Bacon macaroni and cheese or deconstructed duck confit? Coconut shrimp or goat cheese fingerling potato tart? Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is holding its first food and wine festival on weekends all this month and next, and in the spotlight is a good mix of the comfortable and the bold.
Busch Gardens chefs created 29 small-plate dishes just for this event. They range from the familiar (shrimp and grits, smoked beef brisket) to dishes that push just beyond the comfort zone (venison chili, roasted pork belly with tomato onion jam) to the sweet (mango eclair, grilled cheesecake sandwich).
The festival also offers more than 50 brews, many of them Florida craft beers, and more than 50 wines, none of them from Florida. Many of the food items come with pairing recommendations.
“We’re always looking for new, unique experiences. … We look back on what our guests loved and build on that.” said Heather Harrison, entertainment show manager for Busch Gardens. “We see this being something that will reach out to many guests that we haven’t been able to reach before — different ages, different palates, people who enjoy wine rather than beer, people who are foodies.
“We’re pulling out all the stops.”
The new event replaces the Bands, Brew & BBQ festival with a more ambitious array of food and beverages. “We’ve got everything from grilled food, seafood, vegetarian to soul food,” Harrison said. “They all have some kind of a Southern or Florida twist.”
Guests stood at small tables sampling a little of this, a little of that. “There isn’t anything we haven’t liked yet. The food’s been good, and there’s a good variety,” said Elizabeth Kara of Spring Hill. “It’s a little bit better than what I expected.”
“And there’s a good assortment of drinks,” added her husband, Christopher Kara.
Their favorite? “It’s a toss-up between the coconut shrimp and the short ribs,” she said.
“The short ribs,” he said.
Last weekend, Norman van Aken, a Miami/Key West chef celebrated for his contributions to South Florida cuisine, gave cooking demonstrations, handed out samples of his sauteed shrimp and answered questions from a small audience.
In a shady courtyard where people sought refuge from the sun, a living statue — a woman dressed or painted in ivory from head to toe to resemble statuary — stood still, and at time moved gracefully to music. Sometimes water sprayed from her fingertips as if they were sprinklers.
The festival is set up in the shadow of Gwazi, an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster that Busch Gardens shut down in February because it was no longer popular with guests. The park has not yet decided how it will replace the coaster, which is still standing.
The area is lined with midway games, but for the Food & Wine Festival, some of the games were themed for the event. In the ring toss, for example, the targets were the necks of wine bottles.
On the large field next to Gwazi, a stage was set up. Young guests grabbed seats as soon as the doors opened at noon for a 6 p.m. concert by Fifth Harmony, a popular girl group, then lined the road and shrieked as the singers were driven away after their performance.
Concerts are scheduled every Saturday and Sunday through April 26, the last day of the festival. Up next: Boys Like Girls on Sunday, Kenny Rogers on March 21 and Pentatonix on March 22.
The park’s regular attractions were open, and some festival-goers took their cups of beer or plates of dessert to watch cheetahs strolling through their habitat or fat alligators sunning themselves by a nearby pond. In the background, roller-coaster riders screamed and whooped.
The Busch festival is not on the scale of Disney’s annual Epcot Wine & Food Festival held each fall. The Busch festival doesn’t have the galas, wine-tasting seminars and food workshops that the Epcot festival does. But on Sunday it sounded as if it might develop its own loyal following. Of half a dozen guests interviewed, all said they have annual passes, come to Busch Gardens regularly and would return for the festival.
The festival is included in regular park admission. Food and beverages cost extra. The small plates were mostly in the $4-$7 range.
Be sure to try …
Numbers weren’t available, but anecdotal evidence suggests the most popular items included:
▪ Coconut shrimp cigars with mandarin orange salad
▪ Pan-seared shrimp with roasted red pepper grits (shrimp and grits)
▪ Griddled cheese cake sandwich (dessert)
▪ Goat cheese fingerling potato tart with pistachio oil.
▪ Braised lamb with roasted corn and merlot jus lie
▪ Pan-seared salmon cake
▪ Mango eclair
— Marjie Lambert
Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival
When: Noon to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 26
Where: Busch Gardens, 10165 N. McKinley Dr., Tampa
Cost: Included in park admission; one-day ticket $85. For Florida residents, a $95 Fun Card buys unlimited admission through Dec. 31
Information: www.BuschGardens.com/tampa, 888-800-5447