A festival goer since 1997 offers all the insider tricks
*Information updated to include 2016 festival news!
The Central Florida events calendar is a non-stop culinary frenzy this time of year with a plethora of food festivals, wine dinners, spirits tastings and gastronomic adventures, making the fall season the perfect time to visit Orlando. For us locals, it’s a chance to give the pots and pans a break. However, if you and your wallet are not so inclined to close down the kitchen completely, the “Must Do” foodie event of the fall is Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. If you’ve been, you know what an amazing overload of flavors, sights and sounds this annual event is. If you haven’t crossed it off the list, don’t wait any longer. GO #MakeSomedayHappen.
Foodies from around the globe have flocked to the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival to sample tapas-sized dishes paired with cocktails, wine or beer from more than 30 global marketplaces since 1995. From France to Mexico, Canada to China, these kiosks allow you to experience the culture through food and indulge in the flavors of the 11 countries around the World Showcase lagoon, plus additional travel destinations, like New Zealand, Brazil and Greece, which are only here during the festival, the mix of countries varies each year. You’ll also find specialty kiosks dedicated to foodie favorites like craft beers, the artistry of wine and cheese, and desserts and champagne – my favorite!
As if more than 200 dishes and 300 wines, beers and cocktails were not enough to satisfy, you can further your culinary adventure at nearly 400 special wine tastings, culinary demos, and mixology seminars hosted by top industry experts, celebrity chefs, winemakers and sommeliers. End the day working off the calories by dancing and singing along to your favorite pop bands of yesterday and a few of today at the “Eat to the Beat” concerts. Then, simply relax and enjoy the magic of the spectacular fireworks show, IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.
With so much to do, eat and drink in so little time, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. As a festival goer since 1997, I have compiled my best tips to help you enjoy the Epcot Food and Wine Festival to the max!
1. GO WITH A PLAN
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Epcot, so don’t feel like you have to eat around the entire world in one day either. It’s an admirable goal, but not the wisest.
^ Buy a multi-day pass and enjoy a leisurely stroll around the world rather than a marathon against the clock. Not only will it be a more enjoyable journey, it is also more cost-effective as multi-day passes offer better savings per day.
^ Epcot opens at 9am and the global marketplaces open at 11am. You can use this time to go on a few rides. Better yet, visit the Festival Welcome Center, located in the Future World, pick up a map and plan your day while sipping a glass of Iron Horse Fairy Tale Cuvee, a fantastic bubbly made especially for WDW you will only find on Disney property.
^ Review the marketplace menus in advance and select those dishes which intrigue you the most.
^ Review the schedule for special tastings and demos, which take place at the Festival Center, and select your “Must Do” experiences. Some are complimentary and others require tickets (usually $15pp+). Events featuring celebrity chefs will sell out in advance (tickets go on sale around end of July), however, while at the Festival Center, it doesn’t hurt to check for openings, last-minute additions and free book or wine bottle signings. The early bird gets the worm.
^ Plan your day around your “Must Eat” and “Must Do” experiences and travel around the World Showcase in order. Whether you go clockwise or counter-clock wise around the lagoon is up to you. Some say that it’s human nature to go clockwise so you can do the opposite and try to beat the crowd, if you wish. By dividing the world in half, one day go to the left towards Mexico, the other day go to the right towards Canada, and end the day in America for the nightly concerts. Whatever you do, do your best to not backtrack or you will waste precious eating and drinking time.
^ Don’t miss the Chocolate Experience:From Bean to the Bar at the Festival Center where not only will you see incredible chocolate sculptures but also get some free samples of Ghirardelli Chocolate. Anything you get for free you must take advantage of!
^ Wondering when is the best time to visit Epcot Food and Wine Festival? Weekdays are best, as weekends tend to see more locals. Crowds become heavier as the day progresses, especially after 2pm. I find it best to avoid the first week of the festival in September and prefer to visit towards the end of October and first weeks of November, when weather is cooler. Regardless of when you attend, you must expect long lines and consider it a bonus when you find a short one.
^ Walt Disney World Resort partnered with Facebook in 2015 to offer an all new Epcot Food and Wine Festival experience. Once inside the park, Facebook Place Tips will help you navigate and make the most of the festival with notifications including festival map, menus, recipes, and friends’ photos. Turn on Bluetooth, enable location for Facebook app and then watch the top of your News Feed. It’s that simple.
