The small town of Plant City in northeast Hillsborough County will once again turn on its Southern charm when the Florida Strawberry Festival opens on Thursday for an 11-day run of one of the most-attended fairs in the state.
The pandemic clouded last year’s festival, causing organizers to cancel its usually stellar music lineup. They also spent $600,000 on air scrubbers, acrylic shields and sanitizing walk-through tunnels, and widened the midway to allow more space for the masked crowds.
This year, the music lineup is back with country stars Lady A and Sam Hunt and classic rocker Sammy Hagar, among many other popular acts. And the COVID-19 protocols have eased.
Paul Davis, president of the Florida Strawberry Festival, said they plan to be flexible as new public health guidelines come out almost every week, “but I think our country is learning to live with COVID.”
The mask mandates are gone, though they will have masks on hand to give out freely, Davis said. The festival will once again have more than 100 hand-sanitizing stations throughout the grounds. They will request that guests keep their distance and wear a mask when indoors.
The Strawberry Festival is renowned for its Southern hospitality, which made it the No. 4 most-attended fair in the nation in 2020 with more than 525,000 visitors, according to industry tracker Carnival Warehouse.
In 2021, without its big music lineup and with the pandemic lingering, attendance dipped to 402,000, Davis said. That still surpassed big events like the Florida State Fair, which drew 292,000 visitors in 2021.
The festival was founded in 1930 and it retains its old-fashioned appeal with a midway of more than 80 rides and games, farm animals, funny competitions and lots of food on a stick. And of course, strawberries can be found in every form, from shortcakes and funnel cakes to pickles and strawberry pizzas in the town that calls itself the winter strawberry capital of the world.
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With no booze, tobacco or other vices, it remains a quaint piece of Americana that offers friendly “roving ambassadors” wearing bright red visors and red vests who walk the grounds and seek out the lost or bewildered with maps and advice.
Here are some highlights to look for.
One of the reasons this festival has such a stellar music lineup every year is organizers discovered that if they can attract young people with a hot music act like Taylor Swift in 2009, Demi Lovato in 2012 or the Band Perry in 2016, they will stick around and spend more money on food and on the midway.
Musical acts performing this year include Nelly, Lady A, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Beach Boys, Boyz II Men, Lauren Daigle, Zach Williams, Jake Owen, Tesla, Cole Swindell, the Bellamy Brothers and Sam Hunt.
Plant City is splattered in red everywhere you turn because it’s the color of the berry that fuels it.
Many visitors make sure to pick up a flat of strawberries before heading home. You’ll find the cream of the crop from Parkesdale Farms on the south side of Parke Exhibit Building and from Wish Farms on the northeast corner of Parke Exhibit Building and just outside Gate 1.
But it’s the strawberry shortcake that is most famous. It’s a hotly debated topic: Do you choose to top a biscuit or a cake with your gooey strawberry mix before a dollop of whipped cream? St. Clements has a “Make Your Own” shortcake booth in the middle of the Parke Exhibit Building and there are many other booths around the grounds to make your cake versus biscuit decision.
The milkshakes are legendary, studded with chunks of fresh strawberries and cream. There’s even one at Polar Bear Ice Cream called a Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake Milkshake that will line your cup with Fruity Pebbles and top the creamy strawberry milkshake with a cupcake, sponge cake, whipped cream, more strawberries and a strawberry lollipop.
You can also buy strawberry plants and find gifts such as strawberry-themed clothing and home decor.
The festival keeps the pressure on with an array of contests that are free to enter.
Strawberry Stemming Contest: There’s a youth version at 2 p.m. Saturday, where youngsters of all ages compete to see who can remove the stems from 20 berries the fastest. The adults get a shot at 2 p.m. March 8. All of the green stems must be taken off the strawberry.
Crafts and baking: For less adrenaline-fueled fun, the Neighborhood Village showcases award-winning homemade and handcrafted items in categories such as cake decorating, apparel, food preservation, home decoration items, jewelry, needlework, toys and baking.
Strawberry Mashed Potato Pie Eating Contest: Competitors are challenged with eating one plate of garlic mashed potatoes (topped with strawberry glaze and a fresh strawberry, of course) in under 10 minutes. 3 p.m. March 11.
Super Dog Mega Corndog Eating Contest: Each contestant will be given two corn dogs that are 18 inches long. The first contestant who finishes the two corn dogs and has a clean plate will be the winner of bragging rights. 1 p.m. March 9.
Strawberry Shortcake: Who can eat 4 pounds of strawberry shortcake in 10 minutes? Once they hit the 8-minute mark, their spoons are taken away just to make things a little more interesting. 2 p.m. March 10.
If you go
Florida Strawberry Festival: The Plant City festival celebrates the strawberry harvest with a midway, animal shows and a lineup of top country, pop and rock artists.
When: Opens Thursday and runs through March 13 from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily at 303 BerryFest Place, Plant City. 813-752-9194.
Admission: $10, $5 ages 6-12, 5 and younger free. Concert tickets are $20-$55 in addition to gate admission. There are numerous days with special discounts on admission or the $20-$30 ride armbands. Find them at flstrawberryfestival.com.