Plant City began celebrating its annual harvest back in 1930, ranking this year's 75th Florida Strawberry Festival (they took a few seasons off during WW II) among the area's oldest ongoing tourist attractions. So you'd think they'd have figured out how to plan for it. Unfortunately, my first-ever visit nearly became my last.
After following the recommended directions for 50 miles, I found myself in a quarter-mile queue at I-4's exit 19; at the ramp's end, there was an absurdly underdesigned four-way interchange with only stop signs to supervise. Instead of directing the stop-and-go suicide, Officer McFriendly sat at in his comfy cruiser, not only spectating the stream of near-collisions but also blocking visibility.
What would Disney do? Maybe reinvest some of the profits generated by the annual cash cow into safety and infrastructure to avoid killing your paying audience? But this being rural Florida, my welcome to the Strawberry Festival was a maddening mile of bumper-to-bumper traffic, culminating when a wildly-waving cop directed me onto a side-street with no clue where to go. Finally, a Little Leaguer let me park on his family's lawn for a few bucks, and I set off on the half-mile hike toward the festival.
Dodging cars in chaotic crosswalks, I nearly decided to buy a pint of fruit from one of the vendors hawking on every approaching sidewalk and head home. Fate, for once, stepped in to save the day in the form of a sign bearing two of the sweetest words to any hack writer's eye: "Media Center." Inside, I discovered a small model home ("furnished by Badcock & More"), populated by a friendly PR staff who greeted me with a press pass, a clean bathroom and a tray of the largest strawberries I'd seen in years.
Refreshed and grateful to bypass the swarm in the admission booths, I entered the fairgrounds and came face-to-face with a sign bearing three of the foulest words I can imagine: "Deep Fried Butter." I'm a fan of fair food in almost every form and have even eaten my fair share of deep-fried Oreos. But can we all agree that a frozen stick of butter, drenched in batter and dunked in boiling fat is an arterial shunt too far? Nearby, not far from where Rosaire's Racing Pigs competed in an inflatable arena, a stand sold chocolate-covered bacon, a trendy evolution for the pork product. I could see the appeal if it were extra-crispy, but the sight of greasy, flaccid Hormel in brown goo isn't appetizing.
More ridiculous was the redundancy of food options, with circuit-traveling trailers selling identical corn dogs vastly outnumbering mom-and-pop purveyors. Aside from the few stands offering flats of fresh berries and onions, there was little sign of the festival's locavore origins. Even displays by winners of local cooking and crafts competitions — my favorite — were crammed into a claustrophobic carriage house, leaving the spacious (though smelly) expo halls to shillers of whirlpool spas and stainless steel cookware. And while rides are every fair's reason to exist, even here I left unsatisfied: The assortment appeared inferior to the physically smaller Central Florida Fair's, with many rides aging, inoperable and overpriced. I'm a cheesy dark ride aficionado, but the only one on the midway was a below-average ghost train called "Universal Horror"; it's ugly mural of Lugosi and Karloff (just begging for a copyright infringement lawsuit) concealed mouldering mannequins within.
The exception was the Strawberry Grower's Display, a demonstration patch of farmland complete with vintage tractors and a tiny Cracker shack. Under an "Ask A Farmer" sign sat a nine-and-a-half-fingered gentleman who may or may not have been Wilford Brimley's long-lost brother. He shared some new-to-me strawberry trivia: They are technically flowers, not fruit, and each berry (big or small) has 200 seeds. I didn't ask about the finger, but he was still my entertainment highlight of the day. Puppeteer Sam Bowman's "Granpa Crachet" (featuring spastic slapstick chickens in a classic Punch & Judy—style show) came a close second; I missed seeing Galaxy Girl and the Galaxy Globe of Death riders who I suspect have given the plush poultry a run for their money.
Forcing my way through overloaded aisles, I caught eyes with a balky bovine being led to judgment by a white-clad 4-H lass. I felt a pang of empathy, and was reminded of how Disney's parks, with their stress-reducing curved pathways and calming queues, are essentially efficient abattoirs for people, absent the exsanguinations. And while Orlando's attractions are also overtly corporate, I've never seen anything at them (outside of Universal's Mardi Gras) quite as crass as the Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show crowd here, shrieking for safety-orange Home Depot—sponsored swag, though to be fair, the turbo chainsaw was pretty bitchin'. After factoring in gas and aggravation, an afternoon in Plant City isn't quite as expensive as a day at the Mouse, but I couldn't call it a firstname.lastname@example.org