I don’t often say this, but you almost have to feel sorry for Disney. (Seriously, stop laughing.) Think about it: All summer long, while Mouse managers were struggling mightily (along with the rest of the travel industry) to maintain profit margins, competitors at Universal were bucking economic trends with a blockbuster boy wizard. While worldwide media attention – and an accompanying flood of Muggle money – was focused on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the best Mickey could muster was Summer Nightastic; the only remaining element of that anemic promotional campaign is the resurrected Electrical Parade. (The less said about the thankfully temporary defacement of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios the better.)
Then, just as the Potter-frenzy began cooling off with the weather and the end of the summer travel season sent theme park admissions into the gutter, Universal bounced back, beating the drum for Halloween Horror Nights. Sure, Disney started up its Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, but they split the kiddie-friendly market with SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular and a dozen other cheaper community-based options. Despite recurring rumors of a teen-oriented fright fest at one of the Disney parks, that lucrative scare-seeking demographic has been left almost entirely to Universal for 20 years, with any spillover being scooped up by Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa.
So Disney has spent nearly six months watching the neighbors eat their lunch and making guests pay to lose theirs. Mickey’s got nothing new on the near horizon beyond some dubious next-gen interactive queue entertainment set to quietly debut at the Magic Kingdom’s Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Haunted Mansion rides. But don’t weep for the rat quite yet. The Mouse has a way back into your heart and the path leads straight through your stomach. Only instead of tearing your viscera out through your rib cage like they do a short ride up I-4, Walt Disney World will slyly siphon your lifeblood out of your wallet via your gullet. The name of Disney’s delicious but draining display of decadence? The 15th annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival.
I’ve been covering this annual six-week alimentary orgy for a number of years, so longtime readers already know the drill: Stagger around Epcot’s World Showcase lagoon sampling as many amuse-bouche bites and beverages as your Visa and liver can handle, then try not to pass out in a reflecting pool before the fireworks. There are 27 sample-serving stands scattered around the theme park, including a brand-new hop haven featuring “15 Beers for 15 Years,” and booths from the never-before-featured nations Belgium and South Korea. This year’s festival is largely the same but even larger, which is never a bad thing when we’re talking about my favorite event on Disney’s seasonal calendar.
In past years, I’ve reported bite-by-bite reviews of nearly every edible offering. This time I saved those details for tweets (twitter.com/skubersky). Instead, I’ve distilled my hard-earned (more than $80 spent at last count) learning into five top tips for making your food and wine experience more appetizing.
• Avoid weekends While this is a slack season for tourism, Epcot’s local Food & Wine fan base packs the park on Saturday and Sunday. Unless you like waiting 20 minutes in line to buy two bites, visit midweek.
• Pick up a passport Stop by the Festival Center in Future World (formerly the Wonders of Life pavilion) for a Marketplace Discovery Passport, which you can get stamped at each food booth. It’s a rare freebie and a handy way to remember what you drank (a necessity by the end).
• Get a gift card Disney offers a Food & Wine-themed rechargeable mini-gift card that you can wear around your wrist. I was skeptical but found it to be a lifesaver. Not only does it help you budget by holding only as much money as you wish to spend (I suggest starting with $50), but it saves time and tendonitis from repeatedly whipping out your wallet. Just makes sure you use it up or save it for next year, because you can’t cash out.
• Stick with simple You’re never going to try everything, so go for the unusual – you can get ravioli and tuna rolls anytime. Beware of elaborate ingredients, especially shellfish: the Irish lobster stew (a favorite from last year) was disappointing, and my Belgian mussels (in delicious garlic cream sauce) were cold and closed. The two best things I tried were the simplest: an American heirloom tomato with blue cheese and onions, and a charcuterie plate of cured meat and pickles.
• Take a break Drinking around Epcot’s world is hard work, so get off your feet and out of the heat before you end up in the emergency room. Pace is everything and you can earn yourself some time for digestion by seeing the film in France or the show at American Adventure; both offer a cool place to recharge. No worries if you can’t stay awake and slip into a food coma – you won’t be the first.