ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s an old-fashioned lawn party.
On game days at Central Florida, one long, rectangular strip of lawn – named “Memory Mall” — contains an entire student body. Tents stretch as far as the eye can see, lining the outside of the lawn along the white paved walkways.
Each group of tailgaters brings its own tent, along with whatever tables, food and drinks can fit inside a 5-by-5 feet space. As the hot sun begins to poke out of patchy clouds, the smell of sausage and sizzling bacon fills the air.
The inside strip of grass is reserved for those anxious to throw around a football, toss a frisbee or run shirtless, yelling “Knights! Knights!” over and over again, as one spirited Central Florida fan did a few hours before game time.
For Central Florida students, “Memory Mall” is the place to be before, after and sometimes during football games. The stadium, about a half-mile northwest, sits deserted until shortly before kickoff.
The tents are all different colors, with black and gold UCF flags flying proudly beside a few of them. It’s still early, around 9 a.m. Eastern time, but that hasn’t stopped students from setting up shop.
It’s an early game, but these Floridians adjust accordingly.
One man, wearing a black sleeveless tank top with “Knights” in gold letters on the front, stands inside his tent, clutching a glass of orange juice in one hand and a Bud Light in the other. Pancakes are flipped and eaten with regularity, and the beers, mimosas and Bloody Mary’s wash down the greasy sausage links and strips of crispy bacon.
“Everybody comes out,” said John Farrar, a Central Florida alum who then paused mid-interview to pull a block from his oversized Jenga set.
“It’s first come, first serve. That’s why we get here at 6 a.m. Because at 7, people are coming in and trying to find a spot. A swarm of trucks comes in and you’re stuck all the way back there.”
He motions behind him to the back of the long, seemingly endless line of tents and people.
Somewhere in the mass of footballs, grills and bean bag sets, one Missouri tent stands out, easy to spot because of the oversized, inflatable Tigers football player tied to a tree beside it.
Anthony Garrett, a Missouri alum from Tampa, drove here for the game and owns the black tent. He also oversees an alumni group in south Florida, which gathers for every football game and major basketball game during their respective seasons.
Here on the lawn, the differences between Central Florida tailgating and Missouri tailgating are striking.
“The scene here is a lot different than at Mizzou, where it’s very difficult to have a lot of people in one place. So this is fantastic. And of course, you can’t beat the weather,” Garrett said, his face and t-shirt drenched in sweat.
Stephan Ebert, another Missouri alum from Boca Raton, Fla., owns the inflatable Missouri player, which continues to fall down and then be propped back up beside the tent. He claims to have bought it online for $120.
While standing inside his tent, Ebert – wearing a black No. 10 Chase Daniel jersey — is repeatedly approached by Central Florida fans who welcome him to town and urge him to enjoy his stay.
He thanks them, and eventually the fans move on. But Ebert, who is certain of Missouri’s future success, says that the host’s hospitality is bizarre, even unnecessary.
“It’s like shaking the hand of the guy that’s about to steal your girlfriend,” he said, laughing.
On “Memory Mall,” the atmosphere is lively and energetic. The students, draped in black and gold, won’t stop grilling and drinking any time soon.
The lawn party won’t stop when the game starts. The football game, on this hot, late September day in Orlando, is optional at best.
“I won’t be at the game because I’ve got to put all this stuff away. But I’ll watch it on TV, I guess,” Farrar said with a smile.
He yawns, stretching his hands above his head.
“If I’m awake.”