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At Tampa’s outdoor skating rink, capacity is down, but attendance is up

It’s a Christmas miracle: More people than ever are skating in Curtis Hixon Park. What gives?

The coronavirus pandemic could’ve put the kibosh on Christmas in Curtis Hixon Park.

Tampa’s annual Winter Village skating rink, which opened in November, slashed capacity to 50 percent. Skaters had to sign up for limited time slots in advance. And with COVID-19 cases spiking, it was uncertain who might attend at all.

Imagine organizers’ surprise, then, when they found that midway through the event, rink attendance is actually up from last year, and every other year before that. The enterprise is on track to bring in more revenue this year than ever.

“For me, it was a shock,” said Shaun Drinkard, senior director of public programming and operations for the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which runs the Winter Village.

As of Friday, about 10,000 people had gone skating at the rink, about an 11 percent increase from the same time last year — and that’s “with the busiest holiday weeks in the season left to go,” said partnership spokeswoman Ashly Anderson.

What gives?

Drinkard points to a couple of explanations — one brought on by the pandemic, and another rooted in consumer psychology.

As people have quarantined and social distanced, it’s made spontaneous plans a thing of the past. It used to be that all sorts of people would just pop down to the park on a whim and lace up.

“Normally, on a day that we open at 10 a.m., it’s kind of light, and then it builds up throughout the day, and then by the evening hours, everybody comes out,” Drinkard said. “On a Monday evening, we may have 10 people on the ice. On a Friday night, we may have 75 people waiting on line.”

With advance scheduling — no more than 50 slots at a time sold in blocks starting every 30 minutes — people are forced to space things out. Weekdays that might have been slower are now getting booked, since they’re the only slots available. Or there are slots that aren’t close to full, allowing for better social distancing.

Advance booking also factors into the psychology facet, Drinkard said. Having skaters pay up front makes them more likely to follow through on plans that, in years past, might have been a little looser.

“Anytime people put dollars toward something, they’re a little more committed,” he said. “If they’re not paying and they’re just reserving a time slot, there’s always that margin of error that people don’t show up.”

Those no-shows, while uncommon, still contribute to Winter Village’s successful bottom line. Ice Rink Events, the company that operates rinks in Tampa and dozens of other cities, has been “pleasantly surprised” to see similar results all over the country, Drinkard said.

If attendance remains high through the closing Jan. 3, Drinkard believes pre-registration could return in 2021, pandemic or not.

“I can’t foresee why we wouldn’t continue doing this same system,” he said. “We’re able to provide a better quality experience and bring more people through the rink. This is something that, whether it’s during a pandemic or not, is a benefit for the operation of the rink.”