The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party

The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party
Although both schools decided years ago that the name did not appropriately reflect their respective universities and their belief systems, anyone who has ever attended knows the term “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” is a fitting title for the annual football meeting in Jacksonville, Florida between SEC rivals University of Florida and University of Georgia. This year marked the 86th time the two teams have played each other and, with the exception of only a couple of years, the game has been played in Jacksonville on a ‘neutral’ site since the 1930s.

In a season when a win in this game is a likely push to the SEC Championship game and a possible trip to the National Championship, the Florida vs. Georgia rivalry means much more than tailgating and friendly (and, occasionally not-so-friendly) bantering among fans.

I attended my first Georgia vs. Florida extravaganza this past weekend. For years, this game has been a ‘must see’ for me. I have never attended the game and did not get an opportunity to be in the stadium this year either. Instead, I drove for nearly 5 hours from my home in Sarasota, Florida to Jacksonville with a group of friends.

My college days have long past, but the feeling was still the same, and the expectation of fun was as high as any other time. After the long trip, I did opt out of a long night at the Landing, a place where apparently EVERYONE in Jacksonville goes for the beginning of the celebration. Instead, I prepared for a long day ahead of tailgating and game watching from the Halftime Parking Lot outside of Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.

A group of friends and I packed up our tailgating gear and had everything set up by 8 am on game day. We stayed there well after the game had ended, heading out sometime after 10:30 that night, long after the crowd of tens of thousands of fans slowly diminished.

Although I had several opportunities to purchase a ticket for $100 or more, I eventually chose to just enjoy the atmosphere outside the stadium and watched the game on one of several TVs set up by fans tailgating with or near us. I met people from the same town in Georgia where I grew up. I met people who live near me now in Sarasota. I met alumni and fans from all parts of Georgia and Florida and even some fans that drove from Mississippi and Tennessee just to experience the game from outside the stadium.

As it turned out, a game expected by many to be the ‘Game of the Year,’ turned into a brutal one-sided onslaught by the Florida Gators. Tim Tebow played like, well, Tim Tebow. The Gators came to play. The Georgia Bulldogs apparently left the team that had played in Baton Rouge the previous week somewhere else and sent in a group that managed to score only 10 points and give up nearly 50. It certainly was not the same preseason #1 team and was definitely not the team that had easily defeated the defending National Champion LSU Tigers just a week before.

As a football fan, the game was incredibly disappointing. As a fan of the tailgating atmosphere in general, however, the experience was nothing short of incredible. To say those in attendance were fanatical would be a massive understatement. Tailgaters as young as 2 and as old as a 77- and 78-year old couple from Hahira, Georgia, all surrounded the stadium looking for, and finding, fun and old-fashioned rivalry at its best.

Although I do hope that next year’s game will be more of a competition than a demolition, I know one thing for sure. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, with or without that politically-incorrect label, will bring as much excitement and old-fashioned rivalry as it did this year or in any year in the past. And this fan will find a way to make the trip again.

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