9 Off-the-Beaten-Path Florida Festivals
By Gary McKechnie
There are plenty of festivals in Florida that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each. For instance, Tampa Bay’s Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Daytona Beach’s Bike Week and Miami Beach’s Art Deco Weekend.
But if you’re looking for more off-the-beaten-path Florida festivals, there are plenty of events just for you. Outside Florida’s major cities are smaller festivals and get-togethers that celebrate local flavor in the form of history, events, wildlife and plain good times.
And if a few thousand people – heck, even a few hundred people – show up, organizers are fine with that. Sometimes quirky, usually simple, and certainly sincere, these Florida festivals reflect the diverse nature of the Sunshine State. So get out your road map, check your calendar... and have fun!
Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival (Fellsmere)
You could travel across America, you could dive into the Everglades, but you’ll never find a frog leg festival anywhere other than Fellsmere. 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, there’s plenty of good eatin’ along with rides, arts and crafts, and live music that always brings out the natural goodness of this amphibious entrée. You’ll find Fellsmere just 10 miles west of Sebastian.
ZORA! Festival (Eatonville)
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 folklorist, anthropologist, and novelist Zora Neale Hurston who came here as a three-year-old in 1894 and became one of the most celebrated writers of the Harlem Rennaissance with works like Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Since 1989, she’s been the namesake of the ZORA! Festival, which takes place each January and celebrates history, music, art, fashion and food.
Down Home Street Festival (Bonifay)
The folks in Bonifay get right to the point with the name of their annual festival. Held each March, the Down Home Street Festival celebrates the virtue of small town living. Festivities include the Miss Bonifay Beauty Pageant, pickin’ in the park, a 5K run and bluegrass gospel. Oh -- when you hear the noon whistle blow, get ready for free black-eyed peas and cornbread.
Flora-Bama Lounge Mullet Toss (Perdido Key)
In lovely Perdido Key (just south of Pensacola) a prevailing eastern breeze is good news for contestants turning each April 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.
Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival (Amelia Island)
In the heart of Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island (just north of Jacksonville), May’s three-day Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival would delight 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 shrim—well, 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.
Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival (Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)
Above Looe Key Reef (about six miles south of Big Pine Key) a quirky concert for divers and snorkelers focuses on reef preservation. How is it quirky? Well, first the music is broadcast underwater via Lubell Laboratory speakers suspended beneath boats positioned above the reef, and the playlist ranges from humpback whale recordings to ocean-themed songs such as Jimmy Buffett's "Fins’"and the Beatles' "Octopus's Garden." If you take the plunge, you may encounter costumed divers or "mermaids" pretending to play underwater musical instruments like a trom-bonefish and clambourine. Yes, this is your typical Florida Keys hullaballoo. In July.
Great American Cooter Festival (Inverness)
You’ve got to love it when a small town festival has the gumption to bill itself as a “Southern extravaganza.” Turns out that the town is Inverness and the “extravaganza” is the Great American Cooter Festival. The three-day event is held during the last full weekend in October. Natives, of course, know that a cooter is the Florida’s native water turtle and festivities celebrate the reptile with a block party and fun events ranging from “cooter races” to “Cooterween.”
Epiphany Celebration (Tarpon Springs)
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 in January. The festivities include the Blessing of the Waters, authentic Greek costumes, a choir, and a white dove symbolizing peace. The highlight of the day is when the Archbishop casts a traditional white wooden cross into the bayou to signify the full immersion of an orthodox baptism. At that point, 60 teenagers leap into the water to retrieve the cross, with the lucky finder receiving a special blessing and a lift back to the church on the shoulders of his peers. The ensuing party lasts throughout the weekend as residents enjoy Greek food, dancing and music.
Wasuau Possum Festival (Wausau)
How can you improve upon a festival that includes a 5K Run, a pancake breakfast, gospel music, wrestling, and a cornpone-cooking contest? Well, you just add possums. The Wausau Possum Festival has been going on more than a half-century, and the popularity of the event about 90 miles west of Tallahassee and just 11 miles south of Chipley continues to build thanks to old-fashioned events like sack races, climbing a greased pole and, the ultimate in down-home delights, the crowning of the Possum Queen. In August.