Florida fans will notice subtle changes inside The Swamp when the Gators open their season Saturday night against Charleston Southern.
The biggest difference will be directly outside Ben Hill Griffin, where UF is expanding its Gator Walk Village on the North Lawn between West University Avenue and the stadium entrance.
The expansion is by design, according to UF Associate Athletic Director of Internal Affairs Laird Veatch. There will be 18 tents set up at the village, up from 14. The village also will feature a fenced-in beer garden, which debuted for the spring game, in which fans 21 and over can purchase national or local brews.
Four food trucks will park directly across the village on University Avenue to offer different pregame dining options. The food trucks for Saturday’s game are from Mayflower Cellars, Kona Ice, Papa’s Pineapples and Soup To Nuts.
Beginning three hours before kickoff, West University Avenue will be closed from Gale Lemerand Drive to Northwest 17th Street for three hours before the game and two hours after, to ensure the safety of pedestrians outside the stadium.
“That area is something that we’ve identified as a real growth opportunity for us,” Veatch said. “Not just in terms of the different kind of revenue, more the fan experience and a chance to create a place and an atmosphere …
“That sort of happens over time, it’s going to happen naturally and evolve but you’ve got to create opportunities.”
Veatch said the UF Athletic Association has coordinated with campus officials about selling alcoholic beverages on the North Lawn. The village also will have a water station in which 2,500 bottles of water will be available for $1 each. Food vendors serving alcohol, Veatch said, are properly licensed. He said the beer garden was well-received in the spring game and that the school will continue to look for different options on the North Lawn, including video and music, to liven up the atmosphere.
“Just continue to drive more energy and opportunity for people to gather,” Veatch said.
Inside the stadium, there will be some changes in concession stands. Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria will be at Section 20, serving tacos, nachos and chips with queso or salsa. In addition, new Dippin’ Dots stands will be placed at various locations throughout the concourse. On the north side of the stadium — outside Section 325 — there will be a new value stand featuring $2 popcorn, $2 chips, $3 hot dogs, $3 12-ounce sodas and $3 nachos.
“It’s a small step, but we get a lot of feedback from our fans,” Veatch said. “This is one of the things we hear a lot about is price point.”
Another issue raised by fans is connectivity. Florida has been gradually upgrading Wi-Fi connectivity at The Swamp since 2012, but took another dramatic step in announcing a $6.3 million Wi-Fi upgrade with Extreme Sports. Installation of the new system began at the stadium last month. Some fans will notice white boxes under their seats, which will serve as Wi-Fi access points. Though it won’t be fully operational until 2019, Veatch said there could be some opportunities to test the system late this season.
Veatch said improved Wi-Fi connectivity is important not just for fans, but for game operations as well. Communication, mobile ticket transactions, GameDay apps and concession transactions all rely on being connected.
“It’s almost like water these days,” Veatch said. “You have to have access.”
Transportation-wise, there will be a drop off and pick up point for Uber, Lyft and taxis at the corner of Gale Lemerand Drive and West University Avenue (between Southwest 21st Terrace and Gale Lemerand Drive). In addition to the West University Road closure, Lemerand Drive will be closed between University Avenue and Stadium Road for security reasons. It will remain closed for the duration of the game.
Fans can purchase parking spaces at UF using the Passport Parking Mobile Pay app for $50 per game, with the spots located on the north side of Museum Road across from Hume Hall.
Fan comfort is another issue that Veatch and the staff are exploring, to make sitting through a game for three-plus hours a more enjoyable, less cramped experience. Capacity at The Swamp is 90,000 with a mix of bleacher and chairback seating.
“We have a lot of ideas and thoughts in that regard, not necessarily anything that we’re ready to roll out at this point, because at the same time there is a lot of priorities and a lot of things you want to get done with limited resources,” Veatch said. “So right now we’ve identified from a facilities infrastructure standpoint, we’ve invested in baseball, we want to invest in the football training complex next but there’s kind of a lot of behind-the-scenes planning and thinking going into how we make that experience better.”
Other reminders for the 2018 season:
• Personal seatbacks are not permitted inside the stadium. Seat cushions that are no larger than 16 inches, do not have pockets, and do not have a back are allowed. Florida season ticket holders can rent a seatback for the game, while non-season ticket holders can rent a seatback the day of the game.
• For fan safety, Florida will continue to implement a clear bag policy for the 2018 season. Approved bags are clear plastic vinyl or PVC bags that do not exceed 12-by-6-by-12 inches. A logo no larger than 4.5-by-3.4 inches can be displayed on one side of a clear bag. One gallon, clear resealable plastic storage bags and small clutch bags no larger than 4.5-by-6.5 inches are allowed, along with medically necessary items.
• Though the first two games of the season are night games, Florida has a number of heat initiatives planned for throughout the season, including free cups of ice at Gate 2 and Gate 13, misting stations throughout the concourse, cooling towels at Gates 1, 3 and 4 and complementary sunscreen at Gates 1, 7 and 16. Fans are permitted to bring in one commercially branded plastic water bottle, no larger than 20 ounces, to refill.