Food and Wine Festival Primer

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor

Feature Article

This article appeared in the September 23, 2014 Issue #783 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

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.

I just returned from a whirlwind weekend at the 19th Annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival and I am just brimming with information to share with you all! However, since I've been going to and reporting on this festival every year since 2001, it's getting harder and harder to write about it in an original way. This year, though, I've reminded myself that many of you are not as lucky as I am, and perhaps this is your first time visiting the World during this 53-day culinary extravaganza. About five years back, I wrote what I called "Food and Wine 101," sharing what I thought were basics that a newcomer needed to know, along with little tips and insights for the veteran visitor. I think it might be time to revisit that, and update the information with all the many, many new events and experiences that you will find during this, my favorite time of year at Walt Disney World.

If this year is your first time at the Food and Wine Festival, you need to know that it has several key culinary components:

— the International Marketplaces, more than 25 food booths with more than 100 menu items featuring cuisines from around the world, along with more than 100 different beverages, all stationed around World Showcase Lagoon. There is no additional charge to browse around the food booths, but obviously you have to pay for the food and beverage samples you try — generally between $2.50 and $10 (not counting some of the pricier cocktails and the $32/glass Dom Perignon!).

— modestly priced culinary demos, wine seminars, mixology sessions ($12-$16) and other smaller tastings, some of which are free.

— special paid experiences, such as food and wine pairings 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 menu, the location and the chefs.

If you're new to the festival, you may want to skip the pricier events for your first visit and concentrate on just grazing around World Showcase. If you decide to do this, allow me to offer a few tips to get you started:

TIP: If your vacation schedule permits, avoid visiting the festival on the weekends. This is when many local residents stop in and the crowds can be quite overwhelming.

TIP: Take a noshing buddy along with you, someone to share your tasty morsels with. Even though the portions are what you might call "tapas-sized," you can fill up quite quickly!

TIP: 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 (a minimum of $15) 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. Yes, you can also charge the items back to your room if you have linked a credit card to your MagicBand, and, since most of the FOOD items are considered as one snack credit on the Disney Dining Plan, you can certainly pay for them that way if you'd prefer. But if you'd like to keep better track of your purchases, the gift card might be a smarter option. The cards are available at most shops around Epcot. (They are good for any merchandise, by the way, not just the food booth items.)

Begin at World Showcase Plaza — it's up to you whether you go clockwise or counterclockwise. Or you can do as I do and start in the middle of World Showcase at the American Adventure and work your way back out toward Future World. But before you do anything, I'd suggest that you pick up a Marketplace Discovery Passport. You can find them at the Festival Center, Guest Relations, the Festival shops, and sometimes even from random cast members around World Showcase. These little multi-purpose booklets include all of the menu items at the International Marketplaces. (They're actually chock full of other info about the festival, too.) Take a minute to peruse the passport, and perhaps plan your route around the World, or simply sample at will. You'll notice that many items are marked with a "V," which denotes a vegetarian offering. Also, this year many items are marked "gluten-free," which should make many on special diets very happy.

As you make your 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, each marketplace is embellished with special plantings that represent the foods on offer in the booth. For example, you'll find baby pineapples growing in the brand new Puerto Rico marketplace. There are also a few live entertainments scattered around — and I don't mean the usual Epcot live acts. These are special for the festival. There's lots going on over in the Puerto Rico marketplace, where you can enjoy some live music as you try the Braised Beef with Rice or the Fried Green Plantains with Mayo Ketchup and some chilled Club Caribe Mango Rum. In the Brazil marketplace area, you can stop and listen to a guitarist while you sample the Tilapia with Coconut Lime Sauce and Steamed Rice while sipping a Frozen Caipirinha. In other words, take your time as you stroll around and really soak in some of the culture that these marketplaces try to bring to you — don't just focus on gobbling and guzzling those goodies down!

TIP: At 3:15 p.m., Fridays through Sundays, in the Port of Entry shop in World Showcase Plaza, there are FREE chef demonstrations!

