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Destination foodie: Theme parks expand food festivals to feed all tastes

Busch Gardens’ Food & Wine Festival is back for a third year with dozens of food stations and a hit concert lineup. This is the key lime berry parfait mousse garnished with a cinnamon churro.
Busch Gardens’ Food & Wine Festival is back for a third year with dozens of food stations and a hit concert lineup. This is the key lime berry parfait mousse garnished with a cinnamon churro.
Published Mar. 21, 2017

We've become a foodie nation, and theme parks are smart to embrace this enduring movement.

Now the happiest places on earth are also some of the tastiest.

More than 20 years ago, Walt Disney World debuted the International Food & Wine Festival at Epcot. Since then, theme parks have been reshaping how they feed the masses by incorporating year-round gourmet dishes and hosting food festivals.

"The Florida parks no longer believe in anything called 'the off season,' " said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. "The parks are going after a more grownup audience, so that means food and wine festivals as well as music concerts mostly featuring nostalgic acts."

Now until May 29, Epcot hosts the International Flower & Garden Festival, sporting farm-to-table flavors and sustainable food.

Sister parks SeaWorld in Orlando and Busch Gardens in Tampa have evolved their Bands, Brews & BBQ series into the Seven Seas Food Festival and the Food & Wine Festival.

Universal Orlando, another notable player in the theme park game, doesn't host a traditional food festival, but the park creates its own unique dishes year-round and during two seasonal events.

Twenty years ago, it was much harder to find artisan or international food that was fresh and authentic. Now you can indulge in Mexican-Japanese fusion, traditional Portuguese, authentic Florida Cracker staples and anything you could possibly want adorning a doughnut.

In a theme park, it's as simple as walking down Main Street U.S.A. or stopping in the French Quarter Courtyard on the way to Diagon Alley.

Setting sail

SeaWorld Seven Seas Food Festival

Like its sister park, SeaWorld revamped its annual Bands, Brews & BBQ into a food-centric festival — the Seven Seas Food Festival, which debuted at the San Antonio, Texas, park two years ago.

Executive chef Hector Colon and his team created 60 dishes to fill 11 global marketplaces around the park. There also are more than 55 local and international craft beers.

In between feeding the stingrays and taking the plunge on the Mako coaster, you can sip some Right on Red amber ale from Orlando Brewing, savor ceviche with sweet potato and indulge in a grilled cheese pound cake with fresh raspberry sauce.

The most alluring bites come from the Florida market, serving amped-up coconut shrimp with mango horseradish sauce, shrimp mac and cheese with local shrimp, and a delightfully tart and sweet key lime pie martini. Not a drink, but definitely one of the best key lime pies we've tasted.

And if you're brave, don't forget to try the fried kataifi orange. It looks a bit like an orange, circular piece of shredded wheat. But the kataifi gives it a nice crunch and the frying process brings out the citrus juices.

SeaWorld's Seven Seas Food Festival serves up fare every Saturday through May 13 and is included with park admission. Food and drinks are sold separately. Sampling lanyards are available at the park and at seaworldparks.com.

Flavors in bloom

Epcot's International Flower & Garden Festival

Walt Disney World is known as the place where dreams come true, and that fits for Mickey-loving tots and hungry kids at heart.

"Disney parks have been the places where guests can connect with the stories and characters they cherish most," said Dave Kesting, general manager of Epcot World Showcase West and festivals. "More and more, food and beverage offerings are an integral part of that story."

For more than two decades, Epcot has hosted festivals that celebrate springtime blooms, local and international drinks and unique culinary options.

The park's International Food & Wine Festival returns later this year for a whopping 75 days of drinking and eating around the World Showcase. In January, the International Festival of the Arts debuted with an emphasis on providing space for local artists, Disney creators and food that was almost too pretty to eat.

The springtime festival returned for a 24th year this month, celebrating classic characters through towering topiaries and teaching guests the importance of sustainable farming and consuming locally produced ingredients.

Don't forget about the food. Fifteen outdoor markets line the streets of the World Showcase with unique flavors from every country. You can grab some Beijing-style candied strawberries in China, beef brisket burnt ends hash in America, an Alsatian onion tart in France and a plate of antipasto misto in Italy.

Many of the stands take advantage of springtime flavors, like the Berry Basket's warm wild berry buckle with pepper berry sorbet and Florida Fresh's key lime tart topped with toasted meringue.

"With so many of our guests considering themselves foodies, they embrace the chance to try new ingredients and twists on a variety of dishes," Kesting said.

Epcot's International Flower & Garden Festival runs through May 29 and is included with park admission. Food and drinks are sold separately. Find more information at disneyworld.com.

Savory safari

Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival

Tampa's Busch Gardens debuted its Food & Wine Festival in 2015 after the Bands, Brews & BBQ concert series was thrown into chaos in the wake of Blackfish. Now in its third year, the event boasts more than 40 craft beers, 30 food and drink stations and an impressive lineup of musicians.

"We are always thinking of ways to connect with guests," Busch Gardens president Stewart Clark said. "(We want) to make it feel like more than just an experience with animals and rides."

Executive chef Ron DeBonis said that because of channels like Food Network, the people he feeds are becoming experts in their own kitchens.

"They're more sophisticated eaters now," he said. "With TV and social media, I have to be pretty good at my craft."

This year's Food & Wine Festival cuisine includes simple comforts, like bacon mac and cheese and duck fat truffle fries, and more elaborate creations, like the tuna poke wakame salad and the divine key lime berry parfait mousse garnished with a cinnamon churro.

Chef Ron's recommendations? The portobello mushroom taco and the short rib taco with BBQ demiglace.

The Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival runs weekends through April 30 and is included with park admission. Food and drinks are sold separately. Sampling packages are available at the park and at seaworldparks.com.

Good times rolling year-round

Universal Orlando

Universal Orlando doesn't have a titular food festival, but that doesn't stop the park from embedding unique drinks and dishes into its attractions.

"Food is a celebration of life," said executive chef Steve Jayson. "From the very first day, the food has been a very important part of the whole experience at Universal."

Two highlights on the calendar are the Mardi Gras celebration and Halloween Horror Nights. For Mardi Gras' 50 nights (ending March 25), the streets of Universal transform into New Orleans, with booths selling traditional jambalaya, gumbo, beignets, muffaletta sandwiches and chicory coffee.

"Giving guests the true Mardi Gras experience includes food," Jayson said.

The popular Halloween Horror Nights event has evolved to include more portable food and drink. Guests can imbibe with liquid courage sold by costumed scare actors roving the streets. For the bravest, the Classic Monsters Cafe hosts a scare actor dining experience with special "gore"-met dishes.

Home to the world-famous Butterbeer, Universal continues to adapt its food offerings as storytelling tools for guests.

Jayson, one of the masterminds behind those towering milkshakes at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, said there's a constantly increasing emphasis on local ingredients and a need for more dishes adhering to food sensitivities, but Universal is committed to keeping up.

"You're only as good as the last meal you cooked," he said. "We are always trying to outdo what we did yesterday."

Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights runs Sept. 14 through Nov. 4. Information on tickets and dining packages is available at universalorlando.com.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at ctatham@tampabay.com. Follow @chelseatatham.

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