By LINDA CHION KENNEY
With pandemic protocols in place, Florida Strawberry Festival officials are asking attendees to come “All Aboard” for an 11-day run that starts Thursday, March 4, and features a themed focus daily.
This year’s festival logo, sporting railroad tracks and the iconic Mr. Berry, wearing a conductor’s hat, aims “to reflect our enthusiasm for togetherness,” said festival President Paul Davis. “We feel like this is a concept our community will really jump on board with, so to speak.”
How well that pans out remains to be seen as each year more than 500,000 attend the festival, now in its 86th year. Major draws are the midway rides, youth livestock shows, exhibits of community and commerce, live entertainment and all kinds of food, including everything strawberry.
New this year are COVID-19 policies and protections, most notable of which is the cancellation of the headliner entertainment, which last year featured Reba McEntire, Patti LaBelle, Charlie Wilson, Lynyrd Skynyrd and more. The festival typically presents 24 headline entertainers in a stadium that roughly seats 90,000 people. “We believe [this year] it is in the best interests of everyone, guests and entertainers, to not have patrons sitting shoulder-to-shoulder for an extended period of time,” Davis said.
Wearing a mask within the entirety of the festival grounds is strongly recommended and is required within buildings and enclosed tents. All festival staff, volunteers, board members and vendors are required to wear a mask anywhere on the festival grounds, with some exceptions. Vendors serving food, handling trash and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces are required also to wear gloves.
Attendees are asked to always follow social-distancing guidelines, with at least six feet between attendees who do not live within the same household. Capacity adjustments will be made “where necessary” and frequent hand-washing is encouraged, with an additional 130 non-touch hand-sanitizing stations, positioned throughout the fairgrounds.
“Your personal responsibility is what is allowing us to have this celebration that is important to our community and beloved by our loyal patrons,” Davis said, in stressing the importance of protocol compliance. “Please do your part in ensuring the safety of yourself and others by following the [stated] guidelines.” (A full list of protocols is available online at www.flstrawberryfestival.com/covid-19-info).
Annually, some 200,000 strawberry shortcakes are served, making it a must-eat festival favorite. This year, two vendors have been added to the mix after two popular events were cancelled due to a decrease in volunteers because of the pandemic. In place of the St. Clement Catholic Church Make-Your-Own Strawberry Shortcake offering, and the East Hillsborough Historical Society Shortcake booth, Parkesdale Express and Berry Amaz’n are on tap to deliver the favored treat.
“We are very excited to offer our world-famous strawberry shortcake for the first time at the festival,” said Kristen Hitchcock, a spokesperson for nearby Parkesdale Farms. “The strawberries will be freshly picked and sliced each morning from the farm, and the cake will be the same yummy goodness you get at the Parkesdale Market every year.”
Look for Parkesdale shortcakes in the Parke Building next to the Parkesdale Farms and Parkesdale Greenhouse booths, which for decades have been providing festivalgoers with fresh strawberries and a variety of plants.
Berry Amaz’n is owned and operated by Cindy Griffin, who for nearly 29 years has partnered with the festival. She also owns and operates Mavric’s Chocolate Barn and Chocolate Strawberry Express, which also provides the berries used in the adult and youth strawberry stemming contests.
Look for the Berry Amaz’n shortcake booth in the northeast section of the Parke Exhibit Building near Pioneer Village. On sale also is the vendor’s Strawberry Brownie Shortcake, a new festival offering.
A strong lineup of new, no-cost live entertainment is on tap, as well as an expected lineup of new food items, including Apple Pie Sweet Potato, Bahama Breeze Italian Ice, Chocolate Pineberry Drizzle, Deep-Fried Éclairs, Deep-Fried Triple Chocolate Oreo, Jolly Rancher Slush, Mexican Street Burger, Strawberry Lemon Ricotta Funnel Cake, Strawberry Pickle, Strawberry Pina Colada Smoothie, Strawberry Red Bottom Passion Italian Ice, Way Better Strawberry Milkshake With a Twist, and Faye’s Doozie, “a secret family recipe from Mama Faye” featuring a confection that is “double the indulgence.” Don’t miss, too, the Strawberry Ice Cream Sandwich Pop and the Piggy Stack “meal in a bowl,” featuring sweet cornbread piled high with pulled pork, BBQ beans and coleslaw.
Each of the festival’s 11 days is theme-focused, with related specials and discounts, starting with Senior Citizens Day on March 4 and ending with Family Day on March 14. In between are Food and Fun Friday (March 5), Credit Union Free Kids Day (March 6), Family Day (March 7), Hardware Grand Parade Day (March 8), “Twosday” Free Kids Day (March 9), American Heroes Day (March 10), another Senior Citizens Day (March 11), Day on the Midway (March 12) and Farm Worker Appreciation Day (March 13).
The 2021 Chevrolet C8 Corvette 1LT, valued at more than $62,000, is set to be raffled off Sunday, March 14, at 5 p.m. Tickets for the drawing cost $5 apiece and are available through 6 p.m. March 12 at the Stingray Chevrolet dealership off Exit 22 on Interstate 4. Tickets also are on sale through 4:30 p.m. at the vehicle display on festival grounds and online at www.stingraychevroletraffle.com. All proceeds benefit Unity in the Community, a Plant City organization that contributes to local youth organizations and other groups that provide assistance to families in need.
For more on the festival, including detailed driving directions, art and youth livestock shows, exhibits, rides, entertainment, food, admission, discounts and “Moonlight Magic” midway nights, visit www.flstrawberryfestival.com. Discounted admission tickets are on sale at participating Publix Super Market stores through March 14. Festival parking is at 2805 West Reynolds St. and other nearby locations.