Every year, throngs of guests crowd the back half of Epcot. Here at the World Showcase, they celebrate one of the best ideas in the history of Walt Disney World.
During the mid-1990s, Disney park planners solved one of their most glaring problems. The post-summer dead zone of the fall was always a time when Disney theme park attendance dwindled. Open to new ideas, The Walt Disney Company noticed that a local wine tasting in Orlando was doing boffo business at precisely the time when Disney struggled.
As a way to counteract their problem, Disney co-opted the idea when they introduced the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. It quickly became one of the most popular months on the tourist calendar, which explains why it continues to expand in length. More importantly to our readers, the festival proved ideal as an offseason vacation option for members of the Disney Vacation Club. Only a few years after the invention of DVC, Disney accidentally provided an ideal complement with the International Food and Wine Festival. At the time, the DVC points chart heavily leaned toward summer and holidays while an October stay cost little. As frequent guests to Walt Disney World, DVC members discovered that they could take their time and savor all the bite-sized treasures at the back of Epcot.
In 2016, the exhibition lasts a record-setting 62 days, although I’m not being bold when I predict that this record won’t last long. Having just attended the event, I can say with confidence that the voracious appetite park guests have for increased in correlation with the increased duration of the event. If Disney adds six more days next year, DVC members will devour all of those additional opportunities at great food, drinks, and fun, too. The Food & Wine Festival event has become a true phenomenon, and here’s my review of the 2016 event.
These pop-up restaurants are the end-all, be-all of the International Food & Wine Festival. When you visit Epcot during the fall, you should do so primarily because of them. These are the inimitable culinary experiences that offer all guests a taste of the entire world. Disney offers more than 30 booths in 2016, and you’ll face a line at all of them. My party was amazed by how consistently popular these things are at all times, day and night.
What follows are some anecdotal thoughts about the various offerings. I want to note something in advance: my wife has a sophisticated palate and is quite the foodie. On the other hand, the typical three-year-old child probably has a more sophisticated palate than myself. I rarely try anything new, which is why the exhibition is so strange for me. I tried fifteen new foods this trip, which is basically an entire year for me. Meanwhile, my wife took full advantage of the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan to sample everything she could. Since all food and flavor discussions are in the eye (mouth?) of the beholder, keep in mind that you might have an entirely different experience. That’s why I’m going to tend toward descriptions of which lines were most crowded. My opinion is utterly trivial compared to that of the masses.
The Chocolate Studio, located on the walk from Future World to the World Showcase, is a crowd pleaser. I mean the visual aesthetic as much as the flavors. This area attracts a lot of onlookers and not just because it’s the first thing they see on the way to the international pavilions. It’s more because the first thing they see is a sign that has the word chocolate in it. Right beside it is the phrase “chocolate wine”. That’s an attention-grabber for the ages.
The chocolate at this building is every bit as good as advertised. Disney wouldn’t risk having its first booth disappoint customers, so they’ve stacked the deck. In fact, the Culinary Director at Epcot, Gregg Hannon, brags that the Liquid Nitro Chocolate is, “the most uniquely prepared menu item” Epcot’s ever served. And it tastes like liquid joy. The Chocolate Studio also serves a chocolate raspberry torte that would highlight any dessert menu in Orlando were it not for the existence of Liquid Nitro Chocolate. While it falls behind the other two options, the hard soda root beer float with vanilla ice cream is also divine.
During our many walks through the length of the World Showcase, we noted that the most consistently popular booth is nearby. That’s Islands of the Caribbean. I’m only partially exaggerating when I say that the only comparable line at the World Showcase was for Frozen Ever After. Their dishes run the gamut from fish to beef to pork. I was a big fan of the mojo pork and Jamaican beef patty. The star of the booth, the one that kept the line dozens of people long, was a puff pastry with a cream cheese and guava sauce. They call it Quesito, and you’ll want some.
One of my favorites was a dish I’d always wanted to try. In my current residence, Korean BBQ isn’t readily available. I was thankful that the South Korean stand offered multiple iterations. I eschewed the vegetarian version and went straight for BBQ beef with steamed rice and cucumber kimchi. As someone who can’t stand spicy foods, I was thrilled that it’s mild yet flavorful. I’m now a fan of Korean BBQ. Their Bohae Bokbunjajoo Raspberry Wine is also full of win.
The Farm Fresh counter provided my wife’s favorite bit. They offer the ultimate comfort full with the aptly named Loaded Mac ‘n’ Cheese with Nueske’s® Pepper Bacon and Cheddar Cheese. Yes, it’s Mac and Cheese with bacon. College students across the country just started salivating and don’t know why. Farm Fresh also has some chicken and dumplings that are divine. To our surprise, this booth wasn’t very popular, which made us want to walk people over to it so that they wouldn’t miss out.
The Greece booth maintained a steady stream of traffic. I suspect that’s for two reasons. The first is that the chicken gyro and spanakopita have a glowing reputation among frequent returnees to the event. The second is that they unveiled their latest creation, Loaded Greek “Nachos”. They’re vegetarian and had developed a quick reputation for deliciousness by day two of the event, our first day attending.
Three of the most consistently popular booths over the years are Germany, Hawaii, and New Zealand. The popularity of the Germany pop-up is as much about the beer as the brat. Everyone loves it, but you can receive the same experience at a Milwaukee Brewers game. Hawaii has more distinctive options with pineapple wine (just as disgusting as it sounds) and a kalua pork slider so good it’ll make you weep tears of pig-flavored joy. It’s the best thing this side of bacon. For New Zealand, the lamb meatball has a sterling reputation, but we favor the seared venison loin.
