Put all those quotes together and you have arguably the inside track on the great attraction of the annual Flower & Garden Festival, but those aren’t our words. In fact, they are the thoughts of one of the Festival’s ‘star’ guests, Eric Troyer, keyboards player, vocalist and guitarist with The Orchestra (starring former members of the Electric Light Orchestra), who highlight the event each year.
In addition to the amazing series of garden exhibits, shows, topiaries and lectures that give Epcot extra life and lustre from early March to May each year, there are the weekend concerts under the ‘Garden Rocks!’ series that add an extra dimension to enjoying this extraordinary setting.
The immense creativity and craft of Epcot’s horticulturalists are firmly to the fore, but the concerts are now an unmistakable highlight of the scene, and we were able to speak to Eric prior to the start of this year’s Festival.
The Orchestra are invited back each year as one of the most popular acts, performing three sets of ELO classics per night, and Eric attests to the fact that the band enjoy it almost as much as the audience.
“It is a very special atmosphere,” he confirmed. “We just get a great response every time and the band love it. It’s great fun for us, as much as anything else, as it’s not like a normal concert. It’s a more relaxed setting and you can make eye contact with the audience for much of the time. In fact, we recognise a lot of the same faces each year!”
“We also consider it quite a prestige gig. The sound crew at the America Gardens Theatre are great to work with and we get looked after really well by Disney. It is a place where you just want to jump around and have fun, and hopefully that’s the vibe everyone gets as well.”
For Eric and the other six members of The Orchestra, there is a real sense of relish and enjoyment about the atmosphere in the Garden Rocks series, and it is something we see time and time again from all the visiting bands.
“It is definitely different, performing three half-hour sets each evening, starting in the daylight and finishing after dark,” Eric added. “We get a 45-minute break between each set and like to finish each set with a bang, and it always seems to go down well.”
Indeed it does. The first weekend of the Flower & Garden Festival was an absolute classic in perfect spring weather, and we were able to enjoy the full range of festivities with a special media insight on Saturday into the various different events, starting with a ‘taste’ of the Festival.
Four years ago, Epcot added food and beverage kiosks to the Festival mix. Similar to the Food & Wine style from the big autumn festival, the kiosks are not quite so obviously country-based.
Epcot’s Executive Chef Gregg Hannon told us, “We try to make this Festival more about the produce and less about the big protein-based kiosks of the food and wine event. To that end, we are looking to showcase more vegetables and other items that we think people will be interested to try.”
“This is our opportunity to push the envelope a little, to get creative and put out some exciting menu items. Our guests tell us they enjoy discovering new things, especially of the spicy variety, so we are trying to cater to that taste, and being authentic, as much as possible, from things like the Currywurst at the Bauernmarkt Farmer’s Market in Germany to the Pigeon Pea Rice at the new Isla La Fresca kiosk.”
We were able to sample an intriguing array of different dishes, including the Jamaican-braised Beef with the rice Chef Hannon mentioned, which featured a gorgeous spiciness, and the Jerk-spice Grouper with Mango Salsa, also from the Isla Fresca kitchen. Other impressive samples were the Smoked Pork Ribs with roasted corn salad (with the succulent ribs boasting that intense smoky flavor that comes only from a lengthy smoking process), the Field Greens Salad from the new Cider House kiosk in the UK pavilion (more of that later), and the Florida Larder Board, which combined a country pate with house-made pickles and ricotta cheese.
For desserts, the standouts were the Warm Chocolate Cake with bourbon-salted caramel sauce and spiced pecans from The Smokehouse (at The American Adventure), and the Bauernmarkt’s egg battered toast with cherry compote. Both were beautifully light, not too sweet, but intensely delish!
We also spoke to Horticultural Manager Eric Darden, who added, “We are seeing a lot more people, especially Millennials, getting interested in gardening, and we’re hoping that people will walk through the Florida Fresh Garden and the Urban Farm Garden and see all this food growing and want to do it themselves.”
After sampling the flavours and getting an idea of the extensive garden layouts, we were able to visit the Festival Center, inside the former Wonders of Life pavilion in Future World (between Universe of Energy and Mission: Space), where each Friday, Saturday and Sunday there are the various lectures and presentations about different aspects of gardening.
We were fortunate to attend a (paid for) seminar on Growing Vegetables & Herbs, and spent almost an hour being regaled by great stories and practical advice from Robert Bowden, the director of Orlando’s fabulous Leu Gardens (just north of downtown), who gave us some great insight into what types of herbs and vegetables can be grown at home, and how best to plant and grow them. He was full of useful tips and hints, and even the biggest non-gardener would surely be able to profit from Robert’s advice.
Another new feature of the Festival this year is the Cider House, in the good old UK pavilion. As well as the chance to sample that wonderful green salad we tried at the media reception, this innovative kiosk offers pear cider-brined Shredded Corned Beef with Braised Cabbage and a lemon scone with crème fraiche, as well as the surprise highlight – a cider flight.
The thinking behind this was explained for us with a special tasting session back at the media centre, where Disney’s resident cider expert introduced us to the four choices. They included several fruit-flavoured varieties (one with pear, another with black cherry and a third with blueberry), which made for a real taste sensation. Our guide urged us to save some of the black cherry variety, which we then mixed with our fourth sample, the Cigar City Lager, to create a truly outstanding Snakebite, and we can see this being hugely popular this year.
We completed the afternoon with a tour of some of the new features and old favourites, sampling the chicken edamame bun from Hanami in Japan (not a hit with us), the tasty Tarte a l’Onion from Fleur de Lys in France, and Tempura Shrimp Tacos from Jardin de Fiestas in Mexico (another one we’d go back for!). And we were captivated by the Urban Farm Garden, with its views of hydroponics and ‘vertical gardens,’ along with some of the best food in the Festival (notably a Seared Port Tenderloin with Mushroom Ragôut).
Finally, we finished our day with the first of the three Garden Rocks performances of our friend Eric Troyer and The Orchestra, and such hits as Mr Blue Sky, Livin’ Thing and Evil Woman. It was the perfect end to a memorable day – but just a typical Saturday in the life of the Flower & Garden Festival.
If you have questions on this story or anything to do with Orlando or Florida, be sure to join Susan and Simon on the fabulous ATD discussion forum here.
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