In six years of previewing the Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival, this is the first time I feel compelled to offer this advice: Skip the hand sanitizer and make use of the many hand-washing stations available in the park. This is mostly finger food, and the acrid smell doesn’t mix with a duck lettuce wrap.
The annual festival of small plates, wines, beer and cocktails had to shut down after a few weeks last year when COVID-19 closed all of Florida’s theme parks mid-March. But it returned this week, and this year’s festival has added more dishes and drinks to choose from while imposing coronavirus protocols.
In total, 24 culinary cabins offer more than 110 appetizer-sized dishes and drinks to sample, 22 of them new items. There are more than 50 wines, beers, and seltzers and more than 20 cocktails, including a frozen Jack and Coke and an Espresso Martini Cocktail with Absolut Vanilla Vodka, Kahlua and cold brew coffee.
Park reservations are required, even for pass members and Fun Card holders. Temperatures are checked at the entrance and masks are required, except when eating or drinking. High-top tables are set up more than 6 feet apart in the festival area.
As for that Five-Spice Duck Lettuce Wrap, found in the Seasonally Inspired cabin near the Iron Gwazi coaster, it was excellent — though tricky for me to manage without giving up and using a fork. It comes with Asian pear slaw, cashews and a plum sauce drizzled on a fresh and crispy leaf of butter lettuce. That cabin also featured roasted Brussel sprouts that came with surprisingly spicy peanuts on top and a yummy tahini dressing, though the sprouts were overcooked and mushy for my taste.
In the past, I’ve complained that too many of the Busch Gardens dishes leaned toward the sweet side with bacon jam or honey added to just about about every slider. Things labeled spicy rarely met my desire for heat. The Lollipop Chicken Drum at the Southern Kitchen this year makes me feel heard. It packed a nice bit of heat, along with a sticky glaze to please the sweets lovers.
There’s a lot of buzz this year for the new Lobster White Cheddar sponsored by Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese, but be warned this can feel pretty heavy in the belly, so think about sharing that one.
My favorite cabin was West Coast Catch, with three excellent dishes. A Drunken Shrimp Tostada came with a generous amount of beer-battered shrimp, a pile of citrus slaw, crema and cotija cheese. The sturdier-than-usual tostada shell made me realize how much thought must go into making food that’s easy to eat while walking or standing in a theme park.
That explains why the Elote Street Corn at that same cabin came in a cup instead of that messy ear of slathered corn you get at the fair. This one had a great fresh mix of corn and queso fresco tinged with lime. And the cabin’s pork tamales were getting raves for seasoned pork and avocado cream surrounded by soft masa.
For the dessert lovers, the NOLA Sweets booth has a new spin on beignets with a bourbon caramel sauce that may not be traditional, but it was indulgent. The Thrill Shake found in the Floats and Shakes Creamery cabin seems more like a dare than a dessert: the chocolate shake comes in a huge souvenir mason jar with a chocolate-covered strawberry on top, whipped cream, a cupcake garnish, and you can add a whipped vodka shot for good measure.
The prices ranged from $5.49 for the Brussel sprouts to $8-11 for the average slider and more indulgent dishes. Cocktails were much pricier, $9.99 to $11.99 on average, with beer and wine costing $7-$10 each. That’s why many spring for a sampler lanyard, which can be used for the length of the festival.
But keep in mind that the samplers are a better deal for food than they are for drinks because you’ll only get a sample drink, about half the normal size, while the food offerings are the same size. But it’s still a good way to sample multiple cocktails at half the price. The lanyards start at $34.99 for the five-item sampler. Pass members can get an exclusive 15-item sampler for the price of a 12-item sampler.
Starting in March, live musical entertainment will perform on the festival stage, but the lineup has not been announced yet. The plan is to space the audience apart on benches set up in the expansive Gwazi Field, a Busch Gardens spokesperson said.
The festival opens at noon on Saturdays and Sundays through April 25. More information, including a menu guide, is available on the Busch Gardens Tampa Bay website at buschgardens.com.