PLANT CITY — There are hundreds of ways to spend your time at the Florida Strawberry Festival that opens at 10 a.m. Thursday.
How do you divvy up time for performances, parades, contests, exhibits, rides, games and food? Though by no means all-inclusive, our Top 10 aims to help you map a fun-filled day.
No. 1: Get your strawberry fix. It is, after all, the Florida Strawberry Festival. There are three strawberry shortcake venues, and vendors offering everything from strawberry jams to jewelry. Strawberries bought on festival grounds are guaranteed to be fresh, top-quality fruit from the fields of local growers. If you can’t eat them all within a few days — really? — freeze the rest.
No. 2: Fly, fly away. Those seeking adventure can head to the midway, where 60 rides hurtle, churn and twist through space. The only “super spectacular” Moonraker ride in the United States will be at the festival this year. With about 30 rides to choose from, little ones can hop on the Berry Go Round, Safari Train or new Monster Truck at the Kiddie Korral. The Midway opens daily at noon to 11 p.m. except on Saturday, Sunday and Monday when it opens at 10 a.m.
No. 3: Fearless foodies rejoice. Enjoy a culinary confection — OK, make that one of the countless combinations of fried-stuff-on-a-stick — on the midway. Even if you resist the temptation to raise your cholesterol level to an all-time high, you have to appreciate the creativity offered for consumption.
No. 4: Be wowed by culinary and crafts talents. If you thought handmade was a thing of the past, think again. The Neighborhood Village entries are creations by Florida residents judged and awarded monetary prizes and ribbons in baking, food preservation, jewelry and beading, needlepoint and needlework, quilts, scrap-booking, toys and much more. Shoebox Floats by budding artisans in first through sixth grades also are on display at the village, which is in a new building just south of the Florida Strawberry Festival’s administrative offices.
No. 5: “Ooh” and “ahh” over critters. The Florida Strawberry Festival, at its essence, is an agricultural event. If you’ve never beheld a 6-year-old lead his or her costumed lamb around the arena, watched pigs being groomed for a show or personally encountered a chicken, here’s your chance. Lambs, swine, dairy and steer exhibits, shows and contests will rotate with day-specific events, such as the Dairy Costume Ball on March 2 and Youth Steer Show on March 5. Fine-feathered poultry and cuddly rabbits will be in residence throughout the festival’s run in the Swindle Family Pavilion.
No. 6: Grab a front-row seat. Free entertainment abounds at the festival. Performing daily with multiple shows are festival newcomers Redhead Express and Savannah Jack. Long-time favorite Dennis Lee returns with three daily shows, as do Ron Diamond and Kari and Billy. The Gothard Sisters and The Walker Brothers, among others, will showcase their talents during limited engagements or will be on site one day only. So much talent, so little time!
No. 7: Kid around. Making their debut on the grounds this year is “Wild about Monkeys,” an interactive and educational show featuring trained baboons. “Rollo, The Biggest Little Kid in the World,” is a “child” character measuring 9 feet tall. The ever-entertaining Robinson’s Racing Pigs and Paddling Porkers make a return engagement, as does the Kandu Magic Show, Kandu Game Show, Runa Pacha “Indian World” and Southwest Dairy Farmers Milking Show.
No. 8: You be the judge. Patrons of the arts won’t want to miss The Photography Contest (Roy & Helen Parke Building) and East Hillsborough Art Guild Show (Milton E. Hull Armory Building). Those works are on view daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The Garden Club Horticulture Show (Neighborhood Village) also is a must-see for those with, or wishing they had, green-thumb greatness.
No. 9: Cheer on your favorites. Many contests are one-day-only events with rural roots, such as Strawberry Stemming, the Youth Plant Show and Sale, Dairy Showmanship, Lamb Jumping and Livestock Judging. Also popular are the Strawberry Shortcake, Superdog Mega Corndog, Strawberry Mashed Potato Pie and Fried Corn on the Cob eating contests, in which contenders race each other to the brink of gastronomical apocalypse. Don’t try this at home.
No. 10: Take home a musical memory. No matter which day or days you visit, plan to catch one or more of the festival’s 22 headline shows on the Wish Farms Soundstage daily at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Shoji Tabuchi and Styx get the ball rolling Thursday, while Easton Corbin and The Band Perry wrap it up March 9. Tickets range from $15 to $55, depending on the artist and reserved seat location. In addition to the reserved seats, there are about 3,000 free seats at each show in the festival grandstand.
Noteworthy: While some acts and exhibits appear daily, others are one-day-only events. So pick up a schedule and plan around the one-day-only events you don’t want to miss.