The festival board hopes the new grandstand seating will improve the festival’s headline concert experience.
The Florida Strawberry Festival Monday unveiled its new grandstand seating, marking the first time in the festival’s history its headline acts will perform in a venue designed for concerts.
Since the festival began hosting headline performers with Dale Evans in 1972, concerts were held on the grounds of the old William Schneider Memorial Stadium. The stadium was once home to Plant City High School’s football team, its backless concrete bleachers designed for football, not music.
The steep bleachers were uncomfortable and dangerous, Paul Davis, the festival president said. For years, the Florida Strawberry Festival Board knew it would have to upgrade the seating or lose entertainers and concert goers to places like Orlando and Lakeland. It was only a question when.
Rascal Flatts closed the 2017 Florida Strawberry Festival with a sold out show on a Sunday night. The following Friday, the stadium came down to make way for the new seating.
“Our whole intention is to improve the experience of the festival. We’ve taken the festival one step further,” Sandee Sytsma, board chairperson, said. “It’s hard for us to go against history and go against what we know as being the festival, but it’s our job to make it better all the time and look for ways to improve. We don’t take that lightly.”
The new seating comes with a number of upgrades aside from backed seats. Every aspect of the design and construction was meticulously planned for the optimum experience, Davis said. The new seating wraps around the Wish Farms Soundstage like an amphitheater, the furthest seat from the stage 12-feet closer than the old stadium’s nearest seat.
“It’s awesome. You see it in renditions and all this stuff, but to actually see it completed like this is just fabulous,” Mike Sparkman, a festival board member, said. “There’s been so much comment from everybody that’s driven by here and sees it, the red fits in with our strawberry theme and the view is excellent.”
The facility has improved ramps and walkways, making it safer and ADA compliant and a sound engineer helped improve the acoustics with details form the fencing down to the perforated, mesh-like underside of each seat.
“It took a lot of planning and a lot of meetings,” Davis said. “We think we’ve got a state of the art facility that will serve this festival and serve this community for years to come.”
Even the lighting was a major decision, he said. First, they tried lights in the center of the aisles, but those proved to blinding. More planning and more meetings led to four-foot LED lights under the steps that are coated to soften their glow and be weather resistant. It improves the experience for performer and patron alike, Davis said.
Davis said the old seats could be offered for free, an oft celebrated aspect of the festival, because the seating was inferior. The festival, he said, tried to think of ways to keep the seating, but if they made any upgrades to the old stadium, they’d have to bring the whole structure up to current code, which was impossible, he said. The new stadium means no more free seating, but Davis said it’s a topnotch experience at an unbeatable price.
“We try to get just enough money to cover our acts,” he said. “We don’t try to make a profit here. That way, we bring people in and they enjoy the fair.”
The Wish Farms Soundstage host’s about 24 headline performers over the festival’s 11-days. Festival attendance averages more than 500,000 people, with about 541,000 attending in 2017 and about 560,000 attending in 2016.
The Oak Ridge Boys will be the first to christen the redesigned venue when they open the festival’s headliner run on March 1 at 3:30 p.m. The true test, however, will be Reba McEntire’s Sunday night show, according to Davis.
“She’ll fill the grandstand,” he said. “It hasn’t sold out, not yet, but it’s expected.”