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From sunflower to sunshine: Tampa proves to be a state of mind

Staff writer

For 95 Tampa residents, Christmas came early last week as Visit Tampa Bay invited the entire rural community to visit as a holiday gift.

What started as a wrong “Tampa” entry in a GPS system turned into a trip of a lifetime for the Kansas residents, ranging in age from 23 months to 80 years old.

“This past June while in Orlando, Florida, a Visit Tampa Bay team member used their GPS to see how long it would to get home.” Joey Bell with Visit Tampa Bay recalled. “What usually takes an hour to hour and a half came up as 20 hours, routing them to a small, rural town in central Kansas.”

After discovering that yes, Tampa, Kansas, does exist, the group began brainstorming ways to engage the town. Partnering with Tampa International Airport and Southwest Airlines, it was decided to invite 100 of the town’s residents.

In October, word that Tampa, Kansas, residents were invited to sign up for a trip to Tampa Bay, Florida spread. Many questioned the trip. Was it a scam? Was this for real?

Waiting patiently for plans to be final was like a child waiting to unwrap presents on Christmas morning.

Soon, details began trickling in. Buses were to pick residents up at 5 a.m. to catch a flight to Florida.

Upon arrival to Florida Tampa area residents like me were greeted with a warm welcome from people associated with Visit Tampa Bay and Tampa, Florida city’s mayor. News crews were in the midst of the group, something I’m sure Tampa, Kansas, residents were not used to.

Food was plentiful, drinks were flowing, and a good time was had by all.

Tuesday morning came quickly, but everyone was excited. Where shall we go? What will we do? We had a few hours to explore.

Some went to the beach. Others explored downtown and walked to the Riverwalk, taking in sights along the way.

In the afternoon, the group was bussed to Busch Gardens, where we were directed to a pavilion where a lunch was prepared for us.

Children were entertained by Santa, his helpers and an ice princess. Bags, cups, pens, and little stuffed animals were waiting for us.

We then had a chance to explore the park, go on rides, or check out the animals. Christmas lights lit the park at dusk. Little twinkling bulbs were everywhere.

Wednesday morning was spent at Zoo Tampa. A highlight was watching manatees slowly swimming around, eating lettuce dropped into their pools.

Children and adults were mesmerized watching the big creatures underwater.

In the afternoon, the group of 100 was turned loose to explore downtown Tampa. There were many attractions to see along the River walk.

Many families went to Florida Aquarium. Here we were able to pet jelly fish, watch stingrays, and stare in awe at schools of fish, eels, seahorses, and many other species of underwater creatures. Sharks were in the mix as well.

Families also had opportunities to visit Tampa Bay History Center, Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Museum of Art, Children’s Museum and Henry B. Plant Museum.

Travel was provided by the Pirate Water Taxi. The taxi was the best way to view the city from the river. Once you received a pass, you could get on or off at marked locations.

The water taxi also was the best way to see Christmas lights floating on the river and on downtown buildings.

In the evening, anyone wishing could participate in ice skating at Curtis Hixon Village at Winter Park. There aren’t many places where you can ice skate in shorts.

In the winter village, a snow machine produced snow for local children to play in, even though the snow melted as fast as it was produced.

Words can’t explain the gratitude and appreciation we felt as we explored Tampa Bay. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with friendly faces.

Many greeted us on the street and asked whether we were part of the Kansas group. Excitement bubbled around us as we told of the adventure we were on.

Great tips about favorite restaurants and local pubs to try where thrown out.

One restaurant was called Ulele. My mom Virginia tried alligator tail, and I had alligator hushpuppies. Our entrée was a delicious seafood risotto.

Thursday morning came along too quickly as it was time to travel home. The first group of travelers’ flight left at 10 a.m., giving the second group a chance for last-minute visits to stores to buy souvenirs.

The second flight left at 2:40 for a non-stop trip back to Kansas City.

We once again were home in the Land of Oz, as temperatures once again were chilly. Heavy drizzle and fog welcomed us home.

Last modified Dec. 14, 2022

 

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