Fifteen years is a pretty long time, no matter how you slice it. And that's why this year Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival is shaking things up a bit. It's the 15th anniversary of the culinary event, which takes place October 1 through November 14, 2010, all around Epcot, even branching out to several other locations around the Walt Disney World Resort.
I recently spoke to Marianne Hunnel who, as area manager for Park Event Operations, has been charged with coordinating this year's event, and asked her to share some insights, particularly as far as what's new and different.
For the first time, guests actually have a chance to get a "sneak peek" of the festival, dubbed "Delicious Discoveries" this year. The Thursday night before the official opening guests can attend the "First Bites Opening Reception" in the Festival Welcome Center. The evening will be co-hosted by pastry chef Keegan Gerhard, of TV's Food Network, and Pam Smith, a registered dietician, cookbook author and perennial host for numerous Food and Wine Festival programs.
"We're very excited at this opportunity for guests to see a preview of this year's festival offerings," Hunnel says. "We'll have culinary demos, beverage seminars, marketplace tastings, and even a special cake from Mike McCarey of Mike's Amazing Cakes. It will really set the stage for what you're going to be able to see at the festival this year."
Hunnel adds that while they are still working out the details for possible "meet and greets" with the chefs, they do plan to keep the event to under 500 guests, to make it a "really special night." But don't worry -- this preview is just that, only a "taste" of the festival. "We're not giving the whole festival away," she notes. "This is just to whet your appetite."
So once whetted, how can you satisfy your appetite? What are some of the other offerings making their debut ?
For one thing, there's the rather unusually named "Taste, Shake and Indulge Like the French", which will be held on Saturdays in October. After a Grand Marnier tasting, guests will learn a bit about mixology, then have a chance to sample crepes suzette and more in the setting of the elegant Bistro de Paris in the France pavilion.
This emphasis on spirits was also present last year, when the festival introduced tequila tastings at its Mexican location La Cava del Tequila (the program returns this year).
Hunnel notes that the festival is not only providing opportunities to sample spirits, but also beers, particularly microbrews. In fact, right at the entrance of the World Showcase Plaza will be a special experience, "15 Beers for 15 Years," which Hunnel calls a "fun selection of beers from Oregon to Florida." She notes that you'll also be able to purchase bottled versions of the brews you find especially pleasing to the palate. (The Brewer's Collection marketplace will return this year, offering a variety of German beers, such as Rudeberger Pilsner.)
Another addition to the program listing is the "3D Disney's Dessert Discovery," to be offered each week of the festival on either Thursday or Friday evening at the World Showplace.
"This evening is all about desserts," Hunnel stresses. "It's different from the Sweet Sundays program (which is again offered this year) in that you are not served a meal. There will be some action stations (where food is prepared) and there will be some showy elements, but this is really about the desserts themselves."
The evening, which includes cocktails and cordial pairings, is capped off with a VIP viewing of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. Says Hunnel, "It's a great way to end your day... or rather, embellish it!"
Historically, the Food and Wine Festival has been centered in Epcot, with the occasional program or dining experience held at a resort. This year, however, there are 15 special "signature" dining experiences, 14 of which are located outside of Epcot.
"We've had a lot of feedback from guests that they are looking for dining events during the weekdays, not just weekends," Hunnel explains. "We decided to reach out to our other restaurants, particularly those in the Downtown Disney area, to see if they'd be interested in participating."
Their efforts were clearly successful. There are signature dinners planned at Downtown Disney's Portobello, Fulton's Crab House, Raglan Road, Bongo's Cuban Café, Paradiso 37 and Wolfgang Puck's. Other non-Epcot locations offering signature dinners include Victoria and Albert's and Citricos (Grand Floridian), California Grill and The Wave (Contemporary), Flying Fish Café and Kouzzina (BoardWalk), Jiko (Animal Kingdom Lodge) and bluezoo (Walt Disney World Dolphin). In a number of cases, the celebrity chefs attached to these establishments, such as Cat Cora (Kouzzina) and Todd English (bluezoo), will be on hand.
While those signature dinners will be on the high end of the price spectrum (ranging from $125 to $450 per person), you can get a taste of what's new at the festival for a decidedly more modest cost. Amidst the returning international marketplaces located around the World Showcase Lagoon are a few ones, notably booths representing South Korea and Belgium.
"We've tried to keep everything as traditional as possible for these countries," Hunnel explains. "We're even bringing special beverages from South Korea that are indigenous to the area -- a black raspberry rice wine called "bokbunja joo" and honey ginger tea -- to go along with the BBQ short rib and lettuce wraps that will be available."
The Belgium booth, too, will feature specialties of the region not found at Epcot before. The kiosk for the small country, home to world-famous Godiva chocolate, will feature a special Godiva iced coffee, along with steamed mussels, and waffles with a berry compote (but not all mixed together!).
The festival would not be complete without its popular Eat to the Beat concert series, which features bands performing nightly at the America Gardens Theatre. There are a number of performers new to the festival schedule this year, including Howard Jones, Rick Springfield, Air Supply and Hanson, along with popular returning acts Starship featuring Mickey Thomas and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (I saw them last year -- don't miss them!). And of course every Saturday night will see what Hunnel terms the festival's "pinnacle event," the tasting extravaganza known as Party for the Senses.
Last year's Party for the Senses evenings sported a different theme each week, a concept that has been abandoned this year. Instead, guest chefs will be "providing the flavors they want to create," Hunnel says. "If they have a specialty or something in particular they want to do, they'll be doing that." In addition, performers from Cirque du Soleil will be joining in the Party for the Senses again, after a several year absence.
When you add what's new to what's returning -- Food and Wine Pairings, Wine Schools, French Regional Lunches, Cheese Tastings, Tequila Tastings, Culinary Demos, Wine Seminars, and more -- this 15th anniversary festival shapes up to be 45 delicious days.
"It's so exciting to see how this festival gets bigger and bigger every year," Hunnel concludes. "We have something for everyone, whether you're novice or epicurean. I think everyone finds our festival to be not only a very credible event, but very magical in Disney's own special way."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many of the special dining experiences mentioned in this blog sell out in advance. If you're interested, call for reservations as soon as possible: 407-WDW-FEST.
Also, you will be able to book certain culinary demonstrations and wine seminars online. These 45-minute programs are held several times each day and require a fee of $8 to $13 (tax included). If you've attended these sessions in previous years, you'll be happy to learn that this year's portion sizes will be a bit larger. According to Hunnel, they are still finalizing details on these programs, but they will be available for online booking before the end of August.
The previous post in this blog was Dinner with the Stars: The Great Movie Ride Dinner.
The next post in this blog is A "Really Cool Party": The New Food and Wine Classic at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin.