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NFL Experience rises along Tampa waterfront as Super Bowl 55 nears

Julian B. Lane Park is being transformed into a ‘theme park for football fans.’ But how many will visit Tampa, or attend a pandemic-restricted Super Bowl?
Published Jan. 18
Updated Jan. 18

TAMPA — They’re here. The first, big, physical harbingers of Super Bowl 55′s arrival in the city rolled off tractor trailers at Julian B. Lane Park on Monday.

The scaffolding of a stage towered over the multi-use field at the park’s north end by mid-morning, as crews finished erecting a massive canopy on the Great Lawn. A small fleet of forklifts stood ready on a walking path, and a tall chain-link fence and security guards stood ready at the perimeter.

Tampa Bay Sports Commission director Rob Higgins, president and CEO of the Super Bowl 55 Host Committee, talks to reporters at Tampa's Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park on Monday.
Tampa Bay Sports Commission director Rob Higgins, president and CEO of the Super Bowl 55 Host Committee, talks to reporters at Tampa's Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park on Monday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The grassy open-air spaces, picnic tables and splash pads are closed to the public as the NFL transforms the signature city park into a different kind of playground for football fans. When it opens again as the Super Bowl Experience on Jan. 29 to Feb. 6, visitors can take photos with the Vince Lombardi Trophy, meet and greet virtually with NFL players and try kicking an extra point among other activities.

A map of what the park will look like when finished included a “locker room,” a “museum” and two NFL shops.

Tampa Bay Sports Commission director Rob Higgins described what’s coming to Julian B. Lane Park as the “main hub” of Super Bowl activity away from Raymond James Stadium, where the Big Game takes place on Feb. 7. Super Bowl-related events, including a “technology village,” will also take place at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and on the Tampa Riverwalk.

“It’s like a theme park for football fans. ... You can come down and create memories that will last a lifetime with your family,” said Higgins, who is also president and CEO of the Super Bowl 55 Host Committee. “And then the other great aspect of this is it’s going to be done in a really healthy and safe fashion.”

Workers transform Tampa's Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park into the Super Bowl Experience, the NFL's interactive football theme park, for Super Bowl 55.
Workers transform Tampa's Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park into the Super Bowl Experience, the NFL's interactive football theme park, for Super Bowl 55. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The NFL OnePass app became available for download on Monday. Fans can use it to make reservations to visit the Super Bowl Experience once that feature goes live in the coming days. Admission will be free.

While speaking to the media, Higgins was asked about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ victory over the New Orleans Saints that put the team one win away from making history as the first team to play in a Super Bowl on their home field.

“We’re not supposed to be biased, but we are,” Higgins said. “I mean, we’re huge Bucs fans with what the Glazer family and what that front office has done for our community. ... Now they’re on this magical playoff journey. It just continues to increase awareness for our community, and you know, (reaching the Super Bowl) naturally would be a pretty special storyline and really historic.”

But there were also many reminders that the fanfare surrounding the nation’s highest profile sporting event takes place amid the coronavirus pandemic. Reporters who visited the park Monday were given a NFL-branded pouch containing alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer and two cloth masks reading “Super Bowl LV.”

Workers transform Tampa's Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park into the Super Bowl Experience, the NFL's interactive football theme park, for Super Bowl 55.
Workers transform Tampa's Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park into the Super Bowl Experience, the NFL's interactive football theme park, for Super Bowl 55. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Fans who visit the Super Bowl Experience must wear masks at all times except in designated eating areas and must agree to a “health promise,” said experience spokeswoman Elizabeth McCollum.

She said capacity will be limited, though it’s not yet clear how much, and queues for the various experiences will be set up in a way to keep fans spaced out while waiting in line. All payments to vendors will be cashless and “fan safety managers” will patrol the event to ensure compliance. Everything is outdoors.

The NFL is still working to determine how many fans will be allowed to attend the game at Raymond James Stadium, Higgins said. The details of a plan that would allow vaccinated healthcare workers to attend the game were also still being worked out.

Workers transform Tampa's Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park into the Super Bowl Experience, the NFL's interactive football theme park, for Super Bowl 55.
Workers transform Tampa's Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park into the Super Bowl Experience, the NFL's interactive football theme park, for Super Bowl 55. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Having healthcare workers attend after their “heroic efforts to get us through the pandemic” is “an initiative that we’re just so excited about,” he said. “You obviously want as many fans there as you can have safely.”

Higgins said Tampa’s time in the Super Bowl spotlight could serve to highlight how much the city has changed since it last hosted a Super Bowl in 2009, and could help draw future visitors. Recent years have brought the completion of the Riverwalk, Curtis Hixon, Julian B. Lane and Waterworks parks.

Higgins didn’t want to speculate as to whether the Super Bowl can generate a sizable economic impact despite the pandemic. But he said Tampa International Airport is already seeing a sharp uptick in flights booked to Tampa for Super Bowl week.

“You look at our tourism and hospitality industry, it has been absolutely decimated ...,” he said. “You can’t predict how big the shot in the arm will be, but to have it coming now, the timing could not be any better.”