If you still think theme park fare is limited to hot dogs and turkey legs, think again.
Increasingly at Florida theme parks, and especially at the four on Walt Disney World property, food is an important part of the experience.
That comes through at the 23rd Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, running now through May 30 in Orlando, a record 90 days total. More so this year than ever before, food threatens to upstage the intricate topiaries that are scattered throughout the park.
With 13 outdoor kitchens serving up more than 30 small-plate food items (and dozens of new options), the festival is turning into a spring version of Epcot's massively popular International Food and Wine Festival, which this year runs almost two months from Sept. 14 through Nov. 14.
And even without the word "food" in its title, the dining options are top-notch, particularly the new stuff. For two hearty small plates, try the jerk-spice grouper with mango salsa and Jamaican-braised beef from the new La Isla Fresca kitchen. In the United Kingdom area of the park, the new Cider House kitchen is serving up a refreshing and complex salad, with field greens from Epcot's Land attraction and greenhouse, apples, dried blueberries, Stilton cheese and apple cider vinaigrette.
Other highlights include Urban Farm Eats' vegetable and bean sandwich on naan with arugula pesto and a quinoa-rice blend; Smoked Pork Ribs With Roasted Corn Salad from the Smokehouse; and the delicately composed Florida Larder Board, with Orlando ricotta cheese, pate and house-made pickles, from Florida Fresh. As in many restaurants these days, "local" ingredients are in vogue (many of them coming directly from the Land).
The festival offers solid drink options, too, with a lot of Florida-crafted beers and wines. The Cider House's signature cider flight is a must-try, with samplings of the alcoholic drink made from apples ranging from sweet to more complex. The flight gets you Sonoma Organic Pear Hard Cider from California, McKenzie's Black Cherry Hard Cider from New York and two from Florida: Keel & Curley's Mad Man Blueberry Hard Cider from Plant City and Cigar City Brewing's Tampa-style Lager. For this kind of setting, a cider is the ideal hard beverage, with its crisp, refreshing notes and fruity flavor.
You can also try locally brewed beers at the Smokehouse, including the Funky Buddha Floridian Hefeweizen brewed in Oakland Park, Orlando Brewing Company's Uncle Matt's Organic Grapefruit Pale Ale, 3 Daughters Rod Bender Red Ale from St. Petersburg and Shipyard Maple Bacon Stout from Clearwater. The bacon-flavored stout goes quite well with those smoked pork ribs.
After you get your share of small plates, move on to dessert. You can't go wrong with the bright pink (and rather large) chocolate raspberry macaron from France's outdoor kitchen Fleur de Lys, and Tres Leches With Guava Puree from La Isla Fresca. But Warm Chocolate Cake With Bourbon-Salted Caramel Sauce and Spiced Pecans from the Smokehouse (clearly one of this year's best outdoor kitchens) is one of those magical treats that hits all the right notes: sweet, salty, gooey, crunchy.
Beyond just the edibles, the Flower and Garden Festival is full of ways to learn about where your food comes from. Try one of the hands-on gardening demonstrations and seminars happening in the Festival Center, which offer useful tips for planting a garden at home and actually reaping vegetables from it.
In many ways, the Flower and Garden Festival is a nicer experience than its fall counterpart, due to shorter lines for food (at least for now), longer spring days and the bright, floral ambience — you literally can nibble on small plates while strolling through a butterfly garden.
Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.