PLANT CITY — Whether yearning for serenading celebrities, rides that make their stomachs churn or the sweet seduction of strawberry shortcake, visitors can find their fix at the Florida Strawberry Festival.
When it comes to piling on entertainment, the festival isn’t known for restraint and the crowds respond. Last year’s attendance was 526,100, up from 525,300 in 2012. The final day broke the single-day record, with close to 100,000 people.
Far from reveling in the status quo, festival President Jim Jeffries and General Manager Paul Davis say the Feb. 27 through March 9 festival will be even bigger and better with new talent, shows, buildings and amenities.
“We have 30 or 40 acts that have the diversity (visitors) want to see,” said Davis. “There are new attractions, more grounds acts, a new stage.”
“I can’t think of a year we’ve had a better lineup,” said Jeffries. That includes first-time headline entertainers Lee Brice, Boyz II to Men, Jerrod Neimann, Thompson Square, Colt Ford, Styx and Shojai Tabuchi.
“(Tabuchi) is the No. 1 one act in Branson (Mo.). … It’s a full-fledged entertainment act,” said Davis. “I am so excited to see that unfold.”
This year’s theme — “Florida’s Best Family Recipe!” — reflects the festival’s efforts to be an affordable, family-friendly celebration, Davis said.
“We feel it fits the essence of what we’re all about: food, fun and family,” he said.
The festival’s iconic strawberry character that is featured on promotional materials also has a new look, complete with a chef’s hat and a handkerchief. The character is depicted mixing a bowl of whipped cream — the topping of strawberry shortcake.
The gate price is $10 for adults and $5 for children age 6 through 12. Tickets bought in advance at area Publix stores are $8 for adults and $4 for children.
The festival has enough free entertainment to keep families occupied all day, said Davis.
“It’s the best entertainment value around,” Davis said. “That’s something we’re proud of.”
New acts on the grounds this year include the Wild About Monkeys show and Rollo, The Biggest Little Kid in the World. Newcomers Savannah Jack and the Redhead Express will play daily in the Showcase Tent, and the Walker Brothers unveil their talents in the Strawberry Tent March 5 through 9.
“Savannah Jack, they chose us,” said Davis. “We were just thrilled they did that.”
The festival’s layout also shifts, with the removal of one building and the addition of another.
“We knew we were not going to be able to renovate the old arts building,” said Jeffries. “We’d had a successful year, so we really got moving.”
The East Hillsborough Art Guild Art Show moves to the Milton E. Hull Armory Building, and an expanded Neighborhood Village will be housed a new 12,000-square-foot building just south of the festival’s offices. The new structure includes about 1,000 square feet for additional bathrooms, and about 1,000 square feet for an emergency medical center.
Plant City Fire Rescue Chief Daniel Azzariti and the Plant City Police Department collaborated on the design of the space, said Davis.
“It needed a better ramp, better equipment,” he said. “They came up with a plan, given our property and location.”
Davis, who retired as a commander in 2008 after a 32-year career with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, is keenly aware of security issues. “The best security is when people don’t know there is security, but feel safe,” he said.
The festival is considering the addition of horse patrols, which would provide officers an elevated view of their surroundings, said Davis.
“You plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.
Jeffries’ inclinations run to the agricultural side of the festival. He retired in 2008 after 39 years with the Hillsborough County School District, including 19 years as the agribusiness supervisor. Though in his first year as festival president, Jeffries long has been involved with the festival’s livestock shows, FFA displays and as an administrator. He became an associate board member in 1994 and a full board member 10 years ago.
So naturally his must-see event is the Steer Show.
The hub of agricultural events is the newly renamed Grimes Family Agriculture Center, with 33,000 square feet of space, flanked by the Astin Farms and Swindle Family livestock pavilions.
“Not the biggest, but the nicest in the area,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries and Davis estimate 500 or more youngsters participate in the festival’s agricultural events, with $70,000 to $80,000 going back to the youths and their education each year.
“The community really comes out and supports their endeavors,” said Davis. “You rarely see kids out there without their families. It’s a commitment from the whole family.”
The festival wouldn’t exist without the community’s support and involvement, said Davis.
“There are 2,700 volunteers, including my board of directors. The festival is part of Plant City and Plant City is part of the festival. You can’t separate them.”
Though this is Davis’ sixth festival as general manager, he worked security there for 30 years as a member of the sheriff’s office. Law enforcement and the festival both are in the people business, he said, so making the transition was easy.
“When I left the sheriff’s office as a commander of 200, 300 people, I’ve learned you’re programmed well for cooperating and making decisions that are good for everybody. You have to do it the right way. Be good to your people, your community. Be good to your visitors.”
He credits the festival’s continued success to having an accomplished board of directors loaded with business savvy. The festival has 15 directors and 14 associate directors.
“Just work with that board and you can’t help but be successful,” Davis said. “All share a love of the community and a love of this festival and a love of the people that work around them.”
“It really doesn’t matter who is sitting in this seat,” he said. “They don’t do it for profit.”