Celebrating at Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival

by Donna Fesel, contributing writer

The 21st annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival drew to a close on November 14, after 62 delicious days. Food & Wine, a Walt Disney World fan favorite, features everything but the kitchen sink for those who love to be wined and dined. I have visited Food & Wine on several occasions and loved it. This year I turned 50, and wanted a really fun way to celebrate. Eating up a storm plus Walt Disney World? Yes, please. Food & Wine features so many tasty ways to explore new food, learn about food, and hobnob with the biggest names in cuisine, wine, beer, and spirits.

ABC Television's "The Chew," (a talk show focused on food-centric topics hosted by Mario Batali, Carla Hall, Daphne Oz, Clinton Kelly, and Michael Symon) is front and center at Food & Wine. "The Chew" has its own Global Marketplace (The Chew Collective), and even tapes live in front of a Food & Wine audience, for later broadcast. Batali, Hall, and company are not the only celebrity chefs that were in attendance at this year's Food & Wine, as Geoffrey Zakarian, Buddy Valastro, Cat Cora, Jamie Deen, Robert Irvine, Duff Goldman, Alex Guarnaschelli, Andrew Zimmern, and many others also appeared. These celebrity chefs hosted events and demos for Food & Wine guests. These events and demos require separate paid admission and reservations are best made in advance.

The marquee for the Wine & Dine Marketplace hangs in the space bridging World Showcase and Future World. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Another festival highlight are the big ticket events: Party for the Senses and the Rockin' Burger Block Party. Both are all-you-care-to-eat blowouts featuring world class entertainment. The Block Party features burgers made by acclaimed chefs all over WDW, and a live DJ spinning tunes. I haven't attended Party for the Senses in ages, but when I did, Cirque du Soleil acts were performing, there were wine and beer purveys galore, and no shortage of gourmet fare. These events are on the pricey side, but are really entertaining and special. Word of advice: Arrive hungry.

Also during Food & Wine, the Eat to the Beat concert series, which runs nightly in World Showcase, and is free to all guests, rocks the house. This year, Eat to the Beat featured one of my favorites, Chaka Khan, and scads of other terrific acts, including Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Toad the Wet Sprocket. Acts perform multiple times daily. Even if you can't squeeze in time to stop for the wonderful music, you can still hear it floating in the background as you make your way around World Showcase.

Food & Wine also features scores of special dinners at various WDW restaurants, which offer a unique meal and one on one time with the attendant chef, as well as special themed dining and beverage experiences throughout the day where guests can broaden their food knowledge. These events require separate admission, and reservations are best made in advance.

Empanadas and grilled beef skewers from the Patagonia Marketplace were a hit with my son. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Food & Wine also has its own half marathon weekend, including a half-marathon, a 10K, 5K, and kids' races, for those of you go-getters who want to have your cake, and work it off, all in a Disney setting.

For me, the star of Food & Wine are the Global Marketplaces, located throughout World Showcase, and ever inching into Future World. These temporary structures, designed to appear reminiscent of the countries and regions they represent, feature small plates (think a few delicious bites), and beverages from those areas. There are also bonus areas like Desserts and Champagne, Wine & Dine Studio, and the Chocolate Studio for even more tasty treats.

The marquee for the Greece Marketplace, home to some delicious chicken souvlaki. Photo by Donna Fesel.

On arrival, guests receive a passport to track which Global Marketplaces they've enjoyed. In past years, you would get stamps at the various Marketplaces themselves. These are now replaced with stickers you adhere yourself. When visiting Food & Wine, we like to stay at one of the Epcot resorts. This time we chose Boardwalk Villas, so we are always a hop and skip away from grabbing a quick Food & Wine bite. The Marketplaces are less busy earlier in the day, and on weekdays. Also, we've found that the crowd gets a little too rockin' nearing Epcot close for us, especially when we are with our son. People are having a blast, but it's a bit too much to navigate.

The actual spots to eat—small stand-around tables—are at a premium, but everyone is happy to scooch over and talk food while you eat. It is really a terrific, communal experience. Walk right up and ask if you can join. Not only is everyone delighted to, but they will without fail tell you what they've had to eat that is great.

On this visit, we planned to start with a lunchtime stop. We then revisited two more times over the long weekend before we tried everything we wanted. I've found it's a good idea to pace yourself at Food & Wine, with both treats and drinks. We like to savor everything, and share what we've selected at a slower pace. We did it once in an evening, and it felt a bit like racing around on a game show. I couldn't tell you a single thing I ate or drank because it was a frenzy.

I am a big fan of the tuna poke and Kahlua pork slider from the Hawaii Marketplace. Photo by Donna Fesel.

My husband, son, and I all have favorites that we like to visit on every Food & Wine visit, but we always, always discover new things we love. On this trip, I revisited my old favorite, the tuna poke from the Hawaii Marketplace (cubes of sushi-grade tuna, with seaweed and nori). It's not something I ever thought I'd like, but my husband talked me into it on my last visit, and I am hooked. If you are a sushi lover, it might be for you.

The shrimp taco and margarita from the Mexico Marketplace are always favorites of mine. Photo by Donna Fesel.

I also always must get the unbelievably delicious grilled baby lamb chop with mint pesto and potato crunchies from Australia. It is so ridiculously good that I have found a copycat recipe that I make all year long. Another favorite is the battered shrimp taco with cabbage and chipotle mayo from Mexico. You get a couple of these delicious beauties in your order, and their fresh taste never disappoints. In the beverage department, I always have a few delicious champagnes at the Desserts and Champagne Marketplace, including a Moet & Chandon Ice Imperial that is fantastic, and a Pinotage wine from Africa that is consistently excellent as well.

Perhaps my all-time favorite Food and Wine treat is the baby grilled lamb chop from the Australia marketplace. Photo by Donna Fesel.

New favorites for me included the seafood fisherman's pie from Ireland (I recently learned that although I was told it was true when I was a child, I am not allergic to crab or lobster, this treat was a perfect way to celebrate), and the spicy hummus fries with tzatziki sauce. Who even knew hummus could be turned into fries? Mind blown.

The seafood pie and Irish cheese plate from the Ireland Marketplace were fabulous. Photo by Donna Fesel.

My son is a big fan of the Japan Marketplace. He always loves getting the spicy sushi roll with volcano sauce. It is huge, a great value, and super fresh. He also strays from the Food & Wine Marketplaces to get his favorite Epcot dessert, Kakigori, a Japanese shaved ice. On this trip, he found his new favorite Marketplace, Patagonia. We went back three times. He loved the beef empanada, but his new favorite thing to eat ever is the beef skewer with chimichurri and bonaito. He had no idea what bonaito was (a sweet potato), nor did I, but he ate one serving after another.

My husband is a beer lover, and is always up for trying the new offerings at Food & Wine. He tried a Shipyard stout that he loved at the Craft Beers Marketplace, and he washed down a New England lobster roll with a an Anchor ale at the Hopes & Barley Marketplace. He also nibbled on my son's sushi roll, and my seafood fisherman's pie and liked both of those as well. Another favorite of his? The magical hummus fries.

The lobster roll from the Hops & Barley Marketplace did not disappoint. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Did we eat and drink everything we wanted? Nope. As I'm writing this, I'm realizing somewhere there was a gazpacho with crab meat, and a hot dog with kimchi that evaded me. There's only one cure for that: More visits to Food & Wine in future years. Was my birthday, punctuated by trips to Food & Wine for terrific food, wonderful? Yes. We had a blast eating our way around the World Showcase. Now, if I can just find a restaurant locally that serves hummus fries…

Did you go to Food & Wine? What did you do? What did you eat? What did you love? Let me know.