When the ropes across the entrance to World Showcase dropped one recent morning, Joseph and Teresa Dey headed to Belgium for breakfast — one Belgian waffle topped with warm chocolate ganache, one with berry compote — then to Morocco for mimosas.
It was the New Jersey couple’s second day at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, and they were taking it slow, a lesson they had learned the night before when they had noshed at Scotland and Puerto Rico and still kept going. “We got full after, like, four stands, so today we’re pacing ourselves,” Teresa Dey said.
For 53 days, through Nov. 10, kiosks circling the lagoon at Epcot are selling small servings of food inspired by the cuisines of about 25 countries and prepared by Disney’s culinary staff. Each country also offers its wine, beer and other beverages.
About 100 dishes are available, most in the $3.50-$5.50 range (a few cost a little more), an opportunity for guests to sample something new for not much money. For the Deys, returning festival-goers, it is a happy mix of old and new, a chance to be adventurous on a small scale.
“There are favorites that we come back for and things to try that we wouldn’t buy a whole plate of,” Joseph Dey said.
Kathy and Bob Bonanno, who live near Houston, said they plan their vacation around the festival and have been there for most of its 19 years. “We go out of our way to find our favorites, but we like to try the new stuff,” Kathy Bonanno said.
In recent years, says Jens Dahlmann, Epcot’s executive chef, “guests have become more and more adventurous, and we have pushed the envelope a little more, brought up the level of flavor and spice. We don’t dumb it down any more.”
This year, about a third of the offerings are new. Some are trendy, some are comfort food and some are adapted from exotic recipes, but none is truly exotic. The tuna poke (Hawaii) with seaweed salad is a simplified version of the traditional dish, but the lotus chips that accompany it may be the most exotic ingredient at the festival. Vegetarian haggis (Scotland), usually made with sheep offal and oatmeal, may be the most unusual. The bobotie (South Africa), a meatloaf-like dish of lamb or beef, is made with turkey and mushrooms.
“I don’t like to say I follow trends necessarily,” Dahlmann said. “Over the past couple years, we just have been focusing on wholesome food and fresh ingredients. No molecular gastronomy.”
Among the festival favorites that returned this year: cheddar cheese soup (Canada), Kahlua pork sliders (Hawaii) and lobster and seafood fisherman’s pie (Ireland). New are the “farm-fresh” marketplace, Patagonia (Argentina and Chile) and Puerto Rico, brought back after an absence of several years and a bigger hit than expected, Dahlmann said.
The 2014 festival is the 19th, and it is full of special dinners, wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, street parties with tastings, talks and book-signings by celebrity chefs — the ingredients of a foodie’s paradise.
But paradise comes with a price. Park admission is $94 and includes the usual rides and attractions. On top of that, for example, a dinner of Walt Disney favorites starts at $99, a two-hour foodie “boot camp” is $119, a truffle lover’s dinner with wine $295. At $15, culinary demonstrations are a bargain; they come with a sample of food and a small glass of wine.
The food and wine festival began as an effort to attract people who aren’t theme-park fans — and it has succeeded, said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider.
Although Walt Disney World, like other theme parks, doesn’t make its attendance figures public, “Epcot is packed during [the festival] and it didn’t used to be packed in September and October,” Niles said. “It’s a challenge to keep it fresh every year, but look at the crowds they get.”
Kevin Dundon, master chef at Raglan Road restaurant at Downtown Disney, said people are drawn in part by the prospect of trying something new, but they still love their comfort foods.
“It is a huge influx of foodie people,” said Dundon, who made seared duck breast at two of the festival’s cooking demonstrations. “They leave home saying ‘I want to challenge my palate,’ but when they get here, if I had baked macaroni and cheese, it would be the longest line.”
Epcot International Food & Wine Festival
When: Daily through Nov. 10, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. most days
Where: Epcot at Walt Disney World, 200 Epcot Center Dr., Lake Buena Vista
Cost: One-day admission $94 age 10 and over, $88 ages 3 to 9; see website for multi-day, multi-park and annual passes. Additional costs for food, beverages and special events.
What to eat
I sampled only a fraction of the dishes available, but these were my favorites:
Potato and leek waffle with beer-braised beef (Belgium): Essentially beef stew on a savory waffle that absorbs the gravy without disintegrating. Comfort food. Delicious.
Kimchi dog with spicy mustard sauce (South Korea): I’m usually not a fan of hotdogs, but the kimchi slaw and spicy mustard sauce dressed this one up and gave it a kick. It would be a hit at Marlins Park.
Lemongrass chicken curry with coconut and jasmine rice (Singapore): Excellent sauce, spicy without being mouth-searing.
Tuna poke with seaweed salad and lotus root chips (Hawaii): Cubes of raw tuna over a vinegary, spicy seaweed salad. Two fried lotus chips add more exotic look than flavor.
Roasted salmon with quinoa salad and arugula chimichurri (Patagonia): The salmon by itself is ordinary, but the quinoa salad and chimichurri are what make it special, adding a nice combination of texture and flavor.
NOT WORTH THE CALORIES
Griddled Greek cheese with pistachios and honey (Greece): Oil oozes from the melted cheese, an unwanted reminder of how high in fat it is. The pistachios and honey don’t add much.
Vegetarian haggis with rutabaga and mashed potatoes (Scotland): The haggis had an interesting taste and texture (think of when you stand in front of a piece of art you don’t understand and say “hmmm, interesting”) but the mashed vegetables were bland and barely lukewarm.