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How Hockey Helped Tampa Transform Into a Hot Destination

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Tampa is easily among the best cities in the U.S. to live, work, and play, thanks in part to its revitalized Water Street District. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Vacay.ca occasionally publishes content on destinations outside of Canada that our editors believe will be of keen interest to our audience. This article focuses on Tampa, Florida, and its multibillion-dollar changeover that is spurring tourism.

For a city known for its perpetual sunshine, Tampa has for too long resided in the shadows. On the western side of Florida, a distance away from the top draws of Orlando, South Beach, and the popular locales along the Atlantic shore, the city’s admirability has been obscured — until recently.

Tampa has not only emerged, it is a glowing example of what smart (and plentiful) investment, shrewd marketing, and good fortune can mean for a tourism destination. It’s not far-fetched to say the reason for the city’s ascent is because of the most Canadian of exports: hockey.

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The red snapper crudo at Market, the lobby-level restaurant at the new EDITION hotel, is a winner with apple, radish, and jalapeno. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

In 2010, a puck-loving Massachusetts hedge-fund manager purchased the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, and steadily improved its fiscal operations and handed control of its on-ice management to Hall of Fame legend Steve Yzerman, who molded the team into Stanley Cup form as its general manager. But the Lightning played in a part of town that was mostly void of activity, despite its proximity to the water and walkability to the heart of downtown. With the hockey team shining, owner Jeff Vinik turned his sights to improving the area in which it played. Partnering with Bill Gates, Vinik propelled the Water Street District to life, developing a neighbourhood that wouldn’t look out of place near Rodeo Drive.

The $2 billion (and counting) project added 1,400 hotel rooms to the area. And not a three-star double room among them. Five-star jewels, the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street and the EDITION Tampa, debuted in the past two years, elevating the location that covers 16 blocks. It includes several outstanding restaurants, public art, and easy access through Tampa’s free streetcar service. At the JW Marriott, the 27th-floor rooftop bar, Beacon, features glorious views of the city’s namesake waterway and is at its best during sunset, when you can enjoy the sky turning pink and orange while sipping lavish cocktails that are emblematic of Tampa’s creative mixology scene.

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Santiago C. Corrado has been the president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay since 2013 and has seen the city become a leading destination for leisure and business travel. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“It’s lifting the destination to a different level,” says Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, the agency that markets the city nationally and globally. He has lived in the area for two decades and witnessed its success story take shape with the launch of the Water Street project. “Twenty-one years ago no one lived downtown. Now the highrises are creating these areas where people want to come and they want to make a home here. You have these live-work-play environments that make it possible for all of these entrepreneurs to open businesses and it has made the area so vibrant. It’s why you’re seeing this great excitement for what’s happening.”

Along with the hotels are a number of good restaurants — with more to come. The city was one of three in Florida to debut a Michelin dining guide in 2022, taking part in the growing trend in North America to partner with the famous French rating institution to promote culinary tourism. The Water Street District alone has 50 eateries, including MARKET, the attractive lobby-level restaurant at the EDITION, and an artisanal ice-cream favourite, Chill Bros., that you will want to indulge in.

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Tampa is notable, too, for its quirks. It is home to the third-largest annual parade in the United States (after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day celebration in New York and the Rose Bowl Parade in California). Gasparilla is an only-in-Florida escapade that features costumed pirates sailing on a historic ship into the city to invade it for a day. Enough stuffed parrots are on display during Gasparilla — named after a Spanish pirate — that Jimmy Buffett fans would be impressed. More than 300,000 people attend, in a city with a population of just under 400,000. The Parade of Pirates and its related events reportedly account for $40 million in economic impact for the city. In 2024, the festivities take place on January 27, with a children’s pirate festival scheduled for January 20.

There’s also a protected batch of free-roaming chickens in Ybor City, the historic Cuban Quarter of Tampa. The chickens are descendants of the feral fowls that arrived in Tampa with Cubans who relocated from Key West after factory fires in 1885 burned down their places of employment. The chickens were integral to their way of life, providing food and income, and their legacy continues through legislation that protects the freedom of the hens and cocks to roam as they’ve been doing since the 19th century.

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Mint chocolate chip is among the many flavours you can enjoy at Chill Bros. ice cream shop on Water Street in Tampa. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Such examples of eccentricity give Tampa a fun character, adding to its attractiveness for families. Those who flock to Florida will certainly want to change things up from the typical beach or theme-park vacation with a stay in Tampa. Among the highlights is the notable Glazer Children’s Museum, featuring an attention-grabbing dinosaur named Big John, the largest triceratops ever recorded. It’s 26 feet long and has a 771-pound skull; incredibly, only 60% of Big John’s bones have been found. The rest of him is pieced together with 3D-printed resin cast. Located in downtown near Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the museum had a northern-inspired neighbour at the end of last year: the Winter Village ice rink. Developed in partnership with the Lightning, the project gave fans the chance to ice skate outdoors, where temperatures are frequently above 25 Celsius degrees (77 Fahrenheit). I took a few spins in shorts and sunglasses, making me for a moment understand what those spring skiers in Canada do when they schuss down the slopes in bikinis or swim trunks. The ice was choppy, though, and would need to improve to get me on it again.

About one mile away is the 250,000-square-foot Florida Aquarium, where my 5-year-old son, Gabriel, was fascinated by the chance to touch stingrays and observe unique creatures like axolotls. Tampa’s citybound attractions complement famed Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, which is a 15-minute drive from the Water Street area. In operation since 1959, it has been a major draw for families. Now, of course, there’s all of those pro sports teams, too.

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Big John holds the Guinness Book of World Records position as the largest documented triceratops. The prized attraction at the Glazer Children’s Museum weighs 1,500 pounds. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Inside Amalie Arena, the sense of how hockey has captured the hearts of Tampa was clear. With Vinik’s leadership and a winning product, the Lightning are the rare sunbelt NHL team that doesn’t worry about attendance or community support. Since the 2017-18 season, Tampa has been perennially one of the top five leaders in home attendance among U.S. teams. The transformation of the Water Street District, where fans now gather in large numbers before and after games, adds to the exhilaration of seeing the Lightning in action. As Corrada noted, the Lightning aren’t the only reason to venture to the neighbourhood.

In 2023, there were 533,030 overnight visits to Tampa-St. Petersburg, compared to the pre-pandemic total of 565,000 in 2019. Notably, Canadians spent more than $405 million when they ventured to the region last year, according to Visit Tampa Bay, and that number is expected to grow by almost 25% in 2024.

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Playing at Amalie Arena, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the top teams in the NHL both on and off the ice. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Tampa was recently named the most livable city in Florida and it’s easy to understand why. There’s an affability and welcoming nature that makes it a pleasant place to visit. In a state with a governor who has made headlines for regressive policies, Tampa has an openly lesbian mayor and a larger percentage of LGBTQ citizens than Miami (4.8% vs. 4.5%). It also has another key demographic that adds to its overall personality: midwestern Americans.

“We think of the other side of the state, where Miami and the Atlantic beaches are, as being populated by New Yorkers and people from the northeast who moved down. Here, on Florida’s west coast, there are a lot of midwesterners, people from Chicago and Ohio, who made the change to come to Tampa. I think that midwestern character shows here. People are friendly and they don’t mind working hard,” says Corrada, who is from New Jersey and initially moved to Miami before relocating to Tampa. “They say Tampa does its best work during a crisis. We saw that during the pandemic. People were very proactive and their efforts helped us come back a lot faster and better than other places.”

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Tampa features a free streetcar that runs from downtown through Water Street and to historic Ybor City. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Prior to arriving in Tampa, I had little perception of the place — which is unusual; I’m often aware of what’s buzzy about the destination. I knew about the sports lore — in the past four years, the city has won championships in hockey and football and competed for the World Series — and that the city was a new addition to the Michelin program. But I didn’t have a sense of the vibe of the place. In some ways that’s understandable because of the freshness of Water Street and the continuing dynamic changes afoot.

It’s a city on the rise — figuratively and literally, as the gleaming sky-high towers show. As with anything that’s going up in a hurry, there’s a sense of pervading excitement, which makes travelling to Tampa these days all the more stimulating and cheerfully upbeat.

MORE ABOUT VISITING TAMPA

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Vacay.ca Editor Adrian Brijbassi and his son, Gabriel, take to the outdoor ice rink in balmy Tampa during a December visit. (DeNon Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Getting There: From the city’s international airport, downtown Tampa is a 20-minute drive southeast along Interstate (I) Highway 275. From the theme parks in the Orlando area, Tampa is reachable with an approximately 90-minute drive along the I-4 highway (a toll road). Miami is a four-hour drive away. Notably, a planned expansion of the high-speed Brightline train service to Tampa is likely to be fast-tracked, which will connect the city to Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami by rail, making it far more accessible to travellers. [Read more Vacay.ca coverage about the Brightline experience.]

The sixth-floor pool at the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street is an inviting space with views of the city’s waterways. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Where to Stay: The JW Marriott Tampa Water Street is ideal for a number of reasons. It’s located next to Amalie Arena and two blocks to the heart of the Water Street experience, and has five eateries of its own, including Beacon and a lobby-level coffee bar and Driftlight steakhouse. Room Rates: A one-night weekend stay in February starts at approximately $625 CAD ($466 USD), according to a recent search of the hotel’s booking engine.

Disclosure: Vacay.ca Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi and his family were hosted by Visit Tampa Bay. No one at that organization or any of the businesses mentioned reviewed the article before it was published.

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.