In the Shadow of the Mouse

Secrets of a theme park obsessed local who lives next door to Mickey, with annual passes to every Central Florida park

Nik Wallenda walks Orlando Eye wheel, attraction opens May 4

w90Nik Wallenda, a member of the amazing acrobatic family and grandson of the daring wire walker Karl Wallenda, found his latest challenge on International Drive, right here in Orlando. After pulling off stunts like walking a tightrope stretch over Niagara Falls, he set his sights on the 400-foot tall Orlando Eye just a few days in advance of its official opening.

Wallenda walked on the moving wheel in a breathtaking display of bravery. He pulled off the feat despite wet and greasy footing, emerging from one passenger capsule, performing his stunt live on the Today Show, and climbing on top of another capsule for the descent back to earth.

Click the video below to see Wallenda’s full performance in front of the media and a crowd of astonished onlookers at I-Drive 360. While he was quite nonchalant about the whole thing, more than a few people were no doubt holding their breath as he walked along the rim of the slowly rotating wheel.

After pulling off his record-breaking wheel walk, Wallenda chatted with the press. You can see his interview below:

Wallenda hammed it up a bit, climbing up on the rigging to wave to the crowd below. He also took a one-of-a-kind selfie before popping on top the capsule to ride back down.

It was very exciting to have Nik Wallenda live in my adopted hometown. I remember in the 1970s when his grandfather Karl Wallenda, walked a tightrope at the long-gone indoor amusement park, Old Chicago, in Bolingbrook, IL. I wanted to see his performance so badly, but I didn’t get to go. Sadly, Karl was killed a few years later while attempting a stunt on a windy tightrope in Puerto Rico. He’d no doubt be very proud to see Nik carrying on the family legacy and upping the ante with each new stunt.

w89Wallenda is likely the only person who will experience the wheel in that very unique way. The rest of us can climb about the calm, comfy passenger capsules and watch the skyline safely as it spreads out below us. The view of Orlando and the surrounding area is quite impressive. On a clear day, you’ll even see the Atlantic Ocean.

Alas, the day of Wallenda’s stunt was a little murky, as you can see in the photo. Still, it was possible to see both Universal Studios and Epcot as it made its way to the top.

The Orlando Eye is part of the new I-Drive 360 complex on International Drive near Sand Lake Road, which makes it an easy hop from I-4 or the Orange County Convention Center. The Eye is owned by Merlin Entertainments, which is also the parent company of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and the Sea Life Aquarium. both of which share the same building. Nearby, you’ll find Skeletons: Animals Unveiled, which shows a variety of critters from the inside out. Most of the attractions open on Monday, May 4, but Skeletons opens on May 1.

Read more about the other three attractions at the links below:

I-Drive attractions, part 4: Skeletons Animals Unveiled

w73Note: This article about Skeletons: Animals Unveiled is part of a four-part series on the new I-Drive 360 attractions. Use the links below to see each article:

 

It’s easy to find the Merlin Entertainments attractions at the I-Drive 360 complex, since Sea Life Aquarium and Madame Tussauds Wax Museum both share a building with the impressive 400-foot tall Orlando Eye wheel. However, if you expand your exploration, you’ll come upon another fun attraction just down the outdoor parking lot: Skeletons: Animals Unveiled.

w72Just as the name implies, this attraction is all about showing you what lies beneath your skin and that of a variety of animals ranging in size from a relatively small rat to a massive orca. All of the models are painstakingly put together into displays that are both amusing and educational.

No animals were harmed in the making of this attraction, but the process in which the skeletons are prepared is…well, interesting. You’ll meet the flesh eating beetles face to face when you visit, but you don’t have to get squeamish, as they’re contained in an escape-proof case. They’re busy little critters that play a vital role in making the displays possible.

I visited Skeletons: Animals Unveiled when it was still under construction, so the photos you see in this article were all taken during the assembly process as the May 1 opening date approached. The finished product is always the best, but it was still amazing to see how everything comes together like many complex organic jigsaw puzzles.

