For his fourth year helming the Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival, Ron DeBonis, the Tampa theme park’s executive chef, is once again playing around with the menu.
"Every year we have to have a little shock and awe. This year it is frog legs, Cajun style, with a remoulade and a corn fritter," DeBonis said. And because the frog legs got them thinking of New Orleans, they added a new shrimp po boy sandwich to the mix.
Running weekends starting Saturday through April 29, the festival has expanded its physical footprint in the park and its lineup of free concerts.
This year the concert lineup is loaded with ’90s favorites, including TLC, Boyz II Men, the Goo Goo Dolls and Michael Bolton, as well as country and Southern rock. Concerts kick off with ’90s rockers Sister Hazel (All for You) and Edwin McCain (I’ll Be) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday and salsa collective Grupo Niche at 6 p.m. Sunday.
With food as the star, DeBonis said, he likes to go by a "one-third rule" for the menu mix, as in one-third of the 38 food offerings are new, one-third are old favorites, and one-third are tweaked changes of a favorite, such as making the shrimp ceviche from last year more spicy and in a marinade this year.
Surprisingly, the bison slider remains the most popular item in the festival, DeBonis said. It may sound exotic, "but I think that’s what people are looking for." The meat is complimented with sriracha ketchup, pickles and caramelized onions.
"Bison may not be something you would sit down and have as a meal, but for a slider it’s perfect."
Strolling entertainers, elaborate topiaries and living statues abound at the festival. There is a new Coca-Cola stage this year for regional music acts. There’s also strolling entertainment, including the walking topiary and the "living statue" of a woman who looks like a fountain, with delicate jets running from her fingertips.
New this year will be a series of local artists painting murals live in the festival area.
"We have such an active arts scene. We love the idea of making this a new tradition," said Jamie Johnson, vice president of entertainment for the theme park. The artists have been asked to create something with a conservation theme.
On the food front, the bacon mac and cheese remains a favorite, but a new addition is a truffled seafood mac and cheese with seared shrimp, scallops and cod. A new roasted cauliflower dish will be prepared similarly to a Maryland-style crabcake and served with a sriracha aioli. "I love this item, and I am a carnivore," DeBonis said.
Also new is a decadent-sounding short rib and Brie grilled cheese, served in a house-made brioche.
On the spirits side, the popularity of sauvignon blanc and rose wines prompted organizers to create kiosks of just those trendy wines in a variety of styles.
The bourbon tasting is back, and new this year is a tequila tasting in the new VIP bar set up for those who buy VIP concert tickets, where the local distillery Florida Cane will be pouring bourbon from a barrel.
The craft beer trend that is racing through Florida is well represented, with at least half of the beer crafters coming from local breweries, including Big Storm, Coppertail, Three Daughters, Cigar City, Green Bench and the Brew Bus.
The recent trend of gourmet foods getting a wide audience in theme parks once known for corn dogs and cotton candy comes from the customers, DeBonis said.
"It’s the audience that has changed," he said. "There’s always been talented chefs. The theme parks just figured out how to get it into the parks."
Here are some tips for making the most of the festival.
Save on food: Sampler packages of $29.99-$54.99 for five, eight or 12 samples can save on food purchases because they are full portions. But note that the beer and wine on those lanyards are just samples, not a full glass.
VIP seating: If you want a reserved seat for concerts, VIP seats are $34.99-$44.99, and those include a five-item sampler lanyard and access to a new VIP bar.
Plan your day: Hit the rides early and then head to the Gwazi Park festival grounds when they open at noon to avoid the long lines that start to build up at 3 p.m. before concerts.
Save your seat: You can put out a beach towel to save a spot in Gwazi Field for the free concerts. You can even bring an umbrella for shade, but you’ll have to put it away when the show starts.
Topiaries: The creative topiaries are a favorite of festival-goers. The giant maiden called Spirit of Spring is gone this year to make room for the new Coca-Cola stage, but look for the funny "Topiarazzi," a pack of bushes resembling a band of paparazzi photographers. Also returning is the intricate snake called Naga’ Zira, a green boa constrictor that is a sidewalk serpent made from more than 25,000 red St. Joseph’s coats, green ficus and yellow alternantheras.
Admission: The festival is included with admission, which starts at $89.99 online; kids 5 and younger can get in free if registered online for a Preschool Pass. The park opens at 10 a.m. daily, and food and drink stalls open at noon on weekends. 10165 N McKinley Drive, Tampa. buschgardens.com.