Badgers, fans enjoy Tampa's delights

Bowl itinerary puts spotlight on a sliver of the many entertaining options in the Tampa Bay area

TAMPA, Fla. — The collage of cardinal and white wardrobes grew more vivid here Wednesday afternoon. That is when the Wisconsin Alumni Association's chartered flights began arriving at Tampa International Airport, bringing with them hundreds of Badger football fans looking to enjoy Florida sun and Outback Bowl revelry.

There has been plenty of Wisconsin regalia on display all week long, of course, as Badger fans prepare for another strong showing at a bowl game. The university's ticket office in Madison has sold more than 9,000 tickets to Saturday's game. With seats available through the Outback Bowl and ticket brokers, however, it is impossible to know just how many Badgers fans to expect at Raymond James Stadium for kickoff.

One thing is certain. For those who have made the trip, there is a cornucopia of delights to choose from.

"This is amazing," Wisconsin wide receiver Darrin Charles said. "It's a Jan. 1 ballgame. It's sunny Florida and everything. I've never been to the Tampa area. It's exciting. They've got a lot of fun stuff for us to do."

The sun has smiled much more brightly than the last time the Badgers played in Tampa. The 1998 Outback Bowl, when the Badgers also squared off with the Bulldogs, was marked by Wisconsin-like temperatures.

"The weather last time when we were down here, it was lucky to get to 40 degrees," said Oregon, Wis., resident Rick Holzbauer. "Wind was blowing 30 miles an hour and they were actually talking about a wind chill factor."

No such problems this week with daytime temperatures in the mid-60s to upper-70s. Nightly lows in the 40s to 50s are rather manageable as well.

"My favorite thing about the city right now is just how nice it is out compared to back home," Wisconsin offensive tackle Morgan Davis said.

Rick Holzbauer, 50, and his wife Linda Holzbauer, 52, have traveled to watch every Wisconsin bowl appearance since Barry Alvarez became head coach, including two other trips to Tampa. This season they attended every Badger game, home and away, and they have rarely missed a game in the past five years. The Wisconsin season ticket holders were at Clearwater Beach Wednesday for the Outback Bowl's annual Beach Day.

"The set up here is exactly the same as it was back in '98. It's at the same location and everything else," Rick said.

The fine weather this week made planned excursions for members of the University of Wisconsin and Georgia football teams all the more enjoyable. The teams visited Busch Gardens Tuesday, which tested a few players' mettle.

"It's funny because you see all these big macho dudes and they get on a little roller coaster and they're screaming and yelling," Georgia freshman tailback Danny Ware said. "It's pretty wild."

"You should have seen Kalvin Barrett," Badger safety Robert Brooks said, referring to Wisconsin's 315-pound reserve defensive tackle. "His face on one of the pictures looked like he just saw a ghost. It was hilarious."

The Badgers and Bulldogs joined thousands of fans, the schools' bands, cheerleaders and other revelers at the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort Wednesday afternoon for Beach Day.

"It should be a great time relaxing," Brooks said following UW's Wednesday morning practice. "Just enjoy Tampa and enjoy the beach."

Clearwater Beach is just one of 18 in the Tampa Bay area, which includes 35 miles of beaches along the Clearwater/St. Petersburg coast. Late December sun worshipping, however, is a tiny taste of Tampa. The area is full of opportunities to indulge, with dinning, nightlife, cultural and historical treats in abundance.

The Outback Bowl's itinerary is a good starting point. That is what led Kenosha residents Myron and Doreen Daniels to Beach Day. Like the Holzbauers, they purchased their Outback Bowl tickets from the university's allotment and received the bowl itinerary in the mail with their tickets.

"A little bit of a vacation, get away from the farm for a little while," Myron said of the trip to Tampa. "And enjoy a good bowl game along with it."

Fresh off its performance in Clearwater, the Wisconsin band plays a concert at Tampa's Channelside complex tonight. The venue houses movie theatres, an IMAX and a plethora of restaurants and nightclubs.

Live entertainment will grace Channelside for Friday night's New Year's Eve festivities, which also include a midnight fireworks display and ball drop to ring in 2005.

Nearby Ybor City offers dozens of additional dining and entertainment options, including GameWorks, an interactive video game venue that hosts a private event for the Badgers and Bulldogs from 6-8 p.m. this evening. The venue reopens to the public at 8 p.m.

Ybor (pronounced EE-bore) City is also the site of the Teco Energy Parade on New Year's Eve, which includes performances from both college bands and 10 high school bands, a pep rally and a fireworks show, all prior to that evening's celebration at Channelside.

Famous for its cigar shops and cigar museum (which doubles as the visitor's center), Ybor City contains the Latin Quarter on 8th Avenue, which is a national historic landmark.

Bay Walk in nearby St. Petersburg, a short drive southwest of Tampa, is another popular area nightlife spot.

The WAA's tour packages include an alternative New Year's Eve gala — a celebration at the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa. It is one of myriad museums of note in the area, including the Museum of Science and Industry near Busch Gardens and South Florida University — where Georgia held its practices this week.

The Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa Museum of Art and St. Petersburg's Salvador Dali museum can satisfy a cultural appetite.

For local history, the Ybor City State Museum and Tampa Bay History Center are prime spots. Tampa Theatre, a restored 1926 movie palace, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Those searching for Badger Outback Bowl gear in Tampa can find a familiar site. The University Bookstore set up shop at the Marriott Waterside on South Florida Avenue Dec. 29-Jan. 1. The Champions Sports Bar at Marriott Waterside and Marriott Westshore are official Badger gathering spots in Tampa, as is Newk's Lighthouse Café, a sports bar and seafood restaurant near the St. Petersburg Times Forum on Channelside Drive in Tampa.

There are three large shopping centers near Raymond James Stadium as well. North Westshore Blvd. connects International Plaza with Westshore Plaza, each with a vast assortment of restaurants and shops, with high-end department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom's mixed with lighter fare. At Old Hyde Park Village — situated southwest of the University of Tampa, where Wisconsin has practiced this week — the shops are along quaint, tree-lined streets.

That is all fine and good but what Wisconsinite wants to be inside shopping when it is 70 degrees out? In addition to the beaches, there are a number of ways to enjoy the waterfront. Fishing docks dot the coasts and causeways. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium offers nature cruises, one of the many marine cruise options in the area. Visitors can also skydive, swim, snorkel, scuba dive and sail their way about the bay.

The Lowry Park Zoo is high on the to-do list for Rick and Linda Holzbauer.

"Lowry is supposed to be one of the best zoos," Linda said. "It should be fun."

Busch Gardens also offers animal and wildlife attractions in addition to roller coasters.

The main attraction for Badger fans in Tampa this week, however, is the Outback Bowl itself.

"I hope they can win," Myron Daniels said.

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