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Train Watching Hotspot: Plant City, Florida
By Jack M. Turner

Traditionally the leading Florida destination by train is Orlando with its plethora of theme parks that appeal to multiple generations.  Two daily Amtrak trains directly serve Orlando along with the Auto Train which delivers passengers and their automobiles to nearby Sanford.  Both the Silver Meteor and Silver Star continue to Miami with several stops in southeast Florida which has been popular since the first half of the 1900s.  Along the way the Silver Star also directly serves Tampa and other interesting points during its trek through the Sunshine State.  The Silver Meteor, meanwhile, offers connecting Thruway bus service to Tampa and southwest Florida via Orlando.

During our August 2019 trip aboard the Silver Star, my wife and I concluded that we should visit the area near Tampa again as it had been years since we had frequented that region.  Driving from north Florida to Tampa seemed so familiar as I had made frequent business trips there for my long-time employer.  Retirement put an end to those visits until I discovered information about the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City approximately 15 miles east of Tampa.  Having driven past the festival on a couple of those business trips taught me that it is a popular event and one look at the list of shows and concerts clinched it; we had to attend in March 2020.

The Florida Strawberry Festival is like a county fair on steroids as the fairgrounds stretch several blocks long between a county road and US Highway 92.  There we found the usual array of rides including an impressive group of kiddie rides, various food booths, displays of blue ribbon-winning handicrafts and foods, and performances by trained dogs, church singing groups, trampoline jumpers, and other acts.  In addition, a wide variety of big-name entertainers performed in the festival’s Wish Farms Soundstage located in the heart of the Florida Strawberry Festival.  Tickets for many of these shows were in the $25-$30 range with a couple slightly exceeding that price.


Colorful food vendor booths at the Florida Strawberry Festival


Attendees at the Florida Strawberry Festival can find all types of food

Deciding which of the festival’s 11 days to attend was steered by our desire to see acts that fell within our interests.  On the first of our two days we attended an excellent concert titled “Ricky Nelson Remembered” which featured the late singer’s twin sons Matthew and Gunnar Nelson who sang many of the late 1950s-early 60’s teen idol’s hits such as “Hello Mary Lou” and “Travelin’ Man”.  At various times, big screens in the arena showed clips of Ricky Nelson singing his songs and acting in his family’s black and white television show “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”.  Later that day we enjoyed three other legends of the late 50s-early 60s, Bobby Rydell (“Wild One” and  “Forget Him” among others), Fabian (“Turn Me Loose” and “Tiger”), and Frankie Avalon (“Venus”, “Why”, and several beach movies from the 1960s plus a cameo appearance in “Grease”). 


Matthew and Gunnar Nelson perform hits by their father Ricky Nelson


Bobby Rydell, a major recording star of the late 1950s-early 60s


Fabian performs his hit songs at the Florida Strawberry Festival


Frankie Avalon performs his hits and songs from movies in which he appeared

Our second day at the Florida Strawberry Festival was highlighted by attendance at the Darci Lynne & Friends Straight Out of the Box show featuring 2017 America’s Got Talent winner Darci Lynne Farmer, a skilled ventriloquist who was only 12 years old when she won.  Darci Lynne flawlessly carries on conversations with her puppet co-stars and sings beautifully without moving her lips so perfectly that you would swear the puppet is singing.


America’s Got Talent winner Darci Lynne Farmer, ventriloquist extraordinaire

Other headline acts this year included Reba McEntire, The Oak Ridge Boys, Tommy James & The Shondells, Chubby Checker, Mercy Me, and Josh Turner to name a few.  The Florida Strawberry Festival runs from late February through early March and promises to be a highlight of a trip to central Florida.

Before returning to the festival grounds for Darci Lynne’s show, we spent a couple of hours in downtown Plant City at the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum.  This museum is located in the old Plant City railway depot and contains a modest but well displayed collection of artifacts and a model train layout.  The well-manicured grounds host an interesting display of railroad equipment.  The museum stands beside the diamond where the former Atlantic Coast Line mainline from Tampa to Orlando, Jacksonville, and points north crosses the former Seaboard line from Tampa to Wildwood, Jacksonville, and points beyond.  Before Amtrak, passenger trains traversed both lines and stopped at Plant City.  Today only the Silver Star passes by without stopping, however it passes during both its northbound and southbound trips since it follows the same route between Auburndale and Tampa in both directions.  The City of Plant City built and maintains an excellent viewing platform across the former ACL track that allows train watchers to view trains on both the old ACL and SAL tracks as well as on a connector track in the junction’s northeast quadrant.  In addition to Amtrak’s Silver Star, a variety of CSX freight trains roll past 24 hours a day.


Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum located in the old Plant City train station


A model railway and other displays in one room of the railroad museum


Railroad motorcars in another room within the museum


A CSX freight backs down the interchange track from the former SAL to the ex-ACL


Moments later the same freight passes between the museum and railfan pavilion


Another southbound CSX freight rolls past


The southbound Silver Star charges past the railfan pavilion headed to Tampa and Miami

There are numerous other activities within a close distance including spring training baseball with the Detroit Tigers stadium in nearby Lakeland the closest.  Busch Gardens in Tampa is another leading tourist attraction a short drive from Plant City along with the Florida Aquarium and the TECO streetcar line.


The northbound Silver Star bound for Tampa and New York seen from the highway

Plant City can be reached by taking Amtrak’s Silver Star or Thruway bus to either Tampa or Lakeland.  A visit to historic Tampa Union Station is definitely worth the effort regardless of which location one travels to by train.  Several stands along area highways sell delicious locally grown strawberries during the spring.  Chain hotels are available in Plant City, Tampa, and Lakeland.  Full service train stations in Tampa and Lakeland offer ticketing and checked baggage.  A live web cam provides an excellent view of trains that pass the former Plant City station.


Florida Strawberry Festival

Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum

Plant City Live Rail Cam