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For 25th anniversary, Epcot food and wine festival gets lighter and longer

Disney was forced to shed a few features and extend the run to pay tribute to the popular festival’s silver anniversary.
Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival was canceled because of the park's closure due to coronavirus. This topiary of Remy has been reused for Taste of Epcot.
Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival was canceled because of the park's closure due to coronavirus. This topiary of Remy has been reused for Taste of Epcot. [ RITA C. CHMELA | Special to the Times ]
Published Aug. 31, 2020
Updated Aug. 31, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic didn’t stop Walt Disney World from celebrating the silver anniversary of the 25th annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. They changed the name slightly, lost some crowd-favorite elements and extended the run for a record number of days.

This year’s festival, called Taste of Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, is without cooking demonstrations and Eat to the Beat concerts. It started much earlier than usual, on July 15 when Epcot reopened after a nearly four-month closure, and it is expected to run through late fall or early winter. No official end date has been announced.

“This year we’re celebrating the 25th year of Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, we’re just celebrating a little bit differently. We’ve created a hybrid of events, including aspects from our Flower and Garden Festival,” said Chelsea Florig, Epcot food and beverage project manager.

Without celebrity chefs hosting cooking demonstrations or concerts by pop stars like Sugar Ray and Boyz II Men, Disney fans are calling Taste of Epcot “the light version” of what became one of the largest food festivals in the country. In previous years, people would flock to Epcot, planning their vacations around it, and the lines, especially on the weekends, could swell 50 people deep.

On a recent media tour of the festival, the park was eerily empty. Granted it was midweek, in the morning, and public schools have resumed. But even on the weekends, guests report that crowds are light.

Also different this year, because of coronavirus concerns: Visitors have to make a reservation to be there and can no longer “park hop” between Disney’s four theme parks. They are required to wear face masks and get their temperatures checked when visiting.

But food and drinks are still the stars of the festival. With 20-plus food kiosks, and more to come, Taste of Epcot offers up menu favorites from Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival, which only ran for little more than a week before the park was shut down March 16. Some Food and Wine Festival favorites have also been brought back.

Some favorites to be found are the half lobster tail skewer served dripping in lemon butter ($8.25); Seafood Fisherman’s Pie ($6.50) with giant scallops and fluffy potatoes; and potato pierogies ($5.50) with caramelized onions that are as sweet as apples.

On a weekday, one hour after Epcot opened, World Showcase is still empty during Taste of Epcot.
On a weekday, one hour after Epcot opened, World Showcase is still empty during Taste of Epcot. [ RITA C. CHMELA | Special to the Times ]

On our visit, the low-volume crowds meant shorter lines. But that also meant food didn’t sell as quickly. Dishes sat under heating lamps longer and cooked more. Canada’s filet mignon ($8.25), which is famously tender and medium rare, was well done. However, it was still chewy and the flavors from the truffle-butter sauce saved the dish.

Another favorite was ordinary mac and cheese, turned into a decadent dish with the addition of buffalo chicken ($5.50). The heat from the buffalo sauce is tamed by Boursin garlic and fine herbs cheese sauce and blue cheese crumbles. It’s all topped with finely diced carrots and celery.

A Southern seafood boil was the meal deal of the day ($8). Individual boiling bags containing two large crawfish, four mussels, four large shrimp, four Andouille sausage slices, two potatoes and a 3-inch piece of corn on the cob are dumped into a bowl and slathered with a giant pad of salty seasoned butter. It seems like a bad idea to dig into food with your hands during a pandemic, but this can’t be avoided. A tip: Seating for the Hops and Barley kiosk is located on a walkway to the American Gardens restrooms. It helps to have a friend hold the bowl. Walk into the open-air bathroom. Wash your hands. Then, dig into that juicy bowl of buttery, sweet seafood without fear of germs.

A huge food fail was the Margherita pizza flatbread. When you think of Margherita pizza, you think fresh tomatoes and basil. Even the picture on Disney’s website shows slices of fresh tomatoes and deep green basil leaves. What we got was three small slices of cheese pizza with burnt crust. It tasted like a boxed pizza. Kids might like it, but we took one bite and threw it away.

Disney is trying to make up for the loss of entertainment and cooking demonstrations. In place of Eat to the Beat concerts, the Jammitors and Mariachi Cobre perform in American Gardens Theatre several times daily.

Families can enjoy a scavenger hunt. Remy’s Ratatouille Hide and Squeak sends you in search of our favorite rat. Purchase a sticker map and set out to see what cooking ingredients Remy has hidden throughout World Showcase.

Chef Kevin Downing put a spin on last year’s Liquid Nitro Chocolate-Almond Truffle, and offers guests a show watching the creation of the new Liquid Nitro Chocolate Cake Pops. With awesome puffs of smoke, chocolate-covered cake on a stick is dipped into melted chocolate, dredged through your choice of crumbled Twix or crushed M&M’s and exposed to liquid nitrogen. The result is a decadent, frozen, cake-filled lollipop.

Smoke rises as a festival chef uses liquid nitrogen to prepare Liquid Nitro Chocolate Cake Pops.
Smoke rises as a festival chef uses liquid nitrogen to prepare Liquid Nitro Chocolate Cake Pops. [ RITA C. CHMELA | Special to the Times ]

Foodies can forgive Disney for what is missing in the 25th edition of the Food and Wine Festival. Even without concerts and cooking demonstrations, it’s still a gastronomic delight.