Busch Gardens courts foodies at new festival

Food and beverage booths line a walkway at the Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival in Tampa, Fla. The event takes place weekends in April.
Food and beverage booths line a walkway at the Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival in Tampa, Fla. The event takes place weekends in April. TNS

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 through April, 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. Many of the food items come with pairing recommendations.

Recently, 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 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.

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 a recent Sunday it sounded as if it might develop its own loyal following.

Florida food fest

The Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival, at Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa, Fla., is included in regular park admission ($85 for one day). Food and beverages cost extra. The small plates were mostly in the $4-$7 range. Details: