Look, I love Epcot, and because you’re a faceless (but doubtlessly beautiful and well dressed) internet entity, I’m going to project and say you love Epcot, too, and one of the things we both love about it is the International Food and Wine Festival. What’s not to love about food and adult beverages from all over the world amassed in one beautiful sunny location? But this year, for the first time, we have… other options. Saturdays and Sundays from March 7th to April 26th, Busch Gardens Tampa is having their very first Food and Wine Festival, and as a local who now has literally been wined and dined by both of her beloved theme parks, it’s only fitting that I tell you what you’re missing if you stay in Orlando, and what the differences are. Is this a “one is better than the other” situation? Given that the events take place at different times of the year in different locations with different offerings, not really. It’s more my hope to let Epcot fans know that there’s something else going on nearby in Florida now that they really might want to make a visit to when their tummies are a’rumblin’ if they’re on vacation. Hey, if you’re gonna be a foodie, at least be an equal opportunity foodie!
The Food and Drinks
The key word in the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is, of course, “International”. If you’ve always wanted to try spatzle, dumplings, spanikopita, tuna poke, and more all in one place, Epcot is the way to go. While the portion sizes have definitely shrunk significantly over the years, the enormous variety is enough to keep any food fan busy for days… trust me, my husband and I, and our bank account, can attest to that. The sheer variety of cuisine is sort of staggering, and you will need more than one day to appreciate it, especially since you’re bound to get favourites. Epcot’s team has this down to a fine art by now, turning out endless beautifully tender lamb meatballs and delightfully crackly creme brulees, and quality control is top notch. If you’re a fan of the booze, Epcot’s selection of beers, wines, and cocktails from around the world is pretty stellar. While their cocktails tend largely towards either frozen mixed drinks or the sort of tropical concoctions you’d expect, their huge variety of international beer should make any drinker perk up. And do yourself a favour by stopping off in the China section of the World Showcase and grabbing a “Tipsy Ducks in Love” from the permanent food kiosk… it’s not exclusive to the Food and Wine Festival, but it’s tea, coffee, chocolate, whiskey, whipped cream, and all love for a delicious, cool and refreshing drink with just a little kick.
As you can see from their menu, Busch Gardens’ Food and Wine Festival offers food that’s much more limited, regionally speaking. While dishes like the jerk chicken and pineapple salsa may bring in some tropical flavours, for example, by and large most of the food you’ll find comes from around the country, not necessarily around the globe. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, given that there’s still a wide variety of dishes and all of them are very, very good. There’s tender beef shortrib with strawberry wine habanero BBQ sauce and pan-seared salmon cake with an amazing abundance of flaky, moist meat, to name just a few. And the buttery, rich griddled cheesecake sandwich with pound cake for bread and a raspberry dipping sauce? I would do bad things for more of that. (But, like… limited to not saying thank you to someone who holds open a door for me. I’m Canadian, not a monster.) About the only thing you might want to give a pass is the deconstructed duck confit, whose flavour apparently got lost somewhere in the deconstruction, but even at that, by the second week Busch Gardens was already incorporating feedback to tweak its recipes. On the drinky side of things, they definitely favour the wine by having a greater variety of that on offer than anything else, and frankly you may want to give their few mixed drinks a pass. Many of the beers on offer are local-ish, and though not many are on draft, they cover a wide variety of everything from IPAs and ciders to more meaty lagers. And if you’re looking for a deal…
Like Epcot, the Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival is included with your park ticket. Also like Epcot, it’s made up of a series of kiosks where you can sample a wide variety of food and beverages, including over 65 wines and 50 craft beers (some on draft, some not), with prices ranging between $5.00USD to $7.00USD for your food, $7.00USD for wine, and $8.00 USD for beer. While some portions are bigger than others, all of the dishes are definitely generous enough to be shared between two people, so it’s perfect for snacking all day. All of which is roughly comparable to Epcot, but where Busch Gardens stands out is in the various deals and discounts available. If you’re a passholder, each day you can get a single buy one, get one, where both the item you pay for and the “freebie” can be different, and your usual 10% discount on food and alcohol applies too. If you’re not a passholder, the Sampler cards are the way to go. For $34.99USD you can get 10 samples of any beers or wines, and for $42.99 you can get five samples of food, and five samples of beer or wine. Both Samplers come in the form of punch cards and are valid for the entire event, so you don’t need to worry about eating or drinking it all on one day. And yes, if you’re a passholder, you can get a 10% discount on those, too!
