By Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor

Feature Article

This article appeared in the
October 6, 2009 Issue #524 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

I've been going to the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival every year since 2001, and as I have said on many occasions previously, it's my favorite annual event at Walt Disney World. After writing about an event for so many years in a row, you might think it would get a bit easier. The truth is, it's much harder.

I realize that not everyone is as lucky as I am, and while many of you may be going to the festival for the third, fourth or more time, some of you may be first-timers. So the challenge for me is to be of use and interest to both ends of the spectrum.

That said, I guess the best place to start a review of the festival is with the basics.

If you've not been to the festival before, here are a few of the key things you need to know. The festival has several key components:

-- the festival marketplaces, food booths with samples of various cuisines and beverages stationed around World Showcase Lagoon. There is no additional charge to walk around the food booths, but obviously you have to pay for the food and beverage samples you try -- somewhere between $2.50 and $7.25 (the lobster roll in the American Adventure).
-- culinary demos and wine seminars and other smaller tastings, some of which are free, others which cost $8.
-- special paid experiences, such as in-depth wine tastings or full course meals, which usually need to be booked well in advance, as they sell out quickly. These can cost anywhere from $35 to several hundred dollars, depending on the meal and the chefs.

If you're new to the festival, you may want to forego the pricier events and start by sampling the various ethnic cuisines around World Showcase. Begin at World Showcase Plaza and move either clockwise or counterclockwise, trying tastes such as Beef Empanada with Tomato Salsa at the Buenos Aires booth, or the Rock Shrimp Ceviche at Santiago, Chile. As you work your way around the festival, you can sample at will, but you might find it helps to have someone to share with. Even though the portions are relatively small, you can fill up quite quickly! If you're going to graze around the World, you might want to consider purchasing a special Disney Gift Card, a debit card that attaches to your wrist with a stretchy band. You can load that baby up with lots of dollars and keep it "handy" (if you'll pardon the pun), so that you don't have to fumble for cash or a credit card while you're trying to juggle a plate and a glass. The cards are available at most shops around Epcot and are good for any merchandise, not just the food booth items.

Along the way around World Showcase you'll find some distractions. For instance, there are a few shops selling Food and Wine Festival logo merchandise, such as the annual poster and all manner of apparel and accessories, from t-shirts to aprons to tote bags to wine charms, as well as vendors selling related items. In addition, there are a few (a very few) complimentary cooking demonstrations and olive oil tastings being held at the Taste of Puglia near the Italy pavilion, naturally -- I was lucky enough to watch them making orrecchiete (little ear-shaped pasta) one day, but if you're a regular to the festival, you'll miss some of big displays of the past. There are no extensive exhibits with live entertainment and lots of hands-on activities like those sponsored by Lousiana or Australia over the last few years. There isn't even a "Pearville" exhibit in the American Adventure plaza as there was the last few years -- you'll notice quite a bit of unoccupied real estate around World Showcase. But there are the returning New York State Wine Adventure, which offers a selection of wines -- for a price, not free, and complimentary Beer Tastings in the American Adventure, as well as The Beer Hop, which will sell you a sort of "passport" so that you can try four samples of eight specialty brews for $12. It's a take-off on the previously popular Australian "Wine Walkabout," which was sadly absent this year.

Once you've made your way around the lagoon, you'll need to move to the Festival Center (located in the former Wonders of Life pavilion down in Future World between Ellen's Energy Adventure and Mission: Space) to enjoy some of the festival's other offerings.

As I mentioned last year, the Festival Center has become the figurative, if not literal, hub of the majority of the Festival's paid events. First-timers, beware! The Festival Center is quite a hike from World Showcase and other Food and Wine Festival events. Be sure to study the weekly guide that's available at the park entrances and most shops to carefully plan which events you want to see daily. If you don't, you'll find yourself making the long trek from the food booths in World Showcase, down to the Festival Center, and back too many times a day. It's how I managed to put about 18,000 steps on my pedometer each of the first two days I was at this year's Festival. (By the way, good luck finding a full Festival Guide covering all 75 days of the event! They're as hard to come by as hen's teeth this year. Try Guest Relations if you really want one.)

In the Festival Center, along with the ticketed programs, you'll find more shopping opportunities, and a few activities that are free of charge. There are Authentic Taste Seminars held Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 5:30 p.m. that explore individual ingredients, such as salt or coffee. There are also book and bottle signings, by many of the chefs, authors and winemakers on hand for the other festival events. The Festival Center is also home to The Wonder Bar, where you can purchase samples of featured wines and cheeses. A very nice little film on grape-growing, narrated by Jeremy Irons, called Seasons of the Vine, runs continuously in the theater that used to house The Making of Me, and the Mad Hatter's Wine Cellar offers for sale many of the wines featured at the food booths and in the festival's other programs.

