If you think it's hard to prepare a delicious meal for your family and keep everyone at the table happy, try doing it for thousands.
I had the opportunity recently to speak with Michael Jenner, operations manager for park events content development, about the upcoming Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. Here, he offers AllEars.Net readers a glimpse behind the scenes of such a large event at Walt Disney World and tips for guests on making the most of their time at the festival.
The first day that reservations are open is always crazy busy. What special events associated with the festival sell out quickly and what is still available now?
We sell about 50 percent of our inventory very quickly in the first couple hours on the first day. Our high-end events sell out, so Victoria & Albert's sells out. Our Wine View Lounge and our reserved seating for Party for the Senses has sold out. A lot of our signature dining events -- California Grill, Flying Fish -- have sold out. I would point out that for some of those events, they also are some of the smaller seating capacities. At Citrico's we have 10 seats there, so, of course, that went out. The Hibachi experience at Japan has eight seats and we do it five times, so obviously it sells out very quickly.
But there still are a plethora of events that are available: general seating at Party for the Senses, the Scotland opening dinner, our chocolate dinner, our beer dinner. Online we list what events are sold out. For culinary demonstrations, wine seminars and mixology, we hold back a certain number of those for day-of purchases, so when you come to the park and you're just discovering those events, you can walk up and there might be seats available.
Of the events that are still open at this point, what would you most recommend for a guest who is new to the Epcot Food & Wine Festival?
As a newbie to the festival, you can't go wrong with Party for the Senses. I know the reserved seating and the Wine View Lounge always sells out, but, in my opinion, that doesn't matter. You have 25 food stations and 25 beverage stations, which have at least three offerings, so you don't want to be sitting at any time. You need to be up and moving for that two hours, and you still will not get through all those stations. That is a true food-and-wine connoisseur's heaven.
You can go to every single [party], and it will be different each time. We have different chefs that come in -- Disney chefs and guest chefs -- and they each have their own unique item that they prepare. And we bring in different wineries. The entertainment is the same, the layout is the same, but the food and beverage elements are different for each one. Party for the Senses starts at $145 plus tax and park admission.
Last year's VIP Chef Tours got rave reviews from our readers. Why didn't those events return this year?
The person who made that happen was Chef Jens [Dahlmann, Epcot's executive chef], and that was a lot out of his day to escort 10 people around the park. It's better for us to have him oversee the festival and the marketplaces. Really, to do it again, we would do multiple days. To be honest, we just couldn't pull him out of the operation for that long. And then to put another chef or someone else into that role, it's not the same experience. It was a nice "let's try it" but when all is said and done, 60 guests got to experience that. … You never know, it might come back in future years, or at least one-offs. It's more important for us to have Chef Jens on the promenade, overseeing the marketplaces, now, though.
How do you keep the marketplace wines and the foods at the proper temperatures with the Florida heat?
The foods are prepared fresh in the marketplaces. Plus, they are not just little cabana tents. Each marketplace is a kitchen with refrigerators and grills. There is a whole compound behind Germany that we create just for the festival. There are at least 12 refrigerated semi-trailers for all the wines, and they are divided among events. The wines are kept there and then brought out to the marketplaces several times a day, so you don't have six cases of wine sitting in a marketplace waiting to be used all day long. The food items are brought out continuously throughout the day.
Since Epcot doesn't have utilidors (the underground tunnels at the Magic Kingdom), how do cast members at Epcot transport the foods and beverages continuously without being obvious?
We built these cart boxes that hide the food inside of them because you want to protect it from birds, people, etc. They're totally enclosed metal boxes that even have little lights along the top so at night people can see them, and they can see where they're going. It makes it easier and safe for our cast members as well as the guests.
Obviously, it's more crowded on the weekends than during the week at the festival. What tips would you offer for guests whose only opportunity to experience the festival is on the weekend?
Start at the back of the park, by France or Hops & Barley or somewhere back there. I will see at 11 a.m. on a Saturday, the marketplaces at the front -- Mexico, Argentina, etc. -- packed, and then I'll walk down a couple marketplaces and there's no one in line. It's a circle, so just start at a different place. A lot of people go right, even though are marketplaces are numbered the other way. As you get to the Eat to the Beat concert series [at American Adventure], it's busier at that side of the park.
Always use the passport. It's a great way of finding out what's in the marketplaces and what you've missed. You can check what you like and get the passport stamp. Guests using the Festival Center, having the festival guide and the festival passport have a greater experience.
Do guests tend to skip the Festival Center?
They do because they may not know about it. It opens at 9 a.m. with the rest of Future World, but the marketplaces don't open until 11 a.m. It's a great way to start off -- to see our wine seminars or visit our merchandise shop and collect your passport.
How early do families need to find seats at the Eat to The Beat concerts?
It depends. If you want to hit the 5:30 p.m. show, which is often the most popular show, check the line early. Some of the more popular acts have a line start at noon. But you don't have to sit in the theater to enjoy it. You can hear it around the promenade or standing close by, it's a great show.
Can you offer any tips for families who are bringing their kids to the Food & Wine Festival?
Weekdays are the best, if possible, but I know that's hard with kids in school. Or, go on a Sunday. Saturdays are awfully crowded. The Festival Center is good for kids, too. We do a seminar called Authentic Tastes three times a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays where we talk about whole ingredients -- like strawberries, sugar -- and there is a little sampling. Plus, there's the Chocolate Experience, which is phenomenal, and explains chocolate from bean to bar. Ghiradelli will be handing out chocolate samples, and our Disney pastry chefs have each created a chocolate sculpture, which is fun for kids.
I think all the marketplace menus are family-friendly because they're such small portions -- tapa size. Kids can try portions without parents feeling they have wasted a whole entree if they don't like it.
When I was a little kid, we would go to restaurants with buffets, and I was always told I had to try everything. And I loved it! I didn't have to eat it all, but I had to try it. What a great experience! That's what the Epcot Food & Wine Festival is like -- a buffet through all the marketplaces.
The previous post in this blog was More Epcot International Food & Wine Festival dishes and beverages revealed.
The next post in this blog is A family touring plan for Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party 2013.