The Additional Entertainment
Do I really need to tell you what else Epcot brings to the proverbial plate? In addition to things like it’s jaw-dropping nightly fireworks display, the World Showcase is a stunner even when it’s not stuffed to the gills with global cuisine and beverages. Each country represented is painstakingly and accurately detailed, all with their own events and points of interest, and in the rest of the part big attractions like Soarin’ and Test Track compliment more laid back draws like one of the most gorgeous aquariums you could ever hope to wander around in, Innoventions East and West, and, of course, what you’re all there for… Canada. (I haven’t been back home in eight years, so every once in a while I like to go harass my fellow Canadians by putting on my best haunted, mounrful stare and asking if Tim Hortons still makes its Iced Caps and Triple Triples the way I like.)
The Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival is a little bit of everything. Concerts like Pentatonix, Aloe Blacc, Fifth Harmony, Austin Mahoe and more happen nightly and are all included with your admission, though priority seating is available for an additional fee. (Book early if you have your heart set on it… they sell out fast, and some groups like Pentatonix will bring fans and traffic in droves!) You’ll find cooking demonstrations, various artisans, a living statue who dances in a fountain with water jetting from her fingertips (don’t blink), and even some extra animal interactions. Have you ever wanted to pet an echidna and check out their drippy little squishy nose? I got to! They’ve also incorporated a little horticulture flair with some pretty impressive topiaries, like the enormous octopus lurking in the water. What makes these impressive is that all the coloration you see is achieved not through any sort of paint or other artificial colouring, but entirely with different types of flowers and plants, with a handy card nearby to help tell you what’s what. It’s a small detail, sure, but it’s nice to think that these towering structures are still entirely organic… plus or minus a bunch of framing, of course. Throw in the ability to feed and pet kangaroos and tropical birds, as well as safari rides, concerts, and a whole lot more, and you’re basically golden.
The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is never not busy, though (shameless, honest plug), our Touring Plans Crowd Calendar can help you avoid the craziest days. Because of the tone of the event and the park itself, while you may encounter groups of hardy souls trying to “Drink Around the World”, largely the vibe is crowded, but calm, and while long lines at kiosks are commonplace, they tend to move quickly thanks to the skill and familiarity of the employees. The biggest problem with Epcot’s crowds tends to come down to seating, which is sadly in limited supply… or at least, shaded seating is. Epcot is one of the loveliest, sunniest parks you could ever experience, but there are only a handful of actual benches (or walls you can repurpose as benches) in the shade throughout the park, so bring sunscreen and take frequent breaks inside the air-conditioned buildings.
While the Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival isn’t as crowded early in the day, towards the mid to late afternoon you’ll really be feeling the crunch on busier days. Unlike Epcot, Busch Gardens has put nearly all of its kiosks in one location (the concert and pathway behind the old Gwazi coaster), and so many kiosks on either side of one path will make you start feeling penned in. The festival takes place during Spring Break, so combined with the heavy number of locals given the park’s city-centric location, means it can quickly turn into party central. While there is a lot of seating thanks to the enormous number of benches in the concert area, the amount of seating under shade is much more limited, so make sure you don’t get sunsick. (… she said, speaking from personal experience with a meaningful stare.)
Hopefully all of this has served to at least pique your interest (and your appetite) to sidle on down towards Tampa the next time you’re in Florida during March and April. Does Busch Gardens’ first attempt at a Food and Wine Festival knockout longtime veteran Epcot? That’s probably going to depend on what you’re there for. But despite have a more limited range of cuisine, Busch Gardens still delivers an absolutely delicious, casual, and very family-friendly event with food that’s sure to please just about anyone. I mean, if you don’t find the idea of a “grilled cheese” made of poundcake and cheesecake good, well, I can’t help you. All I can say is, why restrict your tasting to just one time of year when there’s another Food and Wine Festival to make your springtime complete?