CLEARWATER — Locals think it's a little chilly for the beach, but it's all a matter of perspective. When you're from the Northeast and your state is buried under a blizzard, a beach party is just the thing to lift your spirits.
That's why hordes of Penn State football fans showed up Thursday in Clearwater for Outback Bowl Beach Day. They joined Florida Gators fans for an afternoon of live music, skydivers, a cheerleaders' tug-of-war and a key lime pie-eating contest — not to mention appearances by the football teams.
The annual Beach Day is what you might get if you cross a pep rally with spring break. College marching bands performed on the sugary sand. Northern college kids and their parents waded into the Gulf of Mexico and tossed footballs in the surf. Locals did the Gator chomp and made muscle poses in front of a giant sand sculpture.
They basked in the sun whenever it peeked out from behind the clouds. The afternoon was overcast, with temperatures in the mid 60s — positively balmy by Pennsylvania standards.
"There's a foot of snow on the ground back home. This is nicer," said Jessica Boonin of Philadelphia, who whipped out her cell phone and showed a picture of her snowbound yard. She sat with her bare toes in the sand.
"We got out a day before the blizzard," said Donna Martin of Reading, Pa.
"The worst part is the black ice. It makes the roads really slippery," said Bernie Breiner, who drove a motor home down from Tamaqua, Pa. "We're not going home until the crows go home."
News camera crews from up North were there to capture it all, filming scenes like Penn State's cheerleaders doing backflips at the water's edge — and that's part of the point of Beach Day in the first place. It always draws tons of media coverage from the states that send college teams to the New Year's Day bowl game in Tampa.
"All the media covering the event pumps those images back up to their marketplace at a time when those markets are under 3 feet of snow," said Outback Bowl spokesman Mike Schulze.
That's why the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, various local sponsors and the city of Clearwater join forces to make Beach Day happen. They made it bigger this year, expanding a sunset festival at Pier 60 and adding a nighttime showing of the movie The Blind Side on the beach.
Frustrated officials want to show the rest of the country that there's no BP oil on Clearwater Beach.
"The stigma of oil is still lingering," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "People still don't believe that Florida beaches have not been affected by oil.
"And so this year, even more than past years, it is critical that we get all these visitors to come out and observe the fact that the beaches are absolutely pristine and perfect. And then go home and tell people about it."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.