Florida Strawberry Fest: Can’t Get More Wholesome Than This
What’s more wholesome than a group of children parading their cows around an arena during a dairy showmanship contest, the crowning of a festival queen and her court, or a strawberry pie eating contest? You’ll find this and whole lot more at the annual Florida Strawberry Festival, as my husband and I did for the second year in a row - while having more fun than parents with an only child away at college should be allowed to have.
Taking advantage of every opportunity to celebrate the berries
Hillsborough County, Florida, is one of our nation’s top agricultural counties, home to around 2,800 farms with some 10,000 acres dedicated to just strawberries alone. There’s a long history of growing many other food crops here as well, as indicated by all the farmer’s markets around town teeming with fresh-picked fruits and veggies. It was 78 years ago, way back in 1930, that the Plant City Lions Club created the very first Florida Strawberry Festival as a way to celebrate the local farmers’ bountiful strawberry harvests. Every year since then, the festival has grown larger, and today well over half a million patrons visit during the course of the 11-day fest. The event is consistently considered one of the Top 40 Fairs in North America. Plus, festival tickets are just $10 bucks, making it affordable for the whole family.
Strawberries are grown on the festival grounds to educate visitors
The Strawberry Festival is aptly named, as these delectable fruits are front and center here. All around the grounds and outside the gates are tents selling flats and quarts of just-picked strawberries at terrific prices. Be prepared to treat yourself to this luscious fruit in every way imaginable - chocolate dipped (my favorite), shakes, cheesecakes, cakes, cookies, donuts (yeah baby!), sauces, and of course strawberry shortcake. Whether you prefer your shortcake the Southern way with biscuits or with pound cake, you can find either here topped with a tower of spiraling whipped cream. Is your mouth watering yet?
Festival visitors, including my husband, John, flock to the chocolate dipped bacon stand
In addition to food, you’ll find strawberries celebrated in other ways. There are t-shirts, jackets, strawberry jewelry, purses, cookbooks, art objects, garden items, sculptures, pottery, fabrics, and so much more to buy. Some of the patrons even deck themselves out with strawberry-themed hats and knee-high boots. Just wait until next year when I show up in my new strawberry digs as I plan to sew me some strawberry pants. I wonder how my husband will react when I surprise him with a matching pair?
Here I am, admiring the farm equipment
Loving strawberries isn’t the only reason to go this event. These fair grounds are humongous! There are countless vendors, carnival game tents with stuffed animals too big to fit in a car, and attendants who make cheeky comments to attract your attention. I’ve never seen so many carnival rides in one place. There are even two ferris wheels - one on each end of the park - and we rode on both to get a true birds-eye view of the place. Don’t you just love it when the wheel stalls and you are stuck at the top of the ride with your car swinging to and fro?
A view of the fairgrounds from atop the ferris wheel
On the second (and very chilly) day of our visit, my husband talked me into going on the carnival swing that soars up a 200-foot pole and then twirls around like a washing machine during the spin cycle. I was so freaked out by both the speed at which we rose up the pole and the height of that ride, I couldn’t help but scream my head off, only to be told by my unsympathetic husband in a harsh tone that I better get a grip and calm down. It didn’t help that it was really cold up there in the sky, and as a Miamian I’m just not used to temps below 40-degrees. Also in my defense, I was on the outside of the swing with my precious, pricey Nikon around my neck which, due to centrifugal force, was uncontrollably flying alongside my body parallel to the ground and slightly choking me. “Wow, that ride sure was a blast!” I said to my husband as I stumbled off the ride. If looks could only kill, I would not be here writing this article now.
In a word, the entertainment opportunities at the Florida Strawberry Festival are overwhelming. There are dozens of free performances and events to watch, as well as an impressive line-up of country and rock headline concerts that require purchased tickets (very reasonably priced, I might add) at the Wish Farms Center Stage.
My husband and I decided it would be fun to buy $25 tickets and go the Foreigner rock concert on the first night we arrived. I was concerned that attending would really date me, considering I was a senior in high school when their huge hit Cold as Ice came out. Over the decades, I have somehow managed to remember every single word of every single song that band plays, yet I have trouble remembering where I placed my cell phone at least ten times a day. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that many of the attendees were much older than I, and frankly unreserved enough to shake their geriatric booties and jump up and down with nary a care of how silly they looked doing so. God Bless them! One of the original founding-members of the band and Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer, Mick Jones, who had been ill for some time, came out and played toward the end of the concert. What a treat that was! No matter how young or old you are, you’ve got to admit that Foreigner’s music really rocks. Okay, I realize that comment right there dates me.
