Lawn chairs and picnic blankets dotted the lawn at FishHawk Ranch's Park Square. A woman hugged a friend with one arm while holding a pizza box with the other.
Tots frolicked in the water fountain. Other kids swirled ice cream while looking at giant images that flashed on the wall from a projector television. Four girls donned red and white cheerleader uniforms from mythical Albuquerque East High.
And a teenager wearing a Pink Floyd shirt played his guitar.
All in all, I would guess 300 to 400 people came out to last weekend's High School Musical 2 outdoor viewing party - and I couldn't believe it.
"It was better than I expected," said Mindy Anderson of the YMCA, which sponsored the event in cooperation with Disney. "More and more people just kept coming. For us, it was just a really successful event."
Sure, Disney's sequel to the megapopular High School Musical had a guaranteed family audience, but could you expect such a turnout on a Saturday night
Why come to the square when you could go to the Ford Amphitheatre and see High School Musical star Corbin Bleu and other teen sensations in concert Why set up on the lawn when you could watch the sequel in the comfort of your home Why watch a movie that debuted the night before when you could see the Bucs play live
Stacey Rainey provided an answer. She brought her Sunset Bay Chapel youth group of about a dozen middle school and high school kids to the gathering for a simple reason.
"They don't all live in FishHawk," Rainey explained. "But this was a chance for them to get together and hang out."
Essentially, the desire to connect with others drove the crowd, which might surprise suburban life observers.
To hear some people tell it, we retreat to gated communities and cul-de-sacs because we long to be isolated.
Park Square offers evidence to the contrary.
Whether it's a viewing party for kids or a Friday night concert series featuring cover bands, Park Square activities seldom fail to draw a crowd. Charlie Hotel, a self-described pop-rock trio, plays the square tonight starting at 7.
Disco Inferno wraps up the summer series Thursday, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if the square fills with folks wearing polyester shirts, bell-bottom pants and platform shoes.
"We come over for everything," said a couple who live across the street. "We were watching the Bucs game, but we had to see what was happening. We think it's great. I hope they keep doing it."
Newland Communities, the FishHawk Ranch developer, sponsors most of the activities. Still, it's not uncommon for Park Square to draw folks from outside FishHawk. They long for fresh-air opportunities to be among neighbors and make new friends, even on humid nights.
Imagine my joy when teenager Robert Rivers met me and exclaimed, "I love the St. Petersburg Times." Sure, maybe he's just a kid who wanted to get his name in the paper, but hearing his compliment brought a smile to my face.
My 5-year-old daughter, who knows the lyrics to every High School Musical song, came away with Disney tattoos, cups and a desire to move to FishHawk.
Yet I came away realizing that the larger South Shore and Brandon community doesn't need to hunt down "for sale" signs in FishHawk. It needs to strive for touchpoints all over and try to replicate the spirit of the Park Square gatherings. The people at Winthrop Town Centre are already on board with a series of Friday night outdoor movie events that runs through Sept. 28.
Whether we live in Apollo Beach or Seffner, school, church and other activities offer those chances if we open up to the possibilities.
I recently went out with some parents after a Brandon Cowboy