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Seeing Tampa Bay Like A Tourist: Ice Skating Under Palm Trees

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Lucielle Salomon
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WUSF News

Florida is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about winter sports. Now visitors and locals have a much cooler option in the Sunshine State. It may surprise you that one winter sport slid its way to Tampa with Downtown on Ice, the only outdoor ice skating rink in the Tampa Bay area.

Surrounded by the palm trees at Curtis Hixon Park, people can lace up their skates and glide around the rink with friends and family. It rained the opening night of Tampa's Downtown on Ice, but it didn't dampen the spirits of siblings Taylor, Hunter and Parker Ford, originally from Kentucky. These teenagers were excited to be ice skating in such warm weather.  

You can hear this story and more stories about being a tourist in Tampa Bay this week on Florida Matters on WUSF 89.7 FM. The show airs on Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 14 at 7:30 a.m. 

"I miss the snow not the cold," Hunter said. "Ice skating without having to be freezing cold is amazing and it's just so much fun and I'm very glad that this is able to happen."

His sister Taylor also couldn't hide her enthusiasm.

"It's like we get both worlds," she said.  "If you've seen the news like everyone is getting snowed on, we are down here in tank tops and some people have shorts on and we are skating, like ice skating, it's awesome."

Parker visits the rink every year. He said at first it wasn't as fun as it is now. Every season he's trying new moves and tries to look more like a professional ice skater.

"But the more we came back, we got more into it and more loving it and it's so cool because you make a lot of friends here and everyone knows who you are and they can't wait to see you," he said. "If anyone wanted to come down, I would say come down."

Alicia Whitworth of Tampa glided on the ice with ease. 

"Oh my God, I'm wearing a T-shirt, this is so weird," she said with a laugh.  "I love it though, it's nice."   

The process of getting this ice rink in place was no small job.

James Raulerson, the rink manager, said they bring a portable ice rink and the city comes in and levels the place. 

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Credit Lucielle Salomon

"Then we put down the pipes and metal is hooked on to plastic," he said. "If you lay those plastic tubes end to end, they are a mile long."

He said these tubes are filled with coolant.

"It's reading 10 degrees going back out at 13 degrees and it recycles," he said.

Raulerson said they use almost 700 gallons of coolant, then they simply spray water on the rink. 

"That's what on there right now -- Tampa water -- and we make ice," he said. 

He said it can be challenging to make ice in Florida when it gets warmer. They try to keep the tent during the day closed up, but the humidity factor is what they try to control. 

Lorenzo Gonzalez, the rink's food vendor, said he loves the idea of skating outdoors. 

"We have the beautiful park, (and) behind that is the Hillsborough River," he said. "It's awesome because you can come out here you can enjoy a great sunny day and then to cool off you come inside and then ice skate." 

Humberto Gazarro, a returning visitor, said his son is 11, and he ice skated for the first time four years ago and it inspired him to begin playing hockey. 

"This rink was the first chance my son had before going to hockey rink at Brandon," he said. "So, it helped him to understand the ice, to give it a try,  and we've moved up from there." 

Gazarro said this ice rink is becoming a landmark in Tampa during the holiday season. 

"It brings that sense of snowy and white Christmas to town in that sense," he said.  "It gives the extra notch of the Christmas spirit that we are always looking for." 

He said this is not only a frozen piece of ice, this is just a place where family bonds and people create memories.

Ja'myae Johnson is 5, and on the opening night for the rink, she was excited to ice skate for the first time. Her mom started ice skating with her, but then Ja'myae took the lead and skated by herself.  She said she is not scared to be left alone on the rink. 

"Because like you get to hold on to the thing and then you get to skate by yourself.," she said. "It's like you are free with freedom and you can do whatever you want on the ice."