OKALOOSA ISLAND — Sheldon Haig showed up for the Winter Guest Fest on Friday morning wearing a Destin sweatshirt and an Indian Bayou ball cap.
He’d have passed for a local if he wasn’t wearing shorts.
“I don’t think I’ve had long pants on since I got here in December,” the Ontario native said.
Haig and his wife Pam have been snowbirding in Northwest Florida for five years now. They like to play golf and “not shovel snow,” according to Pam.
Winter Guest Fest has become part of their annual itinerary, too.
“We come every year, walk around, see if there’s anything new,” Sheldon said. “We’re always interested to see what’s local.”
Now in its 13th year, the Winter Guest Fest — formerly known as the Snowbirds Festival — draws about 1,200 people each year to the Emerald Coast Convention Center.
Winter visitors travel to the Okaloosa Island event from as far away as Gulf Shores, Alabama, and Panama City, according to Rachelle Graves, the director of special events for the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.
A quick jog through the Convention Center parking lot Friday turned up license tags from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ontario, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and North Dakota.
“This is the social event for snowbirds,” Graves said. “They come in, get a tote bag, fill it up with wonderful goodies and meet up with friends and plan for dinner. Everything else they need is here.”
Legend has it that snowbirds always arrive early, and they didn’t disappoint Friday. At 8:15 a.m., 15 minutes after the event was scheduled to start, a line of people seeking admission stretched nearly the length of the building.
Inclement weather prompted security to open the doors a little early, but by the time the first visitors had paid their $2 and the line began to move, the sun was shining brightly.
Seven local restaurants, as diverse as Golden Corral, AJ’s on the Bayou and Rockin’ Tacos, were on hand to provide a morning caffeine pick-me-up or a bite to eat.
Susan Adamov and Barb Kintop from The Cone Ice Cream and Coffee shop in Destin learned quickly that snowbirds are choosy about their frozen desserts.
“They haven’t really said much, they just want to know where we’re located … and tell us that they love butter pecan,” Adamov said.
Representatives from golf courses, resorts and travel agencies offering bus rides to gambling destinations like Biloxi, Mississippi, and Atmore, Alabama, also were on hand, as were Fort Walton Beach and White-Wilson medical centers.
“This is definitely the place to be to see what the Emerald Coast has to offer,” said Lynn Dominique, who for at least the last decade has served as master of ceremonies for the Winter Guest Fest.
Lew Haines, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, has attended the event for five or six years. He finds the material he collects valuable for planning purposes.
“There’s a lot of information about things, like what’s going on at the (Northwest Florida State) college like concerts, which we go to a lot, and basketball games,” Haines said. “And my wife is a golfer. We sign up for golfing.”
Haines, who has been wintering in Destin for 20 years, said he and his wife are quite fond of the area, and have talked friends from Travers City, Jackson, Ann Arbor and Alpena — all in Michigan — into joining them as snowbirds.
Mary Rosby, who with her husband Stan has driven to Northwest Florida from Minneapolis, Minnesota, for 23 years, joked that she attends Winter Guest Fest to “get all the junk,” but quickly confessed to finding “some good information” among the items. The Rosbys have been to Biloxi in the past, but this year were looking forward to spend time with their son, who was due in town for a visit.
The couple has grown quite content with their lives as snowbirds.
“It’s like coming home every year,” Stan said.
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