A cool summer outing
By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer
CITRUS PARK -- The employees were not fooled.
The parking lot outside Regal Cinemas at Citrus Park Town Center sat empty. It was a Tuesday, 9:30 a.m.
The onslaught was about to arrive.
Hundreds of children. Pint size moviegoers in pink shorts and little sandals would soon flood the double doors, dragging parents and babysitters behind them. Car loads of pre-teens -- bored as their summer stretched on -- would line up with chaperones. And then there were the day camps.
"They all come in at once," said Jane Young, assistant manager of the theater, which shows free kids' movies two mornings a week in the summer.
"I saw three buses pull up," called one worker.
Inside the movie theater, the crew behind the concession stand popped buckets of buttery popcorn.
The projectionist set up this week's films (Snow Day, rated PG, and Who Gets the House, rated G) to play simultaneously in 10 theaters.
At the ticket gate Mickey Pitta, a veteran school teacher and part-time employee at Regal Cinemas, greeted the crowd with an attendance clip board, a smile and a vow to keep the line moving.
"We've been averaging approximately 1,200 kids," she said as the groups filed in. On Tuesday 150 watched Who Gets the House (a message movie about divorce.) About 800 packed into the theaters showing Snow Day, a movie released in 2000 about an unexpected snowstorm that cancels school.
The free summer film festival began when the mall's theater was first built. The event is organized and paid for by Regal Cinemas' corporate offices.
"It's just community service," said Young. "We like little kids."
This year's attendance peak is 1,500 children so far, said employees. At times it is standing-room-only, but no one is turned away.
Fliers informing the public of the special event are posted at the box office. But "I think it's word of mouth because so many of them know," said Young. "They just started calling in April asking when's it going to start? When's it going to start?"
Holding hands as they rushed up the sidewalk to the theater, a trio of little girls took turns guessing at this week's feature.
"Is it gonna be Scooby Doo?" asked one 4-year-old, looking up at Westchase nanny Susannah Martz.
"You've already seen Scooby Doo," she laughed. And Dr. Doolittle 2 and Antz and Elmo in Grouchland.
"They've already seen them all," said Cherie Carson, standing with her two young daughters.
It is a weekly ritual in the neighborhood, said Martz, after viewing eight of the nine shows. "It gives them something to do indoors. They can only go swimming so much before they get water-logged."
Outdoor activities are nice, but the heat can become unbearable, said some parents.
So a free film in the comfort of an air-conditioned theater sounded pretty good to Carrollwood dad Aldo Mincey on his day off from HARTline.
His 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter urged him to hurry up as he bought popcorn.
"I don't even know what it's about," Mincey confessed of Snow Day.
None of the movies are first-run, but they're close enough to capture the children's attention.
"There's this one girl . . . she comes with her father. She's like a little critic," confided Pitta, who teaches at Northside Christian Academy. "She'll come and tell me which ones were good or not."
With only one week of free movies left, employees are gearing up for their last show of the summer. Muppets in Space and Road to El Dorado will run July 30-31 at 10 a.m.
It's a whirl of happy chaos as the families and camp groups mingle before the movie. But when the lights dim and the previews start, the theaters turn silent.
In that respect, "it's just like a regular day," Young said. The viewers are moviegoers like any others. "They're just shorter."
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