If you’d like to learn more about the process of preparing this menagerie for display, check out the video below:

I-Drive attractions, part 3: Orlando Eye wheel

w88Note: This article about the Orlando Eye is part of a four-part series on the new I-Drive 360 attractions. Use the links below to see each article:

 

Out of all the new attractions on International Drive in Orlando, there’s one you absolutely cannot miss. Most, like Sea Life Aquarium, Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and Skeletons: Animals Unveiled, are relatively easy to find, but they still blend into the architecure (well, maybe not the first two, since their building wraps are quite distinctive). However, there’s one you absolutely cannot miss. You’ll spot it long before you’ve reach I-Drive 360, as it towers 400 feet up into the Orlando Skyscape. It is, of course, the Orlando Eye wheel.

The wheel is the centerpiece of the I-Drive 360 complex, drawing in curious tourists and locals like a beacon. When it opens on May 4, it will offer incredible views of the Orlando skyline and a huge chunk of central Florida. If you visit on a clear day, you might even be able to see the Atlantic Ocean. Ride at night to see a sparkling light show all around you on the horizon. If you time it just right, you might even see some theme park fireworks.

The Orlando Eye has been many months in the making. Locals like myself have enjoyed watching the skeletal structure come together bit by bit and turn into something recognizable and now, finally, into a very impressive ride. Click the video below to see what it was like when the final passenger capsule was installed. Did you know that the very last bolt to be screwed onto the structure is golden?

w87The nice thing about the Orlando Eye is that once you’ve found it, you’ve also found the other two Merlin Entertainments attractions, since the entrances are all housed in the same building. The rest of I-Drive 360 and the new parking structure are all right there in its shadow.

The convenient parking is a great help, since you’ll likely spend all day at the complex if you want to experience everything. It’s hard to tear yourself away from the excitement of the theme parks, but I-Drive 360 makes the side trip worthwhile.

I-Drive attractions, part 2: Sea Life Aquarium

w58Note: This article about Sea Life Aquarium is part of a four-part series on the new I-Drive 360 attractions. Use the links below to see each article:

International Drive in Orlando gets hot, crowded, and hectic in the summer time, and that’s only likely to increase now that I-Drive 360 has brought a variety of new attractions to the tourist strip, like the Orlando Eye wheel, Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and Skeletons: Animals Unveiled. Fortunately, one stands out as a cool, calming oasis among all the hustle and bustle: Sea Life Aquarium.

Just as the name implies, Sea Life is teaming with aquatic creatures, from tiny sea horses to sleek stingrays to massive sharks. You enjoy it at your own pace, and it’s not just a matter of looking into traditional aquariums. One of my favorite parts is the observations bubbles that let you literally stick your whole head into the habitat to get the most close-up view of the fish as possible without needing an air tank. Little kids love it, and I’ll confess that I had to try out several of the observation bubbles myself, as you can see below:

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w61Sea Life also has a massive tunnel where sharks and other aquatic critters are literally swimming all around you. I love to just stand there and see how many different species I can spot. It’s a very immersive environment where half the fun is seeking out as many different residents of the sea as possible.

The Sea Life habitats are divided by geographical location, and you get a dive log book on which you collect embossed stamps as you work your way through each section. I easily spent two hours inside looking at everything at a leisurely pace. At the end, you’ll even get a chance to experience some sea life up close and personal in the starfish touch tank. You’ll enjoy feeling their bumpy, spiny skin if you’ve never experienced this type of close encounter before.

You’ll see signs throughout Sea Life talking about the company’s rescue efforts and support of the earth’s oceans. I noticed a tote board where local efforts in Florida will soon be listed, so I can’t wait to see Sea Life starting to make a difference.

w60There’s so much to see in the aquarium, but I’d have to say that my favorites were the sharks, seahorses, and stingrays. The seahorses are very stealthy; you might not noticed them right away even when they’re literally right in front of you.

I attended a preview at Sea Life, so the jelly fish weren’t in their habitat yet, but I suspect they’re also going to be quite an attraction.

The official opening day for all of the Merlin Entertainments attractions is May 4, which means they’ll all be up and running for the hectic summer season ahead. Fortunately, there’s a brand-new parking garage at I-Drive 360, which should alleviate some of the headaches of finding a parking spot on International Drive. Best of all, it’s free, which is a rarity for parking in popular areas of Orlando.

