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Early festival season at Florida parks

In Florida, spring brings snowbirds, the strawberry harvest, spring training, the legislative session, spring breakers, and festivals at the theme parks. And let's be real: It may only be early March, but in Baja Florida, that's spring.

In Florida, spring brings snowbirds, the strawberry harvest, spring training, the legislative session, spring breakers, and festivals at the theme parks. And let's be real: It may only be early March, but in Baja Florida, that's spring.

Festival season has already begun in Orlando, where Universal Studios is hosting Mardi Gras on certain weekend nights until April 18. Disney opened the 22d Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival on March 4, Busch Gardens opened its first food and wine festival starting March 7, and SeaWorld has two - Bands, Brew & BBQ started March 7, and Viva la Música, which starts April 25.

All have special food and live music in addition to events that fit the festival's theme.

Except Viva la Musica, the festivals overlap with all or most of the spring break period. Except the Epcot garden festival, events take place only on weekends. Unlike some of the Halloween and Christmas events, these festivals are held during regular park hours and are included with regular admission.

"Across the U.S., the 'spring break' period lasts from around March 8 through April 11. And every park - Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens Tampa and SeaWorld - has something going on at that time," said Len Testa, coauthor of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. "My guess would be that each of the parks is using these events, plus their parks' regular rides, to capture as much of the spring break tourist market as possible. This way, every park has rides for kids and something interesting for the adults to do. That's just good marketing."

"Theme parks used to be limited to the summer vacation season to make the bulk of their money, but parks have successfully extended their seasons with Halloween and Christmas holiday events," said Robert Niles, editor of "Now, parks are looking to extend their seasons in the other direction, to fill the gap between the start of the New Year and the beginning of summer.

"Theme parks are trying to create festivals and special events that will draw locals and families without children into the parks during those traditionally slower nonholiday weeks in the late winter and spring."

The strategy seems to be working as parks lengthen or beef up festivals. At Epcot, the garden festival made its debut in 1994 at 38 days; now it runs 75 days. Busch Gardens has ended its Bands, Brew & BBQ festival and added a more ambitious food and wine festival this year with a more extensive variety of food and drink.

"We certainly look for ways to bring new and exciting things to our guests so they get more out of their admission," said Travis Claytor, spokesman for Busch Gardens. "Bands, Brew & BBQ had been around for a while. We saw an opportunity to create a new type of festival."

While not on the scale of the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, with its culinary demonstrations, workshops, galas and special dinners, the new Busch Gardens festival goes way beyond beer and barbecue. The festival has nine "cabins," each with a different cuisine and dishes that range from deconstructed duck confit to coconut shrimp cigars, goat cheese fingerling potato tart to mango éclair with white chocolate sauce. The festival will bring back the popular craft beer selections from the old festival but add a wide selection of wines - more than 50 choices each of beer and wine, Claytor said.

Here's a rundown of the festivals, in the order of their openings.

Mardi Gras at Universal Studios is 16 nights from Feb. 7 to April 18 (every Saturday plus a few Fridays and Sundays). Each of those nights features a concert by artists ranging from Kelly Clarkson to Trace Adkins and the B-52s. In addition, there's a parade each night with traditional floats, stilt walkers, and bead-throwing. The French Quarter Courtyard (located in the New York area near Battery Park) has zydeco bands from New Orleans and Cajun and Creole food available for purchase., click on "events."

Epcot International Food and Garden Festival runs daily to May 17, although many of the events, such as concerts and gardening seminars, happen only on weekends. HGTV has ended its sponsorship of the festival, which means members of the Disney gardening staff instead of HGTV personalities will run workshops and seminars. Outdoor Kitchens, which offer garden-inspired small plates, sort of a scaled-down version of Epcot's fall food and wine festival, will return for the third year. The festival also has child-oriented features, including gardens, play areas, and topiaries of Disney characters., click on "things to do."

Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival runs Saturdays and Sundays through April 26. Festival activities - concerts, animal encounters, arts and crafts, concerts - are from noon to 9 p.m. Appetizer-size food portions and beverages will be for sale., click on "events."

SeaWorld's Bands, Brew & BBQ runs for four weekends - Saturdays and Sundays - through March 29. The event honors "America's heroes," offers discounts to members of the military, and benefits the USO. There will be live concerts and barbecue meals, both from local smokehouses as well as the SeaWorld staff., click on "events."

SeaWorld's Viva la Música opens April 25 and runs for four Saturdays through May 16. Live performances by award-winning Latin artists as well as local bands are featured, as is Latin cuisine. Products by local artisans such as jewelry and domino tables will be available., click on "events."