On one of the warmest, brightest days of the new year, scores of residents chose to spend the day frolicking not on the beach, but inside _ in the area's newest ice rink.
More than 600 people showed up for a free skate Saturday as the Tampa Bay Skating Academy opened to the public for the first time. Another 300 attended Sunday's afternoon session, interim manager Bert Blanchette said.
The facility, on Forest Lakes Boulevard just north of Tampa Road, was conceived in June and built in 13 weeks to take advantage of burgeoning interest in ice skating and hockey, Blanchette said.
With three Winter Olympics scheduled this decade, the rink is a natural, he said. "If someone's going to build an ice rink anywhere in the country, now is the time to do it."
The creation of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team and the growth of the National Hockey League will add to the interest, he said. The new franchise is negotiating with the academy to relocate its headquarters there from downtown Tampa.
Blanchette said the Lightning would practice in a proposed second building and rink that would be built adjacent to the academy.
The team begins play this fall.
Tampa residents Joan and Dick Peloquin, both 50, tested the rink Sunday. As natives of Massachusetts, they liked skating but fell away from it when they moved to Florida 20 years ago.
Recently, they began taking lessons at Sun Blades Ice Skating Center in Clearwater, but the new rink is closer to their home.
"We hope to get back into skating here," Joan Peloquin said. But she added: "There should be enough (skaters) in the area to keep two rinks going."
The couple said they plan to skate twice a week. "Anything more than that'll kill us," Dick Peloquin said.
At center ice Sunday, 11-year-old skaters Betsy Goode of Tampa and Erin Eastle of Clearwater practiced Olympic-style moves while less practiced patrons circled around them.
The girls, who have been watching the Winter Olympics and dreaming of professional skating careers, were spinning and jumping to music that pulsed from speakers surrounding the rink.
They said they met at Centre Ice skating rink at Countryside Mall.
"We're just trying it out," Goode said of the new rink. But both girls had praise for the ice, which they pronounced roomy and smooth.
Blanchette said he doesn't view the other rinks as competition. "The more people we introduce to ice skating," he said, "the more we help each other. My competition is anything else that you can do in your free time."
The rink offers public skating from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and from 7:45 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $5, and skate rentals are $1.75. Call 854-4010 for information.