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Second annual Food & Wine Festival debuts at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

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Published: May 24, 2014 at 3:31 PM

With a year of experience under their belt, Busch Gardens has brought back the highly successful and popular Food and Wine Festival for a second year. As a Theme Park Insider contributor and Busch Gardens Williamsburg Ambassador Blogger, I was invited to the media event launching the 2014 version of the event. As a member of the Busch Gardens Ambassador Blogger team, I receive special access and perks at the park, such as this event, but my opinions presented on Theme Park Insider are my own. The Food and Wine Festival represents thousands of hours of planning and preparation for the Williamsburg, Virginia park. This year the event has expanded from 4 to 6 weekends, including the busy and lucrative Memorial Day weekend. The event has also grown in scope, with two new kiosks for guests to explore and dozens of new and tweaked dishes to sample. Patterned after the uber-successful Epcot Food and Wine Festival, now going on its 19th year, Busch Gardens’ version aims to deliver a similar experience that brings interesting and unique food and beverage to park guests that would not normally be seen in the European-themed park.

The concept follows the same pattern as last year with kiosks/booths erected around the park serving small plates of dishes typically found in the host country. Kiosks in 2014 include: Greece, Spain, Italy, Germany (separate food and beer kiosks), Caribbean (new in 2014), Canada, American Southwest (new in 2014), Belgium, France, Crepes and Coffee, Scandinavia, Ireland, and Scotland. The Austrian kiosk was removed for 2014, but a few of those dishes found their way over to the German kiosk. Each kiosk serves 4-6 dishes fitting the theme along with beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic). No corner of the palate is left untouched with dishes ranging from savory Sonoran Spice Pork to sweet Pumpkin Caramel Mousse.

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The new kiosks were selected in an online social media vote, and despite the non-European nature of the leading vote getters, Executive Chef Justin Watson stood up to the challenge to develop dishes to fit the new themes. Most menu items range from $3-$6 for a portion of 3-5 bites, allowing guests to get a good taste of the dish along with a little extra to share with a friend or family member- if you remember to let them try before devouring the plate!

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Instead of conducting a full demonstration and tasting during the media event like last year, the marketing team instead allowed media to roam around the open park, and select items from the kiosks to sample to get the authentic experience. The event started with a reception where Chef Justin and park management explained the vision and inspiration behind the Food and Wine Festival.

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In addition to the great food and beverages being served throughout the park, the Food and Wine Festival also features a number of demonstrations called "The Art of Food", where talented food artists put their food prowess on display. There was an incredible ice carving demonstration complete with chain saws and rotary carving tools. There were also artisans conducting cake and desert decorating demonstrations with awe-inspiring skill.

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The Festival also features a number of wine tasting stations scattered throughout the park that allow guests to try a full flight of wine if they are unsure which wine they want to have, or just want to broaden their sommelier knowledge. Guests can also go even deeper with the Food and Wine Insider tour with a park host, pairing wine and food from 4 different locations around the park. Guests can top off their evening at the park with a Wine on the Rhine river cruise featuring live music as well as tastings of fruit, cheese, chocolate truffles, and a beverage.

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There are a number of returning dishes to this year’s festival, which you can read about in my previous columns from last May and July. I focused my culinary curiosity on the newer dishes, and tried three of the new savory offerings. The Champignons et epinards Crepe is a spinach and mushroom crepe with feta cheese drizzled with a balsamic glaze. The earthy flavor of the mushrooms combined with the slightly bitter spinach and the salty feta to hold up well against the powerful, yet sumptuous balsamic. The Coffee and Crepes kiosk also features 2 other new savory crepes this year, which is a dramatic change to a location that was only serving dessert crepes last year.

