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What's new and insider tips for the 2016 Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival

For its second year cooking up the Food and Wine Festival, Busch Gardens is still tweaking its recipe for drawing crowds — and getting them to spend more money on food and drinks.

The park's top chef, Ronald DeBonis, said during a preview that this year's menu ended up one-third returning favorites, one-third tweaked offerings and 15 all-new dishes. And that seems to be the recipe for the rest of the festival as well, adding a dash of pizazz to the concert lineup, spreading out the food and wine booths a little more.

Still in its infancy, the Tampa theme park's festival is not on the scale of Disney's annual Epcot Wine & Food Festival. There are no celebrity chefs, cooking classes or wine seminars, though they have added a bourbon tasting at $24.95 for four pours and a souvenir glass.

The Tampa Bay beer scene gets a boost, with seven local brewers among the 16 featured, including Cigar City, Tampa Bay Brewing, Barley Mow and Pair O' Dice.

The lineup of culinary cabins has expanded beyond Gwazi Park to include the prettier Bird Gardens by the flamingos.

Side attractions include the kinda creepy, kinda cool Human Topiary wandering around, and the Living Fountain Statue, a lady with water streaming from her fingertips. Artists on site will also be spinning sugar art or carving art from ice, fruits and vegetables. Don't miss the special (nonliving) topiaries, especially the giant octopus in the lagoon outside Garden Gate Cafe or the huge Spirit of Spring maiden near Xcursions.

The festival runs weekends through April 24, from noon to 9 p.m., with free concerts at 6 p.m. in Gwazi Park. This weekend features O.A.R. of Shattered (Turn the Car Around) fame on Sunday. The Goo Goo Dolls were scheduled for Saturday but canceled due to illness; Collective Soul will be their replacement.

But first, you gotta eat.

Hello, truffle fries, the most buzzed-about new spuds. And it's nice to see you again roasted pork belly. We've missed you.

The king of the returning favorites is the Bacon Mac and Cheese, with the park selling nearly 7,300 plates last year — because bacon — park spokeswoman Karen Varga-Sinka said. But a not-too-shabby second was the Coconut Shrimp Cigar with nearly 5,000 dishes sold, plating some 15,000 giant coconut shrimp, three per order.

Among the favorites at a recent media preview:

• Lamb chops with tabouleh and tzatziki sauce: Two extremely tender lamb lollipops take "food on a stick" to a new level.

• Desserts were rich, so they make a good item to share. Almond coconut truffles came three to a plate with a drizzle of chocolate. The brioche bread pudding is pan-fried with a Nutella-mascarpone drizzle that takes only a bite or two for the sugar coma to kick in.

• The duck fat truffle-infused fries were flavorful, as promised. Maybe the hype left us wanting more but there were no leftovers.

• The pan-seared diver scallops are a returning favorite, but the fresh watermelon salsa with them kick the dish up a notch.

• While no one will turn down Bacon Mac and Cheese, especially with thick-cut bacon sprinkled on top. But the blue cheese macaroni topped with Buffalo-style chicken hit all the flavor spots for people who like spice and a cheese that bites back.

In recent years, the food at theme parks has grown to become an attraction itself. Corn dogs have been replaced with field greens with heirloom apples and braised beef. And as the appetite for creative food has grown, so have the food festivals.

"We serve more sophisticated customers these days," said Busch Gardens President Jim Dean, who said the duck tacos are his favorite this year. "We can't just serve hamburgers and hotdogs anymore."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

If you go

Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival

In its second year, the festival included in admission ($99) has a menu of more than 35 small plates and more than 120 wines, beers and cocktails. It's held on weekends only from noon to 9 p.m. through April 24 with concerts at 6 p.m. Food starts at $4 and drinks at $7.50. The park has sampler ticket packs of $24.99-$44.99 that get you five to 10 smaller-sized samples.

Insider tips

• Grab the pocket guides at the entrance to see what's on all menus. You can also use it as a checklist to keep track of what you've tried.

• The crowds are much lighter early in the day, and if there's a concert you really want to see, consider ponying up for a reserved seat ($34.99-$69.99). It gets crowded and turns into quite the rowdy party scene at the height of spring break.

• If you have the Annual Pass (not the Fun Card), you can save 10 percent on festival food and drinks, including sampler tickets. Also, for the month of March, pass members can buy one food sample and get 50 percent off a second sample.

What's new and insider tips for the 2016 Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival 03/10/16 [Last modified: Friday, March 11, 2016 10:51am]
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