In eastern Hillsborough County, where strawberry fields go forever, the annual festival paying tribute to the area's sweet cash crop is under way.
This year's Florida Strawberry Festival entertainment lineup that always offers ample servings of country music is, this year, topping it off with concerts that appeal to lovers of other music.
Demi Lovato takes to the stage at 7:30 tonight. The 19-year-old pop singer, who began her career as a Disney sitcom star, will wrap-up today's Wish Farms Soundstage entertainment, which includes 3:30 concerts by headliner country artists The Gatlin Brothers and Crystal Gayle. There are twice-daily concerts through March 11, ranging from oldie acts like Brenda Lee, The Platters and rock duo Air Supply, to Hank Williams Jr.
"We feel like we hit a gold star this year; we really brought in a lot of topnotch entertainment," said festival general manager Paul Davis.
As the festival title makes clear, however, it's about much more than music.
Strawberry shortcake is king, served at three booths operated by local nonprofits, including one where customers build their own.
The sweet berries do double duty at the festival, and can also be consumed in cobbler, cheesecake, cookies, bread, even pizza. "Anything you can imagine with a strawberry, we've got it," Davis said.
Beyond berries, food vendors will be offering a vast variety. New unique treats at this 77th annual festival include coconut-flavored sorbet served in coconut shells, deep-fried mashed potatoes on a stick, a burger smothered in a grilled cheese sandwich, sausages encased in waffles that can be dipped in syrup, and deep-fried pizza topped with candy.
After such gastronomic delights, step over to the huge midway where Belle City Amusements will be operating 85 rides day and night, including "some for thrill seekers and some for the kids," Davis said.
Unique additions this year include a sea lion splash show and a female lumberjack show. Also free with admission, starting Thursday, there will be multiple daily appearances and autograph sessions by the cast of truTV's reality show, "Lizard Lick Towing."
Said Davis, "We tried to go out and get new things that people haven't seen before."
And at 1 p.m. Monday, the annual Grand Parade begins in downtown Plant City and makes its way to the festival grounds.
FLORIDA STRAWBERRY FESTIVAL
When: through March 11; gates open at 10 a.m. daily
Where: 303 N. Lemon St., Plant City
Tickets: $10 ages 13 and older, $5 ages 6 to 12; free for children younger than 6 with paid adult; tickets purchased in advance at area Sweetbay Supermarkets are $8 for ages 13 and older, $4 for ages 6 to 12; (813) 754-1996 or www.flstrawberryfestival.com
Today: 3:30 p.m. – The Gatlin Brothers/Crystal Gayle; 7:30 p.m. – Demi Lovato
Saturday: 1 p.m. – Suite Caroline; 3:30 p.m. – Lauren Alaina; 7:30 p.m.: Air Supply
Sunday: 3:30 p.m. – Jake Owen; 7:30 p.m. – Hank Williams Jr.;
Monday: 3:30 p.m. – Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals; 7:30 p.m. – Josh Turner
Tuesday: 3:30 p.m. – Brenda Lee; 7:30 p.m. – Vince Gill
Wednesday: 3:15 p.m. – Honor American Heroes; 3:30 p.m. – Lee Greenwood/Louise Mandrell; 7:30 p.m. – The Band Perry
Thursday: 3:30 p.m. – The Charlie Daniels Band; 7:30 p.m. – Luke Bryan
March 9: 3:30 p.m. – Cornell Gunter’s Coasters/Bobby Hendrick’s Drifters/The Platters; 7:30 p.m. – TobyMac
March 10: 3:30 p.m. – Allstar Weekend; 7:30 p.m. – Rodney Atkins
March 11: 3:30 p.m. – Easton Corbin; 7:30 p.m. – Reba
Concerts info: Reserved seats $10 to $50, depending on the artist and seat location. Prices do not include gate admission. There are about 3,000 free grandstand seats available at each headline show on a first-come basis.