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The new American Southwest kiosk features a number of dishes that guests would typically only find at a high quality Tex-Mex restaurant or by actually going to New Mexico, Arizona, California, or Texas. I sampled the Chicken Adobo with Sauce Mole, which was a bit different than I expected. As with last year, there are no photos or displays of the food items for guests to see what they’re getting before they commit. Despite the numerous improvements from last year to this year, this is one item that would surely be welcome to prevent guests from being disappointed after paying for an item. Nonetheless, the chicken was served as drumettes, which Chef Justin explained were selected because of the thicker skin and ability to soak up the tasty marinade. Also, the mole sauce, a highly complex blend of almonds, chocolate, 2 different chilles, tomatoes, and numerous spices, was far more textured than I expected. Typically, mole is either watery or pasty, but this mole was a bit chunky, due primarily to the almonds, which maintain their consistency through the simmering and blending processes. The sauce has layers upon layers of flavor that might turn off some more sensitive guests, but for those with a more adventurous palate, this will send your taste buds on an interesting adventure.

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The Caribbean kiosk features a number of island-inspired dishes and a setting that is right out of the Old Key West section of Sea World Orlando, complete with a scaled down lighthouse atop the kiosk, and sea horse mosaic decorations. In fact, all of the kiosks were turned up a notch, to steal from a food expression. Flags, streamers, thematically appropriate music, and costumed hosts take the kiosks to a whole new level and bring a bit of that country or area into the normal Busch Gardens themed areas. At the Caribbean kiosk, I chose to taste the Gamba Fritters- fried shrimp dumplings with a sweet and spicy dip. In talking with Chef Justin, the original idea was to produce conch fritters, commonly found on the islands and southern Florida, but because of Busch Gardens’ policy on serving sustainable products (sustainably farmed conch can be very difficult to acquire), shrimp were substituted instead, which also makes the dish a bit more accessible to a wider audience who might turn up their nose at eating conch. The fritters were quite good with a crispy outside and smooth inside. My only criticism would be that the shrimp were not readily apparent in the 3 fritters that were served to me.

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The fact that the Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival is returning for its second year is a testament to its popularity and success. However, the park is not simply repackaging last year’s event for 2014 guests. Park officials have done their homework, and through guest surveys and comments, they have made a number of improvements to make the event even better. The two new kiosks, despite not fitting with the European theme of the park, fit right in with the event, and offer some delectable tasting options. The tweaking of menus to bring back the most popular dishes from last year along with new dishes for 2014 makes the event a completely new experience even for loyal Busch Gardens fans. In addition, the park is introducing a 3-taste ticket, where guests can purchase a strip of 3 food vouchers good for any food or non-alcoholic beverage being served. At $12, the strip of vouchers serves as an excellent value for those who don’t want to deal with paying individually for items around the festival, or are not comfortable with the cashless wristband system. Expanding the festival, which runs through the end of June, gives visitors plenty of opportunity to come to experience the event. The Busch Gardens Williamsburg Second Annual Food and Wine Festival is bigger and better than last year, and is on its way to being a premier event in the theme park industry.

Readers' Opinions

From James Rao on May 24, 2014 at 4:03 PM
Great stuff, Russell, as always.

I continue to be encouraged by some of the regional parks taking chances and doing "Disney"-like things such as a Food and Wine festival. And I'll warrant that the regional park operators are finding out that these kind of experiences often bring in more crowds and more profits than simply plopping down a new ride/coaster every year. And while new attractions are well and good, its the whole park experience that brings in the masses. Cater to every want and people will eat it up (see what I did there?).

On a side note, Silver Dollar City, my local theme park, holds several Festivals a year and unique food items are almost always a staple at these events. Places like SDC and BGW do a great job of filling in the gap between Disney visits for families like mine. They satisfy us in ways the the iron ride only parks simply cannot match.

Anyway, thanks for sharing, Russell.

From 70.192.193.237 on May 25, 2014 at 8:02 AM
We went last night to our local park BGW and ate at 4 of the food booths for the festival. All of the food was great. Nice to have something different to eat at the park.
From Rob Pastor on May 26, 2014 at 6:10 AM
James: Great observations. I completely agree.

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