Once you've made your way around the lagoon, take a walk down to the Festival Center (located in the former Wonders of Life pavilion down in Future World between Ellen's Energy Adventure and Mission: Space).

The Festival Center is 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 log about 13,000 steps on my pedometer each of the first two days I was at this year's Festival.

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 Back to Basics sessions held Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 12:15, 2:15, 4:15 and 6:15 p.m. that offer tips and tricks from professionals on a wide range of topics and ingredients such as salt or spices. There are also book and bottle signings, by many of the chefs, cookbook authors and winemakers on hand for the other festival events. The Festival Center is also home to Intermissions Cafe, where you can purchase a light bite to eat (try the Vegetarian Sampler with hummus and tabbouleh!) or sample some featured wines — this year there are even a few wines on tap. What a novel idea! There's a seven-minute film on wine-making called Seasons of the Vine and of course the Festival Wine Shop, which sells many of the wines and spirits featured at the food booths and in the festival's other programs. Finally, chocoholics like myself won't want to miss the Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience: From Bean to the Bar, located in the rear of the pavilion. I mean, how can you not like a place that greets you with free chocolate samples? While the factoids about the history of chocolate posted on the walls are interesting enough, this area's big draws for me are the intricate Disney-themed chocolate sculptures and the small cup of warm Ghirardelli drinking chocolate that's available for $2.50. It is, as they say, like sipping a melted chocolate bar.

If you've decided to try some of the paid events, the Festival Center is more than likely where you'll start. Let's say you decide to start with one of those culinary demonstrations, beverage seminars or mixology sessions. Did you know that you can actually book these programs online? 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. If you are a member of Tables in Wonderland, are an annual passholder, a Disney Vacation Club member or a resident of Golden Oak community, you can get a slight discount on the Monday through Thursday sessions by booking over the phone. If, however, you decide to wait until you get there to commit to a demo, stop by the Festival Center Info Desk to see if any same-day reservations can be made.

By the way, I should note that it's best to book most of these paid events in advance, as they can sell out quickly, often on the day that reservations open (usually in late July). Your credit card is charged for these events at the time of booking, and they are non-transferable and non-refundable, so you do need to be pretty certain of your travel dates when you book. You don't get a ticket in advance for these events, but 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, depending on the event, which guarantees that you will have a seat at the program.

TIP: Stop by the Festival Center Information Desk (at the base of the entrance ramp) early in your day to pick up tickets for any culinary demos, beverage seminars or mixology sessions you have booked for that day. You can obtain all your tickets for the day at one time.

If you've graduated on to the more expensive "special experiences" of the festival, I'd guess that you've been to Food and Wine before or have at least been planning to go for a long time. You were right there along with me at 7 a.m. that morning back in July when reservations for these events first opened up, so you have your spots all lined up for either a Food for Thought, a Boot Camp, or maybe even a "Sunday Mornings With…" program featuring a noted pastry chef or baker. 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 a Food for Thought program (with award-winning chef Norman van Aken) and a Mixology session (which featured gin cocktails), both held in the Festival Center. I also attended the Parisian Breakfast in Les Chefs de France restaurant in the France pavilion, as well as a Boot Camp (with Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson) and the "Experience Puerto Rico — the All Star Island Dinner," both in the World Showplace pavilion located between the United Kingdom and Canada. (My reviews of all of these programs will be on the AllEars.Net website soon.) There are also several other experiences scattered around Epcot and Walt Disney World in general. Themed Food and Wine Pairings, for example, are held in various World Showcase restaurants, such as Tutto Italia and Restaurant Marrakesh. You'll find other experiences in the Mexico and France pavilions. And there are Signature Dining Experiences 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… but I digress.

One other major event staged in the World Showplace pavilion is the Party for the Senses. This is a veritable explosion of food and wine that you'll find on certain Saturday nights throughout the festival. About 20 chefs from noted restaurants and around Walt Disney World 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 — $149 to $299 per person plus tax, depending on whether you want to reserve seating — but it is a chance to try some very exciting, not to mention delicious, taste treats. I'm not as high on this experience as I used to be, since the price is now, in my opinion, on the exorbitant side for what amounts to a night of grazing. Of late, I've preferred to spend my Food and Wine dollars at a nice table service experience, but if you've never been to the Festival before, perhaps a Party for the Senses splurge is for you.

