TAMPA — The NFL built it. Friday, they will come.
Football fans by the thousands, looking for a touch of the Big Game magic that Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium is rubbing off on the rest of the city.
It’s hard to miss if you’re downtown. The massive pavilion housing the Super Bowl Experience’s museum and locker room exhibits rises over the Hillsborough River’s western bank, clearly visible from the Riverwalk on the eastern side, about eight-and-a-half football fields away as the pigskin flies. A Buccaneers-orange phone booth filled with flowers has been planted nearby.
Lamp posts are adorned with “LV” for Super Bowl 55, and a stage is up at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park across from a gauntlet of food vendors, from Gumbough Girlz to Crab on a Cobb. Nearby pallets of Bud Light tall boys and Babe Grigio with Bubbles canned wine were stacked at the ready, just past the metal detectors.
All the hustle and construction made the waterfront look something like the day before the Gasparilla pirate parade or music festival — except those events are postponed due to COVID-19.
The NFL’s temporary “amusement park” for football fans, the Super Bowl Experience at Julian B. Lane park, opens at 5 p.m. Friday for those who reserved tickets via the NFL OnePass app. If you don’t have tickets already, you are not getting in, an NFL spokeswoman reiterated at a media preview on Thursday. No walk-ups, no stand-by, no ticket transfers.
For those who didn’t snag tickets, the best bet for a piece of the action will be Curtis Hixon, where tickets are not required and one can pose next to a giant “Super Bowl LV” sculpture or inside a Buccaneers-creamsicle-colored living room. The Ashley Furniture-sponsored attraction will make it look like you’re standing on the ceiling when the photo is flipped.
Don’t forget to smile with your eyes. Masks are required even while outdoors at all the Super Bowl Events downtown, both by the NFL and by a mayoral order.
Local DJs will be onstage in Curtis Hixon blasting music out over the lawn. That music will be synced with fireworks displays happening Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m.
Wander north on the Riverwalk and you might glimpse a famous sportscaster outside Armature Works where CBS Sports is setting up its temporary broadcast headquarters. Head south on the Riverwalk and you’ll hit the “technology village” with more vendors.
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The flashiest game in town, though, at least until Sunday’s matchup between the Buccaneers and Chiefs, will be at Julian B. Lane park. The museum exhibit, lined with enlarged reproductions of the tickets for every Super Bowl game, features all 54 previous Super Bowl rings — that is a lot of diamonds. The Vince Lombardi Trophy will be there to take photos with.
Still feel like you can throw a football clear over those mountains? Those who make it inside the park will find myriad ways to channel their inner Uncle Rico. There are targets to throw at, and several regulation-size goals set up to attempt kicking field goals.
On Thursday, a digital Derrick Henry ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash over and over on a long video screen. Fans can line up and race the Tennessee Titans running back. A few yards away, they can test their vertical leap against a digital image of Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
Want to peer into Tua Tagovailoa’s “locker” at “his” meticulously placed jerseys, shoulder pads and fun-sized Snickers, official candy bar of the NFL? Visit the locker room exhibit. In the market for an autographed Dan Marino jersey or a personal check signed by Vince Lombardi? Visit the auction area. Want to sit on a stool with an Arizona Cardinals (or any other team) logo under your butt while chomping on $16 chicken fingers, then toss your empty Pepsi bottle into a recycling receptacle shaped like a Pepsi bottle, official sponsor of the Super Bowl Halftime Show? The NFL has got you covered.
Same for those looking to stare deeply into the eyes of Tony Dungy’s or Emmitt Smith’s NFL Hall of Fame busts. You can get very close.
NFL shops, set up in both Curtis Hixon and Julian B. Lane, will feature gear from every NFL team. The Buccaneers may be the first to play in the Super Bowl in their home city, but the Super Bowl Experience does not focus on any one team.
Reservations for the experience at Julian B. Lane park began filling up quickly once the Buccaneers won the NFC championship, an NFL spokeswoman said Thursday. She would not say specifically what capacity is capped at, just that the number is based on public health and safety guidance. A spokesman for the Tampa Bay Super Bowl 55 host committee said capacity limits at all the parks could change daily based on the latest conversations between the NFL, the committee, public health officials, local government and law enforcement.
A spokesman for the Super Bowl Experience said Wednesday that each of several daily sessions at Julian B. Lane could have up to 7,500 fans, but noted that could change.
The NFL Experience at Curtis Hixon Park and on the Riverwalk will be open Friday through Sunday, and Feb. 3 to 6. More information is available through the NFL OnePass app.
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