ST. PETERSBURG — Discover a staycation experience at Fairgrounds St. Pete, an interactive wonderland that invites you to escape reality in a surreal, albeit familiar, way.
The art-meets-technology immersive experience celebrates “weird, wacky and wonderful Florida” with creativity and imagination. We took a tour ahead of its Sept. 2 opening.
Co-founded by Liz Dimmitt and Mikhail Mansion, 64 artists with ties to Florida were commissioned in 2020 to create works and installations for the 15,000-square-foot space that is part of the Factory St. Pete in the Warehouse Arts District. Sets were created by the Fairgrounds team. The artists collaborated with an internal technology team to bring cutting-edge aspects to the experience, as well as lighting, soundscapes and even scents.
Many of the artists are local, and Fairgrounds has a business model that will continue to pay the artists with a percentage of the profits from ticket sales while their work is on view.
“The idea of Fairgrounds is really celebrating the community that we already have in Tampa Bay, and the cultural richness that is part of the fabric of being in St. Petersburg,” Dimmitt said in a phone interview.
Dimmitt said while she and the team had an idea of what the end result would look like, after collaborating with artists, it’s better than she could have imagined.
“I think it’s been a really tough 18 months for everyone and being able to bring some happiness and joy back into people’s lives and just have this place that’s all about imagination and fun and discovery in art and creativity in tech, it’s a joy for me,” she said.
She credited Mansion and the team for creating technology in an economical way, while also allowing artists to implement tech into their works in ways they haven’t done before.
For the project, $3.7 million was raised. A large part of that came from an investment by Jeff and Penny Vinik. Dimmitt said they haven’t spent the entire fund.
Billed as a choose-your-own-adventure experience, Fairgrounds St. Pete follows a narrative about a couple who have gone missing from the Mermaid Star Motel, a retro beach dwelling that’s one of the anchors of the experience. Throughout the attraction, there are clues about their whereabouts, with storytelling that includes aliens, cats and Florida themes like the Fountain of Youth and hurricanes. But the idea is to explore on your own and create your own narrative if you like. There is no wrong way to take a tour.
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“The cool thing about Fairgrounds is if you don’t want to be immersed in the story of it, you can just come in to see something really beautiful,” said director of communications and artist relations Olivia Mansion, as she gave the Tampa Bay Times a tour on Friday. “... But if you’re one of those people that loves mysteries, who likes digging deep into things that are curious, you’ll just love it.”
The adventure begins in Python Alley, with an Interstate 275 exit sign for the Mermaid Star Motel.
In the Mermaid Star Motel Lobby, there are things to discover in drawers, and a TV playing artist Shay Willard’s suite of six videos called Kippy and Kappy’s Network of Happy. Fairgrounds has an internal network that artist-created videos will cycle through.
There is also a brochure rack with humorous fake Florida attractions. They’re acrylic so they can be wiped down, as everything will be as a safety measure.
Go around the motel’s pool area, which through a projection and clever lighting feels exactly like hanging out by a pool at night. As you walk through, sensors trigger Bec Conrad’s Wall of Eyes, which lights up the eyes of Florida critters. All the while, there is a soundtrack of the chirps those critters make at night. Soundtracks created by the Fairgrounds team pervade the attraction.
Nearby is Flora-Da-Scope by Alex Kaufman, George Retkes and Aleisha Prather, a large kaleidoscope that takes you into a neon universe.
In the pink-dominated Sunnymooner’s Suite, a sensor will trigger the retro telephone to ring, followed by a message from the front desk asking about the couple’s overdue rental van return. It informs them of a theft from one of the rooms. A mysterious orb glows on the bed.
The facade of the Mermaid Star Motel is painted blue and pink with neon strips. The top floor, or the penthouse, features the digital artworks of Jaurice Moore, aka Indie Reece, and Nick Davis, aka NDArtLife.
A mural, Mermaid Motel, by Zulu Painter adorns the side of the motel and features a mermaid and tropical fish, manatees and dolphins.
Outside of the motel is the Everglades Arena, featuring a large screen playing a video of our famous Florida sunsets. Hex block-shaped seating and patterned carpet are a nod to St. Petersburg’s iconic pavements.
Nearby is CENTCOM, a Twistee Treat-shaped spaceship filled with interactive gaming elements that respond to motion created by the Fairgrounds team, and glitch art titled Topographia Chlorophobia by Eddie Lohmeyer.
St. Petersburg-based artist Chris Parks, aka Palehorse, transformed one of the motel rooms into the psychedelic Temple of Cosmic Balance, with murals and infinity mirrors in which you can find your third eye. A lantern he designed swirls intricate patterns across the room, creating a dizzying immersive experience.
Many local artists created cheeky dioramas in Floridarama, housed in a darkened room.
In the Mermaid Dressing Room, mosaics of shells created by Dimmitt and her mother, Vevie, adorn the walls, as do paintings by Nathan Beard and Kayla Moon. Seashell crowns by Iona Parris sit on a vanity.
A doodle mural by Chad Mize meets you on the way out, before the gift shop, where artist-made items, including some found in the exhibits, are for sale.
After about a year or 18 months, exhibits will change, creating opportunities for more artists and existing ones whose story lines could be developed further. The motel facade and CENTCOM will remain permanently.
There are plans for low-sensory experience days for accessibility, in keeping with Fairgrounds’ tagline: “Art for All. Play for All. Joy for All.”
There is so much to discover and experience at Fairgrounds St. Pete, you’ll want to check back in often.
Editor’s note: Jeff and Penny Vinik made a personal investment in new art attraction Fairgrounds St. Pete. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.
If you go
Fairgrounds St. Pete opens Sept. 2. Noon-9 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Tickets are timed in 15-minute intervals. $27, $25 Florida residents, adults 65 and older, college students, active military, police, firefighters and EMTs, $22 children ages 4-12, free for members and children 3 and younger. Children 13 and younger must be accompanied by an adult. Arrive 10 minutes before scheduled time. CDC guidelines are being followed and masks are encouraged. 2606 Fairfield Ave S. fairgrounds.art.