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We Have a Winner! Florida Strawberry Festival Breaks Spending & Attendance Records

Going for A Sweet Ride...
Casey DeSantis, First Lady of Florida, rides the Jumbos with her daughter at the Florida Strawberry Festival

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“We Have A Winner!” – The Marketing Theme for the 88th Florida Strawberry Festival – anticipated not only what turned out to be a record-breaking edition of this Sunshine State Tradition – but reflected a behind the scenes campaign to enshrine the event's titular fruit with statewide esteem.

Prior to opening the annual celebration of Florida's strawberry industry, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill declaring Strawberry Shortcake the official dessert of the State of Florida.

“We had a lot of discussion about what the slogan should be this year,” said Kyle Robinson, President, Florida Strawberry Festival. “By being named the official dessert of the entire state, we had a unique opportunity to highlight strawberries to the entire state and a $1.1 billion impact in Hillsborough County alone.”

Dessert Wars

More than 250,000 strawberry short cake desserts are sold each year at the festival, joining an array of strawberry-obsessive fair cuisine that includes Strawberry Milkshakes, Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake Milkshake; Chocolate Dipped Strawberries; Strawberry Jam; Strawberry Pie; Strawberry Cheesecake; Strawberry Pizza; Strawberry Cobbler; Strawberry Tacos; Strawberry Parfait; Strawberry Crepes; Strawberry Cream Puffs, Strawberry Kettle Korn and Strawberry Fudge.
Moose Joose introduced the Strawberry Cheesecake Slush - a frozen strawberry slush topped with a slice of cheesecake, whipped cream, and sweet strawberry drizzle.

“Florida growers grow over 12,000 acres of strawberries, which results in a harvest that's almost 300 million pounds of strawberries each year," Robinson said, who noted that it was a banner harvest for the industry, free of extreme weather events.

Robinson has replaced Paul Davis, who is retiring after 25 years at the helm of one of the largest outdoor events in the entire state. “We wanted to thank our state representatives who pushed for this recognition because they won the honor for our shortcakes.”

Things weren't always so sweet behind the legislative scenes. Robinson noted that the once powerful Key Lime Pie lobby – the famed citrus and merengue food item was invented in Key West, Florida – opposed naming strawberry shortcake as Florida's government approved dessert special. Key Lime was previously honored as the Official State Pie in 2006 and was now vying for an upgrade. In the end, the Key Lime-led shortcake opposition was unable to gain more than a handful of No votes in the Tallahassee State House.

While Florida's governmental leaders may have moved on to issues many citizens consider more pressing than the shortcake vs pie desert battle, the fact of the matter remains that the strawberry had a clear, undeniable advantage over the lime in its own 11-day festival, which also just happens to be the largest outdoor event devoted to a single crop in North America.

Excitement & Energy

The Florida Strawberry Festival was ranked #30 on the 2022 Top-50 Fairs, as compiled by Carnival Warehouse and it looks like this year's event will be best of its post-lockdown festivals.  The 2022 Berry Fest had a robust 543,000 attendance, but in 2023 turnout hit 606,116 and included a setting single day attendance record for the closing Sunday of more than 103,000. “You could really feel the excitement and energy this year,” said Robinson. “We had really big crowds. We had 11 days of great weather and people just wanted to be out again.”

President Paul Davis and President-Elect Kyle Robinson

The post-Covid scenario has been attendance resurgence and high-levels of consumer confidence, typified by spending. But a drying up of stimulus funds, price-but-not-wage inflation, bank failures and layoffs in the tech and other sectors, seems certain to paint a less than rosy economic picture for 2023. How will these negative economic trends impact the upcoming fair season for which the Florida Strawberry Festival is often seen as a bellwether event?

“People were spending,” said Robinson. “People are sick of winter and wanted to be outside and in the fresh air. I think some people were waiting until the last day, but we had a lot of people returning this year. The general comments coming out of the fair was that people were spending money. I would sit outside the main gates while everybody was leaving and I'd see nearly everyone carrying souvenirs, plush, crafts and food. Their spending habits haven't changed and the vendors and concessionaires I talked with were having record years.”

He added, “The economy is good. I guess as the saying goes, a rising tide floats all boats. I was glad to see people spending and their attendance and spending exceeded our expectations. Inflation is hurting us all and the Strawberry Festival has made an effort to keep this an affordable entertainment to everyone, including all families. We haven't increased our ticket prices is over 20 years.”

“We had the largest ride gross that we've ever had at the Florida Strawberry Festival,” said Charles Panacek, of Belle City Amusements, who said he's been the midway provider for the event for 15 years. “Last year we had a record midway but we surpassed that this year, we're beating our pre-pandemic grosses. We had no substantial price increases; we really worked to keep the prices down even though our costs for fuel, food and labor have gone up. People are spending more but there are more people, the attendance is higher.”

Belle City Showcased their Sky Wheel at the Strawberry Fest - one of few still on the road today.

The Florida Strawberry Festival, along with the Manatee County Fair, Charlotte County Fair and the Sarasota County Fair make the first quarter route for this midway provider, the 11th largest according to Carnival Warehouse's Annual list of carnivals playing the Top 50 Fairs. “We broke records at all our Florida Fairs, and all those fairs had record attendance. I don't think there's been a big attitude change. I think people do the math and see our product is an excellent entertainment value for the money.”

Panacek resists “belleweathering” his early-season Florida route because “Florida is a pretty unique state and making predictions doesn't always work when you get out in the summer and go further north. The Florida Strawberry Festival is an extremely well-managed event and Paul Davis has done exceptional job in creating an event that gives the people in the State of Florida  joy and pleasure and Kyle Robinson has done a fine  job in carrying on that tradition.”

He added, “We are attracting more families and  a lot more Hispanic and Latino families.  We are catering more to groups within the community and that has paid off.”

Free Bird

Lynyrd Skynyrd concert, Wish Farms Soundstage

 This year's Berry Fest also found itself at the center of global attention. The first live show by the touring Lynyrd Skynyrd  band after Gary Rossington, the last surviving founding member of the band, was an emotional evening for both the band and the festival, where they've headlined multiple times over the decades. Outgoing Florida Strawberry Festival President Paul Davis issued a statement: “Our Festival has lost a great friend, entertainer, and music icon. Our hearts go out to his entire family, all his fans and to the thousands of people whose lives he has enriched. We know we will have a special guest and guardian angel watching over this performance.”

“It was an incredible show and we were very excited to host them,” said Robinson. “The week leading up  to his (Rossington)  passing, there were a lot of questions if they would play, but the decision was up to them. Before the band went on, there was video with historical footage of them on our large screens. It was really fitting for the last night of the festival.”

While high-profile concerts and record attendance may have enabled the Florida Strawberry Festival to live up to its We Have A Winner! 2022 marketing theme, there was one debut for his inaugural year at the helm Robinson is particularly proud of – Special Smiles Day – a quiet, sensory-safe day for the region's special needs community. “We opened an hour early for these kids and a midway without the all the loud music and lights. Parents were thanking us with tears in their eyes. It was really about giving back to the community”

Best Around Concessions brought a bit of Hungary to #BerryFest23 with the Langos Ear, made with a garlic butter elephant ear batter and topped with a homemade cream cheese and sour cream blend, and sprinkled with bacon crumbles.
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