Looking for a better way to experience Gasparilla without the parking hassle, the crowds and the extreme rowdiness? Look no further because we've got a surefire way to enjoy a Saturday among the throngs of party heartiers. Just follow our suggested invasion/parade route and you'll practically be able to start your own krewe.
Our perfect Gasparilla day starts about 10:30 a.m. and envisions most of the time spent on Harbour Island near the Westin Hotel, witnessing the majestic flotilla of boats, then a nice lunch as we wait for the parade, followed by a jaunt into the crowds to experience the full-blown effect of beads + booze.
Get ready to rock!
Park and party. Start by naming your designated driver, or just remember to know when to say when. We love the convenience of the Channelside district for parking, and use the main short-term parking terminal right across from the Florida Aquarium. You can reach it easily by going through Ybor City and turning left onto the Nick Nuccio Parkway. Follow the signs to the Aquarium/Seaport and hang in the right-hand lane. Watch for short-term parking (not the cruise parking) and turn right, then a quick left to get to the garage. Rates have traditionally been $10, but be prepared to pay more.
Get ready to R-a-a-m-m-b-l-e! Now you'll have a about a 5-to-10-minute walk over to Harbour Island. Cruise through the outdoor concourse at Amalie Arena as you make your way toward the Marriott Waterside. Be sure to meander behind the hotel so you can marvel at the cabin cruisers docked there. Just before you get to the bridge that leads to the island, hang a right and traverse the "doggie walk" so you can access the bridge. From there, it's a quick hike to get to the Westin.
The Jackson's hive. You will be asking yourself, "Wow, why didn't I think of this before?" as you make your way through wenches and pirates and dogs and beer stands and the smell of burgers on the grill in the hub known as Jackson's Bistro. All of the normally chi-chi club's accoutrements have been stripped down so that maximum revelry can be attained without worrying about pricey cabana furniture. You'll want to soak it all in, so don't be too eager to launch into an alcohol binge just yet. Wander the waterfront and enjoy the show of people and obnoxiously large yachts -- serious vessels that require their visitors to slip their shoes off before boarding so as not to spoil the carpet. (Dream on if you think you can get on one, but feel free to make a fool of yourself trying.) There's a nice poolside bar that's accessible from the sidewalk along the docked boats, as well as a relatively uncrowded restroom.
Your ships have come in. Whatever you do, don't leave the island until you've seen the Gasparilla invasion. You'll see the small boats coming up the channel first around noon, and the people on board will make ridiculous attempts to throw beads to the partiers on the water walk. Most will fall far short into the channel, so don't even bother yelling for them. Then the Jose Gasparilla will appear in all its pirate glory, with flags flying and guns booming. You will clap and hoot and yell and try to take a picture or video that will capture this spectacle. You will understand, at once, why this has been going on since 1904.
Food. Must. Have. Food. After the ships dock, why not stretch your legs again and head toward the Marriott? You'll meet lots of fun drunken people along the way. Check to see if they are serving out on the terrace if the weather is nice. A nice bonus for you on this Gasparilla pitstop is an ATM in the lobby, and a really nice restroom to freshen up. (Be sure to tip the attendant well, ladies.) If the Marriott isn't serving lunch, head over to Channelside and hit the Hooters. It's usually not very crowded.
Love a parade? Relax, it takes those pirates forever to get on buses after the invasion, board their floats and make their way downtown along Bayshore. So if it's 3ish, you can still safely take a hike west either on Brorein (probably less crowded) or Channelside Drive to try to catch some of the parade as it winds its way toward Ashley Drive.
Wind it up. If you're still fresh and not ready to call it a day, head back to the Westin and mix with the well-lubed partiers there. But be aware that private events will be starting soon, and previously cover-free clubs will be charging. There are some stadium steps that look out on the channel, so plop there if the sun is hanging low, and watch as the marine patrol tags drunken boaters. If that doesn't sober you up, get yourself a Red Bull, sans vodka, please!
Editor's note: This article first appeared in the St. Petersburg Times in 2008. The author, Anne Glover, is now a member of Team Celli and has repurposed and updated the article solely for informational purposes.