WEEKI WACHEE — It began as a small festival, designed to appeal to local folks along the Weeki Wachee River and to help support the Weeki Wachee Area Club.
Unique contests and foods, as well as scores of vendors and family-friendly activities, helped the oddly themed event outgrow two locations along the river, and after about 10 years it finally settled at Linda Pedersen Park.
Now entering its 20th year, the Weeki Wachee Swamp Fest has returned to its namesake river — more specifically, at the spring that feeds it. And with this year's festival moving to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, it has added a third day, with entertainment starting Friday and continuing through Sunday.
To kick off festivities, a carnival will open from 5 to 9 p.m. today in the grassy area at the south end of the parking lot.
There will be at least eight rides available, and visitors can either purchase individual ride tickets or wristbands that allow unlimited rides.
"This is tremendous," said event president Roger Davidson. "We are so happy to be (at Weeki Wachee Springs) this year."
Davidson believes the time was right for a move. With the addition of a carnival and a large number of vendors at last year's festival, Davidson said, there really was not enough room.
"This change of venue will allow us to bring more (to the festival)," he said. "We feel we made the best decision. … And they have welcomed us with open arms (at Weeki Wachee Springs)."
Visitors can expect this year's event to be a lot larger, with expanded musical entertainment and activities, more than 100 arts and crafts vendors, and numerous food vendors, selling scores of different items, such as fried grouper, alligator, jambalaya, fried chicken and even swamp cabbage (heart of palm cooked in salted pork or smoked bacon).
The 2013 Swamp Monster will be crowned Saturday morning.
"We're pretty excited about it," said John Athanason, marketing coordinator at Weeki Wachee Springs, adding that the partnership "is something we pursued. (Assistant park manager) Robyn Anderson has been trying for many, many years to have (the festival) here."
Athanason said the park has always had a good relationship with festival organizers. Over the years, park employees often had to give directions to lost visitors trying to find the Swamp Fest.
"This year, we can now tell them to come on in," Athanason said.
The festival now draws visitors from all over the state, and between 10,000 and 12,000 people are expected to attend each day of this weekend's event.
Most of the work is done by volunteers.
"None of this would be possible without the volunteers who put it together," Davidson said.
Proceeds, he said, will benefit the Hernando Environmental Land Protectors, the Weeki Wachee Crime Watch, the Weeki Wachee Area Club and other community endeavors.
On-site parking will be limited to those with wheelchairs and scooters. All others will have to park 2 1/2 miles east on Cortez Boulevard at the Sand Hill Scout Reservation, where free shuttle service will be provided.
Athanason said use of remote parking will ease traffic congestion at the busy Cortez and Commercial Way intersection.
With the new venue, Athanason promises this year's festival will provide "double the fun and entertainment."
All park attractions will be open, including the famous mermaid shows and river tours. In addition to the park's three regular mermaid shows each day, former mermaids will perform twice on both Saturday and Sunday.
"This should really be a fun event," Athanason said. "There will be something for everybody."