TAMPA, Fla. — With eight years as mayor of Tampa, Bob Buckhorn has a lot of fond moments to look back on.
Specifically, Gasparilla memories.
“Next year, I get to be a part of the problem, not a part of the solution,” Buckhorn said.
He was quick to add from the beginning that he has never ridden in the car and has always participated in the parade by foot so he could celebrate with the rest of the people.
“For over a hundred years, this city has celebrated this parade, as crazy as it is, the third largest in the country I believe,” Buckhorn said. “Where else can you have pirates invade your city and then throw one heck of a party?”
While he admits it’s a long day of Gasparilla that goes into the night, he adds that it’s a “wonderful, uniquely Tampa tradition.
In true Tampa tradition, we decided to chat with him about his experiences, but with an added extra flavor of Gasparilla: We gave him a pirate hat and sword during his interview.
From the time he donned the hat on his head with a laugh, Buckhorn relished in some of his favorite Gasparilla moments, particularly “mixing it up with the krewe.”
“They come in here, think I’m gonna surrender the key to the city and they realize that, you know, one Irishman against 600 krewe members is pretty much a fair fight," he said.
Buckhorn added how he loved drawing out the excitement and getting the community into the whole “pirate thing.”
He also reflected on the rich history of the festival which has grown from one day to several weeks, as well as some of its setbacks.
“Over the years, the krewe and the parade have had its challenges, certainly 25 years ago with issues surrounding diversity,” Buckhorn said. “That’s all changed. I mean, this parade is as diverse as it could possibly be, whatever your flavor is, there’s something here for you to do. And it’s better because of it, it reflects who we are as a city.”
He even reflected on the legacy of Jose Gaspar.
“I don’t know if Jose Gaspar existed or not, but it damn sure makes for a great story,” Buckhorn said.
In fact, when Buckhorn was asked to describe Gasparilla in one word, he replied “historic.”
“You know, over a hundred years of celebration.”
He remarked on the growth of the tradition as well as how much the city of Tampa has grown along with the parade, which he says now rivals Mardi Gras and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade of Savannah.
“It’s a great tradition, they have evolved, the city has grown, we love reveling in this, I get to wear stupid hats and play with these little swords,” he said.
Along with seeing the growth of the celebration and tradition, Buckhorn says he has seen a growth in tourism dollars and the economy surrounding Gasparilla.
“It’s on the map as a regional destination, not just a local thing. Puts a lot of heads in beds and hotels, a lot of alcohols bought, sold, and consumed. And it’s just a great day,” he said.
He added he’s still not planning on surrendering the key.
“I never plan on surrendering until I have to and unfortunately, I represent a fickle group of people, who as much as I would like to hold out and fight to the death if I don’t give up the key, there is no parade and there is no party,” Buckhorn said. “So they throw me under the bus every time.”
When asked if someone from outside of Tampa came to the city and knew nothing about Gasparilla, he said, “Get ready.”
“It’s going to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen," he said "You know, you’ve got to take it for what it is and there’s a lot of raucous behavior, although it’s tamer than it used to be. I would just say be prepared to let your hair down, put your hat on, and let’s have a parade and let’s have a big ol’ party!”
We tried to get him to tell us his favorite pirate term, but he couldn’t pick his favorite.
He jokingly added, “You’re not going to get me to say ARGHH!”
He was, however, able to recount one of his favorite Gasparilla moments: The King’s coronation.
“As one king abdicates and he puts the crown on the chair to wait for the next king, I went up there and snuck behind the stage and stole the crown. And I thought Ye Mystic Krewe and the members were gonna die,” Buckhorn said. “That here was this shanty Irish guy, the mayor, who stole the crown of the king of Ye Mystic Krewe. And, like the key, we had to give it back. It was terrible.”
Buckhorn not only reflected on the parade’s past, but also on its future, hopeful for its growth and future success.
“I think it’s just gonna get bigger, it’s gonna get better, it’s going to attract more and more people, I think it’s going to become an even bigger regional destination," he said. "You know, it puts Tampa on the map.”
“It’s just an opportunity to tell Tampa’s story, and all of its shades and ethnicities and colors and genders, and tell the world, you know, yeah, we’re a serious place and we’re all about the business of creating jobs and growing the economy, but we like to have fun," he said.
"And this is a city that likes to have fun.”
What parting words does Buckhorn have for Tampa and Gasparilla?
“Be safe, be smart, if you’re underage, don’t be drinking cuz we’ll put you in jail. And let’s have a great time like we always do," he said. "Let’s hope the weather cooperates, and say 'hello' to me on the parade route because this is the last time you’ll see me as the mayor. Next year, I’m going to be causing the problems.”
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