Just as Orlando winds down its monthlong progressive dinner, all forks will turn to Epcot as a six-week culinary excursion begins.
The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, in its 13th year, starts Sept. 26, and what already was the best theme park food on the planet gets a significant upgrade. If you just want a taste of something new, there are kiosks set up around the World Showcase offering dishes from around the globe. If you're a devotee of fine dining, you can have your dinner personally cooked by a celebrity chef, or go to a demonstration where you can learn to make one of their dishes.
If you've never been to the festival, here are three strategies:
The weekend gourmand
Plan on going for the day. World Showcase, with the tasting kiosks, opens at 11 a.m. Be there before that. Pick up a festival guide, which has menus for all the regionally themed kiosks. When you find something you must try, get to that kiosk at 10:59 a.m. and try it. Assuming you go on a weekend, this is the only way to ensure you will not wait in a Disney-esque line. After that, you can easily walk and eat your way from lunch to dinner. Kiosk dishes average $3.50 a plate. Figure on four to five plates to substitute for a meal. But it's fun to ignore the constraints of terms like "lunch," and "dinner," and just graze all day on anything that looks good. In that scenario, think 10 to 15. But pace yourself.
When you first look at the menus, also check out the schedule of demonstrations. If someone familiar is going to be on stage, and you want to see him or her, plan your walk to the Festival Center in Future World accordingly. In the past, if you weren't there 45 minutes before a demonstration, you often could not get in. The venue is new this year, and accommodates more people. But still get there early: You have to have a seat to get a free sample of what the chef is making. There are also wine and beer seminars daily. And those include tastings, too.
Feel your palate is a bit more refined? Add one of the special events to your visit. There are seminars by noted chefs and wine experts, three-course dessert demonstrations and special dinners. All of these carry an extra price, from $75 to — gulp — $450.
The most popular of these add-ons is the Party for the Senses, which happens on Saturday nights. Twenty or so chefs and another 20 or so winemakers cater a big party, with music and performers providing the conversation starters. That runs $135, on top of park admission, but it can be worth it.
Some Saturdays, those 20 chefs will have 20 unique dishes that will be unlike anything you have ever tasted. Other Saturdays, five of those chefs will make, say, scallops, and it can all taste the same. The parties can be very popular and lines can be long. A good strategy is to get there when they open at 6:30 p.m., skip the chefs up front and start in the middle of the room. By the time you've worked your way to the chefs in the back, the lines up front will have thinned.
Also, there is a lot of wine, and it can sneak up on you. Best to get a room on Disney property.
The chef stalker
That $450 event mentioned earlier? It's a special event this year, happening on Sept. 27. At the Bocuse d'Or Gala, a who's-who of celebrity chefs will be on hand to name the U.S. team for the upcoming Bocuse d'Or. Consider it the U.S. Olympic Trials of cooking. Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Michel Richard and David Myers are among the chefs expected to attend. But if you don't want to fork over that kind of cash, some of those chefs will judge the competition, which takes place in the park Sept. 26-27 and is included in park admission. Among the contestants is Hung Huynh, the winner of Top Chef season 3.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.