If you've decided to progress in your festival experiences to try some of the paid events, the Festival Center is more than likely where you'll start. (And by the way, I should note that you don't get a ticket in advance for these events. You usually DO book them in advance, though, as they can sell out quickly, and your credit card is charged at that time. When you arrive at the venue, you'll check in with a cast member who will find your name on a list of attendees. You may get a ticket at that point, which guarantees that you will have a seat at the program.)

So let's say you decide to start with one of the $8 culinary demonstrations or wine seminars. Some of you probably know that you can book these programs in advance online (http://www.certain.com/system/profile/form/index.cfm?PKformID=0x798134aa2b). If you haven't booked yet, and are thinking about going when you visit Epcot in the next few weeks, be sure to book now! Many of the programs have already sold out. In addition, if you are a member of Tables in Wonderland (formerly the Disney Dining Experience), are an annual passholder, or are a Disney Vacation Club member, you can get a slight discount by booking online via this site. If, however, you decide to wait until you get there, there is a desk at the entrance of the Festival Center where same-day reservations can be made and paid for.

There's been some grumbling this year over the fee for these programs, which were formerly complimentary, but I have to say I found the price to be well worth it for what it buys you. The advance booking and what I consider nominal fee seems to have kept the outrageous crowds down, and has virtually eliminated the need to queue for more than an hour to get into one of these programs. In addition, the programs themselves are very well run. I attended a wine seminar by Caymus Vineyards that gave me the chance to sample three of their fine pinot noirs, wines I might not otherwise have tried. The culinary demo I attended led by Chef Jonathon Sawyer of Cleveland's Greenhouse Tavern was run like a much pricier culinary event, and even provided a sample of wine (coincidentally, a Caymus pinot). At $5, I felt this 45-minute presentation was one of the best values of the festival. Again, I'd recommend attending these programs, especially if you have the chance to reserve ahead.

If you've graduated on to the "special experiences" of the festival, I'd guess that you've been to Food and Wine before. You were right there along with me at 7 a.m. that morning back in August when reservations for these events first opened up, so you have your spots all lined up for either Sweet Sundays, or a Cheese Seminar, or maybe even Adventures in Wine Varietals or Celebrating Family & Friends in the Kitchen. All of these events are held in the Festival Center also, and are, in my opinion, successful and worthwhile to various degrees.

During the first weekend of this year's Festival, I had the chance to attend both a Sweet Sunday and a Cheese Seminar -- you can read my reviews of these programs on AllEars.Net. As with last year, however, many of the other paid events were not even offered the first weekend of the festival -- what is up with that? Shouldn't the kick-off weekend be a big deal? I really wanted to attend the Family & Friends in the Kitchen with the Deen Brothers, but that was moved to October 3. And there were no French Regional Lunches, Wine Schools or even any Signature Dining Experiences available until October either. Disappointing, but I will be back later in the festival to try a few more things.

Even though the Festival Center is the focus for many events, there are also several programs scattered around Epcot and Walt Disney World in general. Themed Food and Wine Pairings, for example, are held in several World Showcase restaurants: Tutto Italia, Tokyo Dining and Restaurant Marrakesh. And the Signature Dining Experiences I mentioned are held in some of the better table service restaurants found in Walt Disney World resort hotels: Todd English's bluezoo at the Dolphin, California Grill at the Contemporary, Flying Fish at the Boardwalk, Citricos at the Grand Floridian, to name just a few. You'll also find the new Tequila Tastings, held at the recently opened La Cava del Tequila, in the Mexico pavilion. (See my review of the Tequila Tasting at http://allears.net/tp/ep/fw09/fw09_teq.htm.)

Saving the best for last -- a major event that does NOT take place in the Festival Center is the Party for the Senses. This is a veritable explosion of food and wine that you find every Saturday night in the World Showplace, located between the United Kingdom and Canada pavilions. About 20 chefs concoct small dishes of delicacies that you can sample to your heart's content, accompanied by vintages and other spirits available freely throughout the venue. The cost for this eating extravaganza is not cheap -- $135 per person plus tax -- but it is a chance to try some very exciting, not to mention delicious, taste treats. This year, the Parties are themed -- the week I attended was "Celebrating Spanish Cuisine" and much of the food and wine, and entertainment, had a Spanish flair.

A complaint about the Party for the Senses every year is the shortage of seating available. In the past there have been a number of regular tables, plus a smattering of cocktail tables, and then... that was it. If you weren't able to secure a spot early on, you spent the evening floating from table to table, relying on the kindness of strangers to allow you to alight for a minute at their table while you juggled your wine glass and plate. This year, the Party is offering an alternative -- the Wine View Lounge. It's a fenced-off area with reserved seating. And when I say "fenced off," I mean that literally -- the area is segregated from the rest of the partygoers by a tall wrought-iron fence. Maybe that's a little extreme, and they should try something lower, and less jail-like? Just a thought. To gain entry to this location, you must pay an additional $75 (I know -- ouch!), but you do get several benefits in return: 1) You don't have to wait with the masses before the Party begins -- you are given a special wristband and are whisked to a special entrance. 2) You receive a special cocktail while you're waiting to enter the World Showplace, then are allowed to enter 15-20 minutes before the general public. 3) You are assured your reserved table in the "lounge," which also has a special cheese table and a "premium" bar that is stocked with all sorts of brand name spirits. (No special beers or wines, though.) 4) You are given a special "amuse bouche" before the Party officially begins. 5) Your souvenir wine glass is etched with the "Wine View Lounge" logo. 6) You are given a gift bag at the end of the evening with specialty tea, truffles, and a jar of syrup for making hibiscus flower cocktails. Does that sound worth the extra fee to you? It was very nice, felt very exclusive, but... I'm still trying to decide.

