WEEKI WACHEE — It's endearing how small-town Florida communities like to celebrate the things they feel connect them best to the outside world.
Organizers of Ruskin's yearly vegetable festival think tomatoes are tops. At Plant City's annual fete, strawberries are superlative. And once a year, Dade City residents like to claim that their kumquats are king.
Then there's Hernando County's own Weeki Wachee Swamp Fest, which every March for the past 19 years has paid homage to uh, well, creepy things from the black lagoon.
Nevertheless, the community event attracts 10,000 or so visitors to soak in the laid-back community that annually crowns a winner of its "swamp monster" contest.
"We have a lot of fun with it every year," said festival chairman Roger Davidson. "It's all very family-oriented. We try to offer something that everyone can enjoy."
Swamp Fest began humbly in 1994, when the newly formed Weeki Wachee Area Club began looking for ways to raise money to complete its headquarters.
The club's membership turned to longtime resident Don Deedrick, who suggested staging a one-day flea market at the back of a local campground, with entertainment, arts and crafts, and food vendors.
Though that first event raised only a few hundred dollars, it was enough to get the building started. More important, it inspired the club to make the festival a yearly event that would benefit other area charities, including the Weeki Wachee Crime Watch and the Hernando Environmental Land Protectors.
"It's been a big help for the civic organizations in area that do so much for the residents who live here," Davidson said.
The community, in turn, has always stepped up to help. In fact, more than 200 volunteers assist throughout the weekend.
This year's festival, which kicks off at 4 p.m. today at Linda Pedersen Park, will feature a new twist. In addition to the traditional festival draws — food booths, arts and crafts, and entertainment — a special kids carnival will be set up outside the main gate all three days.
Saturday's event will feature the annual "swamp monster" contest at 10 a.m., followed by a full day of entertainment on the main stage.
Entertainment for Saturday and Sunday will include Annie and Friends, the Klassic Kountry Kloggers, Shazadi and the Jewels of the Desert belly dancers, Tami Sue, Eddie McConnell, Brent Byard, and the Weeki Wachee Wednesday Warriors.
According to Davidson, more than 140 food, crafts and other vendors will be on hand throughout the weekend, as well as representatives from more than a dozen community organizations.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.