When the annual Weeki Wachee Swamp Fest returned to its namesake town last year and made Weeki Wachee Springs State Park its home, organizers were able to offer much more than they could in previous years. And when the 21st annual Swamp Fest kicks off Friday, visitors will have a chance to experience even more.
"This is our second year at Weeki Wachee Springs," said festival president Joe Meloni. "Last year, we were able to offer so much more to the festival, and this year we've refined and improved upon it."
Meloni said visitors will have a chance to check out a variety of new arts and craft vendors offering unique gifts, as well as a number of food vendors.
"The arts and crafts vendors seem to be our biggest draw," Meloni said. "Most (items) are handmade by very talented people. They are works of art."
The 2014 Swamp Monster will be crowned on Saturday morning. There also will be about 200 prize drawings throughout the event, with two grand prizes this year: a 14-karat gold pendant by Samson Jewelers and a gas grill from Home Depot.
Visitors also can enjoy expanded musical entertainment, with top area groups — such as Chrome, Honkey Tonk Hit Men, Dangerous Ground, Franc Roberts and Danielle Pacifico — performing country, blues and rock.
"The entertainment is definitely much better," Meloni said. "A higher quality of performers."
As part of the festivities, visitors can experience everything that is offered at Weeki Wachee Springs. There will be added mermaid shows and river cruises, and visitors can check out the new animal theater.
"It's a win-win situation for everyone," said John Athanason, marketing coordinator at Weeki Wachee Springs.
Athanason said there will be five mermaid shows on both Saturday and Sunday, starting at 11 a.m. The regular show will be shown three times, and there will be two shows performed by the popular former mermaids, who range in age from the late 40s to 74.
"The former mermaids are very popular," Athanason said. "They are inspirational. There are those who swam back in the springs' heyday. . . . It's a nostalgic kick."
The partnership between the Swamp Fest organizers and the state park has worked well for everyone, organizers say.
"Weeki Wachee Springs is a natural fit for us," Meloni said. "They have been very gracious, great partners."
The entire event is put together by volunteers. And Meloni said its success would not be possible without the support of the community.
"I'm amazed at the effort that everyone puts into it," he said.
"Last year's (event) exceeded all our expectations," Athanason said. "(Organizers) put a lot of planning into this event. They addressed everything and got it down to a science. . . . We're happy to be a part of it."
Due to the expected large crowds, on-site parking will be limited to those with wheelchairs and scooters. All others are asked to park 2 1/2 miles east on Cortez Boulevard at the Sand Hill Scout Reservation, where free shuttle service will be provided.
Event organizers said they realize there were some issues with last year's shuttle service. Meloni promises those issues have been resolved.
"We increased the amount of buses transporting between the (two sites)," he said. "It should make it flow more smoothly."
"I think we're going to have the best Swamp Fest we've ever seen," Athanason said.