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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Tips and top food picks for Epcot International Food and Wine Festival's 20th year

Even just a few years ago, Epcot used to be the Walt Disney World park you'd go to when you needed to escape the hubbub of the other three parks. The least kid-friendly of Disney's Orlando theme parks, Epcot was often quiet, laid-back, easy to navigate. Even during its annual International Food and Wine Festival, which this year started last month and runs until Nov. 16, there was usually a noticeable chill in the air. (No, not the weather kind.)

Not anymore. During a couple of recent visits, one on the opening weekend of the festival, the revelry was going strong. Lines for internationally inspired small plates of food and sips of beer and wine stretched longer than this frequent Disney visitor has ever seen them; Epcot's parking lot was so full toward the end of one day that visitors were being directed to park on the grass.

This might have something to do with the fact that it's the festival's 20th year, and they're celebrating with more global food and drink booths than ever before. If you're heading to the festival in the next month, you're going to need a plan. In general, Saturday is the most crowded day to go; if you can head over on a Sunday or even a weekday, you'll face less of a swarm. And as we get further from Oktoberfest and closer to November, the crowds should start dwindling. Here are some more tips for navigating this year's Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.

How to pay

Do not be one of those people who has to pull out a credit card every time they buy a $4 plate of chicken from a booth. Instead, load some money onto one of the mini gift cards Epcot provides specifically for the festival. The benefits: The card doesn't cost anything extra (always a plus at Disney), it comes on a handy stretchy wristband, and you can load any amount over $15 onto it to help curb spending. (Those small plates can add up quickly.)

Timing is everything

Here is the thing about this festival: The later it gets, the more crowded it gets. Epcot is open until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays during the fest, a rarity for a park that has reliable operating hours of 9 to 9, and revelers seem to find imbibing more acceptable in the evening. So here's your game plan:

Figure out which stations you most want to visit, then plan to be in the park no later than 10:30 a.m. Perch yourself near your desired stations as the 11 a.m. hour approaches. This is when the food and drink booths officially open for business, but occasionally they'll raise the tarp 15 minutes early, and you'll be first in line. We recommend starting at either end of the World Showcase (near Mexico or Canada) and working your way around; classic stations like Mexico, Germany, Canada and France are the ones that tend to have the longest lines throughout the day.

From there, hit up three or four stations, scarfing down as much as you can until about 1 p.m., when things really start to get going. That's when you take a break; jump on the Spaceship Earth ride or take in a performance by the Voices of Liberty in the American Adventure Pavilion. Hit up some more stations around 3 or 4 p.m., except this time you're going to stay near the front of the park: Check out the Farm Fresh station, which serves up a loaded macaroni and cheese (see Our Picks); the new Cheese Studio and Wine Studio; and, during the hottest part of the day, head to the Craft Beers booth for some brews and snacks. After about 5 p.m., all bets are off; be prepared to wait in line.

Keep your cool

At some point during a Disney day, the only thing you care about is seeking refuge from the sun. There are plenty of places to do this at Epcot while still enjoying the culinary delights of the festival, if you know where to look. The Craft Beers center is housed in an actual building, meaning it's air-conditioned, and it has banquet seating along some of the walls. It's a perfect spot to take in a beer flight and a killer $1 sweet-spicy-salty trail mix. Another shady spot: From the Chew Lab booth, head toward the Land pavilion and look to your right to find a shaded alcove with chairs and tables, some even covered by umbrellas.

Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17 on Twitter.

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