By Susan and Simon Veness
The weather is slowly cooling, humidity is dropping, and if you look closely, the leaves on a few trees are turning yellow. That’s about as dramatic as autumn gets in Orlando, but there is one thing that undeniably heralds the season’s change, and it’s the one that occurs in World Showcase with the arrival of Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival.
Seasonal events come and go, but there are two sure signs you’re on to a winner, and Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival has them both: First, it stands the test of time, logging 18 years as an annual Walt Disney World festival; and second, it brings the locals out in droves.
When the festival debuted in 1996 it ran for 30 days and featured a handful of tasting carts. Today it runs for 46 days, from late September through early November, and features 25 themed kiosks, called ‘International Marketplaces’. Originally all food was cooked in the main kitchens and brought to the appropriate cart for the finishing touches. Now, cooking inside each kiosk is part of the show.
The difference in pricing from then until now? In 1995, samples cost from $1-$3; today they run from $3 to over $8, and remember, these are sample sizes, not entrée sized. A large beer will set you back $12.25. Have a sweet tooth? You’re in luck. Desserts are, on average, just a couple of dollars.
But you may not notice how quickly the bill adds up. Way back when, it was cash only. Credit cards were accepted at the kiosks in 2002, and now guests can purchase a special gift card that allows them to load a pre-paid amount and then spend without thinking about it again…until the money runs out. Then, reloading is as easy as telling any kiosk cashier, “Add fifty dollars more, please!”
The outrageously popular Party for the Senses is a highlight, with big-name chefs, 50 tasting stations, and other luxury experiences at $145-$180 per person. Seminars sponsored by HGTV were introduced in 2011, some free, some decidedly not free, such as the First Bites reception held on the opening day of the festival for a whopping $175 per person. Wine sampling seminars—which had been free until 2009—became hard-ticket events, but at $14 or so are still well within the budget of most visitors. Originally they were led by expert wine educators and Master Sommeliers featuring a variety of wineries; now they are hosted by the wineries themselves, and feature the host winery’s products.
But sometimes the simplest things are the most memorable, and that was certainly the case with the 2011 introduction of the Cranberry Bog sponsored by Ocean Spray. Situated in the open space behind the Future World fountain, it acts as a down-home transition into the festival proper, and it’s common to hear people asking the attendants (who are nearly knee-deep in more than 30,000 cranberries) if they can get into the bog too, because, let’s face it, it looks like a whole lot of fun. We asked one of the bog people what it’s like to wade around in there all day and they told us, “It’s great to talk to so many people about our little red fruit, but in the days right before they bring in fresh cranberries the smell can be pretty….well…bad.”
There are plenty of opportunities to shop for special Food and Wine Festival merchandise too, with large kiosks set up around World Showcase and vendors setting up shop in the Festival Welcome Center, where many of the seminars are held. You’ll find book signings and bottle signings in the Welcome Center, and if you want a case of your favourite wine shipped home, that can be arranged too.
The Festival is not a cheap option, unless you have a great deal of self-control and stick with just a few of the least expensive items, but it’s not all grim when it comes to the wallet. The fabulous Eat to the Beat Concert series is free with your park admission, and while it doesn’t draw in some of the truly big names it once did, it’s likely you’ll recognise The Go-Gos, Hanson, The Spin Doctors, The Pointer Sisters and Boyz II Men.
The best strategy for tackling so many food and beverage choices is to plan multiple visits and, if possible, arrive early in the day and/or avoid Friday and Saturday nights. Food and Wine Festival is certainly a family event, but weekends do tend to draw the Drink Around the World crowd, those over-achievers who attempt to order drinks at every pavilion in World Showcase or, in extreme cases, every kiosk, with all the attendant behaviors that come from having a few too many. Crowds are heaviest on weekends too, as the locals flood into the park.
We tend to visit at least three times, scoping out the 3 or 4 countries we want to try most, then make a mental note of the 3 or 4 we’ll try next time, and so on. To help you remember what you’ve already tried, simply pick up one of the festival-specific maps and cross each location off as you go or pick up one of the free Marketplace Discovery Passport booklets that list each kiosk’s offerings, and have them stamped as you try each item. A great little souvenir from one of Orlando’s premier events.
We hope to see you there!
Restaurant Recommendation: With all the food in World Showcase, we’re not going to bother with a restaurant this week. Instead, we’ll share our Top Five from Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival.
1) Brazil’s Crispy Pork Belly with Black Beans, Onions, and Avocado. Absolutely luscious, with the deep smoky flavour of the pork and beans accented by the cool smoothness of the avocado.
2) Africa’s Berbere Style Beef with Onions, Jalapeno, Tomato, Onion, and Pap. Whew! This one will blow your head off, with a powerful spiciness that makes you happy to be alive.
3) Scotland may be new this year, but their hefty Vegetarian Haggis with Neeps and Tatties is a real winner, even if you’re not a vegetarian.
4) Argentina’s Grilled Beef Skewer with Chimichurri Sauce and Boniato Puree. Tender and interesting, it’s familiar enough for most palates, with a nice tang from the chimichurri.
5) Italy’s Ravioli de Formaggia all’Emiliana. This one makes our Top 5 for value. If you’re doing the F&WF on a budget, Italy’s baked ravioli is filling enough to allow you to move straight on to dessert.