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Dining planner: Festivals feature culinary creations at Busch Gardens, Epcot

SECOND SERVING: Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival

In recent years, the food at theme parks has become an attraction itself. This week, the Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival returns for eight weekends of culinary creations and a concert series, and the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival has expanded into a mini food festival with new outdoor kitchens and kiosks.

Here's what's in store for hungry parkgoers:

Heading into its second year, the festival runs Saturday through April 24 with 11 different culinary cabins set up along Gwazi Park. The festival offers small plates of gourmet goods and more than 120 wines, beers and cocktails. A concert series kicks off with country's Gary Allan on Saturday and Huey Lewis and the News on Sunday. It will include Andy Grammer, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Meatloaf, the All-American Rejects and O.A.R.

We talked to the park's top chef, Ronald DeBonis, who created the first Food and Wine Festival last year. The food cabins each focused on different themes with names such as Savory Tavern pushing out braised lamb shank and passion fruit flan and the Comfort Station as home of classics such as bacon mac and cheese.

This year, he says the menu ended up one-third returning favorites, one-third tweaked offerings and 15 all-new dishes.

So rest easy, top-selling bacon mac and cheese isn't going anywhere. Neither is the roasted pork belly with red pepper jam or the grilled cheesecake sandwich (a popular dessert of sliced pound cake with cream cheese and honey, pan-griddled and drizzled with raspberry coulis).

Some possible contenders for new favorites:

DeBonis said his testers inhaled the truffle fries. "No clean up was required that day." The fussy fries start with Kennebec, the new "it" potato among foodies. They are blanched and chilled, then fried in duck fat and finished with truffle oil, then served with a truffle aioli.

Buffalo chicken gets a big supporting role from mac and cheese, but in this case it's blue cheese instead of cheddar in the sauce.

And for dessert, there's pan-fried bread pudding.

"This is not your mama's bread pudding," DeBonis said. A traditional bread pudding is put back into loaf form and sliced and pan seared "to get a nice crusty edge, so it gets like a French toast consistency." It's then finished with a Nutella-mascarpone drizzle. Swoon.

The Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival runs noon to 9 p.m. weekends through April 24. The concerts at 6 p.m. are included with admission. Food samples start at $4 and drinks start at $7.50. The park has sampler tickets of $24.99-$44.99 that get you five to 10 smaller-sized samples of drinks and food.

KEEPS GROWING: Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

Like a fast-growing vine, the festival opening this week is growing to a record 90 days for its 23rd year. Donald's nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, will join the nearly 100 topiary characters (plus Frozen's Anna and Elsa), along with the Garden Rocks concert series of classic pop acts like Starship and Night Ranger.

One of the most anticipated new features this year are outdoor kitchens with names such as La Isla Fresca and Cider House, plus standards Brews and Barbecue and Florida Fresh.

La Isla Fresca will serve up dishes such as Jamaican Braised Beef with Pigeon-Pea Rice and Jerk-Spiced Grouper or Chicken with Mango Salsa. The Cider House will offer a Field Greens salad with greens harvested from The Land pavilion, heirloom apples, Stilton cheese and dried blueberries that will pair well with a blueberry hard cider from Plant City.

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is included with admission, but food, beverages and seminars are extra. It runs 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through May 30.

Dining planner: Festivals feature culinary creations at Busch Gardens, Epcot 03/02/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 2, 2016 11:23am]
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