DUNEDIN — City recreation officials are reviewing problems with a helicopter Easter egg drop Saturday that prompted the city to publish apologies via its Facebook page and a letter to the editor in the Tampa Bay Times.
Some of the nearly 60 people who commented about the online apology said the event turned scary as children shoved one another to get to the plastic eggs. There were lots of tears from children who came up empty-handed or were separated from their parents during the rush, as well as, two people claimed, a few minor injuries.
This was on top of confusion over the egg drop's start time and inadequate activities and food vendors for the large crowd. High winds also prevented the two helicopter pilots from evenly distributing the eggs, meaning some kids on one side of the field couldn't dash to the other end of the field in time to grab any loot.
The city attributes the problems to overwhelming turnout.
Expecting the usual Halloween or Touch-A-Truck event crowd of about 1,000, officials set up two bounce houses, five food vendors and 20 games at Highlander Park. They arranged for the helicopters to drop 10,000 treat-filled eggs, or about 10 per child.
More than 7,500 people showed up, said Dunedin Parks and Recreation director Vince Gizzi, straining entertainment and food resources. The crowd was also too large for staff to separate into age groups for the egg drop as planned, he said.
Dunedin fire officials and Pinellas County sheriff's deputies reported assisting a few lost children, but said there were no injuries.
"Usually events take time to build and grow from one year to the other, but this one took no time at all," Gizzi said. "Some people said the event was poorly planned. But it grew four or five times more than what was expected. The only thing left for us to do was keep it safe, even though we knew every child at that point wasn't going to get an egg."
"My apologies," he said, "go to any of the children who left here disappointed."
This isn't the first time staggering attendance has caused a city-sponsored Easter event in the Tampa Bay area to end in disarray.
In 1996, chaos erupted when 8,000 people, instead of the expected 3,000, showed for a nighttime egg hunt at Largo Central Park. Parents trampled mesh fences meant to separate children into age groups. Fire crews were summoned to treat minor injuries and to illuminate the park so that dozens of frantic, empty-handed children could find their parents. A revamp the following year moved the event to a better-lit location, capped participation numbers and ensured all children received prize bags.
A majority of Facebook comments appeared to defend Dunedin, saying the city hit its mark to put on an unusual, free, family-friendly event and that they were confident officials would work out the first-year kinks by next year. It was clearly advertised, they said, that the egg drop would follow two hours of predrop entertainment. And their children marveled at the helicopters.
Gizzi said recreation staff held back some eggs to pass out to empty-handed children, and some comments said sympathetic spectators also gave eggs to some sad youngsters.
The city is asking revelers for suggestions on potential improvements, which Gizzi said his department will consider along with feedback from fire and police personnel, the city's safety risk manager and other officials.
"I can't say yes or no at this point until I'm convinced we can do it better than we did this past year," Gizzi said of the event's future. "Once we evaluate it, we'll make that determination."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.