It seems like not so long ago that the Sea Life habitats were just getting their water. You can see the Orlando version of the Atlantic Ocean getting filled in the video below:

Sea Life’s entrance is in the same complex as the other two Merlin entertainments attractions, the Orlando Eye and Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. That makes the trio a perfect place to spend a rainy summer Florida day, since you can experience three attractions without going outside (okay, you’ll have to brave the elements a bit to ride the wheel until you’re in your capsule, but you’ll several hours inside at the other two).

I-Drive attractions, part 1: Madame Tussauds Wax Museum

w26Note: This article about Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is part of a four-part series on the new I-Drive 360 attractions. Use the links below to see each article:

International Drive, or I-Drive as the locals know it, has come a long way from the days when the Mercado shopping center crumbled into deserted oblivion. Today, a new set of attractions has risen from the rubble, bringing new life to the section of I-Drive near the convention center and Sand Lake Road. It’s easy to get to from 528 (the Beachline) or I-4.

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is perhaps one of the most fun options at I-Drive 360. It’s one of three Merlin Entertainments attractions, with the others being the 400-foot tall Orlando Eye wheel and the Sea Life Aquarium, and those two are also well worth doing. However, Madame Tussauds has an extra measure of interactivity that makes it a standout.

w23When I was a child, wax museums were passive experiences where you stared at roped-off displays. You could take photos, but in those pre-digital days you had to hope they came out. Back then, the figures at places like the wax museum in Chicago’s Old Town weren’t particularly lifelike, although the monsters in the Chamber of Horrors were enough to scare the snot out of me when I was four years old.

Nowadays, most of the figures at Madame Tussauds are so eerily lifelike that you’ll have to touch them to make sure they’re not real. And yes, you can touch them. Now, no ropes stand between you and luminaries like Neil Patrick Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Oprah, Jimmy Fallon, Jim Parsons, Beyonce, and so many more…60 to be exact. Most are movie and singing celebs, but there’s also a fair selection of sports figures and famous people from history and politics. My all time favorite is Walt Disney himself. Obviously Madame Tussauds couldn’t have a display of luminaries without our local legend being among them.

Just how up close and personal can you get with statues? Here’s me greeting a waxy Johnny Depp:

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Not only can you touch the was figures and create your own silly poses with them, but you can also use the props provided at many of them. There’s a red hoodie you can wear while you save ET and a hat and jacket to help you transform into Michael Jackson’s twin. Get lei-ed when you sing with Elvis or plop down at President Obama’s Oval Office desk. The figures themselves are the big draw, but what makes it so much fun in the way in which you can interact with them while collecting photographic memories.

w84In addition to the sets and props, watch for other nice little enhancements. For example, you can re-enact with famous “One small step for man…” scene, placing your own mark on the moon’s surface along with Neil Armstrong. You’ll want a photo of that moment, but also of your appearance on the old time TV set (if you’re old like me, you’ll remember when they really were that large).

Using your phone or digital camera gives you a big advantage. The best part of Madame Tussauds is that you leave with a bounty of photographic trophies that might even fool your friends into believing you were personally hobnobbing with A-listers. You’ll want to start with a fully charged battery and make sure that your shots come out so you have great souvenirs.

Of course, the photographers at Madame Tussauds will help you take photos and will snap some of their own, including the addition of some special effects. You can buy individual prints or a while book at the end if you wish. My favorite from among those shots is the Andy Warhol photo, which is now proudly displayed on my desk:

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w9The figures are spaced out well, and most are placed in individual sets, although you’ll encounter a big celebrity party at the end. Make sure you allow enough time to stop and get photos with as many of the figures as possible. I managed to pose with all 60, plus the air boat and Jurassic Park scenes that bring the total photo ops up to 62. I actually made it through in about an hour, but I was there on a preview day so I had little to no wait for most of the figures. Plan more time if you’re visiting in the peak season, and don’t worry about rushing your way through. It’s a “go at your own pace” attraction, and it’s nice and cool inside, so it will be a welcome respite from the brutal Florida summer temperatures and thunderstorms.

You’ll even get to see Madame Tussaud herself inside, albeit in wax figure form. That seems like an appropriate tribute to the woman who started it all way back in the 1800s with the first location in London. I wonder what she would have thought about how her initial museum morphed into such a success, with locations all around the world. I’m sure she’d be impressed with just how lifelike the statues have become thanks to constantly-refined techniques. Here she’s hard at work crafting a wax head, which was her initial expertise (in the same room, you can craft a model of your hand for a bit of an up charge):

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You can visit Madame Tussauds on its own, but a combination ticket for the three Merlin Entertainments attractions is your best bet. Just be sure to allow plenty of time to experience them all completely and pop into some of the other fun places, like Skeletons, during your day in International Drive.

New SeaWorld show features talented sea lions

I’ve missed Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island ever since it closed at SeaWorld Orlando last year. Granted, I got a special opportunity to get up close and personal with Clyde before the last performance, as you can see in the video below, but I still missed the fun romp with the park’s sea lions, otters, and walrus.

Fast forward to April 16, 2015: Clyde and Seamore are back, along with all their friends! The new show, Clyde and Seamore’s Sea Lion High, takes place in a brightly colored two-story set that’s specially designed to showcase the animals’ talents. The sea lions are the stars, of course, but the crowd-pleasing walrus comes out in the end, too, and I love the expanded role for Opie the Otter. He’s such an adorable little critter!

Now Opie gets to showcase more behaviors, like retrieving a can and setting a good example by recycling it, swimming through a tube of water, and showing his climbing abilities:

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Who knew otters were so smart?

The sea lions have some new tricks up their sleeves…er, flippers…too. I’ve seen them slide down but never actually climb a ramp before:

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They also show off their diving skills:

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All the critters, along with their human friends, get together for a fun finale, too:

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sl17This is all set around a loose story about Clyde and Seamore’s attempts to prove that they’re worthy of a scholarship. Problem is, their grades aren’t exactly up to par, so they need to earn some credit fast in order to earn their ticket to Ocean University. It’s a corny but cute plot, as is the norm with the Clyde and Seamore shows. Be ready to laugh at their antics and marvel at just how well they perform. It’s easy to see just how closely the animals are bonded with their trainers.

The show runs multiple times a day, so grab a show schedule when you arrive at SeaWorld and plot out your day early. You’ll want to hit Clyde and Seamore, as well as One Ocean (orca show) and Blue Horizons (dolphin show), so coordinate the times and plan around the rides, habitats, and other fun activities.

I know I’ve given most of the press to Clyde, Seamore, and Opie, so I’ll let the walrus have the grand finale. Here’s an interesting video on what it takes to train the whiskered behemoths, filmed at the send-off for the previous show:

Cuba Libre restaurant at Pointe Orlando tempts me with empanadas

I’m a lover of Cuban food, or really, pretty much any type of Latin cuisine, so perhaps it’s no wonder that I was wowed by the Cuba Libre restaurant at Pointe Orlando on I-Drive. I’m fussy about my food, though, and I have to say that Cuba Libre’s unique tastes and quaint atmosphere combined into a standout experience that I can highly recommend.

cl11Cuba Libre has a full menu, with things like empandas, ceviche, black bean soup, and ropa vieja, as well as many special creations. However, at the event I attended, the empanadas took center stage. As a matter of fact, I even got to make some myself! I’ve eaten plenty in my lifetime, but this was the first time I’d ever played a hand in actually crafting one. April is Empanada Month at Cuba Libre, so I was simply getting in practice. Soon they were all ready to pop into the oven, as you can see in the photo at right.

We had a choice of making cheese, chicken, or beef empanadas. I went for the cheese and a beef and cheese combination. In the restaurant, you can also get ham empanadas. I tasted those, too, and give them a huge thumbs up. Meanwhile, here’s what my personal creations looked like once they were ready for me to try:

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Cuba Libre also has a rum bar, and if you’re adventurous and in the mood for sampling, you can get a three rum flight. I tried that while I learned more about rum. Whew! It was a potent but tasty libation:

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cl5Speaking of libations, you certainly couldn’t have a Cuban restaurant without mojitos. I got the opportunity to learn how to make one for myself. I managed to muddle my way through it, gingerly adding and shaking all the ingredients into a passable version. Of course, the bartender was much faster and displayed much more expertise, so I deferred to him when I was ready for a second round.

