TORONTO — The ties that bind Dunedin, Florida and Canada date back close to 50 years – 44 to be exact to when the Toronto Blue Jays was born.
As the original home of the team’s spring training season, this 10-square-mile, laidback city located just north of Clearwater Beach has become so synonymous with Blue Jays baseball that much of day-to-day life revolves around all things blue and white. Welcome signs for the team can be seen in restaurant windows, fans regularly meet on rooftop patios to catch glimpses of games below at the new TD Ballpark and, of course, watching a team practice or pre-season exhibition game has become a favourite pastime for locals and visitors alike. The team’s sparkling new Player Development Complex, spanning 100,000 square feet and boasting 12 batting cages, a barber shop, a fully-covered practice facility and a 3,700 square-foot clubhouse that’s become the envy of the entire league, will further cement the longstanding connection between Florida and Canada.
This year however, due to the global pandemic and continued border closures, Canadians have been unable to cheer on the Jays in person during the pre-season. Their absence, says Steve Hayes, President & CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, has been sorely felt throughout Dunedin.
“You certainly can tell that we did not have our normal presence of Canadians here and it was missed greatly,” he said during a special ‘Beaches & Baseball’ media briefing yesterday. “Canada is such an important market for us and we cannot wait until the borders upon up and for Canadians to come back to visit.”
Prior to the pandemic, a total of 3.6 million Canadians visited the state of Florida, comprising 24.9% of all international visitation. As such, Canada is Florida’s #1 international market, a distinction that’s long been celebrated on both sides of the border.
“It’s just broken our hearts that you all have not been able to come this year but things are looking up and we are just so excited to be able to welcome our Canadian friends soon,” said Dana Young, President and CEO of VisitFlorida. “None of us could’ve predicted what 2020 turned out to be but I feel confident that Florida is going to rebound stronger than ever and that we’re going to beat all projections in terms of our recovery.”
When Canadians are able to safely travel once more, Florida will be ready. Noting that the state is “open for business,” Young, who logged onto the virtual briefing from Orlando, confirmed that everything from theme parks to restaurants, bars, hotels and, “most importantly,” ball fields are all currently open to visitors.
Canadians, of course, will be heading straight to Florida’s beaches, eight of which recently ranked among the top 25 beaches in the United States in TripAdvisor’s 2021 Travelers Choice of the Best Beaches awards. At #1 is St. Pete Beach, followed by Madeira Beach (#9), Ormond Beach (#12), Henderson Beach State Park (#13), Pensacola Beach (#15), Treasure Island Beach (#16), Siesta Beach (#17) and Clearwater Beach (#18). With beaches that span a total of 1,327 kilometres across the state, VisitFlorida’s interactive ‘Beach Finder’ tool on its website allows visitors to adjust various sliders that match them with the beach best suited to their needs and preferences, whether it be adventure, family friendly, romance, manicured or au naturel.
In Dunedin in particular, the new temporary home of the Toronto Blue Jays, a lot is packed into its 10 square miles that go beyond baseball, said Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski. Founded in 1889 by “a couple of Scotsmen,” the city is known for its Highland Games and Celtic festivals and on any given day, visitors can spot a bagpiper or two at the marina. Giving Dunedin its small-town feel is its wide assortment of independently owned restaurants, bars and shops; in fact, the city is completely void of big-box stores and chains. A rite of passage for all first-time visitors is a meal at Casa Tina, an off-beat local spot known for its authentic Mexican cuisine, as well as a Smoked Old Fashioned at the rooftop bar of The Fenway Hotel, built in 1924 and home to Dunedin’s first-ever speakeasy.
And no visit would be complete without hitting up a brewery or two; there are eight in total, including the Dunedin Brewery, the oldest in all of Florida. Chances are visitors will pass a few breweries while walking or biking the 61-kilometre Pinellas Trail, which runs north from St. Petersburg all the way to Tarpon Springs. Stopping for a beer, cocktail or an ice cream is an absolute must, said Bujalski.
But, of course, baseball is what Dunedin is really known for, something Bujalski is reminded of each year during her annual City Council trip to Toronto to watch the Jays play at home.
“People in Toronto always know how to pronounce our name – Du-nee-din. People in Florida don’t even know how to pronounce our name sometimes!” she said. “We couldn’t be more proud to have hosted the Toronto Blue Jays for 44 years and we are thrilled to have signed a deal to have them here for another 25 years. We just love them.”
For more information about travel to Florida go to visitflorida.com or visitdunedinfl.com.