Foreigner performed one hit after another
I’d have to say my favorite part of the festival was all the free entertainment. We watched the youth parade (one of many parades) glide past the fair grounds with impressive floats and marching bands. We then observed a youth strawberry stemming contest, in which very young children concentrate with all their might to try to pull as many stems off strawberries in a short period of time as possible. All the while, their parents frantically jump up and down and scream at the top of their lungs, encouraging their kids to speed it up. Other free entertainment includes dog trick shows, lumberjack and lumberjill contests, pig races, cow milking shows, magic shows, hypnotist demonstrations, robot shows and more.
High schoolers parade their cows in the hopes of winning a showmanship title
Chickens, rabbits and pigs are also part of the agricultural exhibits
The Festival Queen gives a pep talk to a wee strawberry stemmer
On the festivals grounds is a quaint historic stone building, housing the Neighborhood Village. This is where all the local visitor contest items are displayed- quilts, knitted items, cakes, cookies, jams, artwork, needlework, handmade clothing and more. The wholesomeness of the entire display with all those blue ribbons really puts a smile on my face.
Entries from the Neighborhood Village cake decorating contest
Throughout our time at the fair, I texted our daughter in Philly with updates about what we were doing. She sent back a message, “Stop having so much fun while I’m up here studying my a-- off!” Am I a terrible parent simply because I found that to be incredibly funny?
One of my favorite shows this year was the Sweeney Family Band Country Comedy Review, where three brothers perform on banjo, stand-up bass and guitar. The music is terrific - a combination of country and bluegrass, and the brothers sing in wonderful harmony. Between songs they weave corny humor into their performance that really gets the crowd roaring.
The humor of the Sweeney Family Band Country Comedy Review
Another free, really impressive show is the Gothard Sisters. These three talented and charming blondes from Seattle tell stories and perform Irish music on fiddle, guitar and drum and also dance. They’re so popular that there’s standing room only in the tent where they perform. We were wise this year and got a seat up front more than an hour before the show, passing time by stuffing our faces with chocolate-covered peanuts and saltwater taffy.
The talented Gothard Sisters attract big crowds
Speaking of food again, there’s a heck of a lot more to eat on these festival grounds than berries. Food stands abound, and the tantalizing smells - both savory and sweet - will drive you mad. My husband practically needed an intervention, as he could not decide what he wanted for dinner the first day. In general fair food is not healthy, but tastes heavenly. However, if you look hard enough, you can find some delicious choices that are not artery cloggers like Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken, baked potatoes, grilled corn on the cobb and heavenly barbecued chicken. We only wish there were a directory of food stands to help you make your choice easier.
You can’t leave the festival without bringing a tray home!
The real shock comes when you see food stalls selling fried Twinkies, fried pickles, fried blue cheese and even fried butter. Yes, you apparently can fry and eat a stick of butter, but why would you want to do that when you can consume those calories on fried cookie dough? And yes, they even fry Pepsi there. How? I don’t know. The most fattening food here is a greasy burger piled high with condiments and cheese, sandwiched between two extra large frosted donuts. How can that even taste good?
Dougnut Burger - Don’t dare ask how many calories!
Our biggest splurge, and quite possibly the best food I’ve ever tasted, was an Amish glazed donut, which was recommended to us by an information booth worker. The Amish women make them fresh, and you can watch as they cut the dough, stretch it, fry it, glaze it and hang the donuts up to dry. They’re the most gargantuan pastries you’ve ever seen, around the size of a small Frisbee, so my husband and I shared one, savoring every bite and attracting the attention of passers by. At different times throughout the day the Amish also make donuts stuffed with a strawberry concoction that must be to-die-for.
Scrumptious, giant Amish donuts just waiting to be devoured
I meant to go back to the information booth before we left the fair and tell that man I was really ticked off at him for introducing us to such a glorious and potentially dangerous indulgence. I’ll have a word with him when we go back next year, after I visit the Amish donut booth.
Heaven = 3 white and 3 milk chocolate-dipped strawberries
Debbie Glade/smartpoodle is the Geography Awareness Editor for Wandering Educators.
All photos courtesy and copyright Debbie Glade