17 reasons to sink your teeth into Epcot’s 2012 International Food and Wine Festival

UPDATE: Our 2012 review
Disney raises the bar for cocktails, decadent dishes and desserts

The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, now in its 17th year, offers much more than the opportunity to eat and drink your way around the Disney theme park’s World Showcase promenade at some 30 food and beverage marketplaces. That’s the highlight, of course, but devotees have long known about the special events and distinctive touches that make a trip to Epcot a must-do every fall for foodies and Disneyphiles alike.

2012 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

The appetizer-sized portions at the marketplace booths are priced in the $4-$8 range, while drinks are $3-$6. The festival is included in the daily Epcot admission price, but most of the special events cost extra and tickets must be reserved in advance. Go to EpcotFoodFestival.com for more info. Click here to see menus and photos from all the participating marketplaces.

Spanning a record 46 days, from Sept. 28 through Nov. 12, this year’s festival will continue a recent trend toward a bigger and better event as guests become ever more demanding of what they expect from craft food and beverages. Beer and cocktails have a higher profile, and the event is also thriving on its association with celebrity chefs and the growing foodie culture in general. As a fan of television’s Food Network and other culinary programming, I have to count myself among that group.

Last year, The Atomic Grog’s experience at the festival was enjoyable beyond expectations. [Click here for the review] Look for even more extensive coverage in 2012. In preparation, here’s a list of 17 things that make this year’s International Food and Wine Festival distinctive and worth looking forward to.

The Caribbean marketplace returns for a second year in 2012

The Caribbean marketplace returns for a second year in 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2011)

* The return of the Hawaii and Caribbean marketplaces. Introduced in 2011, these booths were a smash success and I’m thrilled that they’re back in 2012. The exotic food and drink selections will include Hawaii’s Kalua Pork Slider and Seven Tiki Mai Tai, and the Caribbean’s Jerk Spiced Chicken and Bacardi Frozen Dragon Berry Colada. After an appearance at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival in the spring, there were hopes that the Haiti booth that included Rhum Barbancourt would be added this year. At the least, it’s an encouraging sign that Disney’s food and beverage execs understand the appeal of the many treats from the tropics.

* The new Florida marketplace. Though dominated by the countries that have made up the bulk of the long-standing booths for the past 17 years (Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa), the promenade has lately branched into regions and even states (see Caribbean and Hawaii). This year, Florida joins the party. I’ll be beaming with home-state pride as I sample the corn arepa, shrimp ceviche, and the Florida Beer Company’s Florida Lager and Key West Southernmost Wheat.

* Something special for vegetarians. The other new marketplace introduced this year recognizes the growing interest in veggie creations by Disney’s chefs. There have always been vegetarian items scattered throughout the promenade (and they’re clearly marked on the menu boards), but Terra is the festival’s first all-vegan booth. I expect the curry and chili offerings to be on par with one of last year’s best items, the vegetarian Bunny Chow from South Africa. There will also be vegan wines, a berry smoothie, and the intriguing Chocolate Cake with Passion Fruit Sorbet and Coconut Foam. It’s good to see the festival embracing guests with special diets, yet not skimping on the flavor. In fact, I’d expect these to be even more flavorful than some of the meat items.

A grilled lamb chop will be offered in the Australia marketplace booth

A grilled lamb chop will be offered in the Australia marketplace booth. (Disney photo)

* It’s a carnivore’s paradise. While strides have been made to appeal to a broad base of diners, the Food and Wine Festival is undoubtedly geared toward lovers of beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and a wide array of seafood (tuna, shrimp, lobster, mussels, scallops, salmon, mahi mahi, etc.). You’ll find your favorites grilled, baked, stir-fried, steamed and in sushi rolls. Argentina’s beef empanada, Australia’s grilled lamb chop, France’s escargots, Hops & Barley’s lobster roll, and Ireland’s fisherman’s pie are annual favorites. And because of the small sample sizes, you can indulge with a bit less guilt.

* Indulge your sweet tooth. Speaking of smaller portions and less guilt, remember those words as you survey the wide range of dessert choices. There are so many, in fact, that you could turn the festival into a dessert crawl if you so desire. Last year, we enjoyed Italy’s chocolate cannoli and Germany’s apple strudel. Among the other sweet temptations on the 2012 menus are waffles and/or chocolate in Belgium, créme brûlée in France, and chocolate lava cake in Ireland. If that’s not enough, park yourself at the Desserts & Champagne marketplace, which will offer such treats as dark chocolate mousse and lemon custard along with an assortment of Champagnes from Moët and sweet frozen drinks for the kids from Nesquik.

* The menu at the Canada booth. While many of the marketplaces take some of their offerings from the restaurants in Epcot’s World Showcase pavilions, Canada has upped the ante this year. In addition to one of the festival’s all-time favorite dishes, Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup, the chefs from north of the border are adding one of the signature items from the pavilion’s Le Cellier Steakhouse: Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce. Canada’s third dish is another festival staple, Chicken Chipotle Sausage with Sweet Corn Polenta. The highly regarded and intimate Le Cellier can be pricey, and reservations are extremely hard to come by. This booth will give more people an opportunity to sample the restaurant’s bill of fare.

