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Jacksonville's super welcome

Party fans found bright sunshine, blue skies, and sunburned faces as Jacksonville's streets laid out a party

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Jacksonville, Florida, put out its SuperBest welcome mat for Superbowl XXXIX.  But, I think they forgot to invite the warm weather that is usually known for this part of Northeast Florida.  With temps in the 60s during the day and dropping to the lower 40s in the evening, coupled with a little bit of fog and rainy weather and a few chilly winds, revelers from all over the United States came with their swimsuits and shorts only to find themselves bundled up in stocking caps and layered sweats. But that didn't deter fans from celebrating in a party atmosphere. And many didn't even notice that the weather was not typical for this part of the country.

Actually, NFL Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, remarked in a local newscast that a visitor told him,  "At least you don't have to shovel it," referring to a little bit of misty rain that fell mid-week.  Perhaps memories of this winter's blizzards in most of the country and especially the Northeast were still fresh in some of their minds.

Saturday afternoon redeemed itself, however, as party fans found bright sunshine, blue skies, and sunburned faces as Jacksonville's streets laid out their best party atmosphere.

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The Bay Street Experience, a main thoroughfare that was closed to traffic and opened to food booths and souvenir outlets, was filled with locals and visitors looking for just the right fried turkey leg or sausage sandwich.  Philly cheese steak sandwiches seemed to be offered at almost every food court, but there was just as many seafood sandwiches for the New England crowd.

The Jacksonville Landing was packed.  Hooters girls were out with their hula hoops and football fans were "hooting" with bottles of Bud Light.  It was noted that the crowd surpassed any previous Gator Bowl crowd and at one point a visitor commented, "I stood still in line for twenty minutes while trying to get to a porta-potty and couldn't move through the crowd, so I just gave up."  There were plenty of the potties, but the crowd just wasn't moving along the Riverwalk as they were having way too much fun listening to the many music acts.

The Goodyear blimp and the AmeriQuest blimp fought for air space as police helicopters and Homeland Security crowded them out. Police boats patrolled the St. John's River, often circling near The Seven Seas Navigator, a cruise ship anchored in downtown Jacksonville, which was housing the FOX News crews and celebrities.  Other personal watercrafts anchored along the river and each one seemed to have a party going on.  And, up the River toward the Ocean were four more cruise ships anchored as floating hotel rooms.

The Main Street Bridge was closed to traffic and used as a pedestrian thoroughfare connecting the Northbank with the Southbank and providing easy walking transportation from one venue to another.  For those not wanting to take a water taxi or the people-mover Skyway/Monorail system, a walk across the bridge, painted in blue fluorescent paint and lighted up with lasers, gave party goers a unique view of the River City.  From the bridge, visitors could get a great view of several of the other five bridges crisscrossing the St. John's River and also a great view of Alltel Stadium lit up for last minute rehearsals and preparations.  

This year's Pre-Game Show and Halftime Review promised to bring back "family values" in response to last year's "wardrobe malfunction". The show was filled with lots of patriotic overtones, military troops,  kids, and one knighted Beatle (Sir Paul McCartney). One of the more talked about events was Alicia Keys singing a tribute to Ray Charles with a rendition of "America, The Beautiful" during the pre-game show. She was surrounded with music students from The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, headquartered in St. Augustine, FL.  The school was where Ray attended and received his early music training. 

Leslie Costello, Jazz Band Instructor at the school, commented, "It is really exciting for the kids.  They are thrilled to be a part of such a wonderful and unique event and are practicing their hearts out even though they will never visually see the celebrities, the stadium, or their performance.  I'm really proud and happy for them, and they know how special this opportunity is.  They're giving their best!"  It will be only the third time that the song has been performed during the Superbowl.

As night fell Saturday evening, sparkling party glasses twinkled, vendors were out selling neon necklaces and flashing pins, and tugboats pulled three barges filled with fireworks out into the middle of the river. This was the third night in a row that Jacksonville put on the nocturnal display and each show had been different, but certainly not disappointing.  An estimated $1 million was spent on the three night gala event.

Jacksonville can be proud.  For "the little big city in the South" that put their reputation on the line to pull together to produce this year's venue, they can conclude that their "Waves of Welcome" campaign met the expectations of a nation.  It doesn't take sunshine to spotlight a city with great potential as an alternative Superbowl host city.  Jacksonville has "rays"— from Ray Charles to Hurrays as Eagles and Patriot fans agree that during Superbowl week, it doesn't matter what the "weather."  The real "weather" is  just "whether" or not you win the game.

Mary Fairbanks is a retired Elementary teacher who lives in St. Augustine, FL.  She is often a guest free-lance columnist for The Mountain Laurel Review  and has had poetry published and recorded by The International Society of Poets.  She has also written lyrics for country music demos for Paramount Group.  Mary is married to William, is the mother of two children, and is the grandmother of three grandchildren.

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