Central Florida often feels itself lagging behind other places. That's why spring is so important here. It's the only time we get to be ahead of the curve. While the gang from New York to Nagano are still picking the snowflakes out of their eyelashes, we climb back up to 80 degrees and welcome the sun (despite the occasional monsoon surprise from El Niño) as it begins to make more languid, pleasant stays before becoming The Guest That Wouldn't Leave in July. In other words, we get to take our clothes off a full two months before everyone else! Anyone who who's anxious to tan (and watch those shirtless boys playing beach volleyball at Lake Ivanhoe) can appreciate that.

And surprisingly enough, the calendar blossoms, too. Just when you thought that the dead calm of ambivalent February had sucked all the vivacity out of everything, plans begin to make themselves. Fairs, festivals, art shows and sporting events all reemerge around this time of year, weeks before the calendar tells the rest of the world that winter is over. What follows is our attempt to steer you toward the good stuff.

In fact, there's so much going on, you might end up saying, at the onset of summer, "I can't believe I haven't even hit the beach yet." And that's OK. We want to be used. You don't hear that often, so take advantage of it.

A selective survey of outings. Go -- before it is too damn hot



Through 22 kissimmee valley livestock show and osceola county fair Agricultural exhibits, livestock judging, rides, arts and crafts. 10 am-10 pm daily; Kissimmee Valley Agricultural Center, 1901 E. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, Kissimmee; $3; $1 children; 846-6046.

20-22 SILVER SPURS RODEO Bronc- and bull-riding, calf-roping, steer wrestling and barrel-racing benefits charity and community services. 2:30 pm Friday-Sunday; Silver Spurs Arena, 1901 E. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, Kissimmee; $15; 677-6336.

26 through March 8 Florida strawberry festival Harvest celebration on a state-fair scale, with a huge midway, all the strawberry shortcake you could ever want to eat, plus name acts performing at 4:30 pm and 7:30 pm daily in free grandstand shows. (Reserved seats at $10 and $5 also are available.) The entertainers: Feb. 26, Neil Sedaka; Feb. 27, Sammy Kershaw; Feb. 28, Blackhawk; March 1, John Michael Montgomery; March 2, Oak Ridge Boys; March 3, Lou Rawls; March 4, Neal McCoy; March 5, Loretta Lynn; March 6, Tracy Byrd; March 7, Louise Mandrell; March 8, Randy Travis. 10 am-10:30 pm daily; fairgrounds are located in Plant City, 60 miles from Orlando; take I-4 west to exit 13-B or exit 11 and follow signs; $6, ages 10 and under free; (813) 752-9194.

26 through March 8

Central florida fair No big-name acts this year, but ongoing entertainers include comedy juggling. Circus Maximus and the Baboon Lagoon animal show, plus craft and hobby demonstrations, livestock exhibitions and rides. 3 pm-midnight Monday-Friday, 10 am-midnight Saturday and Sunday; Central Florida Fairgrounds, 4603 W. Colonial Drive, Orlando; $6, $3 ages 6-10, under 6 free; 295-3247.

27 through march 8 bike week A few actual renegades, and thousands of others slumming in their leathers, populate this loud, landmark gathering of the motorcycle crowd. You'll find the best people-watching at Main Street and A1A, but events, speedway races and general mayhem fan out for miles in all directions. Nominal information is available through the Daytona Beach convention bureau, (904) 255-0415. For motorcycle race information, call Daytona International Speedway, (904) 253-7223.

28 through march 1 rotary orlando street painting festival and downtown orlando art festival Hundreds of chalk artists transform the concrete canvas of City Hall Plaza into a colorful collection of street art in the 4th annual event, which includes continuous music by local performers and a concert at 7:30 pm Saturday by the Orlando Philharmonic. The adjacent art festival spills over onto Orange Avenue and South Street. 10 am-dusk Saturday and Sunday; free; 539-1780.

28 through march 1 florida wakeboard x-cup Three-part Pro-Am event begins with round one at Summer Bay Resort, 17805 Hwy. 192, Clermont, and continues March 14-15 with round two at the Isles of Lake Hancock in Windermere, and a final round March 28-29 at Barnett Park in Orlando. Top 10 finishers also will be invited to participate in the Brendel Invitational on April 26 at Barnett Park. Entry fees apply, but events are free to spectators; 841-7744.

March 6-8 kissimmee bluegrass festival Three days of music, crafts and barbecue where you bring the blanket and the lawn chairs. Eighteen acts including Continental Divide, New Tradition, The Osborne Brothers and Dale Ann Bradley and Cook Creek, all presented by the Orlando-based American Bluegrass Network and Kissimmee Kiwanis. Located on the grounds adjacent to the Silver Spurs Arena, 1875 E. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, Kissimmee; $15 Friday and Sunday, $20 Saturday, $50 for three-day pass; (800) 473-7773.

14 orlando st. patrick's day parade Sponsored by Clear Communications, the owner of a half-dozen radio stations in town, the 2nd annual parade begins at Hughey Avenue and Robinson Street, then east to Orange Avenue and south to Church Street. More than 60 units showed up last year, but you might still get in by calling Susan Davenport at 916-8314. Starts at 3 pm Saturday; free; 916-8314.

14 central florida's commitment to youth City of Orlando-sponsored volunteer fair highlighting opportunities with non-profit and faith organizations. (Deadline for participants to sign up is Feb. 20.) 8:30 am-2 pm Saturday; along Robinson Street on the north side of Lake Eola Park; free; 897-6677.

20-22 WInter park sidewalk art festival Park Avenue and the cool greenery of Central Park are the setting for the 39th annual festival that selects 265 artists and transforms Winter Park's otherwise delightful downtown with crowds, crowds and more crowds. Almost $60,000 in prize money helped make this the No. 1 Florida festival in polling by Sunshine Artist magazine. WLOQ sponsors the music, which will include concerts by jazz harpist Roberto Perera (5:30 pm Friday) and saxophonist Boney James (7:30 pm Friday.) 9 am-6 pm Friday-Sunday; located along Central Park and Park Avenue, Winter Park; free; 672-6390.

21-22 wakeboard big-air championship Twenty-five pros compete in aerial stunts, with ESPN filming every drop, in inaugural Sea World event. Regular park admission $39.75 adults, $32 ages 3-9; 363-2613.

April 1 through may 3 orlando-ucf shakespeare festival Repertory season at Walt Disney Amphitheater includes $6 preview performances of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on April 1-2 (opens April 3) and "Henry IV, Part 1" on April 8-9 (opens April 10). Passing traffic can sometimes make it hard to hear the actors on the outdoor stage, and fickle weather, with the wind blowing off the lake, can make it chilly to watch. Bring a blanket to cushion against the metal seats, and another to guard against Mother Nature. Shows 7 pm Wednesdays, 8 pm Thursdays-Sundays, with a free preshow by mimes, minstrels and performers in period dress starting one hour before showtime. Lake Eola Park; $6-$35; 245-0985.

4-5 spring fiesta in the park More than 200 arts and crafts booths plus food and live entertainment in this springtime complement to the annual Fall Fiesta sponsored by Fiesta in the Park; 10 am-5 pm Saturday, noon-5 pm Sunday; Lake Eola Park; free; 649-3152.

17 through 26 orlando international fringe festival 7th annual event showcasing small-scale works of comedy, music and drama uses storefront locations as temporary theaters to present hundreds of performances over 10 days. Seven indoor stages, including one set aside for kids, encourage both the audience and artists to take some risks, with results that are mixed but never less than heartfelt. After being relocated last year by road construction, the central staging area returns this year to Orange Avenue and Church Street, the downtown crossroads that hosted the first five festivals and which guarantees a good audience for performers on the free outdoor stage. Performers are mostly local, but in past years have come from several states and many foreign nations. Exact downtown locations to be announced. Individual shows $2-$9; 648-0077.

8 great orlando bike ride Thirteen-mile ride through downtown geared for riders of all ages (bicycle helmet required), and benefitting the Track Shack Foundation. Starts at 8 am Saturday, Lake Eola Park; $10 advance registration, $12 week of ride, $15 day of ride; 896-1160.

8-19 maitland spring estival Watercolors, jewelry, baskets, sculpture and stained-glass are among the arts on display for judging and sale by 200 artisans spread out along the shaded shore of Lake Lily. With food and continuous live music. 9 am-5 pm Saturday, 10 am-5 pm Sunday; Lake Lily, at Maitland Avenue and Orlando Avenue (Highway 17-92), Maitland; free; 644-0741.

20-26 u.s. men's clay court championships Thirty-two top players compete in the 88th annual tournament, the nation's second-oldest, with Michael Chang back to defend a singles title earned among a field that last year included Petr Korda, Jason Stoltenberg, Alex O'Brien, Chris Woodruff and MaliVai Washington. Qualifying for the singles and doubles competition takes place April 18-19. Disney's Wide World of Sports complex; $12-$32, with all-session passes available for $199; 839-3900 or 939-1500.

26 fiesta medina 11th annual celebration spawned by a neighborhood market now draws as many as 30,000 people for a day of Latin food and music by local and name acts. Noon-8 pm Sunday; Orlando Festival Park, Primrose Drive and Robinson Street; free; 381-5310.

May 9 wading bird festival Orange County Parks and Recreation Department teams with Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to host nature festival, with boat tours of the wading bird colony, viewing of nesting birds and educational exhibits. 8 am-1 pm Saturday; Moss Park, 12901 Moss Park Road; free; 273-2327.

9-10 strictly positive wellness conference 5th annual seminar for people affected and infected by HIV/AIDS. Early registration deadline April 15. Held at Walt Disney World Dolphin, and presented by Hope and Help Center of Central Florida; free; 645-2577 ext. 33.

16-17 zellwood sweet corn festival 25th annual event includes two days of corn-eating contests, rides, games, arts and crafts, and country music, with a concert by Charlie Daniels at 2 pm Sunday. 10 am-9 pm Saturday and Sunday; Zellwood Fairgrounds, 4253 Ponkan Road, Zellwood; $10 advance, $12 at gate (children $4 and $5); 886-0014.