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Florida Strawberry Festival
Plant City Observer Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 9 months ago

Beyond the main stage

Despite no more free seating, festival-goers still have plenty of entertainment options to choose from.

For Florida Strawberry Festival President Paul Davis, making sure each year’s festival is filled with fun, free acts is a priority.

For each of the festival’s 11-day run, Davis walks the grounds, checking out the performers he’s chosen and getting feedback from the crowd. In the country’s turbulent times, Davis said the festival being an escape is important to him.

With the new grandstand seating at the Wish Farms Soundstage, some festival goers have found the lack of free seating a tough pill to swallow. Davis said he makes sure that the festival is worth the cost of a ticket.

“We haven’t raised gate prices in 26 years,” he said. “There’s something going on every single hour on these grounds you can see with your paid admission.”

Davis said he tries to make sure each festival run comes with plenty of fresh, new acts and old staples. Sometimes, he said, the fresh faces can become staples. That’s the case of the four Walker sisters known as the RedHead Express, making their fifth festival appearance this year


Rise of the Redheads

The ladies of the RedHead Express have come a long way since forming a band, almost accidentally, in Alaska 11 years ago.

The women were raised on music, taking piano and fiddle lessons from a young age. Alisa, 25, took to the fiddle a little more than the rest and ran with it. Kendra, 28, the eldest sister, got a guitar at a garage sale when she was 13 and that became hers. LaRae, 26, wound up finding her way to the banjo. The last to choose her own instrument was the youngest sister, 22 year-old Meghan. All that was left was bass. She got a three-quarter sized upright named Bessie from her aunt. With that, the last piece was in place and the sisters started playing together.

They grew up in Alaska and, towards the end of 2007, their family, which includes three younger brothers, had just finished building their dream home in Palmer. Almost before the stain was set on the flooring, the family decided to sell the house, buy an RV and give music a shot at the urging of their father.

“We all felt like that’s what we were supposed to be doing,” LaRae said.

The family headed south, eventually landing in Nashville. That first RV trip was supposed to last a year, maybe. Eleven years and 3,000 shows later, music has become the sisters’ lives and careers.

They’ve come a long way since wearing overalls and doing Hee Haw sketches on stage. More seasoned and learned on stage, the girls have ditched matching outfits and clogs for hauntingly intimate performances filled with the kind of synchronized harmonies and musical cohesion that can only be achieved through a spiritual connectivity. Endearingly sweet and welcoming, each show is like being invited into a family living room after Sunday supper for a family jam session.

Music — and the Strawberry Festival — seem to be in their blood. Their younger brothers, aged 15, 17 and 19, have their own band, The Walker Boys. This year, they have their own time slot at the festival.

With influences ranging from the Avett Brothers to Alison Krauss, the Dixie Chicks, the Eagles and even Styx and Abba, the RedHead Express’s ever-expanding songbook ensures a new experience no matter how many times you see them, as they play at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. for nearly all 11 festival days.

While the RedHead Express were once young newcomers to the Strawberry Festival, they're now becoming staples.

Then there are the fresh acts. This year there's no shortage of those either, from musical impressionist Mike Walker to local country act Eli Mosley, the illusions of Scott’s World of Magic, the return of the Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show and, yes, even surfing dogs.


Surf’s up at the Strawberry Festival

Lucy Pet’s Surfing & All-Star Stunt Dog Show, which uses the world’s only surfing wave machine for dogs, will make a splash on the festival grounds this year. The show, organized by Stunt Dog Productions, is highlighted by some of the most rad rescue dogs in the country hanging ten (more accurately, 16) like their human counterparts would at the beach.

“We don’t force any dogs up on the board or try to attach them in any way,” Stunt Dog Productions owner Chris Perondi said. “We only use dogs that enjoy it and really love it.”

Training dogs to surf often requires positive reinforcement, toys and treats to get from wading in the water to getting on a board. After the dogs get comfortable on a board, they learn to ride small waves and eventually move on to bigger ones.

“You don’t have to be a great swimmer to be a surfing dog,” Perondi said.

Though surfing is the highlight of the show, there’s also plenty happening on dry land — feats of agility, frisbee tricks, high jumps and more stunts will be performed, and there is also a segment of the show where young audience members are encouraged to participate. A meet-and-greet session with dogs and trainers is held after each 25 to 30-minute show.

Perondi says his group almost exclusively works with rescue dogs in and out of the water. He and his wife own 11 rescues and often work with them in the shows.

That plays in to a segment halfway through the show, where the trainers encourage the audience to strongly consider adoption.

“We’re not against breeding by any means. We know certain people like certain breeds of dogs and we get that,” Perondi said. “We just encourage people to check the shelters first.”

The show also promotes the Lucy Pet Foundation’s message, which encourages pet owners to take advantage of low-cost spaying and neutering options. Lucy Pet sends mobile clinics around the country to promote spaying and neutering to combat pet overpopulation, and it also encourages adoption.

Stunt Dog Productions stages hundreds of shows across the United States every year and can be found anywhere from theme parks to local fairs and concerts. Daily shows at the Florida Strawberry Festival are sponsored by Visions of Outdoor Living and will be held at 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on the grounds.

Be it music, magic or madcap mutts, new experiences or checking out some tried and true favorites, the Strawberry Festival makes sure there's always something free and fun no matter your age.

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