Having just returned from a trip to the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, I thought it might be appropriate to offer a few comments. Why, you ask, would I offer comments after this year's festival has concluded? That's an excellent question. To explain… I offer my comments less as a review with advice on the various delicacies you might sample (you can go to about a thousand websites for that), but more of "I've never been and should I go next year?" By now, you know me as a Disney-loving curmudgeon with fishhooks in my pocket (that's an old metaphor for "I'm cheap") so please keep those facts in mind as I deliver my opinions.
This was the 18th year for the festival and it ran for a little over six weeks, from September 27 to November 10, 2013. This year's event was similar to past festivals but did offer a few new wrinkles, such as a hibachi experience, a Parisian breakfast, and new international marketplace featuring the food and beverages of Scotland (and yes, they offered haggis, but a "vegetarian haggis" at which, I expect, any self-respecting Scotsman would toss up his kilt).
Saying the Festival is popular is very close to the understatement of the year. While the festival is ongoing, Disney-themed websites and newsletters are rife with advice, reviews, and overall descriptions of the offerings.
Many folks plan trips specifically to target the Festival and some have even begun making travel arrangement for the 2014 edition. It probably also draws the largest local crowds of the year and that is not necessarily a good thing.
Is this popularity warranted? Is the Food and Wine Festival that good that people make travel plans a year—or more—in advance? Is it so unique that many people will sit by a computer or phone to get reservations for a coveted festival event as soon as the booking window opens? Obviously, the answers to these questions will vary with the individual, but this is an opinion column, so let's start offering a few.
The Food and Wine Festival comprises several significant components:
- International Marketplace
- Festival Center Events
- World Showcase Special Events
- Premier Festival Offerings
- Eat to the Beat Concert Series
Let's examine each of these and I'll try to list the pros and cons of each.
This year's festival offered 30 kiosks sprinkled around Epcot's World Showcase. Each was themed to a country (Brazil, China, Poland, and so on), a geographic area (from Africa and New Zealand to Florida Local), or a specialty (Cheese, Desserts & Champagne, and Craft Beers). Each kiosk offered a queue, several cash registers for ordering and paying, and a counter to pick up the order.
While the food and drink (typically beer and wine) are native to the area represented, it's no longer appropriate to label the goods as "exotic." Maybe 18 years ago it would have been a novelty to dine on Mongolian beef or a kimchi hot dog.
In 2013, I would suggest that most urban areas sport a number of ethnic restaurants that render the majority of these offerings commonplace. Nevertheless, the Food and Wine Festival does bring these together under "one roof" so to speak—or, more accurately, around a 1.3-mile promenade surrounding a lagoon.
Is the food good? The answer here will certainly vary with individual taste, but I would also offer that it could very well vary with the time of day. Very little is prepared within the kiosks; the food is prepared elsewhere and brought in. Like any establishment of its kind, the food you're served might be extremely fresh or might have been delivered hours ago and just warmed recently.
In my experience, the quality of what's served varies a great deal, which is why many people live for the reviews—getting the "must haves" and "avoid at all costs" from those that have gone before them.
I would also offer that the festival has few tables at which to dine, and even fewer seats. When crowded, it's quite common to dine atop a trash can or while seated on a ledge somewhere, or just standing—not the best position for comfortable dining.
What about value? Again, it can vary widely. During the first Food and Wine Festival I attended, back in 2004, I was able to sample chocolate truffles from the France Marketplace. These were some of the best things I'd ever eaten and were only $1.00 each. Sadly, I've not found them available at subsequent festivals.
Most of the food offerings are in the $3.50 to $6.00 price range, while a few run a bit north of that. The mushroom filet mignon from Canada this year was $7.00 and worth every penny. The kielbasa and pierogi from Poland was around $5.25 (if memory serves) but consisted of two very thin slices of kielbasa. For $5.25, I expected much more.
Lastly, I'll offer a comment about the crowds. They can be very heavy, particularly on weekend nights when there's a large influx of locals. Traveling around World Showcase can be uncomfortable and the lines at the kiosks unmanageable. Many offer the sage advice to avoid the festival entirely on weekends.
Festival Center Events
The Future World building, previously called the Wonders of Life, once housed several wonderful attractions (Body Wars, Cranium Command and the Making of Me) and now has become headquarters for the Food and Wine Festival—the Festival Center. It houses shops for books, wine, food, festival-themed art, and several areas used for seminars that range from wine/beverage to mixology to culinary demonstrations. In the early days, many of these events were free of charge, or more appropriately, included with your admission to Epcot. The problem was they were so popular that people lined up in scores, and in some cases, hours in advance. Disney, in an effort to make them more available, began charging token amounts for entry—typically in the $6 range. Today, they'll cost you $14 to $15 each, although there are discounts available.