I also tried a variety of dips on plantain chips, including black bean hummus, Haitian eggplant salad and Cuba Libre salsa. They were all delicious, but my favorite by far was the guacamole. I’m a huge fan of guac in general, and this version had a unique twist: big chunks of grilled pineapple to add some sweetness to the typical flavor.

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I also enjoyed a lobster empanada. See the dark color? That’s from squid ink!

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cl9Of course, no feast is complete without dessert, and I was amazed at the tastiness of the cream cheese and guava empanadas. I know this might sound a bit crazy, but the flavor reminded me of a kolachky. I grew up on those, and they’re nearly impossible to find in Orlando. For some reason, this empanada struck my taste buds in the same way. I’ve missed that flavor for so long, so of course I had to have seconds.

All in all, it was quite an experience that left me hankering for more. I’m not a big fan of being on I-Drive in busy seasons, but Cuba Libre is well worth the trip. It’s in Pointe Orlando, which isn’t too far past the Orange County Convention Center, so you don’t have to brave the worst park of I-Drive, which is past Sand Lake Road. You can park right in the garage and get your parking validated at the restaurant, so all in all it’s a pretty painless experience.

If you’re a fan of salsa dancing, you’ll enjoy the party every Friday and Saturday night, starting at 10 p.m. For me, I’m all about the eating, and I’m really to explore some more of the vast Cuba Libre menu. If you’re a Latin food fan, you won’t go wrong if you try it too.

5 things I learned at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is a place for fun, but it’s also got a strong streak of education interwoven throughout the festival. You can learn about water conservation, organic gardening techniques, ways to attract birds and butterflies, and much more.

I’m an old dog who definitely learned some new tricks at the festival last weekend. Here’s a list of the top five:

1) What I’m doing wrong with my bougainvillaea.

Did you know that you can talk to a Master Gardener at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival? The University of Florida sends experts to the Festival Center, which is open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Just walk on up and ask them a question about your garden woes. I’ve been struggling to grow bougainvillaea in a container, and it turns out that I woefully misinterpreted the watering instructions on the tag.

2) How to keep bamboo from spreading.

The Festival Center is also your headquarters for informative talks every weekend. I saw a talk by plantsman/author Jenks Farmer, who illustrated his informative presentation with colorful slides and a hands-on demonstration. I’ve often thought about using bamboo as a screening plant, but I fear its reputation for taking over. I learned about the two types (the clustered kind is more benign) and also how to keep the spreading type in check.

If you’d like to see Jenks Farmer’s whole talk, it’s in the video below:

td13) That bonsai trees go through the seasons just like their full-sized counterparts.

I know that bonsais are miniature trees, but I didn’t realize that they go through the same life cycle as their full-sized counterparts. A completely barren tree caught my eye; I thought it was dead but learned that it’s just a maple in its winter state. Soon the springtime will send it into full foliage again.

If you’d like to learn more about bonsai trees, too, check out the Central Florida Bonsai Club display in the Festival Center.

4) That there’s a special beer credential equivalent to wine.Growing up with a German grandpa, I developed a love of beer. It’s great that craft brews are a thing now and that Florida has so many breweries, as I love to try the many different varieties. However, I had no idea that beer has its own expert credential on a part with a wine sommelier: the Cicerone Certification Program.

I enjoyed a presentation by a cicerone while sampling the beer flight that’s available at the Smokehouse in the American Pavilion. Not only did I learn about the credential, but I also picked up some interesting facts about beer, including the full story behind IPAs. You can hear it all for yourself in the presentation below. The presentation isn’t a regular part of the festival, but the flight is available throughout the run of the event:

td25) That the oldest topiaries at the festival are the Fantasia critters.

I always enjoy talking to Eric Darden, who’s worked on the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival for 12 years and who’s already thinking about what Disney will do for 2016.

