I arrived in Gibsonton — or Gibtown, as many locals call it — early, eager to take in some scenery before investigating the local bar scene. The town's lax zoning laws are well-known, allowing residents to keep discarded carnival equipment and exotic animals on their property. Why? Because this is Gibsonton — founded by, and home to, folks who work in traveling circuses and carnivals.
Dating back to the '60s, the Tropicana Bar is the oldest bar in town. On the outside, a colorful, sports-themed mural attempts to lure passing motorists into taking a closer look; inside, it seems as if not much has changed in the past 50 years.
The Tropicana is your basic, smoky dive, with a friendly staff and plenty of colorful patrons, especially when the carnies come home for the off-season. Entertainment comes in the form of free pool, a jukebox, cold beer and karaoke on Fridays.
The beer is a touch more expensive than shooting pool, at around a dollar or two a pop. The selection is basic: major domestics with a few imports like Heineken and Beck's, as well as specialty malt beverages from Twisted Tea and Seagram's. Buckets of beer are available, and if you don't finish in one sitting, the bar will hold your leftovers in the cooler for later. A collection of old bottles sits in a case mounted on one wall, with a diverse range of specimens, from a Japanese-language bottle of Sapporo to the extinct Nordik Wolf Light and a '90s-era Zima.
Next was Showtown USA, another Gibtown landmark. The name of the bar is another nickname for the town itself, and its embrace of the extraordinary is illustrated in humorous character paintings and elaborate murals.
Showtown is also a restaurant, so it's roomy, with table seating on one side and a bar on the other. The two were previously separated by a wall, allowing bar patrons to smoke indoors, but a recent zoning dispute resulted in the wall coming down, making the entire interior smoke-free. This has caused somewhat of a decline in business, but the staff is hopeful that returning performers and carnival workers will be accepting of the new changes and be content to light up on the outdoor patio.
Aside from the odd paintings and nods to the carnival life, Showtown is a pretty straightforward bar and grill. Like the Tropicana, beers are cheap and generally domestic, although bottles of Beck's and Stella were only $1.50 — quite a bargain. Beers are stored in an ice tub behind the bar, which is an unusual, old-fashioned touch. Showtown also serves liquor, and the cocktails are strong and cheap.
As a town famously occupied at times by Al Tomaini, an 8-foot-tall giant; his 21/2-foot-tall wife, Jeanie; Percilla the Monkey Girl; and the infamous Lobster Boy, Gibsonton has a long history of celebrating the strange and unusual. Although sideshow life has all but disappeared from the American amusement landscape, Gibsonton still keeps this history alive, something that can be best observed by going where the locals go.
Head out to the Tropicana or Showtown in a week or two, when the carnies and performers will be home for winter, and you're likely to hear some crazy stories and meet people you won't find anywhere else.