EPCOT's International Food & Wine Festival is worth a visit, if you're already going

click to enlarge Standing in line -- albeit a small one -- for a New Zealand wine seminar at EPCOT's International Food & Wine Festival. - Brian Ries
Brian Ries
Standing in line -- albeit a small one -- for a New Zealand wine seminar at EPCOT's International Food & Wine Festival.

Last Sunday was the perfect day to be at a Florida theme park: temps in the low 80s, meager humidity and a nice breeze to cut the blazing sun. That, combined with the third weekend of EPCOT’s International Food & Wine Festival — including a Spyro Gyra performance — meant the 9 a.m. lines at EPCOT’s front gates were long. By mid-afternoon, the park was packed.

The weather was a worthy draw, but what about the festival?

2008 marks the 13th year of the EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival, which runs through Nov. 9. The schedule is packed with book signings, meet and greets, cooking demos, wine tastings and free concerts, with the weekends bearing the brunt of the extravaganza. In the past, big culinary lumiaries have attended the soiree to pimp their shows and products. This year, besides the bands, you'd have to call most of the talent "up and coming".

For 2008, the park moved the main exhibit area into the now defunct Human Body attraction — a bit out of the way and still bearing signs directing people to circulatory systems and injection rides. Compared to the packed exhibits in other parts of the park, the pavilion is a calm space dotted by display kitchens, the inevitable store stocked with exhibitor’s gear and a wine shop featuring all the wineries participating in the festival.

When the gates opened, many people raced to the big name rides to beat the lines — Soaring is huge, and the Test Track still draws them in — but others streamed to the festival pavilion to sign up for that day’s schedule. Most of the events are free, so just an hour or so after opening almost no spots were left. That left the rest of theday dedicated to the enduring activity that takes up most time at Disney parks: waiting in line.

Admittedly, Disney has instituted a new process at the most popular rides where you insert a ticket and essentially get a reservation for the ride an hour or two in the future. Show up at your allotted time and your wait is cut from 40 minutes to a more manageable 10 or so. And really, EPCOT has never been about the rides.

EPCOT has a fundamental problem that Disney hasn’t been able to wrangle since the park opened in 1982: How do you counteract the steady progress of time? The front half of the park is called Future World, which promises fictional technological marvels that only the minds at Disney could dream into reality. Sure, maybe, for the first couple of years. By the late-’80s, all the incredible exhibits and rides had already become horribly dated. Instead of Future World, it had become retro-Future World. They might as well have created a park based on the flying cars and transport tubes of 1950’s science-fiction art. That’s enduring.

Disney has reconciled that problem over the past decade or so by taking much of the future out of the world, relying on exhibits – like The Land, The Seas, Universe of Energy and Test Track – that are more about the now. In the process, though, the front half of the park has become a rather dry, vaguely educational museum of science and industry, punctuated by numerous dead areas that make you feel like you walked around the back of a strip mall. A very nicely landscaped strip mall.

Where EPCOT shines, sort of, is the World Showcase. That’s also where the Food and Wine Festival has added some serious value to the park. There are dozens of food stands in front of every country Disneyfied in the Showcase, each featuring a few tasty tidbits from one of the festival’s“Cities in Wonderland.” Compared to the food in EPCOT’s mainstream restaurants and food courts, these small plates are a bargain at $3-$4 a pop. The dozen or so I tried were all excellent, and each has a suggested wine or beer pairing poured right at the booth – from the city’s host country, if possible – about 3 ounces for another reasonable $3 or so. It’s the most inexpensive and tasty way to eat at any of Disney’s theme parks.

It does get a bit dicey, though, if you’re dragging kids from booth to booth. EPCOT has always been labeled an “adult” park by guide books and tourists and, on the whole, the tag fits. Choices for younger kids are limited – and honestly a bit lame – and teenagers will likely tire of the park after a few hours of the main rides. Families will need to use EPCOT largely as an adjunct to the vastly more entertaining and exciting Magic Kingdom and Disney Hollywood Studios.

For a base price $75 per person — plus all the food, drink and gear you’ll need – it’s hard to justify a family trip to EPCOT, Food & Wine Festival or no. You’d do better spending that money for an incredible meal at one of Orlando’s damn fine restaurants, like Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, or even the California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary. Of course, it’s hard to neglect the Disney allure.

When I talked to Disney Special Event Director Chris Clark about the Food and Wine Festival, she told me, “We have people who say they schedule their trip to the park around the Food and Wine Festival.” That’s about right. If you’re already planning on heading to Disney World — and EPCOT is on your itinerary — the Food and Wine Festival is the best time to do it. Plus, the weather’s great.

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