Chip, Dale, Anna, and Elsa are all new this year, but I was curious about the oldest topiaries still on display. He told me they’re the Fantasia critters, some of which you can see in the photo at right. Notice how they’re not as detailed as later toparies and certainly nowhere near the exquisite sculpting that gives Anna and Elsa their faces.

I love to compare how the older topiaries look quite basic compared to the amazing detail on the newer creations or all the different colors worked into various displays, most of which is done with natural materials. I love all the colorful gardens blooming around Epcot, but the topiaries are true works of art.

You can hear from Eric yourself in the video below:

What will you learn at this year’s festival? You’ve got until May 17 to find out.

What do Anna, Elsa, Chip and Dale have in common at Epcot festival?

1aEvery year at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival you’ll see popular topiaries return, along with new offerings. This year you’ll see four new topiaries: the fabulous Frozen duo of Anna and Elsa and the mischievous chipmunks Chip and Dale. One of those pairs is classic and the others are new to the Disney line-up, but they all have the honor of making their topiary debut in 2015.

It may seem surprising that Chip and Dale haven’t shown up before, and this year there was a bit of a challenge since they’re part of the opening scene. Look for him in the back, with the chipmunks wreaking havoc in poor long-suffering Donald’s garden.

Here’s Eric Darden talking about how important it is for the characters to be in their proper scale. That means that Chip and Dale have to be in proportion to Donald as they torment him.

1bIf you watch the video, you’ll also discover that Anna and Elsa owe a lot to Snow White, and not just for blazing the Disney princess movie trail. Last year, the team was charged with trying to create realistic features on Snow White’s face. They were up to the taste, and Snow brought a new level of realism to the Epcot topiaries that continues with the sisters this year.

It’s easy to find all the new topiaries, since you can’t miss Chip and Dale right in the entry scene as you walk into Epcot. Keep going to World Showcase and you’ll find Anna and Elsa greeting you at the entrance.

The Epcot International Flower and Garden show runs through May 17. Like Elsa’s magic at the end of her movie, it will give you a breath of spring at the end of a long, harsh winter.

Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival: Well worth the drive to Tampa

bg6Orlando area food affectionados already flock to events like the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival and the Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic in the fall.

Now there’s a springtime alternative: the Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival, running weekends from March 7 through April 26.

Like the two Orlando festivals, this new kid on the block features music, food, wine, and beer in abundance, all set to the backdrop of a park packed with thrill rides and animal habitats. Is it worth the drive to Tampa (about an hour west down I-4 from the Disney area)? You bet!

I can personally recommend the festival because I had a chance to preview some of the food and drink while enjoying the music of Mighty Mongo:

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I saw all the kiosks set up and ready to welcome the crowds and also enjoyed some kooky characters:

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That’s Busch Gardens Tampa President Jim Dean hanging out with the stilt walkers:

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bg14There were no crowds for the concert at the preview since there was only a limited number of guests, but expect it to be packed when the headliner acts, like Kool & The Gang, Kenny Rogers, and Steven Curtis Chapman, take the stage.

I tried several different items, including pork belly, the chicken sandwich, and macaroni and cheese with bacon (everything tastes better with bacon), but my two standout favorites were the scallops and the mango eclair. The scallops have a watermelon salsa that’s absolutely fresh and delicious. Even though I’m normally a chocolate person, the mango worked so well in eclair form that I couldn’t help having three!

I sampled beer and wine, too; I’m a fan of sweet and flavored beers, so I was all about the Bud Light Lime Strawberry and the pineapple cider. Whatever your taste in beer and vino, you’ll find something that fits.

Here’s Executive Chef Ron DeBonis talking about the process of creating food items for the festival:

bg16You can buy your food and drinks ala carte or purchase a package. You can even buy VIP concert seating if you want to ensure a good spot for your favorite performer without having to waste precious park time staking out a spot.Enjoy the festival at a leisurely pace, then head to your seats at concert time.

The problem with Busch Gardens Tampa is that there’s so much to do, even when there’s no festival going on. Now it’s an even bigger challenge if you come out for the Food and Wine Festival because you have to balance the rides, shows, and animals with food and drink. It’s a challenge I recommend you take on at least one weekend between March 7 and April 26.

Here’s what Busch Gardens Tampa President James Dean has to say about the festival: