Gronk’s ultimate Florida road trip: A guided tour with festivals, mermaids and manatees

We know Florida Man as a popular meme that mocks the bizarre, at times inconceivable behavior that seems to epitomize the state. But human beings are so much more complex than that. So what, exactly, is a Florida Man? We think a Florida Man is adventurous. Zany. Unencumbered.

We think a Florida Man is a 6-foot-6, 268-pound force of nature who vibes so hard.

We think a Florida Man is Rob Gronkowski — which is perfect, because Rob Gronkowski is now, well, a Florida man. The New York product, Arizona alum and former New England Patriots star has joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, giving the All-Pro tight end some new terrain to explore.

Sometimes it takes a while to find one’s ideal path, and Gronk — with two catches and one recovered onside kick through the Bucs’ first two games — has seemingly discovered his perfect state at the age of 31. To prove it, we hand-selected 10 Gronk-tastic things for him to do in Florida and asked the authority figures for each of these places to submit their pitches.

This — the continuation of a very serious public health crisis that requires considerable precaution — is not the time, of course. But eventually — one would think — civilization will return to normal, at which point Gronk can take a real tour through an eclectic state befitting his larger-than-life personality. His road map awaits.

Gronk And The Sea Cows

Location: Snorkeling with Manatees (Citrus County)
Distance from Raymond James Stadium: 70 miles N

The average manatee weighs up to 1,200 pounds. That’s 4 1/2 Gronks. Captain Parker has spent nearly two decades leading expeditions out to Crystal River and Homosassa Springs, one of few places where up-close interactions with these gigantic mammals are possible. Immediately people are blown away by their sheer size. Then they get into the water and are usually struck by fear. But then they notice that the manatees are gentle, playful, sometimes even a little shy. It’s an experience that has inspired many of today’s marine biologists and can at times feel life-changing.

“It’s the magic of interacting with a wild animal, and when that wild animal chooses to interact with you,” said Captain Parker, whose website notes that manatees are “the most enduring animal in the state of Florida.” Gronk, a 10th-year tight end returning from retirement, can relate.

The pitch for Gronk: “I’ve had people come out here that have gone through all walks of life. You’re a tough guy, you play a tough sport, and you’re up against some pretty big ol’ boys here, but wait ’til this ol’ animal comes up to you. I’ve had guys that have been in Desert Storm, that actually are dodging bullets, that when they get in the water and the manatee comes up and nudges them on the bum, all of a sudden they’re crawling back on the boat. And I’ve seen this. You spend a lot of time tackling these guys in the front line and running from the big guys, but wait ’til this manatee chases you down. This manatee will chase you at times back to the boat because it doesn’t want you to leave. Your other opponents want you to leave. Manatees don’t.” — Captain Parker, owner, Snorkeling with Manatees, LLC


Gronk Does Spring Break

Location: Beach Bash Music Fest (Panama City Beach)
Distance from Ray Jay: 350 miles NW

Shirtless Gronk on a parade float catching Bud Lights and trying to keep up with Ludacris lyrics is a sight to behold. And the fine people of Tampa shouldn’t require a Buccaneers championship in order to experience it. Introducing the Beach Bash Music Fest, which began 20-plus years ago with a lonesome DJ in the sand and has since morphed into an epic spring break party drawing some of music’s most popular acts and 15,000-plus college kids without a care in the world. MTV has staged spring break here. Steve Aoki, Kaskade, Pit Bull, Lil Wayne and Pauly D have all come through here. This is Gronk’s scene. And it takes place in March, giving him plenty of time to get over a massive hangover.

The pitch for Gronk: “You know what, man, he went down to Florida, and Florida is where spring break originated. A little fun fact — back in 1938 was the first spring break [he’s actually right about this]. This is American spring break. Warmer weather, which he’ll see now that he’s in Florida, feet in the sand, co-eds from across the country, good-looking people left and right, all ethnicities. Just a big party. Everybody’s having a good time. Nobody’s there to violate or anything. It’s a must-see experience. If you Google ‘spring break,’ that’s it — Beach Bash Music Fest [we got a 1983 movie starring two men named David Knell and Perry Lang].” — Arnie Jimenez, co-founder, StudentEscape (the exclusive tour operating partner for the festival)


‘Not All Treasure Is Silver And Gold, Mate’

Location: Gasparilla Pirate Festival (Tampa)
Distance from Ray Jay: 5 miles S

Almost every year since 1904, upward of 500,000 people from all over the world have descended upon Tampa to take part in this festival, which has grown to include more than 100 floats in celebration of a mythical pirate named Jose Gaspar. The event begins with a pirate “invasion.” Hundreds of dressed-up pirates aboard the Jose Gasparilla, considered the only fully rigged pirate ship in the world, capture the mayor and take the key to the city, igniting a massive party in the streets that might only be rivaled by Mardi Gras.

