Updated to correct price of beef tenderloin.
Just as with the theme parks, which have to keep reinventing and reinvigorating themselves with new rides and rejiggered areas to encourage revisits, so does the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. The festival organizers have been planning since last year to make minor tweaks and, in some cases, complete overhauls.
Much of the change will be found in the country kiosks that ring the World Showcase walkway. Visitors who had tired of seeing the same foods year after year — If this is Mexico it must be chilaquiles — will be delighted to know that there will be 70 new food items offered this year. But if you’re one of the 36,000 who ordered the cheddar cheese soup from the Canada kiosk last year — the biggest-selling food item most years — never fear, it and other popular items have been retained.
Jens Dahlmann, right, Epcot’s executive chef, said he started planning the changes while walking through the festival last year when he was still new to the position. (He had previously been the executive chef at California Grill.) Recipe planning and cooking trials began in March, and the menu for this year’s festival was finalized by May. “The whole idea was to be authentic and to be respectful of the cultures,” Dahlmann said.
There were even some cooking contests involved among Disney cast members. For instance, Dahlmann asked among the park’s chefs who could make the best arroz con pollo for the Puerto Rico kiosks. Several cooks volunteered and there was a cook-off. The winner gets to cook six or seven batches of the traditional chicken and rice dish every day of the festival (kind of makes you wonder what the loser has to do).
There are 21 WDW-operated kiosks this year and six additional sponsored food stands. I had the opportunity to sample a few of the new items the other day in the kitchen of the World Showplace.
We started with rock shrimp ceviche from Chile. Traditional ceviche is the preparation wherein raw seafood is “cooked” by marinating in citrus juices. Instead, this version uses precooked shrimp. But the quality didn’t suffer. Served in a tall shot glass topped with a few pieces of popcorn, the shrimp was firm and flavorful, and the citrus juice was good enough to drink all by itself. It will sell for $4.75.
Chicken and coconut soup from Thailand and lobster & scallop fisherman’s pie
The chicken and coconut soup ($3.25) from Thailand, one of new countries this year, was a bit too thick but nonetheless tasty. The most stunning item I sampled was the lobster & scallops fisherman’s pie from Ireland, an ample serving with plenty of seafood in a rich lobster bisque-like sauce topped with whipped potatoes. If I had one complaint about it it would be that the serving, at least as presented to me in the tasting session, was too large. (Dahlmann told me we were given the same serving size that will be presented throughout the festival.) Eat the whole thing by yourself and you may not want to try anything else. But at $5.50, it may be the bargain of the event.
Souvlaki from Greece, lamb slider from New Zealand
Compare that with the $4 chicken souvlaki from Greece, a rather mundane offering of a strip of chicken on a decidedly fresh-tasting pita triangle topped with tangy tzatziki sauce.
The New Zealand lamb slider ($4.50) was good, though I still had the memory of the lamb burger from Kouzzina by Cat Cora on my taste buds, so this one paled slightly.
South African beef tenderloin
The seared beef tenderloin medallion from South Africa will sell for $4.75. It was served with a sweet potato puree flavored with banana, orange juice and cinnamon. The meat was indeed tender, and the mango sauce was a nice complement. It will be cooked to order in the kiosk. Additionally, several other items, such as the lava cake from pastry chef Lothar Neumaier, will be baked or finished in the individual food stands.
Bubbles and sweets
Another kiosk added this year will feature Champagne and desserts. It will be located at the main gateway to the World Showcase and will feature Austrian bundt cake, strawberry shortcake and Grand Marnier parfait alongside wines from Moet & Chandon.
There are other changes besides food this year. One I really like is that in addition to the complete festival guide, Disney is printing weekly guides. They found that many guests were tearing out the World Showcase map and the the schedule for that particular day then tossing the rest. This will help cut down on waste. And the weeklies can be printed at the last minute to reflect any changes that may occur.
One annoying note about the map: the food kiosks are listed not merely by country but by a particular city in the country — Santiago, Chile, or Cork, Ireland, for example. It makes scanning the map for your country of choice a bit more difficult.
I’ve already told you about a couple of other changes. The daily wine seminars and tastings will no longer be free. They come with an $8 fee, and tickets are sold through the reservation system. However, some spaces will be available each day for guests who may not have heard about the change. Those tickets will be sold at the park.
And the Saturday Parties for the Senses, held in the World Showplace, which could easily do double duty as a dirigible hangar, will be themed this year. And guests can upgrade to a VIP ticket that gets them access to an area with private seating (you can have your own table — no need to sit with strangers), a premium bar and artisanal cheese station. You still have to leave the area and mingle with the hoi-polloi, the people who paid a mere $135, to visit the food and wine stations. The upgrade is $75 more per person, and in either case admission to Epcot, which is necessary, is not included.