WEEKI WACHEE — In Plant City, they have the strawberry festival. In Dade City, they have the kumquat festival. In Hudson, they have the seafood festival.
But in Weeki Wachee, the annual community celebration revolves around swamp monsters, swamp cuisine and the beauty of one of Hernando County's most pristine natural areas.
In short, there's nothing snooty about this weekend's Weeki Wachee Swamp Festival. Rather, the get-together in the small river community invites an appreciation for things laid-back and carefree.
If shopping is your thing, there will be 150 arts and crafts booths to browse through. If you're hungry, you can sample unique Florida-style fare such as fried alligator, swamp cabbage soup or boiled peanuts. And if you're just into people watching, you can marvel at contestants in homemade "swamp monster" costumes as they parade before a panel of judges.
For 18 years, Swamp Fest has been among Hernando County's most popular public gatherings, drawing as many as 12,000 visitors over its two days.
Former festival organizer Don Fish thinks he knows why the event endures.
"We're a close-knit, friendly community, and that's really unique nowadays," said Fish, who has owned property in Weeki Wachee since 1962. "Everybody knows their neighbor and their neighbor's neighbor, and they like helping each other get things done."
Such was the origin of the festival, which began 18 years ago when members of the Weeki Wachee Area Club decided to serve chicken dinners in the parking lot of their clubhouse to raise money for building repairs.
A couple of years later, the event was moved to the Weeki Wachee Christian Camp, where it remained until 2004, when it was relocated to newly opened Linda Pedersen Park at Jenkins Creek.
"It's a very nice site for an event like this," festival director Roger Davidson said. "We've got lots of shade, a large playground and other things for kids to do."
Through the years, the festival has taken on more of an environmental focus, thanks to groups such as the Hernando Audubon Society, the Florida Native Plant Society and the Hernando Environment Land Protectors.
The festival still serves as a prime fundraiser for several Weeki Wachee community organizations. In addition, festival organizers donate proceeds to more than two dozen local nonprofit groups and charities.
Saturday's entertainment will include Eddie McConnell, the Klassic Kountry Kloggers, Tami Sue Corradine, Shazadia and Jewels of the Desert, the Spring Hill Acoustic Guitar Club and Kim Evans. Sunday's performers will include Annie and Friends, the Manatee Man, Julie's Hawaiian Dance, the Spring Hill Troubadours and Eddie McConnell.