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What it's like to swim through 1.2 million balls at the Beach Tampa (w/video)

Tampa Bay Lightning mascot ThunderBug gets in the "water" at the Beach Tampa, an interactive exhibit visiting the Amalie Arena for three weeks. The attraction is free and open to the public and kicked off Friday, Aug. 5. STEPHANIE HAYES | Times
Tampa Bay Lightning mascot ThunderBug gets in the "water" at the Beach Tampa, an interactive exhibit visiting the Amalie Arena for three weeks. The attraction is free and open to the public and kicked off Friday, Aug. 5. STEPHANIE HAYES | Times
Published Aug. 10, 2016

TAMPA — Swimming in the balls at the Beach Tampa is a core strength workout, a relaxation massage and an opportunity to not take yourself seriously.

The interactive art project opened for a three-week installation Friday at Amalie Arena. Reporters and select guests were invited to a preview two hours before it opened to the public.

The pit of 1.2 million white balls designed to look like water is the brainchild of New York design firm Snarkitecture. The balls, which Snarkitecture partners say are antimicrobial to fight germs, gradually slide off a "sandy" platform, beckoning you to get in. The whole thing is surrounded by mirrors, which makes everything appear endless.

When you recline, it's kind of surreal, a moment to contemplate your relative diminutive state on the planet. You look up at the empty seats of the venue where you've seen the Tampa Bay Lightning play, danced at major concerts, and it's like, whoa.

Then you try to stand, and your legs feel like that of a baby deer. Some child beans you with a ball and a grown man surfaces next to you like a manatee.

It's the embodiment of beauty and slapstick. And it's a lot of fun.

The exhibit can hold 499 people at a time, and it will be interesting to see how crowded it feels when full. Friday morning at less than half capacity, there was plenty of breathing room.

Signs advise resisting the urge to jump. But everyone was jumping anyway, including Tampa Bay Lightning mascot, ThunderBug, in his old-timey striped swimsuit. Children floating on inflatable sharks and watermelon inner tubes did not want to leave.

Everyone at the Amalie keeps restating the need for flexibility, to see how it goes and what needs to change. This is the first time anything like this has been attempted here.

Penny Vinik, wife of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, encountered the Beach at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. last summer. As she dangled her feet in the balls, she knew it had to come to Tampa.

HAVE A BALL: Penny Vinik dreams up an Amalie Arena full of 'Beach' balls

The Vinik Family Foundation charitable organization paid to bring it here, and tickets and parking are free. The Amalie is staggering entry in timed blocks, and holding some slots back so guests can walk up.

"It's just wonderful," said Penny Vinik Friday, sitting on one of the exhibit's white canvas beach chairs. "Everything I dreamed of and more. To see all the kids jumping in the water with their parents. There's teenagers. My son is here with his friend. It's just everything we all worked so hard for, for a year. It's here. It's so exciting."

You can buy concessions and Beach Tampa gear. You can (and should) store your stuff in the on-site lockers.

It will be the only event at the Amalie until Aug. 25. Two days later, Drake comes in concert, and the balls will then be repurposed for another exhibit somewhere else.

As for germy-squirmies, no major illnesses were reported out of the Washington, D.C., exhibit. The staff here has plans to keep it clean, and there is hand sanitizer available. But, really, it's up to you to decide your level of germ comfort.

Without question, getting out of the balls is the hardest part. Be prepared to patiently swim to the pier, never fully able to find the ground. "Lifeguards" are stationed around to rescue anyone who gets too far gone.

And if swimming is too exhausting, just do what Candace Pflum did. The Clear Channel sales representative from Tampa was there for some vigorous playtime with her 7-year-old son, Carson.

"I'm just going to sit here for a minute," she said. "It feels like a massage chair."

She kicked back with her arms behind her head, floating in a white sea.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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