Did you know there was a Florida Ice Cream Festival? I didn’t until a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled upon it online. And then I promptly forgot about it.
But then yesterday, April 6, I made a trip to Sarasota and as I was driving past Lakeland on I-4, noticed a billboard for it. My trip to Sarasota was a long drive, but I wasn’t there very long either. So as I approached Lakeland I decided to check out the festival.
This was apparently the “first annual” FL Ice Cream Festival. They did some things well, and they did some things poorly. Hopefully, they learned from this year and can make some changes to improve it next year.
The festival was held at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, where the Detroit Tigers play spring training. I’d never been there before. It’s a nice stadium. The Festival was mostly in a grassy field outside of the stadium, though there was a stage behind homeplate that allowed guests to sit in the stands and watch live bands, the ice cream eating contest, and other things. There was a second stage out in the field, too.
Since I’d never been to the Stadium, I wasn’t quite sure where to go, and followed other cars that looked like they knew where there were going (zen navigation). It worked out okay for me. I ended up parking one street over at a public park, and not in the Stadium lot, which looked full anyway.
As I walked toward the Stadium, there was a huge line in front of it. But everyone there had tickets, so I headed for the box offices. These lines were short, especially if paying cash. And here’s one of the best things about the festival – admission was only $3. After I got my ticket, I had to join the really long line. Apparently everyone arrived at the park at the same time I did. Even though the line was long, it moved fast, and half way through, they opened an additional gate. The weird thing about the ticket – they didn’t tear them. And I’m pretty sure later I saw people reselling them in the parking lot. Scalping $3 tickets seems weird.
Once in the park, it was a bit of a madhouse. All the lines for ice cream were long. No one was taking cash – you had to purchase event money from one of the sponsors, not unlike fair tickets. They were $1 for 1, so it was simple. You just had to plan in advance. The sponsor seemed to be a bank, specifically for a charity they run. Not quite sure. The tickets could then be used for ice cream or food or entertainment. Prices seemed fair. Ice cream was $2 or $3. Food from $3 to $8.
I only ended up visiting two booths. My first stop was Fred’s Southern Kitchen, which I think is local-famous. You see their billboards on I-4 around Lakeland. The line was long, but it was worth the wait. I had a good portion of pulled pork and french fries for $3, and an apple crisp with vanilla ice cream for another $3. The pulled pork was supposed to be a slider, but they had run out of buns. This seemed to be something common at the event – many of the booths had run out of flavors or ice cream all together. Next to Fred’s was a booth that didn’t have a line, though I’m not sure why. It was for The Cuppin Cake Truck from Tampa. Their cupcakes were $3 each, or 2 for $5. I tried their banana split cupcake, and it was delicious – a moist banana cupcake with a vanilla bean buttercream on top, with a drizzle of chocolate and a cherry on top. They had other ice cream-themed cupcakes, too, and they’d sold out of at least one flavor. I’m surprised there wasn’t a line.
The entertainment was typical small town festival. There were bouncy houses for the kids, a pony ride, a little miniature golf course, etc. All of those required tickets. The police and fire departments had a significant presence, maybe mainly because they set up exhibits of their vehicles for the kids to check out, but they were patrolling, too, and the event felt extremely safe. There was free entertainment, too, like singers and bands. There was an ice cream making contest and a few ice cream eating contests. I think there was other stuff going on, but it was just too crowded to find out.
I think the first annual Florida Ice Cream Festival was a success. It seems like the only thing they got wrong was underestimating the crowds that it would attract. I wonder if there are better ways to do it. Having been to the also-crowded Great American Pie Festival, I wonder if there are some ideas they could borrow. The pie festival has an all you can eat bracelet, and walking through the pie area, flows pretty smoothly. This may because there’s a linear flow to the setup of booths, too, but maybe because the pie slices are prepackaged it just makes it easier to grab and go, where Ice cream may need to be handscooped. Also, holding the festival on two days instead of one may split the crowds. I think next year, it will be worth checking out again.