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Fun Festivals in Southeast USA • McCool Travel

11 min read
Fun Festivals in Southeast USA • McCool Travel

US Gulf Coast events and festivals are some of the most unique and fun in the entire United States. The Southeast US Gulf Coast region along the Gulf of Mexico—from South Padre to the Florida Keys—is blessed with impeccable winter weather, seafood mania, and the quirkiest people.

The rest of the United States battles ice and snow from January to March but that is prime festival season time in Florida and Texas. Oh, and if you want to properly celebrate Mardi Gras, then the US Gulf Coast is where you must be.

US Gulf Coast Events: Fun Festivals in Southeast USA

There are thousands of Gulf Coast festivals and events but we only list a baker’s dozen or so. Please let us know your favorites. The events are arranged by state and by month of the year—be sure to also see our list of Gulf Coast holiday events at the end of each state section in this article and also our articles about Festive Florida Holiday Events and Fun Tropical Christmas Decorations.

washboard musician at Bradenton Blues Fest
Bradenton Blues Fest: US Gulf Coast Events

Florida Gulf Coast Festivals

Most Florida Gulf Coast festivals occur during the first three months (January to March) of the year but there are certainly fun events all year round. In fact, see below for two events that occur every single day.

Florida Manatee Festival, Crystal River

If the manatee sees her shadow, there will be another six weeks of warm weather! OK, even if she does not, there still will be. The Florida Manatee Festival is a celebration of the annual return of the manatees to Kings Bay and Florida’s exceedingly comfortable winter. Bands, boat rides, and boardwalks where you can see manatees up close are highlights of this two-day event during the peak of winter manatee season (mid January).

Manatee closeup Crystal River FL, photo by Explorida
Manatee closeup in Crystal River FL, photo by Explorida

>>> Plan your visit with our guide: Things to Do in Crystal River

Epiphany Celebration, Tarpon Springs

USA’s largest Epiphany Day celebration (January 6) is celebrated by this predominate Greek Orthodox Church community. For most, the Tarpon Springs Epiphany highlight is the bishop tossing a cross into the water and the scrum dive to retrieve it.

Gasparilla Pirate Fest, Tampa

Over several weeks between mid January and early February (for over 100 years), Tampa Bay is abuzz about a swashbuckling spectacle called the Gasparilla Pirate Fest. Popular Gasparilla events include the Gasparilla Invasion, Victory Parade of the Pirates presented by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (the 3rd largest parade in USA), Children’s Gasparilla Parade (largest children’s parade in USA), Gasparilla JazzFest, and the Gasparilla Pirate Fest Street Festival.

Gasparilla Invasion, Tampa Bay
Gasparilla Invasion, Gasparilla Pirate Fest. Photo credit: Keir Magoulas

>>> Plan your visit with our guide: Ways to See Tampa

Florida State Fair, Tampa

The Florida Gulf Coast continues the winter celebrations after Gasparilla with the humongous Florida State Fair over 12 days in mid February.

30A Songwriters Festival, South Walton

Now in its eleventh year (in 2020), the 30A Songwriters Festival kicks off the new year in South Walton with live performances by over 175 local artists. The four day event in mid-January is in intimate venues and large amphitheaters throughout the 16 beach neighborhoods.

Florida Strawberry Festival, Plant City

The phenomenal Florida Strawberry Festival is an 11 day showcase and one of the top US fairs. It is located in Plant City, about an hour inland from the Florida Gulf coast, and happens late February through early March.

Floral City Strawberry Festival, Floral City

The wonder of Florida’s early spring comes alive at the Floral City Strawberry Festival. Set in the shade of historic Floral City’s magnificent oaks, the Floral City Strawberry Festival (every March) is a celebration of classic Americana with pie eating contests, festive music, and a sea of strawberry shortcake that is yours to enjoy.

Funk Fest, Punta Gorda

Enjoy two mid February nights of soul, rock, funk and fun at Funk Fest Punta Gorda. The musical line-up is top notch, and the downtown location is convenient to Punta Gorda hotels and restaurants.

>>> Plan your visit with our guide: 15 Fun Things to Do in Punta Gorda Florida

Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival, Clearwater Beach

A seventeen-day beach-wide celebration in April, Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival pays tribute to Tampa Bay’s two most valuable assets—that amazing sugar sand and those remarkable sunsets! See also our Things To Do on US Gulf Coast in April

>>> Plan your visit with our guide: St Petersburg FL Art Museums

Shark’s Tooth Festival, Venice

Venice has been named the “Shark’s Tooth Capital of the World” because of the millions of shark teeth that wash up on their sandy white beaches. Each year Shark’s Tooth Festival highlights fossil collectors from across the southeast USA who display and sell shark’s teeth and other prehistoric fossils, and more than 100 artists offer their original work.

>>> Plan your visit with our guide: Things to Do in Sarasota

dozens of shark teeth in Venice Florida
Shark Tooth Capital of the World (Venice FL). Photo credit: Visit Sarasota County

Pensacola Seafood Festival, Pensacola

The annual Pensacola Seafood Festival takes over Seville Square, Fountain Park, and waterfront Bartram Park in Historic Downtown Pensacola each fall, attracting more than 100,000 attendees during the three-day event taking place the last weekend in September.

