It was hot and dusty and dizzyingly crowded. The smell of Italian sausages and Axe body spray hung heavy in the stagnant, humid air.
Navigating the Florida State Fairgrounds parking lot after Sickles High School's graduation Wednesday afternoon was not for the faint of heart. Families searched for graduates in the throng while fairground employees rushed to get them outside the expansive Expo Hall so staff could set up for the next ceremony two hours later.
In all, it will take 11 days and 27 ceremonies to graduate 12,351 students from Hillsborough County's public high schools. The ceremonies are held back to back, three or four each day in the Expo Hall, leaving just enough time between events to add or subtract seats, change the lighting to reflect the next school's colors, and empty the parking lots to make way for the next crowd.
It's the annual graduation shuffle, running through June 11.
But students and parents alike said Wednesday there are more pros than cons to the continuous series of ceremonies at the fairgrounds. For one thing, there's plenty of room for large families, lots of parking, and an air conditioned venue protected from seasonal rains.
That's why many school districts across the state have switched to large venues like the University of South Florida Sun Dome, Tropicana Field or the Amway Center to hold their ceremonies.
Traipsing across the expansive parking lot seems like a fair trade for the chance to invite everyone who wants to come to your graduation, said recent Sickles High graduate Brooke Dupre.
"It's nice and big and there's lots of room for our families," said Dupre, 18. "Graduating at the fairgrounds has become kind of a tradition for us."
In Orange County, eight days of public high school graduations are held at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando and the CFE Federal Credit Union Arena on the University of Central Florida campus, said chief of high schools Harold Border. For Pasco County, the bulk of graduation ceremonies are held in Tampa at the USF Sun Dome. In Pinellas, ceremonies take place in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg and Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater.
Hillsborough County hasn't always had a "one-size-fits-all" approach to graduations, said school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja. Years ago, the ceremonies were held on school football fields.
In the past few decades, however, Hillsborough's graduations have been held at the fairgrounds, in the Sun Dome and at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Competing event schedules eventually became too difficult to navigate at Amalie Arena, especially if the Tampa Bay Lightning were in the playoffs, Arja said. When the Sun Dome underwent renovations in 2011, the school district switched to the fairgrounds exclusively and never went back.
The fairgrounds offered a better deal, she said.
Not to mention some of the attractions of the fairgrounds, like sausage carts and flower booths.
Still, some students like Sickles High graduating senior Michael Huchro say they would like to experience some of the tradition that comes with an old-fashioned high school graduation on the school football field.
"I think it would be cool to have it at the school itself, it's where we started and where we should finish," Huchro said.
Tarpon Springs High School is the only school in Pinellas County and one of few in the state to hold graduations on the football field. Walking across Sponger field, diploma in hand, has been a tradition at the school since it was built in the 1960s, said principal Leza Fatolitis.
"We have generous support from the residents of Tarpon Springs – the community, alumni, current families – and students graduating want to share their day with the community and keep the tradition alive," said Fatolitis, who graduated on Sponger Field 25 years ago. "Having it off campus would limit that, and moving forward I think we'll continue the tradition."
There are drawbacks, though. Fatolitis could recall two instances where graduations were rained out, and moving the ceremony inside the school auditorium requires limiting attendance to the approximately 3,000 tickets distributed to students every year. On the football field, though, guests are admitted with or without a ticket.
Hillsborough County schools has a year-to-year contract with the fairgrounds, but the district reviews its other options every year with an eye toward such factors as days available and shelter from heat and rain.
"Some of the advantages to having it in one location are it's set up the entire time for graduation, it's centrally located for most families because it's close to the interstate and it's easy to remember where graduation is because it's always there," Arja said. "I don't know if a school could accommodate that many people."
The fairgrounds also provide plenty of floor or lower-level seating for those with disabilities, even though they will have a long walk back to their cars.
The hike and the crowds didn't bother Richard Weimer, 81, who traveled to Tampa from Springfield, Ohio, to see his granddaughter, Sophie Blaskovich, graduate.
"I've been there her whole life, I remember holding her as a baby," Weimer said, choking back tears. "This is a special moment."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 546-6611.