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Crops not as hardy as tourists // You feel cold; they feel sun

Floridians may be wailing about the breeze's bite, but tourists flocking to Tampa Bay still think it's a tropical playland where you're free to wear funny hats and loll in the sun.

Take Anthony and Christine Loveridge of Coventry, England. They certainly didn't let Tuesday's temperatures deter them from enjoying Clearwater Beach like veteran beach bums.

As the couple sunbathed, their boys _ Simon, Carl and Paul _ romped, tossing sand and burying each other in it.

Ten-year-old Carl seemed puzzled at the suggestion that the temperature was less than comfortable.

"Much nicer than England," he said. "It's much sunnier."

"There's no way we'd be on the beach in England," Christine Loveridge said. "It's raining there, probably."

Despite lower-than-normal temperatures for late December, resorts and tourist attractions in the Tampa Bay area are seeing plenty of folks like the Loveridges this year. No final numbers are available yet, but early evidence suggests this year's holiday visitors may outnumber those of the last several years.

Chill be damned, guests at the Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa at St. Pete Beach are lounging on the beach and downing frozen drinks, said Craig Anderson, director of operations.

"That may seem a little kooky to Floridians," he said. "But it's a lot warmer and nicer here than Buffalo, Boston or Boise."

And at Saddlebrook Resort in Pasco County, folks are frolicking in the pool, said Al Martinez-Fonts, director of marketing and advertising.

Granted, the water's heated, but a breeze can still goose-pimple the flesh. Yet people coming from colder climes are used to shivering more between dropping their robe and jumping in the shower.

Said Canadian Linda Mahler, a visitor to Clearwater Beach: "In comparison to where we came from, the weather's a treat. I'm happy to be outside. We miss that for so many months in Ontario."

Indoor attractions like the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and the Florida Aquarium in Tampa are also seeing a healthy volume of visitors.

Wayne Atherholt, director of marketing and public relations at the museum, said attendance there has been up all year, and the holidays so far seem no different.

If anything, the local tourism industry may find itself singing hallelujah for this year's weather. But not for the temperatures, for the snow.

"When it snows early up north as it has this year, we tend to see a bigger push for Florida," said Steve Hayes, vice president of the Tampa-Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association. "When it's just cold, you can live with that. But when it snows, it's like, "I got to get out of here.'

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Overall, tourism in Florida as a whole seems stronger this year than last, said Wendy Diehl, a spokeswoman for the state's Division of Tourism.

But for now, it's impossible to say for sure. The division changed the way it counts visitors, so an accurate year-to-year comparison won't be possible until January.

Still, in October, the last month for which numbers are available, Florida saw a total of about 2.6-million visitors, or about 2.3 percent more than it did the prior October.

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