^ Although no passport is required to travel around the world at Epcot, pick up your free Marketplace Discovery Passport for a fun way to prove you went, you saw, you ate and you conquered this enormous food feast. Introduced in 2010, available at the Festival Center or any of the merchandise shops, it features all the marketplace menus plus a convenient festival guide. In 2016 the stamps were replaced with fun stickers (which are already in the book so you can place yourself at each marketplace and not hold up the line). Don’t forget to check off what you ordered. Your memory may get fuzzy by the end of the day after all those adult beverages.
2. GO WITH FRIENDS
The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is best for those who travel in a pack. In fact, you will often see many groups dressed in custom-made tee shirts to commemorate the occasion, as if wearing a team uniform. Eating is a group sport after all! With so much food and drinks offered, sharing tastes is the best way to try them all. Go ahead, grab a fork and everyone dig in. Pass the mini wine glass around and take a sip. Although tasting portions are small, I have found the magic number to be 3 people per portion, for each to have a bite and sip or two. Judge based on your own eating habits, the number may be more or less for you, but again, focus on just having a bite or two of each dish so you don’t fill up too soon. If there is a dish you absolutely must have on your own, then by all means, let everyone know “hands off!”
3. GO EASY ON THE DRINKS
Pace yourself with the fun beverages. The tasting portions are typically 1 to 3oz. However, you may not make it around the world if you’re a fan of the full size beverages also available (16 to 22oz beers in Germany, margaritas in Mexico, slushy martinis in France, or wine in the tasting rooms of Italy and Germany), especially if you don’t like to share (see number 2 above). The beer, wine, sake and tequila tasting flights you will find on your journey are excellent values to try something new and great to share with 3-4 friends. Also, don’t forget to drink water. It’s easy to forget and you will pay the price the next day. Consider yourself warned.
Several Beer flights are available around the World Showcase including a marketplace dedicated to craft beers.
My favorite flights around the world include the tequila flight at La Cava del Tequila, a specialty restaurant inside the Mexico pavilion. It’s air-conditioned and a premium pour. The sake flight inside the Japan pavilion is a great way to explore this underappreciated spirit. The wine flight inside the Germany pavilion will allow you to taste more than Rieslings.
4. GO FOR COMFORT
As with any form of travel, whether in the real world or the Disney-verse, it’s important to wear the right clothing and come prepared for the elements. Comfort will guarantee enjoyment.
^ Comfortable walking shoes are a must. At the end of the day, you will have walked several miles without realizing it. Your feet will be screaming at you if you don’t wear the right shoes. Ladies, stilettos are gorgeous but please leave them at home. (Yes, I have seen this!)
^ Loose fitting clothing is the smart choice when eating copious quantities of everything from pasta to pizza, soup to noodles and desserts. I recommend no belts unless your pants are too big. Then, by all means, please belt up as it’s no longer a fashion statement.
^ Wear layers so you can enjoy the warm days and cool nights of Central Florida this time of year. Bring a light jacket or sweater if you are prone to get cold as I am convinced Disney controls the weather inside the (imaginary) park bubble. (Pure speculation on my part) It can be unbearably hot one minute and freezing the next. Come prepared or get ready to spend a pretty penny on a sweatshirt you may never wear again. Wouldn’t you rather spend that dough on more tasty bites?
^ Bring an umbrella or poncho. Rain can come out of nowhere and you don’t want to buy a Disney poncho, do you?
^ Wear sunscreen and sunglasses. A hat is a good option too. We are in Florida. It may be snowing elsewhere, but here we are under the scorching sun. Isn’t that why you come to Florida this time of year?
^ If you are a Chase debit or credit card holder, enjoy a special perk from the festival’s presenting sponsor as you chill and recharge at the Chase Lounge at American Adventure Parlor. Complimentary beverages and comfy furniture will be a welcome break in your day. For air conditioned respite from the heat, take a stroll for some market shopping and a tequila flight inside the Mexico Pavilion or enjoy the show at the American Adventure building.
5. GO ON BUDGET
It’s easy to blow your monthly budget at Epcot Food and Wine Festival. In addition to park admission, all the tasting bites and drinks, demos and premium events require an additional fee. On average, visitors will spend around $100 per person per day in tasting bites alone, not including any premium events and merchandise purchases. This can be more, or less, depending on your eating habits. The best way to plan for this and enjoy the festival is to budget a set amount per person and pre-load it to your own Disney Gift Card, available at the merchandise stores. It is also the most convenient way to pay at each kiosk as you’ll wear it as a foodie fashion statement on your wrist. The cards can be re-loaded at any of the kiosks if you want to start with a lower amount and add later. They have a new design each year, making for a fun keepsake. Any amount not spent will remain on your card to use next visit or at select Disney destinations nationwide. In 2015, a new souvenir gift card can be purchased for $200 which includes a special lanyard.