The Buccaneers have a float in the parade, but active players don’t usually take part. Gronk can change that. This year’s event — if it’s safe enough to be held — is scheduled for Jan. 30, the weekend of the Pro Bowl. This is so much better than the Pro Bowl.

The pitch for Gronk: “What do we call our team here? We call ’em the Buccaneers for crying out loud. So clearly, if you wanna be a real guy from Tampa, you gotta put on that pirate outfit. The sun is out, the shirts are small, and everyone’s screaming and yelling for beads, and everyone’s got a cocktail. That’s a hard party to pass up.” — Peter Blackman, captain, Gasparilla Pirate Festival


Big Guy In A Little Bar

Location: Smallest Bar (Key West)
Distance from Ray Jay: 430 miles S

The Smallest Bar in Key West — probably not the most creative name but certainly a descriptive one — is a 72-square-foot dive bar connected to a quaint hotel and residing right in the thick of a bustling Duval Street. Gronk’s energy can fill a room. Here, his energy will quickly overflow it. Smallest Bar is laid back and great for people watching, the type of place where one can wear a flowered shirt and sip blended drinks from a coconut with no judgement — a Floridian’s dream, really.

We suggest Gronk make the trip out here in December for SantaCon, a jolly bar-hopping event throughout Key West. The patrons usually end up here and try to pack the place with as many people as possible, just for the visual. The record, by the way, is 43 1/2. They counted a small child as half a person. Maybe Gronk can count as two.

The pitch for Gronk: “Everybody says it’s on their little list when they come to Key West. You gotta go to the Smallest Bar and have a drink, try the key-lime pie shot that we’re famous for, and you just never know who you’re gonna meet in there. I mean we used to have Dale Earnhardt come in a lot because he liked the place, he thought it was fun. Good guy. They sit around sometimes, they buy people drinks, they have a good time. You just never know who you’re gonna meet. It’s just lighthearted in there.” — Josh Dix, owner, Smallest Bar in Key West


Catching Pelotas With A Cesta

Location: Casino Miami Jai-Alai (Miami)
Distance from Ray Jay: 280 miles SE

These days, Casino Miami stages Jai-Alai only to maintain its casino license. Its 4,000-seat arena doesn’t draw more than 100 people for most matches. But back in the ’70s and ’80s, Jai-Alai — basically a racquetball game with woven cestas instead of rackets and firmer balls that travel as fast as 186 mph — was it in Miami.

Casino Miami, which opened in 1926, had the high-end restaurants and the fancy bars and was the place to be. Its Jai-Alai matches took on the ambiance of a major heavyweight fight. Those days might be gone, but the game is still fun and exceedingly challenging. Gronk would get a kick out of it.

The pitch for Gronk: “It’s the fastest sport in the world. The ball, the pelotas they play with, move faster than anything else in sports. It’s hard. It’s not an easy game to play. I think it’d be a great challenge for him to strap on a cesta and give it a roll.” — Steve Rinaldi, marketing director, Casino Miami


Mer-Man Gronk

Location: Weeki Wachee Springs mermaid show (Spring Hill)
Distance from Ray Jay: 50 miles N

Before theme parks became so prominent throughout Florida, roadside attractions like the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park were the place to be. I mean, Elvis came here for goodness sake. In a normal year, the show still draws somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000 people to its underwater, 400-seat auditorium. There, visitors watch half a dozen mermaids perform 30-minute shows in a first-magnitude spring with a 5 mph current in the middle of an open waterway, which means fish, turtles and manatees can always appear in one of their “Little Mermaid” renditions.

Every year, Weeki Wachee Springs hosts around 60 prospective mermaids for a three-part tryout. It begins with an endurance test that requires a timed, 400-yard swim. Two-thirds of them will usually drop out after that, which is why the current mermaids want nothing more than to challenge Gronk to an athletic competition. They just need to find a tail big enough.

The pitch for Gronk: “We’ve always had so many different people — celebrities, newscasters — try to see what it’s like to be a Weeki Wachee mermaid, and I think people would find that it’s a lot more difficult than they’re made to believe. So to Rob — come see what it’s like to be a Weeki Wachee mermaid and see if you’ve got what it takes to become one of us. And plus, to see a part of old Florida, especially now that you’re a Floridian — people wanna go see Disney, they wanna go see Universal. Those are great places to go and visit, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t visit Florida, even be a resident, and not come see a place like Weeki Wachee springs. It holds so much tradition, so much nostalgia. It’s definitely a place he has to visit.” — John Athanason, developmental rep, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park


The New Gator Boy

Location: Everglades Holiday Park (Fort Lauderdale)
Distance from Ray Jay: 250 miles SE

You can’t live in Florida and not make a trip out to the Everglades to see some gators. For Gronk, we thought the best place might be the one that employs the Gator Boys, who teamed up for a hit reality show on Animal Planet and are, as you might expect, pretty wild. He can start with an hour-long airboat ride — they’re open to letting Gronk drive the airboat — then take in a 20-minute alligator show and move on to a 45-minute animal encounter to get familiar with snakes, skunks, raccoons, possums, tortoises and all the other creatures that help make up the ecosystem of Gronk’s new home. We recommend lots of bug repellant.

The pitch for Gronk: “There really is nothing more Floridian than getting up close to the gators and venturing out deep into the everglades.” — Ashley Correa, director of sales and marketing, Everglades Holiday Park


Gronk Cruise Practice

Location: Shuffleboard Club (St. Petersburg)
Distance from Ray Jay: 20 miles SW

[Extreme Stephen A. Smith voice] Rob! You playin’ shuffleboard again?! Shuffleboard has deep roots in Florida, and the tired joke is that of course it does because Florida is America’s retirement community and the game is for old people. Well, it isn’t. At least not at St. Pete’s Shuffleboard Club, which was founded in 1924 (OK, ignore that part) and revived itself from near-extinction around 2005 by opening its doors to non-members on Friday nights and making the atmosphere more festive, with music, lights and BYOB. It helped start a national craze.

The Shuffleboard Club, which got air conditioning in its clubhouse two years ago, bills itself as the oldest and largest in the world and maintains most of its old look. But on the right day — with no pandemic, of course — it can be a happening place. Gronk needs to play here. You know, to get ready for the Gronk Cruise.

The pitch for Gronk: “He should come out on a Friday night. There’ll be 250 people playing shuffleboard — the music, the twinkly lights, and really, I can’t stress this enough, it is pure magic. Because of our history in St. Pete, and shuffleboard in general, playing shuffleboard at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club is the quintessential St. Petersburg, Florida, thing to do. I understand he’s a big guy. We’d have to work with him to not fling the disc down at full strength, but I also know he can be a very elegant player — that’s what a friend told me — and so he’d really appreciate the little nuances of the sport.” — Christine Page, executive director, St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club


Goofy With Your Omelette

Location: Disney character breakfast (Orlando)
Distance from Ray Jay: 75 miles NE

Where did Gronk spend Valentine’s Day? At Disney World, of course. He rode all the rides — surely that included “It’s A Small World” — but did he eat waffles with Mickey Mouse? Gronk needs a character dining experience. There are usually several of them sprinkled throughout Disney World, but the only one functioning at the moment is Topolino’s Terrace at Disney’s Riviera Resort. They’re staging “Breakfast a la Art,” which features Mickey as a painter, Minnie Mouse as a poet, Donald Duck as a sculptor and Daisy Duck as a dancer, which means Gronk can also take in some culture. Kids love this stuff, as you might expect. But the adults have been found to be just as passionate about dressing up and engaging with the characters.

The pitch for Gronk: “There’s nothing like our character dining restaurants. They’re fun, they’re vibrant, they’re colorful. They’re alive with energy. Just walking by one, you feel that energy coming from these restaurants, and it’s mostly coming from our characters. They’re a great source of creativity and energy and just being alive and having fun.” — Robert Gilbert, culinary director, Magic Kingdom


Chillax, Bro

Location: Ichetucknee Springs lazy river (Fort White)
Distance from Ray Jay: 165 miles N

Back in the glory days at the University of Arizona, Gronk and his buddies installed a Slip ‘N Slide at his college residence that became a staple of his epic parties. Now Gronk is a little older, maybe a little wiser, so perhaps he might want to slow it down a notch and float around the lazy river at Ichetucknee Springs — a pristine waterway that stretches more than three miles and attracts people from the Northeast, Europe, the Carolinas, Georgia and, most noticeably, nearby college campuses of the University of Florida and Florida State University.

The park manager, Bob Soderholm, stresses that this is a quiet, family environment, and not a place for alcohol or loud music. But he has had a hard time corralling the party scene. Gronk would up the ante tremendously.

The pitch for Gronk: “This park is 50 years old, under the management of the division of recreational parks. It’s been around a lot longer than that. We have a local resident around here that’s also a member of our citizen support organization. His dad brought him down to the spring to take him swimming when he was just a little tyke. He’s in his 80s now, and he still comes down and swims. People have been doing this, swimming in the river — we know this for a fact — for over 80 years.” — Bob Soderholm, park manager, Ichetucknee Springs State Park

Original article: https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/29898051/rob-gronkowski-ultimate-florida-road-trip-guided-tour-festivals-mermaids-manatees

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