Cheese Fondue and Sourdough Bread, a featured dish at the Cheese marketplace

Cheese Fondue and Sourdough Bread, a featured dish at the Cheese marketplace. (Disney photo)

* The cheese and wine booth. Wine is part of the festival’s name, after all, and you shouldn’t miss out on some of the fine bottles from across the globe available for sampling. One of the best places to do this without busting your budget is the cheese booth that was introduced in 2010. Pairing with cheese is one of my favorite ways to enjoy wine, and there’s a decent selection of both at this marketplace. The cheeses will be a fondue and a trio featuring cheddar, goat brie and blue. Wines will include four from the Sterling Vintner’s Collection.

* Food and drink pairings. With so many wine, beer and cocktail choices, it can be daunting to figure out the perfect drink to complement the food. My advice: Don’t sweat it. Stay within the menu of each booth and you can’t go wrong. And the Disney cast members working each booth can be very helpful in steering you in the right direction if you explain your tastes. If you’re feeling more adventurous, mix and match from different booths, or hit one of the beer/wine areas to find the perfect pairing. But do yourself a favor and go outside your comfort zone. The right beverage can elevate the food to another level.

* The craft beer booths. Though the selection on the food menus can be conservative, there are many beer choices besides those booths. Look for the distinct beer marketplaces offering a wide selection of samples that encourage you to try new flavors. While the Craft Beers booth contains some familiar names (Red Hook, Blue Moon, Full Sail, Sierra Nevada), the Brewer’s Collection selection is a bit more eclectic (Altenmünster, Schöfferhofer, Sion Kölsch). Fans of Samuel Adams will enjoy the third beer booth, Hops & Barley, which will offer seven of that label’s best brews, including the official 17th anniversary festival beer, a chocolate bock.

A mixology seminar at the 2011 festival

A mixology seminar at the 2011 festival. (Disney photo)

* The ever-improving cocktails. Recent years have seen a noticeable step up in the quantity and quality of the drinks offered at the festival, which peaked last year with many new selections plus the first-ever cocktail seminars. Most of last year’s items are back, including the exotic Xanté. You can find this Swedish liqueur made of pear-infused cognac in the Scandinavia booth, both on the rocks and in the Xanté Sunshine cocktail. The gin-based Singapore Sling (in Singapore, of course) is also highly recommended, perhaps the stiffest drink you’ll find outside of the World Showcase bars. There are also the aforementioned rum cocktails in Hawaii and the Caribbean, plus China (vodka and rum), France (vodka with Grand Marnier), Italy (limoncello with grappa), Japan (sake), Mexico (tequila), Morocco (orange liqueur and Champagne), and Poland (vodka). On the downside, all the drinks are still pre-made and lack the freshness of a creatively mixed cocktail. Perhaps a craft cocktail booth featuring live mixologists is on the horizon.

* The chefs and other celebrities. More than 270 chefs, from Disney restaurants to Food Network prime-time shows, will be conducting culinary demos and hosting dinners and tastings. Many famous names in the culinary world – Cat Cora, Robert Irvine, Andrew Zimmern, Jamie Deen, Buddy Valastro, Bethenny Frankel, Bryan Voltaggio, Jacques Torres – will be participating. Some are more accessible than others, but you’ll be surprised at how many meet-and-greet opportunities there are. Authors, personalities and winemakers will also hold free signings.
Schedules: Free events | Low-cost culinary demos | Premium special events

Final preparations are made for a wine seminar in October 2011

Final preparations are made for a wine seminar in October 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* Low-priced cocktail and beverage seminars. Some of the best deals at the festival are the daily demos in the Welcome Center, priced at $11 to $14. Led by beverage experts, the seminars last around 45 minutes and include lots of tips and tastings. Culinary and beverage seminars have long been part of the festival, but the mixology seminars were added just last year. Mixologists from top brands such as Bacardi, Cointreau and Mount Gay will demonstrate the art of mixing new and classic cocktails daily at 6 p.m. In addition to a wine seminar, we’re hoping to catch South Florida’s Freddy Diaz present a Cherry Heering and Xanté cocktail demo in October. Diaz is president of AlambiQ Mixology, a Miami-based consulting firm, and has worked with some of the world’s leading brands, corporations, and spirits suppliers. (Diaz was also one of The Atomic Grog’s opponents in the memorable Zombie Jamboree throwdown at The Mai-Kai during the 2011 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival.) Full schedules: Beverage seminars | Mixology seminars

* The premium special events. If you have a bit more disposable cash, consider some of the many “Special Culinary and Beverage Programs.” They include winemakers, guest chefs, and speakers participating in elegant dinners, luncheons, seminars and wine schools. The weekly Party for the Senses ($145-$270) includes Disney and celebrity chefs preparing all the food and drink you can consume, plus entertainment by Cirque de Soleil. New for 2012 is the weekly Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tour ($90), which offers a private guided tour with chefs of select World Showcase marketplaces and includes 10 food and drink items. Other special events are dedicated to cheese, chocolate, Grand Marnier, and much more. There also is the third annual Swan and Dolphin Food & Wine Classic, held just outside Epcot at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resort on Friday, Oct. 12, and Saturday, Oct. 13. This mini fest features beverage seminars, tasting stations and live music.

