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16th Epcot International Food and Wine Kicks Off with Improved First Bites Opening Reception

Written By Scott Joseph On September 30, 2011

cranberry_bogReady, set eat! And drink. And walk. And learn. And spend. A lot.

The 16th Annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival officially kicks off today. However, for the second year, it got revved up early with the First Bites Opening Reception Thursday evening. Held in the spacious Festival Welcome Center, First Bites is a chance for die-hard festival fans to get a taste of some of the food and beverages available at the various country kiosks, and to see some cooking demonstrations up close and participate in a wine tasting or two.

Last year, the first First Bites, um, bit. The circular space wasn’t utilized properly and everything was too spread out. And, frankly, the quality just wasn’t what it should have been. Certainly not for the cost, which last year had a suggested retail price of $195. Plus tax. Plus admission to the park. Plus parking. (Many of last year’s attendees bought tickets for $100, but one commented to me that he didn’t think it was worth even $50.)

This year the reception was much better. Things seemed to be more suitably spaced and paced. It is not a crowded event, whether by design or because of the cost of the ticket ($175+++ this year; I attended on a media pass). So there were few long lines to sample the food and beverages that were offered this year.

The longest line was for the lobster claw and lobster roll, both of which were easily the best thing I tasted at the reception. Last year, the lobster roll was made with more of a lobster salad. This year it is made properly with whole chunks of lobster meat, served chilled, folded in a warm and butter-drenched slice of toasted bread. I could have eaten a dozen.

I also liked the Brazilian feijoada, a black bean and pork stew sprinkled with farofa, a coarse flour made from cassava. And the jerk-spiced chicken leg, served with mango salsa, that will be available in the Caribbean kiosk, new this year, throughout the festival.

Returning this year after an absence is the Scandinavian kiosk, which was sampling its tasty meatballs last night. They’re served with lingonberries, just like at Ikea. And this year sees the introduction of Portugal to the World Showcase food stalls. I enjoyed the linguica sausage with onions, peppers and olives.

Hawaii’s new booth is getting a big push this year. (Oh, look, Disney has a new resort in Hawaii; what a coincidence!) I thought the shredded pork sliders, sauced with Kaluha, could have used a bit more meat between the buns, but the tuna poke, served atop crunchy seaweed salad, was delicious.

I didn’t find any wines that I thought were outstanding, but neither were any undrinkable.  The best pairing of the evening was a cold Stella Artois with the feijoada.

And, of course, there were ample desserts to taste.
I checked my notes for last year’s First Bites Opening Reception to see what else had been improved on. I commented then that there was a dearth of napkins, which was odd considering Vanity Fair, the napkins and plates maker, is a major sponsor. Oddly, napkins were still in short supply, and the ones that I was able to locate had “15th Annual” printed on them. Maybe last year’s napkins just arrived.

So with all the improvements and all the food and wine and other beverages (a full bar was also offered) is the event now worth $175? Depends on how many lobster rolls you can snarf down.

Cost has become a major element of the Food & Wine Festival. For many years, your admission fee allowed you access to that day’s wine seminars and cooking demonstrations, both of which included samples. Now the sessions range from $10 to $13. I did get a little insight as to why Disney started charging for the tastings, I mean, besides the reason that the company wants to make as much money as it can. An official told me that in the days of free seminars, people would come in for the wine tastings and as soon as they had they’re samples in from of them, toss them back — sometimes combining all samples into one glass first — then going back outside to get in line for the next seminar to do the same thing. I can’t imagine that many people took such advantage — even I hadn’t thought of that — but there you go.

Other events can run several hundred dollars — and many have already sold out! Click here to download the Festival Guide . This link will download the Festival Map. The map shows the location of the kiosks and lists the foods and beverages available at each.

Some new things this year include:

  • Mixology seminars — a skilled mixologist demonstrates the art of preparing new and classic cocktails, and you get to taste them.
  • Scent demonstration — scent critic Chandler Burr shows how to make a meal entirely of scents. (Sounds a little stone soupy to me). You’ll also get to taste one of the courses, prepared by a Disney chef.
  • Cranberry bog display — a huge pool filled with the little red berries, with cranberry wranglers wading through them with their cranberry rakes, answering questions of visitors. Let me answer one of the questions for you here: no, you may not have one of the berries in the pool to taste, but they’ll give you a free (yes, free!) packet of Ocean Spray Craisins, which is sponsoring the display.

Returning this year is the Grand Marnier “Taste, Shake and Indulge Like the French” event, which includes flight tastings of Grand Marnier and a hands-on muddle and shake cocktail-making class. I attended this one last year when it was first introduced to the festival, and it was a lot of fun. It’s every Saturday beginning Oct. 8. I recommend it.

I’ll leave more notes as I head back out to the festival over the next several weeks. I hope you’ll do the same. If you find something interesting — or something to steer people away from — leave a note in the comments below.


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