One other thing I should mention -- during the Festival, Disney brings in musical guests to perform short concerts each evening. These "Eat to the Beat" shows primarily feature acts who were formerly famous, like John Waite, Richard Marx and Sister Sledge, and sometimes a more current "name", such as American Idol Winner Taylor Hicks. Shows are held three times nightly at the America Gardens Theater across from the American Adventure pavilion.

So now that I've given you the basics, maybe you're wondering what I thought of the festival this year?

The International Marketplaces: After literally walking several miles around World Showcase, and sampling more than my share of the wares, I felt that the overall food quality was consistently better this year than it has been in recent years. Every food sample I tried (and believe me I tried more than I should have!) was well prepared. I encountered none of the overcooked or undercooked issues that I've complained about in past years, and the only item I didn't care for (the Chicken Urumqi in the Shanghai booth) was simply just not to my taste -- I didn't give it a thumbs down because it was full of fat or underdone. I didn't find that prices had increased much, and portion sizes seem to have stayed fairly steady. I even have to be more moderate in my perennial criticism that the booths play it too safe, offering boring, safe options like pizza and pierogis. Yes, pizza and pierogis are still on the menus in their respective kiosks (Italy and Poland, obviously), but there were also items that were slightly more exotic, such as the Chicken and Coconut Soup, with Mushrooms, Lemongrass & Ginger at the new Bangkok, Thailand booth, and the Rava Masala Dosa in the New Delhi, India booth. That's a trend I'd like to see continue!

The Paid Events: I think for the most part you get your money's worth at these events. I did think that the Cheese Seminar was overpriced, though -- four small wedges of cheese and two tastes of wine for $75? I don't care how educated you feel about cheese after the event, it's not worth $75. And I have my reservations about the Sweet Sundays event as well -- $80 for a limited brunch and three desserts seems a bit over the top to me, although most of my tablemates disagreed and claimed the program "exceeded their expectations" and "was worth every penny." Guess that's what they mean when they say, "Your mileage may vary."

The Party for the Senses: I think it's still a lot of fun, but if the price goes any higher than $135, I don't think I'd be interested. The option of paying an additional $75 to be guaranteed a seat in the Wine View Lounge is nice, but it makes the total $210 plus tax. That's an awful lot of money for what's basically a glorified cocktail party. In fact, my family has opted to bypass the Party for the Senses this year and instead will be splurging on an evening at Victoria and Albert's, which probaby cost us about the same amount. I'll be interested to hear if other die-hard Food and Wine Festival-goers do something similar.

Festival Overall: I give it an A-. I see definite signs of cutbacks (no blockbuster showcases as in previous years, lack of the usual food-related topiaries, scarcity of the general Festival Guide, absence of children's hands-on activities, fewer chefs at the Party for the Senses, etc.), but the programs that are still there are done in a first-rate manner. Even after all this time, after so many visits, I still think Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival is the most fun annual event that Disney offers.

That's why I'm going back -- with my family this time -- at the end of this month. See you there?

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Celebrating Culinary Adventures, Epcot's 14th Annual International Food and Wine Festival, runs daily through November 8, 2009. Entrance to the Festival is included with your park admission, but there are several special events that are an additional (and often hefty) charge. Many events are sold out, but some openings remain, particularly for the Party for the Senses. To make reservations, contact 407-WDW-FEST. And if you're thinking ahead to next year, the dates have already been announced: September 24 - November 7, 2010. Remember that reservations for many of the ticketed events go fast -- be sure to watch AllEars.Net and the AllEars® newsletter for an announcement, probably sometime in July, concerning reservations for the 2010 Festival.

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Food and Wine General Info: http://allears.net/tp/ep/foodwine.htm
Photo Gallery: http://allears.net/tp/ep/fw09/fw09_photogal1.htm
Tequila Tasting Review: http://allears.net/tp/ep/fw09/fw09_teq.htm
Cheese Seminar Review: http://allears.net/tp/ep/fw09/fw09_cheese.htm
Party for the Senses Sample Menu and Photos: http://allears.net/tp/ep/fw09/fw09_pfts.htm

Other articles by Debra Martin Koma: http://allears.net/btp/dkoma.htm


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.