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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Florida Strawberry Festival expecting bumper crop of visitors on final day

PLANT CITY Top entertainers can help bring crowds to the Florida Strawberry Festival.

And it goes without staying that sweet berries are a key ingredient.

But the one thing no one on earth can control - the weather - probably has the most impact on the success of the annual celebration of King Strawberry.

With temperatures forecast in the upper 70s and no rain threat, the festival was expecting a big finish as its 11-day run wraps up today. Gates are open until 10 p.m.

For the most part, weather for this year’s festival was sunny and mild. That helped kept the turnstiles humming.

Sadie Peachey, whose brother owns the Amish Baking Co. food booths, credited divine intervention.

“We have to thank God,” said Peachey, who added that community support plays a major role in the festival’s success.

Final attendance figures won’t be available until later this week, but indications are that the festival wouldn’t be far from last year’s 526,500.

“If we come close to that, we won’t be disappointed because last year was so good. If we beat it, we’ll be elated,” festival President Jim Jeffries said.

Jeffries, borrowing a line from the late Roy Parke, one of the area’s biggest growers, said, “The three most important things in growing strawberries or the strawberry festival are weather, weather, weather.”

Rain fell two days, including Thursday, when bad weather delayed the midway’s opening for three hours.

Shelby Bender, president of shortcake booth operator East Hillsborough Historical Society, said the nonprofit enjoyed above average sales most days. But when it comes to weather, “all it takes for the weatherman to say the word rain, and everybody stays home.”

Shirley Outen, a member of Plant City Entertainment community theater group, which runs the historical society’s shortcake booth on the final day, was expecting her volunteers to be slammed.

“The last day of the festival is always the busiest. Sometimes you can’t see the end of the line of people waiting to buy shortcake,” Outen said.

Tony Lee, who supervised a food booth for the Plant City Lions Club, said his club enjoyed steady business throughout the festival.

“Thursday morning, when it was raining, we had a great day. Our best day was Monday, parade day, which was a surprise,” Lee said.

Randy Reierson, who has been running the You Name It Toys booth at the festival for 17 years, said he had one of his most successful years.

Reierson said there were many factors, including the following of customers he’s attracted over the years at the festival.

He agreed that Mother Nature played a big role.

“I came down from Minnesota on a dog sled,” he said. “The weather here has been absolutely gorgeous. You couldn’t have asked for better weather.”

Steps the festival took the alleviate traffic jams for the most part helped but didn’t keep traffic flowing as smoothly as festival General Manager Paul Davis was hoping.

Among other steps, the festival added parking spaces, opened up Oak Avenue in front of the festival grounds to one-way traffic and encouraged visitors to access the festival via Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, instead of the interstate.

“We did have a few traffic issues,” Davis said. “We’ve come a ways to make it better but I think we have a ways to go yet.”

Twitter: @dnicholsonTBO

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