. This year, my son Tom (9) and my nephew will serve as pages. They’re absolute best friends and excited for their roles alongside mine as captain.
Core memories about your childhood Gasparillas?
Truett Gardner: As soon as I could walk, my parents began taking me to the parade. Gasparilla was neck and neck with Christmas morning. Until 1988, Gasparilla was celebrated on a Monday, and we got the day off from school. It was unparalleled excitement. Beads weren’t thrown then. Rather, pirates shot blanks into the air. Once they opened their guns and released casings to the ground, the real treasure was grabbing the hottest shell.
When did you join YMKG? Why?
Truett Gardner: It was the first thing I wanted to do when I finished law school and joined in 1999. Gasparilla embodies what makes Tampa such a great city, and I’m fascinated by how the story lives on.
What stands out to you about Gasparilla’s evolution?
Truett Gardner: Gasparilla’s original purpose was promoting the city of Tampa. City leadership wanted to entice more people to make Tampa home. Metrics abound about the economic impact Gasparilla has on Tampa Bay. As hectic as aspects of Gasparilla can be, it remains a distinctive part of what makes Tampa Tampa. Since 1904, Gasparilla has brought growth and excitement.
What are you most looking forward to in 2024?
Truett Gardner: Events involving Mayor Castor are a highlight. Being from Tampa, she appreciates Gasparilla’s history and is one of our biggest advocates. During a ceremony with the mayor, YMKG demands the Key to the City. When refused, we siege Tampa for a couple of days. I accepted the key last year, and I hope she surrenders it again. Once we sail to the convention center on invasion day, we return the key.
What is Gasparilla day like for you?
Truett Gardner: It’s an all-day affair. As captain, invasion day comes with great responsibility. But, it’s a most fun work day.
By 7 a.m., I’m undergoing utter transformation into a pirate. Our ship leaves Ballast Point around 11 a.m. and docks at the Tampa Convention Center at 1 p.m. Being on the Jose Gasparilla II, the world’s only fully rigged pirate ship, is my favorite. Gasparilla’s water invasion is the world’s largest and last year’s flotilla boasted more than 1,000 boats.
We quickly transition to our land parade along iconic Bayshore Boulevard and enjoy reveling in paradegoers’ excitement. Gasparilla always showcases Tampa’s beauty and waters—it’s typically a Chamber of Commerce commercial-worthy-day.
Is there anything unique about your pirate garb?
Truett Gardner: As captain, I freshened up my costume—drawing inspiration from my childhood-Gasparilla-memories. I took parts of what I found special about my father’s and grandfather’s costumes when designing the new one.
Favorite Gasparilla memory with your kids?
Truett Gardner: Experiencing the joy of the children’s parade through their eyes. They’re wide-eyed being part of the massive, joyful crowd. Parade day’s camaraderie, coupled with Gasparilla’s spirited sights and sounds, amplifies their excitement.
While our daughters, Frankie (17) and Cindy (15), have aged out of riding on the YMKG float, I treasure the memories we made and look forward to our son, Tom (9), riding alongside me this year. Parenting has taught my wife, Leigh, and I to view each age as a chapter, [with] each finite phase passing quickly. Enjoying fleeting moments with our kids is key.
How do you find the time to engage with the Krewe?
Truett Gardner: When asked to serve, I thought deeply about the time commitment. When you care about and want to do something, you make the time. With support from my family, I’m able to accomplish what I need to professionally while participating in personal commitments and community engagement. This is my final year serving as captain. I was honored by the selection and remain proud to serve.
Is there an aspect of YMKG’s community service you’re especially proud of?
Truett Gardner: When George Steinbrenner was King of Gasparilla (1997), he established the YMKG Scholarship Foundation—focused on funding a college education for local underprivileged high school students. We receive hundreds of applications, and serving on the selection committee has been an honor.
We’re determined to help students who, based on a combination of academic achievement, leadership positions and extra-curricular accomplishments, would otherwise not have opportunities to attend college due to financial circumstances.
The students I’ve met through the interview process, with their remarkable perseverance, give me great hope for their generation. A recent recipient, despite having ALS, played soccer and ran cross country. He’d fall, but he’d get up and finish competing.
Another was accepted to MIT but chose the University of Florida because of their cutting-edge AI offerings. We’re intent on supporting their college journeys and aim to see them return to Tampa where they can use their talents to help our city continue flourishing.
I’m proud of YMKG for carrying on Steinbrenner’s initial work, which has grown into the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla Community Fund.
Arrgh you Ready??
Originally published in the January 2024 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine