TAMPA — It seemed a typical Sunday afternoon at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park – barely a cloud mussing the pristine, blue sky. Pedestrians wearing shorts and T-shirts sauntering the sidewalks and enjoying near 80-degree weather.
At that same location, beneath a heavily tarped pavilion, ice skaters enjoyed the final day of Tampa’s Downtown on Ice.
The rink, which opened Nov. 21, is in its fourth year of seasonal operation. It’s billed as the only outdoor rink in the Tampa Bay area.
Michelle Duarte has been a regular each year. She has taken her daughter, Danielle, as well as Danielle’s classmates to celebrate her birthday.
“In Florida, we don’t have anything cold and to have an ice skating rink in the middle of a beautiful park, in any weather, is incredible,” Duarte said. “And sometimes they open these curtains up and you’re skating and you see the river. It’s a great environment. Everybody’s excited.”
This year, Duarte corralled 20 girls from Danielle’s St. Mary’s Episcopal Day School’s sixth-grade class to celebrate her 12th birthday.
Stephaneand Patrick Duroseau made the trip from Lithia to the circus Saturday and while in the downtown area, spotted the ice rink. Recently, the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Leila, saw ice skating while watching the kid’s cartoon Caillou. She saw it again with Tinkerbell on Ice.
Sunday was Leila’s official introduction to the ice.
“We wanted to come because my daughter saw skating on TV,” Stephane Duroseau said. She then peered down to Leila: “But it’s harder than it looks on TV, right?”
Stephane Duroseau grew up in Long Island, NY and took a couple laps on her own a short time later. Patrick Duroseau said his last ice experience came at Westfield Countryside in Clearwater about 10 years ago.
He admitted it would be better not to repeat that performance in front of the wife and kids.
“It’s surreal first of all to be ice skating and its 80 degrees outside,” Patrick Duroseau said, holding their son, Preston, 1. “No. 2, to see the joy and excitement of my daughter and also it’s nostalgic for my wife, who's from New York.”
It’s their first time visiting the downtown rink, but they promise to make it a tradition.
“We want to keep exposing her to it,” Stephane Duroseau said. “We don’t like her being afraid of anything. We want her to keep practicing.”
Chandler Bricklemyer watched from the edge of the ice as his wife, Valerie, skated with their daughter Edith, 3. As he watched, he held on to their son Max, 1.
“My wife’s from Detroit, so she grew up with this,” said Bricklemyer, who has never skated. “She’ll have to teach me.”
It was that family’s first time at the rink as well.
The rink averages about 20,000 skaters each season, according to manager Bob Duggan.
Tampa’s other numbers, the high temperatures, provided a jousting match of sorts when it came to keeping the ice in good shape.
“The humidity killed us this year,” said Duggan, who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas. “Saturday was great when we had that cold snap. More days like that and this place would have been packed.”
On good days, meaning no humidity and temperatures in the 50s or 60s, a machine called the Ice Wizard is used to maintain the surface of the ice every 2 hours.
Duggan is accustomed to fighting the elements. He’s put rinks up in Honduras, Guatemala and India. He also has a rink in Aurora, Colo.
“It’s a blast … you’ll see a couple Canadian transplants or people from up north,” Duggan said. “The Tampa skaters come out here and are like, ‘Wow, lets give it a shot.’
“It’s been one of the best kept secrets,” Duggan said of the rink. “We get a lot of foot traffic so that helps.”
After Duggan packs up the rink, he’s headed to Minnesota to drive a Zamboni for the 2014 Hockey City Classic, an outdoor event at TCF Bank Stadium on Jan. 17. Then he’ll head home to Texas and finally celebrate Christmas with his family.
In his offseason, he repairs pools.
“Whether it’s pools, spas or ice skating rinks, it’s all water one way or another,” he said laughing.