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Official Review by Jim Dietrich, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
When the Arena Football League decided to move one of its original franchises, the Pittsburgh Gladiators, to St. Petersburg's
Florida Suncoast Dome in 1991, that posed a logistical problem. The newly-christened Tampa Bay Storm had no team close to compete with, as the closest team was almost 1,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. However, the AFL believed that the best way to remedy that was to exploit the natural rivalry that existed between the Tampa Bay area and its neighbor 90 miles away on Interstate 4, Orlando.
For many years, a fierce rivalry naturally grew between these two metropolitan areas. Tampa Bay has the bigger population, the beaches, and the culture. Orlando has the worldwide name recognition, the attractions, and Walt Disney World. Throw in a fledgling sports league, and you take these urban competitors and stir the pot that much more.
The Orlando Predators have tied the record (set by Tampa Bay from 1987 to 2005) for most consecutive playoff appearances at 19 (as of the 2011 season), have played against their cross-state rivals twice in the ArenaBowl, each winning one (Tampa Bay in 1995, Orlando in 1998), and have an even 28-28 record, including the playoffs, against the team in the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"The War on I-4," as the rivalry has become known, proves that not only is arena football well-received in Central Florida, but has become one of sport's greatest rivalries. What started off as seemingly-manufactured has become akin to the Yankees - Red Sox, Lakers - Celtics, Canadiens - Bruins, and any matchup in the NFL's NFC East. It started in the old home of the Orlando Magic, the Amway Arena, and has since moved to the Magic's new home, a few blocks south of the old Arena and right in the heart of Downtown Orlando.
Beginning the 2014 season, the Predators moved from Amway Center and began play in the CFE Arena, a facility more suited for Arena Football.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Unless it's a Storm - Predators match, arena football doesn't exactly draw the same size crowd as the Magic, so most of the stands are closed, meaning a two- to three-minute walk from your seat to the nearest concession stand is not uncommon. A side-effect of this is a five- to seven-minute wait in line for your food and drink means you're away from the action for ten or more minutes, an eternity in a game where the clock rarely stops.
Once you do get to the counter, the food is moderately priced with a couple of specials of funnel cake fries and a foot-long chili cheese dog. My personal favorite, though, is the unlimited refill drink for $6.25. Keep going back all night and get that sucker filled, and since you're standing in the queue from hell anyway, they might as well sell you that chicken sandwich you were staring at on the video board.
Centrally located to everything Metro Orlando has to offer, the Amway Center is still glistening from being open during the 2010-11 basketball season. The sound is loud, clear, and sharp; the video boards are all state-of-the-art and picture perfect; and every seat affords an outstanding view of the field below.
During the player introductions, they even pay a homage to the namesake movie by playing Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" while fireworks (more like crude flash-bangs) are set off above the uprights.
This is pretty much a carbon copy from the Magic review, but I'll paraphrase it here: Church Street is a bar, restaurant, and shopping destination, and since the street is closed to cars during game days, getting around from place-to-place couldn't be easier.
For an arena football game, the stadium was pretty packed, though about 2,000 shy of a full house. The game didn't mean that much - considering the Predators wrapped up their playoff berth the week before - and their opponent that night, the New Orleans Voodoo, weren't really big draws themselves. However, it was the final home game for their star defensive specialist, Kenny McEntyre, who was retiring after the 2011 season. During an 11-season career, he amassed 96 interceptions for over 1100 yards (on a 50-yard field, remember), with 20 of them being touchdowns; he is the all-time record holder in all three categories by double over the next closest in each.
That last point alone should have made it a sold-out game, but it wasn't, and that's kind of sad to not give him the sendoff he deserved.
Those that did show up - which were still en masse, mind you - let you know they were there. They lived and died with every play, made their pleasure and dissatisfaction known, and were all-around pumped for a game other regions would call "minor league". To Orlando, a city that has only this and the Magic, Arena Football is very much a part of their sports culture, and if you tell them otherwise, they will defend their Predators tooth and claw.
In the Magic review, I talked about how you should park away from the arena, preferably on the other side of Downtown, and walk the 10 or so blocks; that would avoid traffic, be cheaper, and allow you to experience all that Downtown Orlando has to offer.
This time, I decided to check out the Geico Garage, the main parking garage for the Amway Center, to see what it would be like if you weren't as keen on walking in the summer swelter of Central Florida. For $20, you can park in a conveniently-located garage that even has a skybridge to the Center for people with tickets in-hand (don't worry, though, as there are plenty of self-serve Ticketmaster kiosks to get you your pass on to the suspended walkway and into the game). For those that don't, however, the Box Office is on the other side of the arena, so prepare for a pretty long walk.
And the traffic I experienced the first time around was almost non-existent, as there is a super-convenient on-ramp to westbound I-4 right next to the garage. It seems that if you're willing to shell out the $20 - and aren't planning on going down Church Street for late-night action - then the Geico Garage is for you. Otherwise, still park on the other side of Downtown and enjoy the cheap parking while having fun along the way.
The bathrooms and concourses are still clean, large, and wide, so no change there from the Magic review.
The team is good. Sorry, strike that: the team is REALLY good. They are on a record-tying (with the Storm, of course) 19-season run of playoff appearances, and chances are pretty good that might be one record they can take from the Storm in 2012. And even though they've only won two ArenaBowls, all the way back in 1998 and 2000, when you watch them play, you're always bound to get a quality game.
That said, the tickets to see them are well overpriced, especially compared to their I-4 rivals. For the seat I had in the 200-level, the same seat at the Tampa Bay Times Forum is $12.75; here, the exact seat as the one in Tampa set me back $26...at the box office.
Note: The Amway Center only has 100s and 200s; their "press/luxury level" is the 100A-level, though the placement of the seats are about equivalent with 100s, 200s, and 300s in traditional arenas.
It sounds like the team and the city are trying to recoup their expenditures on the new arena at a record pace, not at a family-friendly pace that - especially in this economy - is probably why it wasn't a full house when it should have been.
The team is good. Sorry, strike that: the team is REALLY good. But not THAT good.
"Anyone who has already been to the Center is probably screaming at their monitor right now for not mentioning the main attraction, the coup de grace, of this entire venue - it's called the OZONE. Built on the south end of the facility on the upper level, it's a massive party area, complete with twin 20-foot tall LED-laced pillars that can project images of just about anything from flames to fireworks."
That is an exact copy from the Magic review, but here's the addendum to that statement: it's closed.
No, I'm not joking.
Due to the perceived lack-of-popularity of arena football, the OZONE is closed. Sure, the seats facing the floor are open, but the O3 bar, the kids' play zone, the LED pillars, all of them are turned off and covered from view by a giant tarp. Definitely a pity.
On a brighter note, the windows from the Center afford great views of Downtown and the nearby Citrus Bowl, with picture-taking opportunities at every corner.
Also, if you have a big group, or are entertaining clients, there are plenty of special seating sections available. My personal favorite is the 100A-level loge seats, which have rolling, swivel, reclining leather chairs and your very own touchscreen HDTV right in front of you, in case you're missing another sporting event to be there.
Even though technically an expansion team (though, all but the Storm are), the Orlando Predators are the second-oldest team in the Arena Football League and, in many ways, the second-best team as well. Their longevity and success goes into the fact that they always have great management, facilities, and fan support.
Because the Amway Center was designed for the Magic first, however, the Predators feel a bit out of place here. An easy remedy to that is to open up all sections, including the OZONE, and concessions for the Predators' games; I promise, while management doesn't think so, they're needed. Once you do that, the Amway Center will match its basketball persona and catapult from pretty good to the best arena in the Arena Football League.
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