They both arrive every spring. And every year, we here at tbt* engage in the same internal debate: Which is more fun, the Florida State Fair or the Florida Strawberry Festival? Both events have their backers. The Florida State Fair kicked off Thursday in Tampa and continues through Feb. 15. The Florida Strawberry Festival is March 4-14 in Plant City. Here, tbt*'s Jay Cridlin (the Fair) and Susan Thurston (the Festival) state their cases for their favorite event.
State Fair: Last year's chocolate-dipped bacon was but an aperitif to this year's devilish State Fair menu. To wit: The new Over the Top Krispy Kreme Donut Burger, which is a hamburger slapped between two Krispy Kreme donut buns (look for it at the West Main Street BBQ stand). Too high-concept for you? Go with the Deep-Fried Butter, which is butter wrapped in dough and deep-fried (it's at the West Main Street deep-fried candy bar stand). That sounds nearly as appetizing as the Spaghetti Ice Cream, which is gelato pressed into the shape of spaghetti noodles, topped with pureed strawberries (the "marinara") and white chocolate shavings (the "parmesan cheese"). You can find it inside the Expo Hall at Booth 428. Then do some good by purchasing some Fair Squares, which are beignet-like fried pockets topped with pink powdered sugar; a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Susan G. Komen For the Cure (find them at the Pink Tent across from the Floating Restaurant). Finally, head to Cracker Country to pick up some bacon-flavored salt, lip balm, ranch dressing and "Baconnaise."
Strawberry Festival: There should be a law stating you can't visit the festival, or even drive along Interstate 4 near Plant City, without getting a bowl of strawberry shortcake. St. Clement's berry booth attracts crowds every year, serving an average of 100,000 shortcakes a year. The church's make-your-own format lets you pile on as much berries and whipped cream as your bowl will allow. Beyond shortcake, strawberry treats abound, from milkshakes to jellies to this latest artery hater: strawberry stuffed churros dipped in chocolate. And don't worry: Despite the recent cold snap, organizers say there'll be no shortage of berries by festival time.
State Fair: Okay, fine, the Strawberry Festival might win this round. But the Fair does have live music every day, most of it free. On Feb. 10, there are two "Country Gold" shows ($10 apiece) featuring old-timey honkey-tonkers like Leroy Van Dyke, Jim Ed Brown, Helen Cornelius and more. And on Feb. 13-14, the Fair will host the finals of the Elvis Extravaganza (elviscontest.com), a nationwide Elvis impersonation competition. Thankyaverymuch...
Strawberry Festival: If cowboy hats are your favorite accessory, then giddyup to Plant City. The festival draws some of the biggest names in country year after year, without the sticker shock of most concert venues. Tickets to the festival's outdoor stadium are $10 to $30. Among this year's standouts: Billy Currington, Darius Rucker, Sara Evans, Julianne Hough, Roy Clark and Lynyrd Skynyrd. And it gets even better. Each show has about 3,000 bleacher seats for free on a first-come, first-served basis.
State Fair: One word: BATCOPTER. Yes, the original Batcopter used in the TV series Batman still works and will be offering aerial tours of the fairgrounds for $30 per person (not covered by armbands). If that's not enough for you, there's a whopping 103 rides at this year's fair, most of which have names that make us think of things like condoms ("Magnum"), Keanu Reeves ("Crazy Bus") and Jersey Shore ("The Experience").
Strawberry Festival: The midway has all the vomit-inducing rides a body can withstand, plus plenty of games for winning your date a cheap stuffed animal. About 90 rides are planned, including a 100-foot-tall Giant Wheel. Joining the ensemble this year are the Space Roller, the Inversion and the Experience — "super spectacular thrill rides" not recommended after lunch. Expect some new kiddie rides, as well, along with more "win a prize, every time" games.
State Fair: Where do we begin? With the exotic animals, which include bears, sea lions, giraffes, gators, sharks and a genuine Florida panther? Or all the dog, equestrian, livestock and poultry competitions? Or the Tampa Comic Book and Toy Convention from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. this Saturday? Or Florida Championship Wrestling on Feb. 15? Or how about this — daily frog-jumping championships! Oh, gee whiz, mister, what a real neato time! No foolin'!
Strawberry Festival: Watch Harry Hambone, Shakin Bakin and other potbelly pigs race around a track for treats. Or lumberjacks slice logs like butter. Or lambs jump over horse rails. The festival has all the trappings of a yeehaw-good time, not to mention livestock competitions, baby contests and free live music. New this year: Galaxy Girl, who does a trapeze routine from a frightening height. Good luck trying to see everything in a single visit.
State Fair: Let's start with Cracker Country, which shows how our forefathers used to make candles, rope, grits and cane syrup back in days of yore. Then let's head to the Florida Ag Hall of Fame building to learn from the Florida Extension Service how to kill those moths living in our cereal. Finally, let's waltz over to the arts, crafts and horticulture buildings to examine some of the best amateur photography, artwork, woodworking and flower-growing in the state.
Strawberry Festival: Anyone who believes shoeboxes aren't just for shoes will appreciate the Shoebox Float Contest in the Main Exhibit Building. Local elementary school kids were charged with designing a shoebox float inspired by this year's festival theme: Come Celebrate with Us! At the Armory, the Neighborhood Village showcases some of the state's best baking, knitting, quilting, scrapbooking and more. Also worth seeing is the agricultural exhibit about growing strawberries. After all, those luscious little fruits are the festival's whole reason for being.
State Fair: If you're not careful, you can lose money in a hurry at the fair, what with all the rides, games and deep-fried heart attacks. But there are deals to be found. On five days — Friday, Sunday, Feb. 12, 14 and 15 — you can buy armbands for unlimited rides for $30. Feb. 11 is Veteran's Day on the State Fair calendar; all fair visitors receive free gate admission after 4 p.m. Feb. 9-11 are Senior Days; those 55 and older can get in for $6. Student days are Friday and Feb. 15; tickets are $5 for children ages 6 to 11 and $6 for kids ages 12 through 12th grade. And FFA and 4-H members (with ID or jacket) get in free on Saturday and Feb. 13.
Strawberry Festival: Knowing money is tight for a lot of families, festival leaders decided once again not to raise prices. Even so, for the super budget-conscious, deals abound. Kids get in for free March 6. Mountain Dew Family Days are March 7 and 14; anyone who brings a can of Dew can ride all day for $20. March 9 is the first Red Hat Day, in which Red Hatters receive $2 off admission. On March 10, active and retired military get free admission, and March 11 is a free day for farm workers. Also keep in mind that unlike the State Fair, the festival doesn't charge more for admission on the weekends.
State Fair: Most of the state fairgrounds feels like a commercial tarmac, and a crowded one at that. And the expo hall is essentially an infomercial come to life. Oh, but Cracker Country is divine! It's shaded and grassy and full of interesting photo opportunities! And it teaches you how Florida's settlers managed to survive on pork rinds and kettle corn! (Or something like that.)
Strawberry Festival: You won't see beer, cigarettes or McDonald's at this festival, and for good reason. Leaders founded the festival with the sole purpose of celebrating the strawberry and its huge impact on the community. Now in its 75th year, the festival relies on the work of 2,500 volunteers, many of them retirees. It's monumental task for a city of about 35,000 people.