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Monday, February 28, 2011

Florida Strawberry Festival prepares to welcome fresh crop of visitors

Marc Crowsey gets the Nitro carnival ride ready for Thursday's opening of the Florida Strawberry Festival.
BY DAVE NICHOLSON, The Tampa Tribune, February 28, 2011
PLANT CITY - The carnival rides are in place, the critters will soon be in their stalls and the vendors are ready for their first sale.
And of course, untold numbers of strawberries have been harvested and prepared for the hungry masses.
In short, the Florida Strawberry Festival is ready to go.
The gates open Thursday for an 11-day run.
The festival, founded in 1930, celebrates the crop that makes Plant City famous.
"We never go too far away from our agricultural roots," festival General Manager Paul Davis said.
Last week, festival staff members, vendors and others were preparing for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who will walk through the turnstiles and consume mountains of strawberry shortcake and carnival favorites.
Cole Kennedy, a third-generation vendor, is returning for his 31st year selling hamburgers, sausages and other fast food. He said he likes the friendly tone of the celebration.
"If I had two other fairs to choose from, I'd still come here," Kennedy said as his employees hoisted up a tent that will shade a customer seating area.
"I like the family style atmosphere," added Kennedy, who praised Davis and his staff for their management.
Festival visitors will notice improvements and changes, some subtle, some obvious.
Uneven pavement on the festival grounds has been smoothed over with a new layer of asphalt. Livestock shows will be in a larger tent with better ventilation. Concert goers who strained to see the headline entertainers on a projection screen will now enjoy two 15-by-12 LED screens on either side of the stage that can be seen day or night.
On the midway last week, Bill Wallace and Marc Crowsey were getting the Nitro ride spiffed up, while Zack Panacek, general manager of Belle City Amusements, was overseeing the construction of another ride.
Panacek said he'll have about 90 rides on the midway, including some that are new to the festival, such as the Avalanche, billed as the largest portable roller coaster of its kind, and the Vertigo, which swings riders 70 feet in the air.
"I almost passed out the first time I rode it," he said.
For the children, there's the Daytona, featuring race cars that young riders control with a joystick, and the Lollipop Swing Ride.
"We have to have something new every year. We have to have a reason for people to keep coming back," he said.
"No matter how you look at it, it's better than the State Fair," he said.
In the Neighborhood Village, which houses cooking, arts and crafts competitions and more, Betty Lucas was overseeing an army of volunteers that included Debbie Coleman, Marsha Passmore, Joan Reed, Noma Riley, Sally Taylor, Ginger Vincent and Dodie White, to name a few.
There's never a shortage of helping hands.
"We have a waiting list of people who want to volunteer," Lucas said.
Three neighbors, Imogene Roberts, Nancy Sharp and Donna Tromater brought in their handiwork for judging, including a quilted apron, pillow and afghan. They said they had been entering the Neighborhood Village competitions for a dozen years.
Davis, who used a golf cart to get around the grounds to oversee the finishing touches, said the festival will offer new features, along with some old favorites.
He's thinking the 9-foot tall talking Rock-It the Robot will be a big hit with the children because it will remind them of a Transformer. The robot will wander the festival grounds at 11 a.m., 2 and 7 p.m. from March 10 to 13. Other free entertainment includes the Pirates of the Columbian Caribbean high-wire act, Gothard Sisters Irish dancers and the Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show.
Hola Plant City, which celebrates the Hispanic culture, returns for a second year. The celebration is 7 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Sweetbay Supermarket Showcase Tent.
The Hola Plant City entertainment lineup includes, Friday, Mariachi Invasor, Grupo Lazer and performer Danny Lozada; and Saturday, talk show host Jose Luis, who will sign autographs after the show, Mariachi Invasor and Grupo Deztello.
Hola Plant City was created and produced by Coda Sound Live and sponsored by Estrella TV, the 24-hour Hispanic network and by Bank of America.
"The first Hola Plant City event was very successful. Crowds were overflowing; the venue was filled to capacity," said Alexis Morgado, Coda Sound Live project manager. "We are looking forward to another great year."
Returning features include Red Hat Day on Tuesday, which treats members of the Red Hat Society to discount admission, and American Heroes Day on March 9, which offers free admission to soldiers, law enforcement officers, firefighters and other first responders.
Davis said the festival has worked hard to continue to make the festival affordable, holding the line on gate admission prices for five years. The price of strawberry shortcake remains the same at $3.50 and there are also several armband days featuring unlimited select rides for one price.
"We resisted the urge to raise our prices," Davis said, adding that the festival particularly wanted to maintain affordability in the face of the continued economic downturn.
There was one thing that Davis was hoping for as the festival approached. But it was one thing over which he has no control.
"No matter how hard you prepare, you have to have weather," he said.
"Weather, weather weather. That's the key to being successful."

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