Are they worth it? You can probably guess the answer is "it depends." I attended two this year: a cooking demonstration given by Kouzzina by Cat Cora, a restaurant on Disney's Boardwalk, and a wine seminar offered by Kim Crawford Wines of New Zealand. My reactions were mixed.
I thoroughly enjoyed the cooking demonstration but in actuality it was less a cooking demonstration than a presentation by Cat Cora on her background, her cooking influences, and her books. What made it worthwhile for me is that I hadn't expected to see Cat Cora there—I anticipated it would be one of the local chefs; so there's the celebrity factor. I will also offer that Ms. Cora was obviously very good in front of the cameras and a crowd, and delivered a very entertaining presentation. It also went up a couple of notches when they served the results of the demonstration, a delicious lamb slider with garlic yogurt sauce, accompanied by a very nice glass of Valpolicella. We were also given the recipe for the dish so I can now attempt to re-create this at home.
In contrast to this was the Kim Crawford seminar. While I learned a few things about New Zealand, I didn't get much background into the vineyard or the specifics on the three wines we "tasted": a sauvignon blanc, a chardonnay, and a pinot noir. My negative reaction to this seminar was based on three things:
- I didn't learn much.
- The tastings were a little short in quantity—barely a serviceable sip each.
- I didn't particularly care for the wines.
As you can likely garner from my reviews of these two events, another individual with different tastes than my own could easily reverse the grades given. This is one of the reasons it's so difficult to review these things.
World Showcase Special Events
These events vary and are offered daily in the World Showcase pavilions. They include breakfasts such as the Parisian Breakfast I mentioned previously, luncheons (Mexican Tequila Lunch, French Regional Lunches and Italian Regional Food & Wine Luncheon, to name a few) and specialty series (mixology, and food and wine pairings). The common theme here is that you'll typically be served food and drink at a premium price. Prices range from $37 for the Parisian Breakfast to $225 plus tax, per person, for the Italian White Truffle Lunch.
I did not attend any of these events. I'm practical as a rule and frugality runs in my blood. I have heard some very good reviews for the Parisian Breakfast, but deep down I'm always skeptical of a $37 breakfast. I also don't think you'll find me anywhere near a $225 lunch.
Premier Festival Offerings
This year's festival included the Party for the Senses, the 3D Disney's Dessert Discovery, Spirits Confidential, Discover the Cranberry, and the Epcot Wine Schools. Discover the Cranberry featured a real cranberry bog and was free of charge for some information and samples—they were handing out small packages of Craisins.
The 3D Dessert party is one I attended in 2010. It includes a number of dessert stations as well as liqueurs and (at least in 2010) one single malt scotch station. In 2010, I paid $35 for this event, which also included a private viewing of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth from World Showcase Plaza. This year's event cost $55 for general entry, or $85 if you wanted a private reserved table.
The Party for the Senses includes a number of food and drink stations in a private setting (in the Events Pavilion, which sits between the UK and Canada), and included several acts by Cirque du Soleil as entertainment. This event is very popular—despite admission that ranges from $145 for general admission to $285 for the Wine View Lounge. As good as this sounds, I can't help thinking of the dinner (or weekend?) my wife and I could enjoy for $570.
Eat to the Beat Concert Series
The America Gardens Theater is host to three concerts each and every night, given by a veritable "Who's Who" of groups that were once, but no longer, popular. I'm being unkind because there are a few, such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, that are very good and still maintain a level of popularity. Many others are popular names from years past (Wilson Phillips, Air Supply, Manhattan Transfer, and so on) that may hold a special place on your iPod. Others… not so much.
So what's the bottom line? Do I recommend you attend next year's Food and Wine Festival? I've been to five so far. Obviously it's not an every year type of thing for me. For some others, it most certainly is.
My honest assessment is that I believe I'm in love with the concept of the International Food and Wine Festival more than the reality. There's nothing at the Festival that I can't get at home– likely with more quantity, maybe more quality, and for less money. I tend to shy away from the premier events, mostly due to what I consider outrageous pricing. The groups that appear in the Eat to the Beat concerts are those that typically appear free of charge over the summer at our local riverfront weekly festivals. The crowds around World Showcase, particularly on the weekends, are not something I cherish dealing with. In addition, the availability of alcohol sometimes yields some very un-Disney-like crowds. However…
It is held at Walt Disney World, in Epcot, and around World Showcase lagoon. I'll probably be back.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!