Super Bowl Ahoy!

A security vessel is dwarfed by the Seven Seas Navigator on the St. Johns River as preparations continue for Super Bowl XXXIX at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 5, 2005.
AP
This might be remembered as the year the Love Boat docked at the Super Bowl.

The NFL took a risk by bringing the NFL title game to Jacksonville, a city of 1.2 million that doesn't have enough hotel rooms to cram in all the fans who flock to the game.

Cynics howled. Jacksonville, meanwhile, got to work, giving its Alltel Stadium a $68 million facelift, cleaning up its downtown and bringing out hundreds of smiling volunteers in red shirts to greet visitors.

The lynchpin was the seven cruise ships - two of them private charters - that docked in various spots around town Thursday to host guests of the NFL, many of them high rollers who would normally be staying in luxury hotels.

"When I first heard of it, I didn't know what to expect," said Ed Gugler of Beverly, Mass., who is attending his third Super Bowl. "I wasn't all that sure the city was suited for this. But really, I'm having a phenomenal time. It's different. I'm happy to be on the boat."

Gugler and others said they were having a good time aboard the Miracle, a 2,000-passenger vessel with an eclectic mix of kitsch and class.

On the lower level, a piano player sits above a round bar and bangs out a Muzak version of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets." Steps away, on the way into the Dr. Frankenstein's Lab lounge, Crystal Gayle's "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" plays over the sound system.

Upstairs is Horatio's Restaurant, where those in the mood to dress up eat steak and crab under a clear, domed roof with a great view of the moon.

"The whole thing's a great idea," said Warren Mallory of Gainesville, who won a Super Bowl ticket and three nights in a room on the ship in a drawing. "It's the smallest city to host a Super Bowl. They figured out a good place to put all the people. It's very smart."

The ships are providing about 3,700 of the 17,500 four- or five-star rooms the NFL requires for Super Bowl week. In all, the city has some 35,000 rooms for an estimated 100,000 fans. Hundreds of residents are opening their homes - for a fee - to those who are squeezed out.

Getting the ships here was no easy deal.

The Super Bowl host committee had to pay the cruise liners $11.7 million to dock here for a week, ensuring they would make up for the money lost by not being at sea.

The city's port commission paid about $1.25 million to spruce up the docks.

Last but not least were the logistical problems of Jacksonville's bridges. Only one of the seven ships - the Navigator - could fit under the bridges and make it into downtown. The other boats are docked farther out, on industrialized parts of the river where everything from Toyotas to lumber to corn syrup are transported onto the mainland. So the city cleaned those areas up and offered shuttle service to downtown.

Although they were happy with their progress as the Super Bowl approached, planners conceded they really won't know whether they have a success on their hands until the days and weeks after the Super Bowl.

When the NFL announced in 2001 it was bringing the game here, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver - the key player in bringing the team and the game to town - said he wanted the city on Florida's northeast coast to be in the NFL's regular Super Bowl rotation.

"My feeling is it will be back here at some point," said NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was pleased with Jacksonville's effort this week.

His comments provided a balance to the critiques of the city from other owners, some fans and many in the media who have been wary of the NFL's choice since it was made. Critics scoffed that a city like Jacksonville could never put on a show like New Orleans, Miami, Los Angeles.

For better or worse, Jacksonville has put its own, unique spin on the game -focusing on its waterways, bridges and homespun hospitality, and hoping that's good enough to make one of America's biggest parties a success.

The downtown area near the stadium was cleaned up and turned into a party area, filled with games, music and food for those strolling along the nearby riverwalk.

"We absolutely have not forgotten who we are," Weaver said. "And we're not trying to be something we're not. That's a lesson in every Super Bowl city."

By Eddie Pells