We are not huge drinkers, but we noticed that the Craft Beer Marketplace always had a steady stream of visitors. Presumably, that’s because it’s indoors, a crucial advantage during the early days of the ever-growing event. Along those lines, many people know the tactic of escaping the heat by riding Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros at the Mexico Pavilion. Since Maelstrom is no longer an option, you will run into occasional waits at Three Caballeros, inevitably leading to a comment from someone that it’s the longest line queue that they’ve ever seen for the ride.
One final note: if you’re huge fans of Epcot’s Living with the Land ride as we are, you’ll share a tremendously gratifying feeling when you see stickers indicating which of their foods you’ll taste in the various dishes. Many dish components from the 2016 International Food & Wine Festival start at The Land. We rode once before heading to the expo so that we’d have a good idea about which dishes possess such ingredients. Then, we rode the Land boat again afterward to consider some of the flavors we’d enjoyed in the context of how Disney cultivates them.
Fun for the Whole Family
Have you ever wondered why Disney added Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure and Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure before that? It was a specific tactic by park planners to entertain children while their parents could appreciate a respite at the World Showcase. Hand a kid an interactive device and watch them run around the England Pavilion, trying to save the world. Meanwhile, a parent can have a pint at Rose & Crown Pub. It’s simple, sublime solution to a sticky situation. Epcot’s World Showcase skews heavily adult, but some kids are there.
During the International Food & Wine Festival, Disney adds another entertaining distraction for children. That’s the one introduced in 2015, the Remy’s Ratatouille Hide & Squeak. The premise is that everyone’s favorite health code violating chef needs ingredients to cook a perfect ratatouille. He crisscrosses the World Showcase to find them. Attentive children can track down the necessary components, showing their work with stickers, which of course aren’t free. Disney squeezes $10 out of parents as a babysitting surcharge for this, but hey! When’s the last time you only paid $10 for a babysitter? As Ratatouille fans, we had fun noticing the world’s smallest master of haute cuisine at the various pavilions. Alas, it also made us resent that Disney still hasn’t chosen to bring Ratatouille: L'Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy to Epcot. Hopefully, the overwhelming popularity of Frozen Ever After will lead to this announcement.
Eat to the Beat
The musical accompaniments for the International Food & Wine Festival began a few years after the exhibition itself. In 2002, Disney stole a Blondie album title, "Eat to the Beat", and turned it into a nightly concert event. Theme park planners don’t want the performers to overshadow the other festivities, so you won’t see Beyoncé or Katy Perry there. The same goes for Madonna or Bon Jovi or any other mega-act that has managed their money well. Instead, Disney chooses popular recording artists, generally from the 1980s and 1990s, who had enough hits that most people know them.
2016 is no exception. When I attended, the bands were Wang Chung, Starship featuring Mickey Thomas, and Air Supply. The most famous of those acts is probably Starship, although children of the 80s will get earworms if I list the most recognizable lyrics from any of them. Suffice to say that we felt like we lost the Eat to the Beat lottery when we discovered which acts would be playing during our trip. Honestly, there aren’t a lot of bands that appear at Eat to the Beat that would make you think, “Oh, we have to drop everything and go.” This year, Boyz II Men, who appear from November 7th to November 9th, are the most famous performers.
Should an act interest you, here’s what you need to know about Eat to the Beat. The concerts take place at the American Gardens Theater, which is located at the American Pavilion. That makes it relatively convenient whether you’re coming in from the back gate of the World Showcase or the entry gates at the front of Epcot. You’ll want to arrive at least thirty minutes prior to the show if you prefer a good seat, as the venue does fill up quickly.
Artists play three shows a night, and the scheduling is the same for everyone. The first performance is at 5:30, the middle one is at 6:45, and the final one starts at 8:00. These are short sets, and performers with larger music catalogues will play different songs during each show. The good news or bad news, depending on your perspective, is that you can hear the music from several pavilions away. So, if you like a performer but don’t want to sit down for that long, hang out in the area and you’ll enjoy the best of both worlds. When you don’t like an artist, that means you’ll hear about Wang Chung-ing tonight whether you want it or not.
Note that Disney recently changed their boat rides around the lake, much to the dismay of the captains, all of whom lamented the curiously short transportation journey. Currently, it only allows guests to skip one pavilion, meaning that DVC members accustomed to getting off their feet for a while on the boat are now out of luck. Hopefully, it’s a short term cost cutting move rather than a permanent change. Whatever the explanation, grumbling guests had to walk a lot more than they’d expected, which deteriorated the overall mood, at least until everybody had a few drinks in them.
Here’s the official list of 2016 performers. I virtually guarantee that no matter when you visit, you’ll get a better draw than Wang Chung, Starship, and Air Supply.
The 2016 version of the International Food & Wine Festival is the biggest yet in terms of duration. It’ll also likely set some attendance records thanks to those six extra days. As a DVC member, you have the advantage of picking your spots. You can choose when to visit the World Showcase and for how long. Use your Disney experience to maximize your trip. Also remember that it’s important to keep your spirits up since you’re going to face a lot inebriated Disney fans during your Epcot visit. The heat index was over 100 degrees every day of our vacation. We made sure to hydrate and snack to avoid the irritability that comes from being hot and hungry. Beyond that advice, having a wonderful time at the exhibition is all but assured. What’s not to love about enjoying delicious foods and potent potables at the Most Magical Place on Earth?
Disney Vacation Club member David Mumpower first visited Walt Disney World when he was six years old. The little brat promptly threw a tantrum because he couldn't find a comfortable shirt to wear around the park. Fortunately Disney shirts got a lot less itchy over the years. David current writes for a number of websites including "Theme Park Tourist", "Box Office Prophets" and "How Well Do You Know." To contact him click HERE.