Who knew that Irish meade pairs great with mouse ears? Or that seared venison loin is the perfect antidote to rambunctious kids? Or that two Junmai sakes turns the Epcot "ride" (we use that word very loosely here) Ellen's Energy Adventure into a perfect place for a nap? This is the idea behind the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, the annual celebration that makes Disney World a little closer to the "happiest place on Earth" for adults.
Now in its 21st year, the Disney-themed 62-day-long festival (it started on September 14th and runs through November 14th) features hundreds of food and drink choices divided up among tasting events and the more than 30 kiosks organized by country and region. There are Croissant aux Escargots from France, Pão de Queijo from Brazil, a South African Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz and many more surprisingly good items. Even if you've been to the festival before, there's something new that will engage your curious tastebuds. According to Disney, 47 percent of this year's offerings are either new or reimagined. All the marketplace items are tapas-style, which is a good and bad thing. Good because it gives one permission try and eat more. Bad because money spent can start adding up, especially the alcohol (five-ounce pours range from four to nine dollars). If you are willing to spend more, there are also food demos, seminars, classes and special events. Plus, one can't forget the "Eat to the Beat" concert series, which, for all you children of the '90s featured both Sugar Ray and Hanson (Swingers fans will be happy to know that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is still to come).
According to WDW Magazine (that's Walt Disney World Magazine), the festival began in 1995 as a "way to fill the park at a slow time of the year." While it started as a month-long celebration, the festival has since grown to encompass nearly 17 percent of the calendar year. Today, at least according to Disney, it is believed to be the largest food and wine event of its kind in the world.
While many blogs and websites warn that weekend crowds can be unmanageable, it was relatively relaxing going on a mid-October Tuesday. Lines were short enough that neither my stomach nor my mouth growled. Sure, there were screaming kids, but their cries were mostly drowned out by retirees loudly enjoying their Mexican tequila. The food from the stands came out quickly, hot and usually correct. Even when our orders were not completely accurate, Disney "cast members" not only rectified the mistake but gave us something extra like another pierogi here or Quesito there. Despite needing to serve over 225,000,000 helpings (last year's statistic) of nearly 70 different dishes, the food exceeded expectations. Highlights for me included the Pescado con Coco from the new Islands of the Caribbean stand, France's Crème Brûlée Caramel Chocolat and the previously-mentioned venison loin from New Zealand.
The alcohol choices were also plentiful and stuck to the global theme (all offerings came from their country of origin with nary a Bud Light in sight), but there are always pretty good alcohol options at Epcot on a normal day. Honestly, the food felt more special than the beverage choices (though, there was a great selection of Florida craft beer).
As with everything with Disney, they did go all out with the festival. There are numerous high-priced tasting events, a fireworks show every night and, of course, Disney merchandise. Overall, the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival does still feel like a way to fill to the park between peak summer season and the holidays. Nonetheless, it's well-done. There are a few things more enjoyable than biting into a Lefse (served up by an actual Norwegian thanks to Disney's Cultural Representative Program), swigging a German Radeberger Zwickel and taking a magical, tipsy journey to see the purple winged dragon known as Figment.