Jeep Wranglers are to Florida what Subarus are to Colorado.
I mean, if you’re going to drive a vehicle with no top and no doors, what better place to do so than near a beach? The best part about Jeeps, though, is the instant comradery – I swear, it’s a borderline cult – that you become a part of when behind the wheel. As the Jeep Wrangler continues to grow in popularity, a growing number of Jeep-only events are popping up across the U.S. A prime example of this is the fourth-annual Jeep Beach Jam held in picturesque Panama City, Florida, that hosts five days of events and activities all centered around everything and anything to do with Jeeps.
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The highlight of Jeep Beach Jam is the three days of activities held at Panama City’s Frank Brown Park including a vendor area, live music and, of course, an obstacle course. The $69 registration fee covers you and up to five guests for all on-site activities as well as scavenger hunts, poker runs, and various other social meetups, but even if you’re Jeepless, spectators pay $15 for a two-day pass. A new obstacle course design this year meant it was not only better for Jeepers, but it was also easier for spectators to watch. The obstacle course opens each day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and over the dozens of times I drove the course, there were only a couple times where Jeeps got stacked up (usually for someone getting unstuck).
For extra fees, Jeepers can also participate in add-on events including off-site excursions and a Beach Krawl, and this is really where Jeep Beach Jam stands out from other Jeep events. Over the course of the week, a total of 10 excursions are organized by the local Jeep club (Bay Area Jeep Club) with an added cost of between $60 and $80. These fees were definitely worth it to access a massive area of private property about 30 minutes away from the on-site events with sand dunes as far as the eye could see. Getting there was half the fun, too, being part of a 50-Jeep convoy! The Topless for Turtles Beach Krawl coincided with Go Topless Day, and it was also very cool to witness a two-hour procession of Jeeps cruising along the beach to raise money for wildlife protection and beach preservation; Panama City Beach had been sideswiped by the Category 5 Hurricane Michael just seven months ago.
To get the most of my Jeep Beach Jam experience, Jeep sent me the new 2020 Jeep Gladiator Overland to enjoy for the week. Having owned a Jeep Comanche and Jeepster Commando pickup in the past, I was definitely looking forward to driving the Jeep’s latest pickup truck. I knew opinionated Wrangler owners would provide plenty of feedback for better or worse, but I didn’t think this truck was going to get as much attention as it did from non-Jeepers. Even before making the two-hour drive to Panama City, I was getting stopped all around my neighborhood by random people inquiring about the truck and even while I was out driving around, people were constantly giving me a thumbs up and taking pictures of the Gladiator.
A handful of Gladiators were at Jeep Beach Jam, but this was the only one running the obstacle course. As spec’d, this Gladiator Overland stickered for $57,000, and it looked totally unassuming wearing the factory Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires. In reality, these 255/70R18 tires provided plenty of clearance measuring about 32 inches in diameter and 10 inches wide with almost seven inches of sidewall; the all-season tread was perfectly quiet when being driven around town yet good enough to tackle the obstacle course and sand dunes without having to air down.
The Gladiator’s long wheelbase (19 inches longer than the Wrangler Unlimited) proved to be a challenge on the articulation course with the Overland’s factory running boards. Since the course was designed for Wranglers, the shorter distances between humps meant that they would contact the side steps before the rear wheels, and these weren’t very durable running boards (plastic or some sort of composite). Fortunately, the running boards are easily removable, giving the Gladiator plenty of clearance on the obstacles.
Speaking of easy, the design of the new Gladiator makes it simple to go mostly topless with removable rear sections and a folding top; the entire top can be removed similarly to the Gladiator’s hard top, but I didn’t have the storage space for this. Finishing off the open-air experience, I removed the doors and borrowed some Rugged Ridge tube doors to use for the weekend. One of the best parts of the Gladiator is that many of its accessories are interchangeable with the JL Wrangler, which is the case with these doors. The high-quality coating ensured that the tube doors are as rugged as the Gladiator, and the coating used on the doors prevents the surface from getting too hot even when exposed to direct sunlight for extended periods of time. Not only did these Rugged Ridge tube doors provide a cool custom look to the Gladiator, but it was the perfect way to enjoy open-door driving without losing side mirrors and a convenient armrest.
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After a full day of Jeeping and walking around the vendor area, it was nice to unwind (and clean up) at the host hotel, the Laketown Wharf from Emerald View Resorts. For starters, this resort has a total of five pools and hot tubs in which to unwind, not to mention a short walk walking across the street to a private beach. It provided the perfect resort ambiance with several restaurants within walking distance and daily lakefront light shows, but nothing beat the spectacular balcony view overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The beaches and sunsets of Panama City are among the best on the planet.
If you can’t make it to the Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, playing Jeeps in Florida in late spring with thousands of other people is a close second. When the official numbers were tallied, organizers say that about 1,500 Jeeps attended the event and more than 5,000 Jeepers and/or Jeep enthusiasts were drawn in as spectators. Being just the fourth year for the event, this property still has plenty of space for added growth in the future, and next year’s dates have already been announced: May 13-16, 2020.