When Walt Disney World reopened in July, they decided to do something a little surprising. Instead of waiting until September, or even late-August to start the International Food and Wine Festival, the company decided that “A Taste of Epcot’s International Food and Wine Festival” would reopen with the park on July 15th. There weren’t as many booths set up for the year, but it lasted from eleven days after Independence Day until a few days before Thanksgiving. That is what makes “A Taste of Epcot’s International Festival of the Holidays” seem so exclusive. November 27th to December 30th is a small run, in comparison. As annual passholders, this meant that my wife Courtney and I were going to have to treat our Saturday at Epcot this month like we were on vacation. We had to experience everything we wanted to, because we may not make it back a second time. There is so much being offered, that it was a challenge.
Most importantly, we knew we had to complete the Holiday Cookie Stroll. With five different cookies scattered throughout the booths in World Showcase, you grab a passport to get stamped each time you try one of them. When you have your five stamps, you win the Complimentary Minnie Peppermint Cookie that is available at the Holiday Sweets and Treats booth. Of the five cookies, Courtney’s favorite was the Chocolate Crinkle Cookie at the American Holiday Table in the American Adventure, and I preferred the Linzer Cookie from Bavaria Holiday Kitchen next to the Germany Pavilion. I do know that another popular option is the Black and White Cookie from L’Chaim! Holiday Kitchen in between the Morocco and France pavilions. That is also the only plant-based option on the Holiday Cookie Stroll.
Because I am a sucker for a good theme park scavenger hunt, I couldn’t stop with just one chore in World Showcase. We also decided to purchase the map for Olaf’s Holiday Tradition Expedition 2020. This built on the success for Remy’s Ratatouille Hide & Squeak from “A Taste of Food and Wine.” In the holiday version, you search for Olaf hidden in thirteen different locations throughout World Showcase. The expedition provides a fun, family quest, while also teaching about different traditions around the globe. It also gives guests a reason to really walk around all of the World Showcase pavilions to appreciate the details. When you find all of the Olafs, your prize is one of three Frozen cups. This is the type of edutainment that I love from Epcot. Pull in the entire family with a quest and a beloved character, while sharing information.
Quests and scavenger hunts are great and all, but we all love these festivals for the food. There is a ton of great food at this event. In addition to the Holiday Cookie Stroll, Courtney and I tried eleven of these different dining options. Courtney’s favorite, without a doubt, was the Duck Confit and Dumplings from the Festival Favorites booth in World Showplace. What impressed us both about the dish was the serving size. Duck in a restaurant isn’t cheap. These festival options are already “taster portions,” but there was a good amount of meat on the bone. It also came with roasted brussels sprouts and a fig reduction. From strictly a value perspective, it was one of the two best offerings available. Flavor-wise, she also loved it. The other dish that blew us away by the sheer amount of food being offered was the Kalua Pork at Mele Kalikimaka Holiday Kitchen. The meat was served on top of Okinawa purple sweet potatoes and mango salad. It was a large tower of food. These items are priced to entice you to try many different options throughout your day. To get that much food, and to have the ingredients be fresh and flavorful was impressive.
As a vegetarian, I was sorely limited in what I could get beyond the sweets. The American Holiday Table has a Holiday Pot Pie that is completely plant-based. It contains jackfruit, mushrooms, carrots, peas, onions, and puff pastry. If you would send your meat-loving friend up to the booth to order it, he never would have been able to tell it was vegan. The dish is very savory. I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and this would have fit in well with the Pennsylvania Dutch cooking in the area. We take our pot pie seriously, like our Philadelphian neighbors to the east take their cheesesteaks. This was great.
Without a doubt, however, my favorite of all the options were the Potato Latkes at L’Chaim! Once again, this option is 100% plant-based. I think that the decision to not use butter was a great one for this dish. Sometimes potato-based items like this can get drenched in butter, and feel heavy. That is not the case with these. They are filling, without creating a rock in your stomach. They also serve as the perfect option if you are looking for some food with substance after you have had one too many sugary treats.
Throughout the park, there are some other fun holiday specialties. In addition to some food booths in the World Showplace building, there is live music; a photo-op with a replica of Marshmallow from Frozen; a Gingerbread replica of the Washington Mall (yes, I am a little upset that the Martin Luther King Memorial is in the wrong location, but I will get over it…maybe); and all of the festival merchandise, most of which is themed to Chip and Dale. The ride Living with the Land has a holiday overlay. I suggest experiencing this at night, because they have decorated the plants in the greenhouse with holiday lights. It is beautiful. At Journey into Imagination with Figment, everybody’s favorite mischievous purple “loveable fellow” is wearing an ugly Christmas sweater in two different locations on the ride. The Voices of Liberty acapella group along with the mariachi band from the Mexico Pavilion are performing holiday songs at the American Gardens Theater. The festival also does feature specially themed character cavalcades and socially-distant character interactions. It was a crowded Saturday when we visited, so they did reduce some of the cavalcades after a certain point, because it is hard to clear a path for them. We did get to see Winnie the Pooh in a Santa hat and playing some jingle bells. If that doesn’t get you in the spirit, you are probably dead inside.
I have loved this festival in past years, and I am blown away by how Disney made it feel complete when you consider the things that they couldn’t offer in 2020. It felt like there was always something else we could experience at every turn. Walt Disney World has, and rightfully so, been getting praised for the precautions and safety measures they have been taking since reopening. In my humble opinion, they are not getting enough credit for the way they are coming up with new experiences to take the place of things that just aren’t feasible this year.
We all may celebrate different holidays this time of the year. We may all have different traditions. What makes Disney so magical is the way they can bring people together in a stressful and divisive world to escape and be a global family. For me, many of my friends, and I am sure many of you reading this, Disney is just as much a part of the holiday season as mistletoe and holly. It truly has been magical to get to experience that feeling, when there were points this year that it didn’t look like it would be possible.