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There's a lot new at the 2023 Sun 'n Fun Aerospace Expo

Oct 14, 2023

LAKELAND — Thousands of aviation enthusiasts descend on Lakeland each year for one of the largest airshows in the country, and its new organizers are hoping to encourage locals to join the party.

The 2023 Sun 'n Fun Aerospace Expo will be held from March 28 to April 2 at Lakeland Linder International Airport. Entering its 49th year, the event is an annual fundraiser for the Aerospace Center for Excellence, more commonly called ACE. The nonprofit organization provides STEM education in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics related the aviation industry.

This is the first year Gene Conrad, ACE's CEO and president, has taken over the helm from John "Lites" Leenhouts. Conrad, formerly director of the airport for 12 years, said he's made a slate of changes to how the event functions in attempts to improve the guest experience.

"I started a month before the event last year," he said. "I got to go out, watch, listen and interact to get really good feedback and negative feedback. All of the things and changes we are doing is to improve the customer and guest experience."

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There will be a new section of the event called "The Island" designed to be a social hub for pilots flying in to Sun 'n Fun and guests, Conrad said. Sponsored by The Islands of the Bahamas, it will be located on the east side of the airport by the airplane camping area, where the seaplane parking was located in previous years.

"It will become the center of the world for them," Conrad said.

The expo's Pilot Welcome Center will serve as an anchor along with Fresco's Southern Kitchen and Bar of Lakeland, which will run a full restaurant at the airport serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. There will be an Island Camp Store selling basic convenience items, Conrad said, such as flip flops, sunscreen and other necessities.

Sun 'n Fun has worked with Publix to create a drop-off zone where campers will be able to place an Instacart order to get goods delivered to site. It will also provide a designated spot for rideshares like Lyft and Uber to drop off passengers.

The area will also become one of centers for new night entertainment.

Traditionally, the expo is known for having two evening airshows on Wednesday and Saturday nights. With thousands of people camped at Lakeland Linder, Conrad said he wanted to have more to do after 5 p.m.

"It's a temporary city here at the airport. We wanted to provide them with entertainment," he said. " We want more folks to bring their families down and have activities to last through the day."

The airport's grass strip know as Paradise City will host a Sunset Aerial Show starting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Conrad said its flying performers won't do the aerobatics of the larger evening shows, but are sure to delight.

The U.S. Special Operations Command parachutists who open each evening airshow will perform in the nightly aerial. The paramotor team Airythmia, a team with motors and parachutes strapped to their backs, are in the nightly lineup. The popular STOL — short takeoff and landing — competition will also return to the expo.

Tickets can be purchased for $10 after 5 p.m., Conrad said, so he encourages Lakeland workers to come down after a long day and watch the aerial show. Afterward, he said visitors could potentially go grab a drink and mingle with pilots at The Island.

Attendees should no longer have to wait in long lines to get parked or get into the expo, Conrad said, thanks to a new online digital ticketing system. Sun 'n Fun has made it possible for people to purchase their admission tickets, any seating or special event tickets and parking pass online in advance.

Conrad urged people to purchase parking online in advance at $10 per day or $40 per week. The price will increase to $20 a day, $60 per week in cash only at the gate. The more people who buy online, the quicker parking will move.

"We have scanners and the technology ready to go," he said. "We will be able to facilitate getting everyone into the parking lot as quickly as possible."

When people purchase tickets, they should receive a confirmation email with a QR code. The QR code will be linked to all tickets purchased, from admission and parking to preferred seating for the air show.

Conrad said going digital has been well received so far and that ticket sales are more than double what they were at this point last year.

"We've made it super easy for people to get tickets online. Will we have a record-breaking crowd? I don't know, but things are looking good," he said.

The airport's Wifi network is built to handle the expected increase in demand with more than 30,000 linear feet of Cat6 cable laid in the ground, Conrad said. He expects it should be able to handle up to 29,000 simultaneous connections for patrons, vendors and businesses.

A daily admission ticket will cost $45 for adults, $20 for youth ages 11 to 17, and children age 10 and younger are free. A weekly expo ticket costs $170 for adults, $70 for youth. There is a Florida residents special that allows locals access on Saturday and Sunday for $45 per adult, $20 for youth. There are no refunds for tickets purchased in advance. Visitors arriving after 5 p.m. can purchase a $10 daily ticket at the gate, which is not available online.

For more information, visit the expo's website at, call 863-644-2431 or email [email protected].

Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7545. Follow on Twitter @SaraWalshFl.

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