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Manatee Festival tests Parrothead warble

(ran North edition)

A chance to sing your best six-string version of Margaritaville and walk away with this year's top honors in the "Sounds Like Buffett to Me" sing-alike contest is one of the highlights at this weekend's annual Manatee Festival.

In a way, Citrus County jumped ahead of the national trend in reality shows with its Buffett contest, which is not unlike American Idol, except that the top prize is a two-day Orlando vacation instead of a national recording contract and television fame.

The contest pays tribute to Florida's Parrothead-in-Chief, Jimmy Buffett. Each contestant gets to sing two favorite Buffett tunes (Margaritaville is always a crowd pleaser) and try to win the judges' votes during the Saturday afternoon contest. Some of the judges are members of the Parrotheads, the Jimmy Buffett fan club.

The Manatee Festival has always had a strong musical influence. The first festival, in 1984, featured another Florida group: the Allman Brothers Band. It was also the year a manatee-themed welcome sign was dedicated at Crystal River's southern boundary on U.S. 19.

The Manatee Festival also will feature a revue by the Orange Blossom Country Music Talent Showcase and a gospel hour, both on Sunday.

The Manatee Festival seems to have found its niche in the outdoor festival scene after several false starts. It builds on the tried-and-true formula of other large outdoor festivals, namely to fill the streets with artists and food, and adds its own signature: boat tours of Kings Bay and manatee education exhibits.

Art lovers can enjoy both a fine arts show and an arts and crafts display.

The St. Petersburg Times sponsors the annual Fine Arts Show.

Cash and ribbons will be awarded to winners in a juried arts show. About 64 artists are scheduled to attend and their works can be found on Citrus Avenue.

The main emphasis is usually on wildlife art, but attendees can also expect many booths offering handmade jewelry, wood carvings and all types of painting, photography and sculpture.

More than 100 craft vendors will exhibit their work at the festival. The Crystal River Rotary Club sponsors the craft show.

The Florida Manatee Festival food menu features offerings from about 30 vendors. Among these will be seafood platters, barbecue, Philly cheese steaks and other subs, Greek food, hamburgers, hot dogs and pita wraps. Other vendors will sell pizza, fudge, roasted nuts and ice cream.

A festival favorite is the boat tours of Kings Bay. Pontoon boats operated by local dive companies will take people on a 30-minute ride. The guides' local knowledge usually results in a manatee sighting. Boat tour tickets, available at the chamber of commerce information booth inside the festival, are $5 for adults and $3 for children, 12-18. Children younger than 12 may ride free.

The boats depart from Crystal River Manatee Dive and Tour at 267 NW Third St. A bus service will take people from the festival site to the boat dock at S Citrus Avenue. The buses will leave from the end of Citrus Avenue.

Children's activities will be on the grounds of the Creative Playground behind Crystal River City Hall and are hosted this year by Childhood Development Services. Games, activities and education will be offered along with a climbing wall and pony rides.

Continuous movies will also be on display at the gazebo in Heritage Village to educate visitors on manatees in addition to manatee education booths designed to enhance the awareness of the endangered species also known as sea cows.

Manatee and nature exhibits will be provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Bureau of Protected Species; Save the Manatee Club; Citrus County Audubon Society; Citrus County Extension Office Yards and Neighborhoods program; Friends of Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge; Nature World Wildlife Rescue; and Friends of Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.

There also will be manatee videos to watch and a chance to see the manatee poster contest's winning entries in the Heritage Village gazebo. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will have children's activities and crafts.

Friends of Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park and Nature World Wildlife Rescue will have native wildlife on display. Rocky the Manatee is also scheduled to make an appearance at the Manatee Festival.

Jorge Sanchez covers arts and entertainment in Citrus County. Call (352) 860-7313 or e-mail sanchezsptimes.com.

AT A GLANCE

The Florida Manatee Festival will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $2 for ages 12 and older.

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