Knightro pumps up the crowd at Spirit Splash 2016. (Photo by Joseph Klawe-Genao)

Spirit Splash — the annual event in which students rally at the Reflecting Pond during Homecoming Week and charge in to wrestle over rubber ducks. It is the only time of the year anyone is allowed to enter the Reflecting Pond without consequences.

And they turn out in droves. Spirit Splash was awarded “Best Campus Tradition” in 2011 by the National Association for Campus Activities and is one of UCF’s oldest and best-known traditions.

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However, there is no consensus on how or when it began.

For years, the most widely-accepted origin comes from the 1995 Homecoming Pep Rally, when then-Student Government Association President Miguel Torregrossa was pushed into the Reflecting Pond by his Cabinet members. Those who were attending the event followed suit.

This story was cast into doubt by a 2015 article by Danielle Hendrix for the now-defunct Central Florida Future.

According to the article, UCF Senior Archivist Mary Rubin offered two theories. Along with the well-known story involving Torregrossa, a 2002 e-mail from then-Assistant Director of Student Activities Emily Kukulies recounts a story involving milk jugs.

“In 1994, students were very involved in a contest, which somehow involved collecting pennies in milk jugs,” the e-mail said. “They were shaking their milk jugs trying to get attention. To get even more attention, they wandered into what was then the most open area of the Pep Rally — the Pond. Other students wanting to beat the heat wandered in, too.”

Following the incident, the milk jug students got proper approval to hold the first official Spirit Splash the next year.

Rubin could not offer new developments from what was said in the e-mail.

The Torregrossa story is frequently told to prospective students on tours and during orientation and it was published as fact by the UCF Archives page in 2013 and listed on the UCF website as part of a timeline commemorating the university’s 50th anniversary.

However, this oft-repeated story is rarely delivered with any details such as the names of the other cabinet members or the sequence of events that led to Spirit Splash being recognized as an official event.

The earliest mention of the story appears to be from a 2008 post on the “UCF: A Campus History” Facebook page by Bryan Farris, who served in Torregrossa’s cabinet.

“I was at the very first Spirit Splash and may have sccidentally [sic] been the one who started the tradition,” Farris wrote. “I was serving on the SGA Cabinet at the time and was standing next to then-Student Government President Miguel Torregrossa at the 1995 Homecoming Pepe [sic] Rally at the Reflection Pond. At some point, I gave Miguel a playful nudge, he lost his balance and fell into the pond, whereupon the rest of Student Government followed. Within 2 minutes almost everyone at the Pep Rally was in the pond, laughing, splashing and having a great time. Hence the birth of Spirit Splash.”

Farris, now a St. Petersburg-based political consultant, stood by the post he made nearly a decade ago as the true origin of the event. Asked about the milk jug incident, he replied with a blunt, “That’s absolutely not true.”

While he conceded that isolated incidents such as that may have occurred prior to the pep rally in 1995, he stated that he had no recollection of them and that they had no influence on the chain of events that led to an official Spirit Splash.

“There was no one in the pond until Miguel fell in,” Farris said, as there would have been if it were true that the tradition of entering the Reflecting Pond during the Homecoming Pep Rally had existed pre-1995.

Attempts to replicate the event at the Pep Rally in 1996 were explicitly banned by the university, Farris said, but the organizers “lost the crowd” when those attending the event got caught up in the excitement and entered anyway.

Farris graduated in 1997 but continued to attend UCF as a graduate student. That year, he said, Homecoming Pep Rally Director Kelli Belfatto begged the university to make the event official.

Belfatto, who now works as a marketing manager in Orlando, confirmed Farris’s account and further said that the event was planned to create a tradition for UCF students to rally behind after its football program entered Division I-A, now called Division I.  

“We were a football school now,” Belfatto said. The pep rally’s organizers sought to create a tradition unique to UCF since many students skipped the event to attend the University of Florida’s traditional Gator Growl.

With UCF still refusing to allow the pep rally to take place in the Reflecting Pond, the organizers tried developing several other concepts, including a firework-themed event called Excalibur. However, they kept coming back to Spirit Splash.

“Thankfully, we were successful,” Belfatto said.

UCF finally relented, on the condition that the pond’s health and safety standards be improved to include a new skid-resistant paint job and chlorinated water with SGA footing the bill, to which SGA agreed.

The first official Spirit Splash was held that year on Nov. 14.

The Central Florida Future, now archived by UCF in an online database, first uses the term “Spirit Splash” in a Nov. 12, 1997, article previewing the event. It included a sentence stating that Spirit Splash “began more than 12 years ago when fully clothed students in the Homecoming spirit plunged into the Reflecting Pond,” which Rubin, the archivist, said was inaccurate.

The 1997 Spirit Slash featured the football players, dancers and cheerleaders; the local band Average Joe; and UCF mascot Knightro and his then-girlfriend Glycerine. The Homecoming Committee threw out pennants, Frisbees, cups, golf towels and a Knightro doll. That Spirit Splash also featured the basketball team to promote their game against Auburn, with the Marching Knights leading the crowd to the arena to watch the game. UCF lost that game 63-70 but went on to win the Homecoming Football Game against Eastern Michigan 27-10 the following day, and the tradition of Spirit Splash lived on.

Subsequent Spirit Splashes included items like Knightro stress balls and other foam figures, but those were eventually replaced by rubber ducks.

“Apparently, one year [the foam figures] weren’t ordered in time and they were looking for a substitute to give out that was small enough, not too hard to throw into a crowd, quick to arrive, and cost effective, and they came up with the rubber ducks,” Eric Smith, the current Homecoming coordinator, said. “The idea stuck and now we do a custom duck each year.”

According to Rubin, the first duck in the Archives is from 2002.

The 1995 Homecoming Pep Rally probably was not the first time people entered the Reflecting Pond against the university’s wishes, nor was it the first time students showed their school spirit in preparation for the Homecoming Game. But had Farris not pushed Torregrossa into the pond in 1995, and had Belfatto and the 1997 Homecoming Committee not pushed to create an official Spirit Splash, we would likely still not be charging into the Reflecting Pond this Friday, 20 years later.