Nancy McLean is used to answering the same question over and over when she volunteers at one of the Florida Strawberry Festival’s information booths.
Where’s the nearest place to get shortcake?
“If you walk around the festival grounds, the food that you see people eating the most often is strawberry shortcake,” said McLean, a festival volunteer for a decade.
Without a doubt, the festival that runs through March 9 is the sweetest celebration you’ll ever find. For more than 80 years, the festival has had its roots in the red, heart-shaped fruit that made Plant City famous.
“Everybody who has a sweet tooth wants shortcake,” said Jessica Bazley, who helps run the booth operated by St. Clement Catholic Church.
But shortcake isn’t the only sweet spot at the festival.
Here are a few of the highlights, most of them offered for free:
♦ There may be no free shortcake, but roll up your sleeve for free admission. OneBlood hands out a gate pass to anyone who donates blood at one of its bloodmobiles just outside the festival grounds daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The bloodmobiles are parked at Tomlin Middle School, 501 N. Woodrow Wilson St., and Bryan Elementary School, 2006 W. Oak Ave. “It’s a great way to enjoy the fair for free and save lives,” OneBlood spokesman Dan Eberts said.
♦ Freebies also include seats for headline acts in the festival grandstand, available starting an hour before show time. “Where else can you hear a top artist for free?” festival General Manager Paul Davis said. There are about 2,700 free seats available, and they fill up fast for the hottest acts. And once they are gone, you’ll have to buy a ticket for a reserved seat — unless the concert is sold-out. Reserved seats sell for $15 to $55, depending on artist and location.
♦ If you can’t get a free seat into a headline act, you’re not out of luck for some toe-tapping music. The festival added a third on-grounds stage this year so there are more the 500 shows where no ticket is required, from gospel to country to mariachi. “We wanted to offer more free entertainment this year so a family can spend a day without spending a fortune,” Davis said.
♦ Leave your wallet in your back pocket and take in livestock competitions. The youngsters and the animals they’ve nurtured and trained can melt anyone’s heart. One of the best is the lamb jumping contest at 5 p.m. Monday in the Patterson Co. Livestock Arena.
♦ Who doesn’t like cute babies? There’s no admission for the 5 p.m. Sunday baby contest and 10:15 a.m. March 8 baby parade.
♦ If carnival rides are your thing, the festival has specials most days. Ride-A-Thons, offering unlimited rides on most mechanical rides for $20, are 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday and noon to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Moonlight Magic nights, with a similar all-you-can ride deal for $20, are 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. today Friday and March 7. All-day carnival rides are also available for $20 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and March 9 by presenting a Pepsi brand can product at any entry gate.