The Tampa theme park boasts the title of roller coaster king in Florida, but it can also say it has one of the prettiest displays of Christmas lights in Tampa Bay.
Busch Gardens runs its annual Christmas Town festivities select nights through Dec. 31, packing the Africa-themed park with millions of lights, eight shows and meet and greets with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and his pals.
New this year is a sampling lanyard ($34.99 – $49.99) that allows you to get five or 10 food and drink samples in the Christmas Town Village. The lanyard also allows you to get holiday offerings at select restaurants around the park, including a full smoked chicken meal at the Zambia Smokehouse near Sheikra.
If your plans include food and booze, the sampling lanyard is more than worth it.
We recently checked out the dazzling displays of lights and edible offerings at this year's Christmas Town. These are our top five picks found in the Christmas Town Village in the old Gwazi park.
Busch Gardens was smart to put the mini doughnut hut close to the entrance to Christmas Town Village. It should be your first food stop. These bite-sized pieces of fried dough aren't the prettiest I've ever seen, but they crack my top 5 of the tastiest. They're served warm, for one thing, and tiny plump rings piled high with toppings basically melt in your mouth. The vanilla and red velvet cake doughnuts come in batches of three, six or a dozen with toppings like vanilla, maple or strawberry icing, Oreo pieces, bacon, Fruit Loops cereal and sprinkles. Mark yourself down for a dozen. They're worth it.
Chicken and waffle sandwich
You know what's better than a heaping plate of crispy chicken and fluffy waffles? Turning the dish into a sandwich. It's so simple, yet so delicious: a hefty piece of thinly-breaded chicken sandwiched between two thick waffle triangles and drizzled with maple syrup. It's the perfect combination of sweet and salt, soft and crunchy.
Cinnamon, coffee and caramel flavors are featured in almost every holiday beer offered in Christmas Town Village. If you're looking for a beer on the slightly sweet side, try the Rivertown Salted Carm-Ale or the Due South Caramel Cream Ale. Due South's brew has a slight hint of a cream soda flavor without tasting like straight sugar. The Coppertail Seasonal Relief and the 3 Daughters A Wake Coffee Blonde Ale both feature hints of coffee balanced out by cocoa and molasses (Coppertail) or hops and sweetness (3 Daughters).
There's a divisive food dish for every holiday, and eggnog is it for the Christmas season. Traditionally it's made with milk, cream, sugar, egg whites, egg yolks and cinnamon, it's understandable why the thick, yellow-ish beverage turns people away. But when eggnog is done right, it can be oh-so-delicious. Busch Gardens Christmas Town does a delightful eggnog — not too sweet, not too eggy and with just the right amount of cinnamon. They make it even better by serving it frozen, which helps it keep cold a lot longer. Eggnog is for sipping, after all. Go big, get the whipped cream on top.
Sweet potato s'mores
Concept: s'mores, but instead of a graham cracker base there are sweet potato fries serving as vehicles for chocolate and marshmallow drizzles. If you're a fan of sweet potatoes as quasi-desserts, this dish is for you.
If you go
Busch Gardens Christmas Town
Select days through Dec. 31
Included with park admission, $89.99 and up.
What to expect: Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party is an overload of holiday cheer and cookies
Holiday TV: When to watch Rudolph, A Christmas Story, The Polar Express
Universal holidays: First look at Christmas in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter