It's time again to enjoy spring in Florida and the mountains of strawberries that come with it.
The Florida Strawberry Festival opens at 10 a.m. today and runs through March 9, offering an array of strawberry-themed foods, a midway and a jam-packed musical lineup.
Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the festival features concerts each day at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children younger than 6. Concert tickets are extra.
This year's festival, featuring the theme "Florida's Best Family Recipe," boasts more free entertainment than any previous year. The five new acts include sibling musical groups, a comedy routine and a baboon show. "Wild about Monkeys" features baboon trainers in a performance mixed with education and humor. Those looking for country music can check out Redhead Express, four sisters who perform daily at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.
New hamburgers, peanut brittle and ice cream are available to delight festivalgoers this year. Carousel Foods is introducing the strawberry jam hamburger — a beef patty with strawberry jam, cream cheese and a strawberry — and the fried green tomato hamburger with fried pickles and lettuce, mayonnaise and mustard.
Those craving something sweeter can try the ambrosia strawberry peanut brittle or the strawberry sticky pig ice cream — a Florida Strawberry Festival exclusive that combines homemade strawberry ice cream with torched marshmallows, waffle pieces, fudge and candied bacon.
The festival is also introducing a new variety stage. The Paradise Grilling Systems Variety Stage features acts including Shannon Magrane from American Idol and Billy and the Soul Circus Cowboys.
The Neighborhood Village received an upgrade and is now housed in a 12,000-square-foot building. It features a horticulture show and competitions for quilts, baked goods, canned goods and other homemade items.
Traffic and parking
At an annual event that draws 500,000 visitors, traffic and parking can be stressful, to say the least. In hopes of alleviating parking shortages, the festival opened a new lot this year at N Woodrow Wilson and W Risk streets that has 200 spots.
Phil Waldron, traffic committee director for the festival, said the Thonotosassa exit off Interstate 4 is still a great exit for the festival, but backs up on busy days. He encouraged people, especially those coming from Tampa, to take the Branch Forbes Road exit south toward the back side of the festival.
"There's quite a bit of parking on the back side, and people from Tampa don't realize that," he said.
Those coming east from Lakeland can also use the parking in the back of the festival by taking the Alexander Street exit.
Waldron also encouraged people to arrive early and allow extra time for traffic and parking if they are attending concerts or the parade. Those who just want to grab a strawberry shortcake or hit the midway should consider going on days that don't have big concerts or events.
The festival features two concerts daily, at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Headliners this year include Rascal Flatts, the Band Perry and Boyz II Men. In a late change, Ronnie Milsap canceled his Friday afternoon show and will be replaced with singer BJ Thomas.
Tickets are sold separately from admission tickets.
People should arrive early on concert days to avoid traffic and parking delays.
Tickets can be bought online at flstrawberryfestival.com.
Canadian radio show
Canada Calling, the popular radio show for Canadians living in Florida and the southern United States, is broadcasting from the festival in honor of the show's 60th anniversary.
Prior Smith has been hosting the show for 37 years and will be right inside Gate 16 to talk with listeners. More than 3 million Canadians come to Florida each year, and many of them visit the festival, Smith said.
"You wouldn't believe the Canadian crowd that rolls through the festival each year," Smith said. "The first time I was there, it just blew me away. It's unique. We don't have anything like that here."
Canada Calling will be broadcasting Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Credit cards are accepted at the admission gates, on the midway and at many vendors. ATMs are also available.
Visit flstrawberryfestival.com for information on discount days for students, seniors and military members, and more information about scheduling and events.
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.