6. GO LEARN & GO PREMIUM
With all the eating and drinking involved you may forget there are plenty of learning opportunities. Get advance tickets for culinary demonstrations from over 250 chefs from around Disney and around the world and wine seminars where you can hone your smelling, swirling and sipping skills with sommeliers, winemakers and winery owners. Tickets for these must be purchased in advance. Call 407-939-3378 for reservations. Don’t forget to plan for travel time to the Festival Center, where these events are held.
For those who want to take their Epcot Food and Wine Festival experience to the next level, premium events give you the opportunity to rub elbows with chefs, winemakers and celebrities while tasting exclusive dishes and premium wines and cocktails prepared only for the event. In 2015, The Rockin’ Burger Block Party was added where as you would guess, burgers are the star of the show. The event was so popular it is on the calendar again in 2016! The festival features over 193 premium events ranging from Signature Dinners to hands on workshops, however, the iconic party to attend is Party for the Senses. The grand tasting event features over 50 stations of amazing dishes and beverages and world-class entertainment by Cirque du Soleil. Held on select weekend days, it comes at a premium price but it truly is a spectacular event and includes special seating for the Eat to the Beat Concert and viewing area for the fireworks show.
7. GO BE ENTERTAINED
Disney character sightings and street performers will keep you entertained during the day. Kids and kids at heart can join the other famous mouse, Remy from Ratatouille, in his Hide & Squeak Scavenger Hunt. New collectible pins are available. In the evening, blast to the past with musical guests guaranteed to bring back memories of crazy fashions and crazier hairstyles at the “Eat To The Beat” nightly concerts in the America Garden Theater. Get in line early and trade turns with friends as you bring back food and drinks from the surrounding kiosks or you can wait until 10 minutes before the show for any leftover seats. Popular bands perform three 30 minute shows nightly, with the last show of the night being the most popular as the stage lights shine bright. If it’s your favorite band, watch more than one show, however note you will have to leave the theater after each show.
After the last show, find a spot around the lagoon to catch the spectacular fireworks show. Keep in mind if you are under the lush trees, your view may be blocked. If you would like to sit and dine while watching the fireworks, make reservations at La Hacienda San Angel in Mexico or Rose & Crown Pub’s outdoor patio in UK. The best part, all of this entertainment is included in your park admission.
8. GO MAKE A NIGHT OF IT
Make your journey around the world at Epcot International Food and Wine Festival a true getaway – whether you’re local or an out-of-town visitor – and plan to spend the night at one of the gorgeous Disney resorts. The Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resorts, Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts and Disney’s Boardwalk Hotel are all within walking proximity located around the Disney Boardwalk, which also enjoys a special entrance to Epcot that places you between UK and France and much closer to all the food action. All other Disney hotels are either a monorail, bus or boat ride away. For the ultimate luxury, stay at The Four Seasons Resort located on Disney property. It is quite spectacular and the only five diamond resort in town. Plenty of choices in a wide budget range available and definitely worth it so you can fully enjoy yourself without the worry of driving afterwards. You may consider reserving a suite to share with friends for the ultimate experience.
9. GO BE ADVENTUROUS
With over 400 food and wine options to choose from, the Epcot Food and Wine Festival is the perfect place to explore international cuisine. Go ahead, be adventurous, try something new. How about trying Haggis in Scotland, escargot in France or ? After all, the food is being prepared by the world-class Disney chefs, so unlike some dishes you may try on the streets around the real world, here at Disney you don’t have to wonder if it’s mystery meat you’re eating. The only thing you have to worry about is whether your taste buds will enjoy it or not. You may find a new favorite and if not, then consider the $2-$8 spent as an investment in your gastronomic education.
If you’re not sure what to order, the featured food and beverage pairing selection listed on the menu board at each kiosk is a great place to start. The mix of marketplaces changes each year and you will find new dishes together with all-time favorites. Be sure to try a mix of both.
I had the opportunity to attend a taping of ABC’s The Chew, which filmed on location for the first time during the Epcot Food and Wine Festival 2015. Check out all the behind the scenes shenanigans as well as some favorite dishes and more from celebrity chefs Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Carla Hall and Clinton Kelly in this post here. It was so much fun, they will return again in 2016!
The number of Disney fans who make a routine pilgrimage each year to the church of Food & Wine at Epcot is in the millions. My foodie friends, if you are one of them, I would love to hear your tips for getting the most out of this world-class event. What tip would you make #10 on the list? Please share in the comments below.
I hope you GO enjoy and take part in one of the best and most extensive food festivals in the world.