By Janet K. Keeler
Springtime is playtime in Florida, with days and nights chock-full of things to do.
Visitors and locals alike wish for more hours in the day to squeeze in the many events, including the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival in Orlando, and the annual Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo that brings the nation’s best ropers and riders to the center of the state, now in a brand-new facility. The Florida strawberry gets its due at the annual Strawberry Festival in Plant City.
Music, food and all sorts of fun celebrate the best of the Sunshine State from the Florida Keys to Southern-tinged Northwest Florida to the bright lights and big cities of Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa. Seafood extravaganzas like the Fort Myers Beach Shrimp Parade & Festival and Original Marathon Seafood Festival feature the delicious bounty of Florida waters.
Need more? Be the early bird at the annual Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival that is all about the common earthworm. The small town in the Apalachicola National Forest comes alive with music, art and food for this unique celebration.
Here are more springtime favorites sure to make a trip to Florida or a weekend getaway memorable.
Swamp Thing, You Make Our Hearts Sing
Weeki Wachee in Hernando County has long been famous for its mermaid shows, but the annual Swamp Fest celebrates another mythical underwater creature. The moss-covered, slimy one. And if competing in the “swamp monster contest” isn’t your thing, then getting a taste of local delicacies like fried alligator and black-eye peas likely is. Entertainment, food and small-town fun will all be part of the annual Swamp Fest, now held at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park because it’s just gotten so darn popular.
Witness Art in Action
The 10-day Forgotten Coast En Plein Air is also called America’s Great Paint-Out. For 10 days, artists paint the scenic Florida Panhandle coast from Alligator Point to Mexico Beach. They recall the work and times of Degas, Monet and Pissarro, who also painted “plein air” or in the open air. The paint-out features workshops, guest speakers and painting stations along the Gulf of Mexico. There are locations maps and guides provided so that visitors can watch the 20 artists in action.
On SW 8th Street
At the annual Calle Ocho Festival, sited in the heart of Miami’s historic Cuban district, there’s lively music at the daylong event. Those with big appetites and empty stomachs can win money at the La Croquetazo eating contest. (A Spanish potato croquette can be filled with all sorts of flavorful ingredients, from shellfish to ham.) The Cuban Sandwich Smackdown draws chefs from around the state, including those from cross-state rival, Tampa, to determine the age-old debate about who makes the best pork-plus Cuban. It’s a lively argument that will never be put to rest. Winner gets bragging rights for a year. For an extra few bucks, festival-goers can get behind-the-scenes tours. Calle Ocho Festival is the last event in the month-long Carnaval Miami celebration.
Move Over, Ernest Hemingway
If it’s March, it must be Tennessee Williams month in Key West. The Keys’ most famous island has long been associated with Ernest Hemingway, but the great playwright Williams spent time in the Florida tropics, too. Highlights of the month include screenings of movies adapted from his plays such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Rose Tattoo,” plus readings, a writing competition and productions of Williams’ plays. The festival also marks the playwright’s birthday on March 26.
Oysters Every Which Way
The tasty bivalve is cooked in every way imaginable – Casino, Mexicali, stewed, grilled, fried and of course raw – at the annual Fort Pierce Oyster Festival. The event has gotten so popular that it spans two days. Downtown is transformed into an oyster-lovers paradise accompanied by music and other festival delights. What happens to all those discarded oyster shells? They are collected for oyster reef restoration projects.
Paddle Down Upon the Suwannee River
Get up close to some of Florida’s coolest wildlife, among them alligators and sunning turtles, during the annual Suwannee River Paddling Festival on two gorgeous North Florida rivers, the Suwanee and the Withlacoochee. Participants, who put in on the Suwanee near Live Oak, paddle about 30 miles over two days, stopping to camp, tell ghost stories around the campfire, eat, and listen to music. There are also paddling demonstrations. The $150 ticket includes camping fees, river shuttles and meals.
A Berry, Berry Fun Time
Blueberries in Florida? Yes, the sweet fruit is gaining acreage and fans across the Sunshine State so it makes sense that it’s being celebrated with its own festival, the Florida Blueberry Festival in Brooksville. Those who are used to only eating blueberries floating on cereal or embedded in muffins, will be surprised at the variety of uses. There will be all sorts of desserts to taste, plus wines, vinegars and jams. Festival-goers don’t live by blueberries alone and for them there is a beer garden, dog show and car show.
Big Music, Big Time
How big is the South Florida SunFest music festival? Well, 50 bands, three stages and five days answer that question. Nearly 200,000 people flock to downtown West Palm Beach for the annual event. Did we mention floating barges and fireworks? It’s a big time all right.
Taking in the Art
Historic downtown Sanford gets its art on every year for the St. Johns River Festival of the Arts. The brick streets are lined with booths stuffed with the work of regionally and nationally known fine and craft artists. Some of the mediums include painting, pottery, sculpture and woodworking. Local groups get together to compete in the sidewalk chalk competition and be assured this isn’t your kids’ handiwork, though kids are encouraged to participate.
For the Love of Flowers
Two of Florida’s most beautiful blooms, orchids and hibiscus, are celebrated at the annual Punta Gorda Hibiscus Festival on the state’s west coast. Visitors will marvel at the different varieties of hibiscus, plus get a chance to see other exotic plants and trees. There’s a car show and a Li’l Miss Hibiscus Pageant plus a garden tour.