Fantasy Fest, Key West

Billed as a 10-day party in paradise for grown-ups, Fantasy Fest is the wildest annual extravaganza along the US Gulf Coast and has increased in size and excitement every October since the initial Fantasy Fest in 1979.

>>> Plan your visit with our guide: Key West Tips

The Siesta Key Crystal Classic, Siesta Key

A sand-sculpting showdown between top artists from around the globe on the award-winning white sands of Siesta Key. In only 24 sculpting hours (spanning the four day event in November), the master sculptors create sand masterpieces, some over ten feet tall, and transform the always beautiful Siesta Beach into an outdoor art gallery. Siesta’s quartz crystal sand makes the sculptures look like marble!

Stone Crab Festival, Naples FL

Naples Florida is the Stone Crab Capital of the World and the Stone Crab Festival celebrates this Florida Gulf Coast seafood delicacy in late October with a waterfront party weekend. Experience the ceremonial cracking of the first stone crab of the season, live music, vendors, and a whole lot of fun.

>>> Try these Naples FL restaurants: Places to Eat in Naples

Brandenton Blues Festival, Bradenton

Kick off your tropical holiday season with a December weekend of blues and zydeco in beautiful Bradenton. A dozen bands play Real-Deal Blues culminating with the Bradenton Blues Brunch on Sunday. While there, you are less than ten miles from my favorite beach in the world (my US Gulf Coast tip and our secret!).

washboard musician at Bradenton Blues Fest
Bradenton Blues Fest: US Gulf Coast Events

>>> Plan your visit with our guide: Things To Do in Anna Maria Island

Nightly Siesta Key Sunset Celebration and Drum Circle

Celebrate another glorious US Gulf Coast day with some music, dancing, and fun. Arrive about an hour before sunset and let your ears guide you to one of the most interesting daily spectacles you will find anywhere in the world. On our last visit, hundreds of people gathered around the Siesta Key drum circle, complete with dancers, drummers, funness for all types and ages, and, yes, a little funky odor.

Key West Sunset Celebration

Mallory Square is the scene of a vibrant nightly festival, hosting visitors from around the world who come to witness and participate in the magicians, jugglers, clowns, psychics, local musicians, artists, and food vendors that combine for an incredible cultural experience.

Florida Gulf Coast holiday events include Light Up Inverness, Christmas on Third (Naples), Marco island Boat Parade, Pensacola Winterfest, Lights in Bloom at Selby Gardens, Key West Holiday Fest, and quirky New Year’s Eve events like Shoe Drop (Key West) and Pelican Drop (Pensacola).

Alabama Gulf Coast Festivals

America’s Original Mardi Gras, Mobile

The first Mardi Gras was “invented” in 1703 in Mobile and the modern Mardi Gras resurfaced nearly 165 years later here in Port City. Mobile Mardi Gras is certainly not the biggest but experience it yourself and determine if it is the best Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras masks
Mobile Mardi Gras, America’s Original Mardi Gras

>>> Plan your Mobile AL visit with our guide: Things to Do in Mobile

Flora-Bama Interstate Mullet Toss, Perdido Key

Over the final weekend of April, Flora-Bama hosts the Gulf Coast’s Greatest Beach Party. In the featured event, participants throw mullet (a fish, not a hair style) over the state line, from Florida into Alabama.

>>> Plan your Alabama Gulf Coast visit with our guide: Things to Do in Gulf Shores

Alabama Gulf coast winter holiday events include Magic Christmas in Lights at Bellingrath Gardens and Home, Alabama Coastal Christmas (featuring a Boat Parade and Merry Market), and Moon Pie Drop (Mobile AL New Year’s Eve).

Mississippi Gulf Coast Festivals

Spring and Fall seasons are ideal for Coastal Mississippi events and there are at least a few every weekend.

Cruisin’ the Coast

Thousands of classic cars converge in Coastal Mississippi for an entire October week of rock ‘n’ roll, drag races, sock hops, swap meets, and headliner entertainment all along the Secret Coast. Car enthusiasts parade their beautiful antique, classic, custom vehicles, and hot rods along Beach Boulevard, with entertainment provided at designated stops in each of the beautiful Mississippi coast towns along the way.

>>> Plan your Coastal Mississippi visit with our guide: Things To Do On The Mississippi Gulf Coast

Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival, Ocean Springs

Named after the late master potter, Peter Anderson, the largest arts festival on the Gulf Coast celebrates the arts every November with over 400 booths in downtown Ocean Springs. From oil paintings to pottery, hand-made jewelry, digital portraits, American folk toys, metal works, and so much more, visitors can enjoy a festive weekend of live music, coastal fare, and a beautiful November weekend surrounded by 300-year-old live oak trees.

Gulfport Harbor Lights, Gulfport

This spectacular holiday light show features 1,200,000 lights and can be enjoyed on foot or aboard a free heated trolley ride. Visit Santa’s Village, take a festive ride, snap a photo at one of the Elfie Selfie Stations, warm up with a cup of Christmas cheer, and experience the most magical show in Mississippi and perhaps along the entire US Gulf Coast.