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 familiar acts like the Pointer Sisters, Billy Ocean and Starship, and sometimes a more current "name," such as former American Idol winner David Cook. 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 sampling more than a fair share of the wares, I felt that the overall food quality was consistently good. Nearly every menu item I tried was well prepared, and hot foods were served hot. There were only a few food items I didn't care for (notably the Pepper Bacon Hash from the Farm Fresh marketplace), but that's more due to personal taste than poor preparation. (I know most people are already raving about that hash!) As expected, prices have increased a bit, but overall portion sizes seem to have stayed acceptable. I only felt short-changed in the Italy marketplace — $6 for ravioli? And $5.75 for the skimpy portion of rather blah Chicken Marsala? Neither were worth it. On the flip side, I loved loved loved the Berliner (apricot jam filled doughnut) in Germany, and didn't mind paying $3.25 for it. Also winners, in my opinion of course, were the Wheat Pasta with Mushrooms and Gruyere cheese ($4.95 in France), the Chirashizushi ($5.95 in Japan), and my perennial favorite, the Lamb Chop with Mint Pesto and Potato Crunchies ($6.25 in Australia). I'm salivating at the thought.

The Paid Events: I think for the most part you get what you pay for at these events (with the possible exception of the Cheese Seminars, which I haven't revisited for several years). The Food for Thought program I attended may sound expensive at $169, but I felt that I received more than my money's worth. In addition to a high-quality, three-course meal with three higher-end wine pairings, I had the chance to both listen to and talk with Chef Norman van Aken, who is widely recognized as the founding father of "New World Cuisine." The two-hour, $119 Boot Camp with Andrea Robinson was not only educational but highly entertaining, and afforded the chance to sample a sparkling wine, three whites, two reds and a dessert wine while learning what makes good wine pairings. And I can't say enough about the Puerto Rico dinner — though I was a guest of Disney for this Party for the Senses-style event, had I paid the $99 admission, I would not have been disappointed in the least. We had the chance to sample a wide range of Puerto Rican dishes and beverages, all while being thoroughly entertained by several singers, a band and salsa dancers. It was quite the festive affair. Even though it was only offered once, the high caliber of the event leads me to believe other specialty offerings, like the Walt Disney Tribute dinner coming up in October, will be equally enjoyable.

Festival Overall: I give it an A-. I see a few things I'd like to improve on or change (more children's hands-on activities would be great, for instance), but everything is generally done in a first-class manner. And this year there are some new things I didn't even get the chance to tell you about or enjoy myself, such as the Late Nights Live program and the Eat to the Beat Dining Package.

Yes, even after so many visits, there are still aspects of Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival that are new to me. And yes, I still consider it to be the most fun annual event that Disney offers.

That's why I'll be going back — with my husband this time — in October. Maybe I'll see you there?

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Taste Your Way Around the World, Epcot's 19th Annual International Food and Wine Festival, runs daily through November 10, 2014. Entrance to the Festival is included with your Epcot park admission, but there are numerous special events that are an additional (and often hefty) charge. Many events are sold out, but some openings remain. To make reservations, contact 407-WDW-FEST (407-939-3378) or, for certain events, book online by visiting Walt Disney World's official Food and Wine Festival pages.

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Food and Wine General Info:

International Marketplace Menus w/Prices and Photos:

Culinary Demos, Wine Seminars and Mixology:

Special Dining Experiences, including Late Nights Live and the Premium Package:

Eat to the Beat Concerts:

YouTube videos:

Expert Tips to Maximize Your Experience

6 Free Things to Do:

Festival Center Merchandise:

Help other AllEars® Readers plan their trips:

Take the Marketplace Menu Items Survey:

Rate and review the other special Festival events:


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.