A view of the Mexico (left), Norway and China pavilions

A view of the Mexico (left), Norway and China pavilions. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2011)

* The shops, culture and architecture of the pavilions. While you’re meandering around the 1.2-mile promenade that encircles the 40-acre World Showcase Lagoon, there’s much to do besides eat and drink. The 11 countries represented with pavilions provide the perfect setting. All feature spot-on replicas of icons such as the Eiffel Tower (France) and Doge’s Palace (Italy). Look closer and you’ll find educational and entertaining 360-degree Circle-Vision films (Canada and China), kitschy boat rides (Norway and Mexico), and the America pavilion’s ambitious film and audio-animatronic show, The American Adventure. If you haven’t had your fill at the booths, there are dozens of restaurants, and all the countries have retail stores that stock imported and authentic merchandise difficult to find elsewhere, at least on this grand a scale.

La Cava del Tequila is a cool and dark getaway in the Mexico pavilion

La Cava del Tequila is a cool and dark getaway in the Mexico pavilion. (Photo by Susan Hayward, December 2011)

* The bars in the World Showcase pavilions. If you feel the need to escape the heat or crowds of the promenade, there’s no better place than the dark and cozy bars that operate year-round in some of the pavilions. The Rose & Crown Pub in the United Kingdom, Tutto Gusto Wine Cellar in Italy, and La Cava del Tequila in Mexico are always welcome escapes. During the Food and Wine festival, they could be considered overkill, but they come in handy at peak times and during the evening hours after the booths shut down. In addition, Tutto Gusto will host new Italian food and wine luncheons. And in Mexico’s La Hacienda de San Angel restaurant, tequila lunches are back for a second year. Check the special events schedule.

* The cast members. Part of the charm of the World Showcase pavilions are the workers who serve the public as wait staff, cashiers and in other positions. Of course, at Disney World, all employees are known as “cast members.” But in World Showcase, these workers aren’t playing roles. Most pavilion cast members are natives, and they lend an additional level of authenticity and expertise to the Epcot experience. During the Food and Wine Festival, cast members who work the booths are also the real deal. And they’re also trained in the Disney way of service, which means they’re courteous, friendly and helpful.

The Festival Welcome Center's wine shop will offer hundreds of wines are for sale, plus free samplings four times a day

The Festival Welcome Center's wine shop will offer hundreds of wines are for sale, plus free samplings four times a day. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2011)

* Shopping in the Festival Center. More than 300 national and international wines are featured at the festival, and many are available for purchase at the Festival Welcome Center. Located in the Future World East section of Epcot, separate from the World Showcase marketplaces, the center serves as the festival’s shopping district in addition to home of many of the seminars. Stores also sell liquors featured at the festival, plus lots of food-related items, kitchenware, cookbooks, artwork and souvenirs. New products are on display, and if you time your trip to the Festival Center correctly, you could enjoy a free sampling of wine or food. Also be sure to pick up a map and “passport,” which doubles as a guide to all the marketplace menus. Have your passport stamped at the booths as you make your way around the world. The Festival Center’s information desk can also come in handy if you have any questions.

More you need to know

The festival includes free daily concerts from classic rock and retro bands including Smash Mouth, Blues Traveler, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Your paid admission to Epcot also gives you access to all the futuristic attractions in the 300-acre theme park, such as Spaceship Earth, Soarin’ and Mission: Space. And don’t miss the The Seas with Nemo & Friends pavilion, featuring a massive aquarium that holds one of the largest man-made ocean environments in the world. Be sure to end your evening with “IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth,” the acclaimed nightly fireworks spectacular on World Showcase Lagoon.

"IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth" is a spectacular fireworks show held nightly on the World Showcase Lagoon since 2001

"IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth" is a spectacular fireworks show held nightly on the World Showcase Lagoon since 2001. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2009)

One-day park passes are $89 for non-Florida residents, but there are discounts for Floridians and AAA members. More savings are possible via multi-day and multi-park passes. For Florida residents, the best deal is a $289 seasonal pass from AAA, which buys unlimited access to all the Disney World parks for one year, except for blackout dates during the summer and holidays. No Food and Wine Festival dates are blacked out, so you’ll have ample opportunity for multiple culinary trips around the world. Check MouseSavers.com for tons of other discounts and special codes.

Official sites: EpcotFoodFestival.com | Facebook page | Epcot | Walt Disney World
Updates from the Disney Parks Blog

Fan sites, reviews: The Disney Food Blog | Disney Tourist Blog | WDWInfo.com
WDWMagic.com | Illuminating Epcot | Eating (and Drinking) around the World
Facebook: Epcot Food and Wine Festival Fans | Yelp event page

2011 Atomic Grog coverage
Cocktails come of age at Epcot Food and Wine Festival
Related: More recent posts on Disney World

About Hurricane Hayward

A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and reto culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
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