Shrimp is a big deal in Southwest Florida. The Gulf of Mexico is fertile ground for fisherman hauling in nets full of the so-called "pink gold," and almost every restaurant has it on the menu. So it makes perfect sense for locals to promote the prawn with a festival, and no better place to do so than on Fort Myers Beach.
The Fort Myers Beach Shrimp Festival actually began in 1959 as "Beach Day," with the intention of bringing a celebration to the shore following the popular Edison Festival of Light in downtown Fort Myers. Organizers originally scheduled the merriment to coincide with the first full moon after the Edison Festival. Full moons were notoriously bad for shrimpers, so most of the boats would be in port; it was a perfect time for clergy to bestow the annual blessing on the fleet.
Today, the two-day shrimp festival happens in mid-March.
The giant pots of shrimp start boiling at 10 a.m. at the Fort Myers Beach Shrimp Festival — Photo courtesy of Fort Myers Beach Lions Club
The Fort Myers Beach Lions Club has been in charge of the fun for decades, and they take the job seriously. The club’s Boil Master holds the secret to perfectly cooking more than 1,000 pounds of shrimp in two days. He also holds the secret recipe to the Lion’s Club special cocktail sauce!
The cookers get fired up at 10 a.m. each day, and shrimp plates are sold until they run out – and they do run out. Each plate is loaded with half a pound of steaming shrimp and fresh slaw.
A two-mile parade gets things started on Saturday morning, followed by a 5K race that takes runners over the large Matanzas Pass Bridge. (This is the main bridge to the beach, so if you're not over it before 9 a.m. on Saturday, then you’ll have to wait until noon, in a long line of traffic. The only way on to the beach at this point is via Bonita Beach to the south.)
Most of the fishy festivities take place at Lynn Hall Memorial Park, in the heart of Fort Myers Beach, with the blue waters of the gulf as a backdrop. While there's a decent amount of parking, it fills up fas,t so consider leaving your car south and taking a beach trolley. The trolley also stops on the mainland side of the Matanzas Pass Bridge, at Summerlin Square.
The Shrimp Festival Queen presides over the weekend festivities — Photo courtesy of Bob Petcher / Fort Myers Beach Lions Club
When you get to the park, you’ll find more than 100 vendors selling art, crafts, clothing and food other than shrimp, for those who may have a shellfish allergy.
Many festivals have queens, and this one is no exception. Then there's the shrimp eating contest, with a goal of wolfing down three pounds in three minutes . . . impressive and horrifying at the same time.
Not only will eating shrimp and enjoying a day on the beach satisfy your need for fun, but it will also benefit people with even greater needs. Lions Clubs nationwide support vision-related charities, and much of the proceeds from the Shrimp Festival do just that. This club helps fund nearly 100 eye surgeries, glasses, guide dog training and scholarships, among other things.
It's a win-win for everyone.
This year's Fort Myers Beach Shrimp Festival is scheduled for Saturday, March 14, and Sunday, March 15. For more information, visit the event website.