We are just a few weeks away from our (nearly) annual visit to the International Food and Wine Festival at Epcot. The hotel reservations have been made, plane tickets purchased, and Advance Dining Reservations are in place. I have prepared the latest version of The Spreadsheet, mapping out every minute of our itinerary (ok, not every minute, but pretty darn close).
Our approach to visiting the Festival and enjoying its offerings has changed over the years, although I must say that we have yet to only scratch the surface. The first year we went, when our kids were elementary school-aged, we were happy to discover (almost by accident) that the Festival was taking place at the same time as our four-day fall visit, which happened to (and still happens to) coincide with our school district’s long four-day weekend, which, by the way, is meant to be set aside for parent/teacher conferences. (I would like to take a moment to apologize sincerely to all of my children’s teachers who have had to reschedule Miller Family conferences over the years. Thank you for your understanding.) At that time, we focused ONLY on getting Mom and Dad a few bites and glasses of wine from the Festival Marketplace booths. Then, we moved on to trying to get the kids to try some of the offerings. Last year, Mom and Dad attended a very special event on their own, and the whole family enjoyed an entertaining and informative culinary demonstration.
Here are some pointers that I have for enjoying the Food and Wine Festival with tweens and teens in tow:
1. The International Marketplace food booths provide a great opportunity to expand your child’s food experiences. Plan at least one lunch or dinner that will consist entirely grazing from one booth to the next. When the kids were younger, my husband and I had a difficult time getting them to make a meal out of the food offerings at the International Marketplace food booths. They thought that the food was just too strange. (A hint for parents of young children who may not be interested in the Festival food offerings: The American Adventure is halfway around your noshing route, and “American” fare can be procured for your picky eaters at the Liberty Inn as you make your way around the World Showcase. Do not let your young picky eaters stand between you and the Shrimp on the Barbie with Pepper Berry Citrus Glaze, and its accompanying Rosemount Estate Traminer Riesling!) As they have gotten older however, they have found some favorites, including the Cheese Fondue and Trio of Artisan Cheeses at the Cheese booth; the Kerrygold Cheese Selection from Ireland (the girls LOVE cheese, do you see a pattern here?); the Pork Potstickers in China; the Seared Filet of Beef with Smashed Sweet Potatoes and Braai Sauce from South Africa; and their new favorite, Ropa Vieja from the Caribbean.
2. Expensive events are not necessarily a good buy for kids. We had never actually done any of the larger, more expensive events associated with the Festival until last year (see #5, below), because it did not seem to make a lot of sense from a financial perspective. When the kids were younger, they simply did not have either the attention span or the interest in sitting still for several hours while “weird” food was being served. Now, even though they are much more likely to be interested in the food, since wine (or other spirits) make up much of the cost for these events, it still does not seem to make much sense, unless your older kid is particularly interested in a particular type of cuisine (or dessert-is dessert a cuisine type?). I was ready to do one of the more expensive events this year, but the festival schedule did not quite cooperate. The only one that really might have worked for us was The Party for the Senses, and that was not one that I really wanted to do, particularly with all of the confusing pricing tiers. Oh, and we are going to miss “the Cake Boss” by one day. Oh, well, maybe next year.
3. The less expensive Culinary Demonstrations might be a huge hit. Last year, we decided to try one of the Festival’s Culinary Demonstrations. I checked the demonstration schedule, and found one that was being led by a local (to us) chef (David Guas of The Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia, who will be returning this year) who would be preparing something my kids might like (in this case, the vague description was “Pastry”). For a very reasonable price (demonstrations are priced at $11 and $14 for 2012) we got an hour-long cooking demonstration from a very entertaining chef, four glasses of superb champagne (yes, the French stuff from Champagne) and substantial tastes of the apple cake that Chef Guas was preparing. Since the kids are not old enough to drink, Mom and Dad each got two glasses of wine, and the kids were served some apple juice. Not bad, and we all loved the experience. We will be doing it again this year. (With a different chef, but again, the description for the event is a vague “Pastry.” Do you see another pattern emerging here?) I considered booking more than one demonstration, but I thought better of that idea, and will leave it at one. While the girls enjoyed the demonstration last year, teenagers bore easily, and I wouldn’t want a very nice experience to be turned into a total drag.
4. Take an interest in cooking home with you. Last year, my kids loved the Ropa Vieja from the Caribbean booth so much that they talked me into buying the festival cookbook (“Epcot International Food and Wine Festival Cook Book: Passport to a World of Flavors,” $14.95 in 2011). While we were not able to exactly replicate this yummy beef stew at home, it ended up being a reasonable facsimile, and it got my kids cooking. It is a well-known fact that kids will be more likely to try new foods if they are involved in its preparation. (At least that is what “the experts” say. My older daughter will help cook just about anything, but there are still lots of things that she won’t eat-especially if they are green.) (By the way, does your family pronounce the word Car-RIB-bean or CAR-ib-BE-an? Let me know. The Miller family cannot agree on this one.)
5. The ability of the kids to look after themselves for a few hours opens up opportunities for Mom and Dad to enjoy some of the more expensive events on their own. Last year my husband and I splurged on the “Best of Bocuse” dinner that was held at the Bistro de Paris. The very high price tag meant that this was not an event that we wanted to include the kids in, but they were able to walk over to Epcot with us from the Boardwalk (see #6, below), do some touring on their own, and return to our room by themselves before we got back, with periodic check-ins via text message). We had the amazing opportunity to sample some iconic dishes from the great chef, and they got to experience a bit of controlled independence.
6. If you can, stay in one of the Epcot resorts. It is much easier to return to one of the Epcot resorts after touring the Festival. We find that a leisurely walk back to the Boardwalk (our favorite) after sampling yummy food and beverages is a good way to wind down and let the food settle before taking an afternoon break, or getting ready to sleep.
7. The “Eat to the Beat” concerts are a great way to introduce your teens and tweens to the really good (or pretty good) music of your youth. I love the fact that most of the musical acts playing at the “Eat to the Beat” concerts were popular bands that I listened to when I was a teenager. (Some, it appears, are now bands that were popular when I was a young adult, and they are now considered “classic.” I refuse to admit that I am getting old, and do now consider myself to be a “classic” as well.) I don’t know about your kids, but mine think that their generation invented popular music. This year, we will be introducing them to the great Howard Jones (we will unfortunately just miss .38 Special!). Last year it was Night Ranger (returning again this year). Follow the concert with a lively discussion over something sweet (I recommend the CrÃ¨me Brulee au Chocolat au Lait from France) about whose music is better. I guarantee you will have fun with this one!
8. Be careful about overindulging in the wine bit of the Festival. Young children might not notice if Mom and Dad get a little tipsy, but teenagers will count every drop of alcohol that passes your lips, and then will comment loudly about any tiny sway they might see in your steps. The Festival is a good opportunity to show tweens and teens how to enjoy a glass of wine with amazing food, and how adults can drink responsibly. In any case, make good use of Disney transportation, and please don’t drink and drive. Your teen will thank you.
Alice McNutt Miller is a lifelong Disney fan whose fondest childhood memories include “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights and her first trip to Disneyland when she was 10 years old. Alice and her family are Disney Vacation Club members, and have visited Disney parks all over the world. They live in Vienna, Virginia.