Gulfport Harbor Lights, Coastal Mississippi
Gulfport Harbor Lights, Coastal Mississippi

Other Coastal Mississippi winter holiday events include Christmas on the Water Boat Parade (Biloxi), Snowflakes in the Bay (Bay St Louis), Bay St Louis Christmas parade, Downtown for the Holidays (Pascagoula), and Ocean Springs Christmas tree lighting and open house.

Louisiana Gulf Coast Festivals

New Orleans is the powerhouse destination along the Louisiana Gulf Coast and is super popular for Mardi Gras, New Orleans Jazz Fest, New Year’s Eve (Sugar Bowl), and for many other events throughout the year. The following are some other Louisiana Gulf Coast events well worth checking out.

Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras, Lake Charles

Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras spans several days of parades and family-friendly events, making Lake Charles and surrounding towns a fun place to celebrate Carnival. Lake Charles Mardi Gras events include Krewe de Barkus Parade, Lake Charles Children’s Parade, Royal Gala of Lake Charles Mardi Gras, Iowa Chicken Run, and Krewe of Krewes Mardi Gras Parade.

Cajun Mardi Gras costumes Lake Charles LA
Cajun Mardi Gras costumes at Crewe de Barkus parade in Lake Charles LA

Louisiana Pirate Festival, Lake Charles

Legend says Jean Lafitte’s favorite hideout was Contraband Bayou in Lake Charles and his treasure (silver & gold) was hidden and buried there. Today’s Louisiana Pirate Festival evolved from the Annual Contraband Days festival started in the 1950s and turns Lake Charles into a Buccaneer wonderland in April or May.

>>> Plan your Lake Charles visit with our guide: Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras

Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival, Madisonville

The picturesque town of Madisonville, founded in 1817 along the banks of the wide Tchefuncte River, celebrates its maritime history each October with the very popular Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival. Attracting scores of classic hand-crafted wooden boats from across the Gulf Coast, the festival is a flotilla of fun, offering visitors the chance to view and sometimes board the boats, enjoy great food, live music, and two days of activities.

>>> Plan your Louisiana Northshore visit with our guide: Things to Do in Louisiana Northshore

Rougarou Fest, Houma

Rougarou Fest is a fascinating and exciting gumbo of Halloween, Mardi Gras, and a Renaissance Faire—with ALL monetary proceeds benefitting the Wetlands Discovery Center and saving the Rougarou swamp werewolf’s habitat. Houma hosts Rougarou Fest the weekend before Halloween and popular events include the parade, costume contest, live music, and amazing food—try the blueberry dumplings, gator tacos, and nutria chili.

witches in costume at Rougarou Fest
Rougarou Fest in Houma Louisiana

>>> Plan your Houma visit with our guide to Greenwood Gator Farm

Covington Three Rivers Art Festival, Covington

The historic downtown district of Covington takes art seriously and is home to a number of galleries representing the region’s best artists. So it should come as no surprise that the town’s annual Three Rivers Art Festival, held each November, also is serious enough to carefully jury the 200 artists invited to participate in a free event that takes over several city blocks.

Texas Gulf Coast Festivals

WOWE, South Padre Island

The Winter Outdoor Wildlife Expo (WOWE) is a five-day exposition covering a variety of coastal outdoor and nature topics. WOWE is in mid to late January and held at the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center, and Alligator Sanctuary.

SPI Kite Fest, South Padre Island

The end of January and beginning of February means Kite Fest on South Padre Island. Popular events include the Indoor Kite Performance on Thursday and the Outdoor Kite Festival on Friday and Saturday.

>>> Plan your South Padre Island vacation with our guide: Things to Do in South Padre Island

Texas SandFest, Port Aransas

The largest Native-Sand Sculpture Competition in the USA, Texas SandFest is an internationally recognized three-day family event that draws sculptors and tens of thousands of visitors from around the world each April to Port Aransas.

Shrimporee, Aransas Pass

Aransas Pass Shrimporee is steeped in a 72 year tradition and host 45,000 visitors in a single June weekend. The Shrimporee festival includes a Parade, Carnival, Shrimp Eating Contest, Great Outhouse Race, Men’s & Women’s Sexy Legs Contest, Live Culinary Tent, Over 100 Arts & Crafts Booths, and two stages for live entertainment!!

Sandcastle Days, South Padre Island

For 33 years (in 2020), the first weekend in October is time for Sandcastle Days. Event focus includes the magical sculpting qualities of South Padre Island sand AND the critical importance of protecting the beautiful Texas Gulf Coast shores.

Texas Gulf Coast winter holiday events include Holiday Sand Castle Village (South Padre Island), Moody Gardens Festival of Lights (Galveston), Christmas Village at Bayou Bend (Houston), Merry Days By the Bay (Corpus Christi), and various holiday boat parades.

Obviously there are hundreds of other Gulf Coast events and festivals so leave a comment with your favorites so that everyone else will know.

A guide to the most fun, favorite US Gulf Coast events and festivals in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas for a great time all year long.

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