Fairs, festivals take chill out of winter

Jasmine Schroeder, of Webster, left, and Jodie Specht, of Bushnell, hold on as they spin on a ride at the Sumter County Fair in Bushnell. This year’s fair, one of the highlights of festival season, begins March 6.

Seasonal residents come to escape the cold. They stay for the pirates, art, fried food and strawberries. The winter months in Florida are when fairs and festivals occur with greater frequency because of comfortable weather and a likelihood of attracting crowds of winter-weary snowbirds and tourists. And the crowds intend to come. Local travel agencies either sold out or are close to selling out shuttles to this weekend’s Mount Dora Arts Festival, the Florida State Fair and the Florida Strawberry Festival. After the state fair wraps up, Villagers and area residents may find fair fun closer to home when the Sumter County Fair returns on March 6. Tampa recently wrapped up its Gasparilla Pirate Festival, but the city will remain a festival hotbed with the state fair, the Bay Area Renaissance Festival and the International Cuban Sandwich Festival coming up within the next two months.

Certain fairs and festivals draw people from out of state, and some may even consider the festivals the main reason for their visit, said Deborah Breiter Terry, a tourism and events professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

“I think that after the holidays and before spring comes along, people will be looking for things to do that are somewhat unique,” she said.

Fairs and festivals fit into a picture of the winter months offering an abundance of things for snowbirds to do when they come to Florida, including The Villages, for the season.

“We have so many good activities happening,” said Doug Gilpin, a Sumter County Commissioner and chairman of the county’s Tourist Development Council. “The weather’s perfect, and when you’re here to visit you want nice weather.”


How Fairs Affect Communities

Villagers don’t have to travel a long distance for a fair or festival.

In Sumter County, festivals and special events played a part in the county generating more than $815,000 in tourist development tax revenues in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to county documents.

This includes festivals in The Villages, where county leaders invest in the live entertainment at Lake Sumter Landing and Brownwood.

The Sumter County Fair also plays a role, Gilpin said. He described it as important for educating the public about agriculture and maintaining Sumter’s legacy as an agricultural county.

If Villagers want to go to a fair farther from home, local travel agencies can get them there.

Workman Travel and Tour and JP Tours, two local agencies that include day-trip shuttles as part of their business, are taking Villagers and area residents to this weekend’s Mount Dora Art Festival and February’s Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City.

JP Tours also is offering shuttles to the Florida State Fair.

Fairs and festivals are among the most popular day trip offerings for both groups. Emily Workman Crismore, marketing director for Workman Travel and Tour, attributes this to good weather and interest from seasonal residents.

“It’s a great time of year for festivals because the weather is nice,” she said.

Demand is high for festival tours, especially the strawberry festival, said Evelyn Stetler, president and owner of JP Tours.

“The first two weeks, we sold out one bus,” said Stetler, of the Village of Buttonwood.

Both Stetler and Crismore highlighted several benefits for taking a shuttle to a fair or festival.

Parking, for instance, tends to be difficult because of how highly attended festivals are, they said.

Shuttles not only eliminate the hassle of finding a parking spot, but also the need to walk from the parking lot to the entrance, according to Stetler and Crismore. Generally speaking, festival staff will allow shuttles and buses to drop off and pick up guests as close to the entrance as possible.

“Sometimes, you have to go a mile away (to park),” Stetler said. “At the state fair, they let us drop off (passengers) at the ticket gate.”


Why Festivals?

Communities with an abundance of festivals aim to stay fresh and exciting by expanding on the types of experiences they offer, said Breiter Terry.

“They are also supporting activities that locals can enjoy and this helps build pride in the destination,” she said.

State fairs and county fairs offer opportunities for people to get closer to agriculture, with exhibits and livestock shows aiming to educate the public on where their food comes from.

“They can learn more about Florida and the different things we can do,” said Stetler, of JP Tours.

Fairs may also be where people may taste boundary-pushing food creations.

The new dishes at this year’s Florida State Fair include a ramen burger with a peanut butter vinaigrette and a “steak n eggs sundae” with steak, bacon, grits, a fried egg and French fries layered together in a bowl, according to the fair’s website.

In Florida, the big festival cities also tend to be places that are centrally located to major surrounding communities.

Mount Dora, for example, is near Daytona Beach and Orlando.

After this weekend’s Mount Dora Arts Festival wraps up, the city has its African American History Festival, Taste in Mount Dora, Mount Dora Spring Show and Mount Dora Regatta on the agenda for the season.

Festivals offer a lifestyle for the community, said Chris Carson, Mount Dora’s cultural and special events coordinator.

“It’s very diverse when it comes to different style of events, whether it’s a cultural event or an event that represents a holiday,” he said. “We’ve had multiple generations doing it, and we pride ourselves on making things as high quality as possible.”

And when a community is known for multiple long-running events that are traditions for a community, it attracts interest from other event organizers who want to create festivals of their own.

Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, observes this when festivals come to Tampa.

It’s a reputation that likely began with Gasparilla, a 104-year old pirate festival that takes over downtown Tampa and the Hillsborough Bay every fourth weekend in January.

But the landscape in Tampa and Hillsborough County also includes the state fair, strawberry festival and a number of culinary and ethnic heritage festivals, Corrada said.

“There’s something to do just about every weekend,” he said. “I marvel when I hear people say they don’t have enough to do — I don’t have enough time to do everything.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.