my DarKoaster Media Day experience, I had some time (and a tasting card provided by the park) to explore Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s annual Food and Wine Festival. It’s hard to believe it’s been only 10 years since I first interviewed Chef Justin Watson about the inaugural festival, but the concept has evolved, persisted through the pandemic, and spurred similar festivals at other regional parks around the country. While I criticized BGW for trying to copycat the highly successful, and at this point iconic, EPCOT Food and Wine Festival, reaching the 10-year milestone is a testament to the integration of seasonal food-focused events into the theme park experience. The fact that other parks have staged their own food festivals shows how popular they can be and how parks can use them to encourage repeat (or elongated) visits that increase guest spending.As part of
Like previous festivals, this year’s edition features a number of kiosks around the park serving menu items associated with a given country, cuisine, or theme. As usual, there are plenty of repeat menu items from previous festivals, along with a smattering of new items, and an entire kiosk with a rotating menu featuring a different country/cuisine from a previous year’s festival called Decade of Delights. After the DarCoaster media activities, which included some samples of the delicious DarKoaster Black Lager, the first beer brewed exclusively for Busch Gardens Williamsburg by Virginia Beer Company, I made my way around the park sampling what the 2023 Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival has to offer.
First up was the Italy kiosk, where I tried 2 menu items that are both new for this year’s festival. The Giant Meatball is just what you would expect with a tangy marinara sauce and asiago cheese. The meatball had a good texture but could have probably used a bit more spice given that the sauce was pretty pedestrian.
The other item I sampled was the Lemon Ricotta Cake. This was very similar to lemon bars you might find at a local bakery with a creamy texture with the right balance of tart lemon with sweetness from the powdered sugar and slivered almond topping.
At the Japan kiosk, I went with an item I would probably avoid given the description. The Impossi-Bao features plant-based meat smothered with a hoisin-style sauce and topped with Asian slaw in a steamed bun. I can usually tell when a plant-based protein is disguising itself for real meat, but here, the texture, grilled flavor, and tasty sauce effectively distracted my palate from trademarked gummy mouth feel and odd aftertaste typical from meat substitutes. I probably wouldn’t choose this over a beef bao, but on its own, it’s a worthy substitute for vegetarians or those curious about plant-based meat substitutes.
Near the front of the park, I couldn’t help but sample some of my favorites from the reliably solid Virginia kiosk. The Bacon and Cheddar Hushpuppies were excellent as always with a not-too sweet honey butter and crispy exterior.
The She-Crab Soup is always a must for me, and this year’s version is no exception with a generous portion of crab meat placed on top of a toasted crostini.
At the Australian kiosk, I went for the gusto by trying the Lamb Chop. I’ve had this before here and at the Seven Seas Food Festival at Sea World Orlando, but this year’s iteration of the dish was absolutely amazing. The chop was melt-in-your-mouth tender with a cilantro mint sauce that had a bit of a kick to it that intensified the heat of the rub on the outside of the chop. This item is right up there amongst the best dishes I’ve had at any theme park food festival.
At the Decade of Delights kiosk, staged inside Grogan’s Grill in Ireland, I tried the Shrimp with Hearts of Palm. The shrimp here seemed like they were prepared as a ceviche, but the marinade lacked the acidity I would expect. Meanwhile, the salad had an overwhelming percentage of black beans and corn compared to the hearts of palm. This dish wasn’t necessarily bad but wasn’t what I expected based on the description.
The Hawaii kiosk was next, where I sampled the Spam Musubi. Having spent a month in Hawaii last fall, I had a number of different versions of this classic snack food. Unlike the ones I got in Hawaii that are held tightly with sheets of nori, this version requires a fork with just a single strip of dehydrated seaweed draped over the top of the spam and rice. The taste is definitely authentic, but it felt odd not being able to pick the musubi up with my hand.
As you would expect, the Mexico kiosk has a couple of different taco dishes. I tried the Carne Asada Taco, which was overflowing with tender and juicy beef. The guacamole accompanying the meat is a bit bland but does not undermine the flavor of the beef.
Over at the French Quarter kiosk located near Griffon, I sampled the classic Beignets. BGW’s version can’t top the ones I’ve had at Café du Monde in New Orleans, but these fluffy, fried, delights were a worthy interpretation of the classic with an added drizzle of caramel.
I met up with Chef Watson at the Brazil kiosk (near Trapper’s Smokehouse), where he was making his rounds. He noted that the Churrasco (grilled beef with chimichurri) was the Festival’s best selling dish, and having previous tasted this item many times in previous years, I know why – it’s consistently excellent. However, I instead sampled the Linguica, a grilled sausage served with grilled mushrooms and peppers. The sausage itself is not as spicy as I expected, but has a good snap to the casing, probably because as Chef Watson told me the links here are provided by the same vendor that the park uses to source their German sausages. The veggies here have a strong char flavor that compliments the milder than anticipated sausage.
Jamaica serves a number of Caribbean-inspired fare. I’ve typically gone with the Gamba Fritters here, but instead gave the Jamaican Patty a try. The beef-filled meat pie was quite good but was served with a side of coconut jerk dip that I thought was a bit too laden with allspice. I mistakenly poured the entire cut of sauce into the pie after taking my first bite since the cup wasn’t big enough for dipping. I find the sauce/dip to be more distracting than complimentary with the savory pie.
As usual, there were far more hits than there were misses at this year’s Busch Gardens Williamsburg Food and Wine Festival. The park continues to evolve its menus by offering new and adventurous dishes while maintaining fan favorites. After 10 years, the Festival continues to be a highlight of the yearly calendar and warrants a visit during the late spring/early summer. Here’s to 10 more years of delicious dishes and diverse culinary delights.
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