There is something about a mid-autumn festival spreading out on the parkland between the Land O' Lakes Community Center and School Road. It just feels, well, right.
Throw in a Saturday morning flap - er, pancake breakfast, and the organizers of the third Swamp Fest can't help but believe they're onto something. Something old, familiar and traditional, sure, but something also uplifting, energizing and restorative.
Now, if they'd only add a parade. "We're not that big ... yet," says Doug Hutchinson, squishing to a halt near the half-assembled Ferris wheel in a golf cart he borrowed to tour Thursday's rain-delayed preparations. But Hutchinson, a retired Hillsborough County firefighter-paramedic and, as director of the Land O' Lakes High School Athletics Booster Club, titular foreman of Swamp Fest operations, has high hopes.
"The buzz is on," he says. "Word got up here that they were talking about it at Guavaween." Well. When they're chatting up your festival at Ybor City's world-renowned annual masked bacchanalia, you know you've moved past community event into the rarified realm of cult fame.
So welcome to Swamp Fest III, a three-day frolic in the heart of Pasco County that is already exceeding expectations, even before the midway lights flicker to life, the first vaguely edible concoction emerges from the first deep fryer, or the first lead guitarist strikes that first jangling chord.
Credit, at least in part, the genius of timing. SFIII arrives the weekend after a Halloween that was, by many anecdotal accounts, lackluster. It also follows on the heels of an utterly exhausting Election Day. Obviously, SFIII is just the thing if you're a tea party patriot in a celebratory mood; but if you're one of those suffering a post-Pelosi hangover who'd just as soon forget the whole thing, there are rides for that, too.
Get upside down on a swinging pirate ship, inverted on something called "The Zipper," or satisfactorily discombobulated in "The Scrambler." Whee. A word of advice, guys, from one who's been there: Allow some time between one of Peggy Reid's famous corn dogs and any of the Wade Shows attractions that pull serious Gs. Your future wife will thank you for your restraint.
Consider, instead, the Mardi Gras glass house, where, with his industrial cleaner and squeegee, Jacksonville resident Frank Haynes, 39, tries to stay ahead of fingerprints, forehead smears and - yikes! - tongue marks. Tongue marks?
"Well," says attraction manager Kevin Feagan, 40, of Detroit, "Little kids are going to do what little kids are going to do."
While you're at it, extend a little kindness in the direction of the folks tending the rides and hawking games (even as they attempt to separate you from your cash with tests you cannot win). They're approaching the end of a season that began in February. To remind you how long ago that was, Charlie Crist was not only a Republican, he led in the polls.
Some of the folks you'll meet are keen to get home - even those, like Amanda Epperson of Galesburg, Ill. (near Peoria), completing her sixth tour with Wade Shows, who flatly declare their adoration of carnie life.
"People, when they join up, know right away," she says, even as she scrubs grease out of an exhaust fan vent - a true act of devotion. "If they love it, it'll always be in their blood. If they hate it, they're always going to hate it."
But they're already making Thanksgiving plans back home, and Epperson is eager to tuck into the feast - which certainly will not include corn dogs, nachos or chicken wings.
Others - squeegee man Haynes and Poplar Bluff, Mo., St. Louis Cardinals fan and game operator Jason Lovell, 30 - will join the show in Puerto Rico next week. Haynes, for one, is relieved. "Lots of excitement there," he says. Besides, he notes, "Every time we come here, it gets cold. Why is that? I want to go where it's warm."
Finally, there's the aforementioned Peggy Reid, whose delight at finishing the year at Swamp Fest III is reflected in her indomitable smile. As with the late, lamented Flapjack Festival, the Land O' Lakes event allows Peggy and Donnie Reid, a couple of Temple Terrace kids who took to carnival life 27 years ago, to conclude their season while sleeping at home, and not in a travel trailer: They live in nearby Lake Padgett.
"We could walk to work!" she exults. "If we didn't have to cross (U.S.) 41."
And next week, they'll put up their feet, following another tradition that's familiar and restorative.