Quirky Florida Festivals

By: Gary McKechnie

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From the flinging of fish to adventurous eating, Florida's small towns and downtowns will open your eyes to some truly unique reasons to celebrate.

Sure, Florida has events that’ll draw hundreds of thousands of visitors (see: Tampa Bay’s Gasparilla, Daytona Beach’s Bike Week and Miami Beach’s Art Deco Weekend), but it also has its fair share of small town festivals and get-togethers that celebrate local flavor in the form of history, events, wildlife and plain good times. If a few thousand people – heck, even a few hundred – show up, organizers are fine with that.

Sometimes quirky, usually simple and certainly sincere, these festivals reflect the diverse nature of the Sunshine State.

So, get out your road map, check your calendar... and have fun!

You could travel across America, but you’ll never find a frog leg festival anywhere other than Fellsmere, Florida. Each January, residents of this town of 5,200 get together for the four-day Frog Leg Festival, where they’ll cook up frog legs served with a side dish of gator tail, grits, cole slaw and hush puppies. Yep, that’s good eatin’. And, of course, there are rides, arts and crafts, and live music that always bring out the natural goodness of this amphibious entrée. Fellsmere is only 10 miles west of Sebastian.

It’s a point of pride that the community of Eatonville, just north of Orlando, is the nation’s oldest incorporated African-American community. The city also takes pride in the literary genius of Zora Neale Hurston who moved here as a three-year-old in 1894. Since 1989, she’s been the namesake of the Zora! Festival, which takes place each January and celebrates history, music, art, fashion and food.

Bonifay’s Down Home Street Festival gets right to the point; this event celebrates the virtue of small town living. Festivities include the Miss Bonifay Beauty Pageant, pickin’ in the park, a 5K run and bluegrass gospel. When you hear the noon whistle blow, get ready for free black-eyed peas and cornbread.

While Gilchrist County – the entire county – has a population of less than 20,000, the county seat of Trenton has a distinction that not even the finest restaurants in Paris could rival. On the second Friday of each April, the Gilchrist Education Foundation hosts the Friday night Wild Beast Feast to raise scholarship funds for graduating seniors. Adventurous epicures can sample quail, mountain goat, water buffalo, mountain oysters, pork, gator tail, frog legs, swamp cabbage, beef, barbecue goat and authentic gumbo. Bon appétit!

In lovely Perdido Key, just south of Pensacola, when there’s a prevailing eastern breeze, it’s good news for contestants turning out for the Flora-Bama Lounge Mullet Toss, where the challenge is to heave a mullet into neighboring Alabama. Fans in lounge chairs sit beneath beach umbrellas to create the boundaries of a sugar-sand playing field for contestants who, like Olympic javelin throwers, launch the mullet on its interstate trip.

In the heart of Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island (just north of Jacksonville), May’s three-day Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival would please Forrest Gump and Bubba Blue simply by the myriad ways vendors prepare and serve shrimp. There’s shrimp pie, shrimp salad, grilled shrimp, boiled shrimp, shrimp pizza, shrimp twisters, fried shrimp... you get the idea. Don’t miss out on the Pirate Parade and Invasion, sidewalk sales, live music, 5K run, antiques and collectibles vendors, the Blessing of the Fleet and the crowning of Miss Shrimp. The festival name, incidentally, refers to the fact Amelia Island is the only place in America that has been ruled under eight flags.

Assuredly, there’s no better place than the South than to hear Southern rock, so it’s natural that folks in Spring Hill host September’s Bluesapalooza. In addition to blues, there are brews and barbecue to boot. The festival, held at Linda Pedersen Park, is presented by the Hernando County Parks and Recreation Department. Who knew a parks and rec department could rock?

You’ve got to love it when a small town festival has the gumption to bill itself as a “Southern extravaganza,” but one town is bold enough to announce to the world that it’s home to the Great American Cooter Festival. The three-day event is held in the lovely town of Inverness during the last full weekend in October. So what exactly is a cooter? The festivities celebrate the native Florida water turtle with fun ranging from “cooter races” to “Cooterween.”

The town of Tarpon Springs is known for its sponge-diving history and rich Greek heritage, and some say the best time to experience it is during city’s annual Epiphany celebration. The festivities include the Blessing of the Waters, authentic Greek costume, a choir, a white dove symbolizing peace and the highlight of the day: The Archbishop casts a traditional white wooden cross into the bayou to signify the full immersion of an orthodox baptism, and 60 teenagers then leap into the water to retrieve it. The lucky finder receives a special blessing and is carried back to the church by his peers. The ensuing party lasts throughout the weekend as residents enjoy Greek food, dancing and music.

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2 comments
Shelly James
Shelly James July 21, 2014 9:42 AM
you missed the quirkiest of all. In Sopchoppy they have the Worm Grunting Festival. The ones you listed don't even come close. St. George Island has a mullet toss too