When you enter the grounds of the Florida Strawberry Festival it doesn’t take long to realize there is a big difference between those who come every year and those who are taking it in for the very first time.
If you want to enjoy the festival like a pro there are a few simple tricks to blending in and becoming one of the locals.
The easiest and most crucial step happens before you ever even enter town. As wonderful as living in the realm of technology is, Siri often struggles to find the best route to the festival. Regardless of where you’re coming from your GPS will probably direct you from I-4 and have you exit at Thonotosassa. That is a major mistake.
Depending on how early you’re willing to hit the road I-4 will more than likely be a crawling disaster for the majority of the 11-days. Everyone who is coming in comes off the same exit and has to funnel into a tiny sliver of parking. You’ll spend more time stopped waiting for lights to change as you inch toward parking than you probably expected to spend total on your commute.
Highway 60, Fl-39 and US-92 will soon become your best friends if you want to beat traffic. If I-4 is your only option, consider getting off on Alexander Street and swinging around the festival that way. Backroads are all a local will dare trek on for the entire 11-days and in the end it will save loads of time, allowing you to spend the morning enjoying breakfast inside the grounds rather that chugging Starbucks from inside your car.
Once inside take a moment to pause before you rush to the closest donut stand. Take a photo of your gate and where you parked. The festival is deceptively large and it’s easy to get turned around. When you have solid bearings, navigating is a breeze.
Whatever you want to do, do it first. Pretend you’re at a theme park on a holiday weekend. If you want to ride a ride, knock it out immediately. If you’re there to get some shortcake or strawberry lemonade grab them as soon as you get through. The festival draws more and more attendees every year so the crowd favorites will come with winding lines as the day progresses.
Have designated meeting locations and times for your group. Odds are you will end up separating and one thing first timers won’t realize is cell reception becomes nonexistent for most busy days at the festival. Take all the photos you want, but you probably won’t be able to post until you’re home. Getting a simple text sent can be impossible, calling is frequently off the table entirely if it’s a packed day.
Start near the Midway. If you’re coming in the morning and want to get the most out of your day grab your souvenirs and snacks first and then head to the Midway. Ride your favorite rides and then slowly head back toward the grandstands. In the middle of the day the Florida heat can be miserable and there are several large and air-conditioned buildings on that side of the grounds. Check out vendors inside a cool building, head to an art show to escape the heat or stroll over to Neighborhood Village to take in the air conditioned Queen’s Exhibit and displays of local contest winners.
By the time you’ve hit all the exhibits several hours will have passed and you will enter prime show time for the festival.
You can’t be everywhere at once so study the schedule and pick what interests you most. Some of the free entertainment and shows will blow you away with the raw talent on display. Eating contests are morbidly fascinating and there are several throughout the week for all food fanatics.
One crucial thing to not miss out on is the festival’s agriculture shows. Local youth work tirelessly to raise and train their animals. Whether you’re 100 percent here for an ag show or if you simply want to laugh the festival has the show for you.
Go to an animal costume contest. You’ll be fighting tears from laughter at the creative and wacky outfits. Go to a plant show. It is amazing to watch a middle schooler lug out a plant taller than they are and show off their green thumbs. You can even walk away with a gorgeous plant of your own if you’re the winning bid.
You can stroll through the halls in-between shows to meet the contestants and their furry friends. Chickens, rabbits, cows, sheep and pigs all end up at one point or another calling the festival home.
Even if it’s 90 degrees out during the day bring a flannel or light jacket if you’re planning on staying for a night show. This is still Florida and the weather could change in any moment.
I like to eat, so there’s no better place for people like me than fairs and festivals like this one. I’m also a journalist with student loans I probably have to keep paying on for several more years, so I don’t have the money to just go around every day I’m there and buy everything I want to eat.
If you’re like me and want to try all these crazy culinary concoctions without ruining your finances the next day, hear me out.
The best thing you can do when you want to eat a lot of different kinds of food on a budget is to go with at least one friend. Not just any friend, mind you: you have to hit up the folks you know who are most likely to get excited about the opportunities the Florida Strawberry Festival presents for their social media accounts.
What photographs better and gets more clout than fair food? Nothing, that’s what — and they know it. So many people are forever chasing clout on social media these days that it shouldn’t be hard to find at least one person who’s somewhere between an extremely active poster and a self-styled “influencer.”
Now, I’m not trying to tell you to coerce this person or these people to pay for everything. Don’t be a moocher. But now you’ll be able to split the portions and the cost of all this food with others who want in on that action, or maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll just buy something outright and ask you to eat some of it. Maybe you’ll be on camera for the first bite, maybe you won’t. Who cares, though? You just hit the jackpot.