Last weekend I was fortunate enough to indulge in Disney’s International Food and Wine Festival at EPCOT Center. This marks the 14th year of an event that promises the chance to eat and drink your way around the world without ever having to break out your passport.
After attending this event for the past few years, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a majority of the regional menus had changed (after being exactly the same for the past few go-arounds) and that they’d added a few new cuisines, now up to 25 different international marketplaces. There were also more culinary classes and wine tastings to attend this year, many involving well-known food and wine celebrities like Iron Chef Cat Cora (who has a new restaurant, Kouzzina, that just opened at Disney’s Boardwalk), Andrew Zimmern (host of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel), the Deen Brothers (yes, Paula’s boys) and lying TV chef Robert Irvine.
You’re probably thinking: “Why would I spend about 80 bucks for a ticket to get in, and then have to spend more money on food and booze?” First, you’d end up doing it anyway. And second, you get to taste a lot more for a lot less. For a few dollars each, you can sample over 70 small gourmet dishes instead of shelling out big bucks for just one plate at one of Orlando’s over-priced restaurants.
As I mentioned before, the menus have been revamped at most of the booths. Some of my favorite additions: the rice and lentil crepe with potato and onion filling in India — surprisingly spicy with a great curry and cardamom flavor; the green papaya salad with shrimp in Thailand — very cool and refreshing, with shrimp that were marinated in lemongrass, lime juice, soy and chili sauces; and the cabernet-braised shortribs enveloped in a mashed potato shell in France. I also hear that the chocolate lava cake in Ireland is phenomenal and, from past experience, I know that Greece serves up some killer baklava.
As always, EPCOT offers a great variety of offerings from renowned winemakers from around the world, but they also offer beer and cocktails, all themed to the booths. This year there’s not only the Sam Adams stand, with nine different brews on draft, but also the Beer Hop and the Brewer’s Collection booths, which feature top-notch beers from around the globe. I also recommend the Cosmo Slush and frozen Grand Marnier in France, the Royale Tangerine Mimosa in Morocco and the frozen caipirinha in Brazil — a nice mix of sweet and sour, extremely refreshing in this Florida heat.
If you’re interested in attending some of the culinary programs, check out the festival website. New this year are “Culinary Adventures in Signature Dining” and “Celebrating Family and Friends in the Kitchen,” as well as the tequila tastings at the brand new La Cava del Tequila bar in Mexico. I recommend the “History of Beer in America” seminar and “Taste of Puglia, Italy,” both of which are free and first-come, first-served. There’s also an Eat to the Beat! concert series, which is also free, featuring throwback acts like Starship, En Vogue, Kool & the Gang and Boyz II Men.
The festival runs into November, so you may want to attend during the final weeks — so it’s not unbearably hot like it is in Orlando right now — and stick to weekdays to avoid big crowds. Of course, Disney tends to stack the big-name events on Saturday and Sunday, so check the schedule. Also, if you’re a Florida resident you can get discounted tickets if you purchase online through Disney’s website, www.disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/epcot.