Epcot is known as a hub for international food, drink, and entertainment, and is renowned for its four themed seasonal festivals: Food and Wine, Flower and Garden, Festival of the Arts, and International Festival of the Holidays. The Walt Disney World park’s longest-running festival, Flower and Garden, is currently open from now until June 3, presenting guests with an assortment of new and classic offerings that celebrate Spring.
Ahead of the festival’s 2019 opening, we sat down with three of the Epcot team members in charge of making each festival a success. We spoke with Executive Chef Michael Deardorff, Culinary Director Albert Youngman, and Festivals Proprietor Rick DeCicco, who gave us some insight into the year-round planning that goes into Epcot’s menus and entertainment schedules, and the new items and attractions that they’re most excited about.
Here’s what we learned about this year’s Flower & Garden Festival, and what goes into making each Epcot festival a unique and high-quality experience for Walt Disney World Resort guests:
HEAVY: What should guests expect if they are coming to Epcot during the Flower & Garden Festival?
Well, it’s the beginning of Spring. So we’ll see all these flavors and flowers and fruits and vegetables that we’ve incorporated with our food and our topiaries throughout the park, so it’s all about the Spring and welcoming that part of the season.
HEAVY: Is there anything new that you have incorporated into the festival this year?
Absolutely. This is our second-largest festival as far as marketplaces are concerned, so this year we’re rolling out three new ones and we have 17 in total. We’re starting to slowly grow this festival, and of course this is our longest one. It lasts for 90 days.
HEAVY: What is your favorite festival to plan for, and why?
All four have their own little niche, but I think Food & Wine being our biggest one and absolutely our most challenging one. We try to stay about a year out from that one. We’re finalizing our offerings over the next month or two so we can make sure we get everything to the press and where it needs to be. But from a logistic standpoint, we usually have 32 marketplaces so we’re essentially opening 32 quick-service restaurants all on the same day, which is certified insanity… We finish strong with Flower & Garden, and this one is probably my favorite just because the park itself never looks more beautiful and as simple as it seems, especially Italy with all the terracotta plants, in about another month once those plants really root out it’s just gonna look absolutely gorgeous.
HEAVY: When planning the menus for each of these festivals, what kind of research goes into making sure you’re representing the festival while also staying true to Epcot?
With Food & Wine Festival, there’s 30-32 marketplaces, so it’s a lot of content and it’s very challenging for our chefs to come up with all this content, but then how they are placed around the World Showcase and into Future World has to make sense. Mike can talk about as well the talent that we’ve sourced in a festival kitchen. We have a diverse group of sous chefs that really come up with some great ideas and they’re hand selected, for their skills and diversities, as well. The great thing is that ideas can come from anywhere. You don’t have to be a salaried chef or a salaried leader to present your idea and some of our best ideas come from our front line cast.
What are some of the big “Instagrammable” food trends that you guys seeing right now and experimenting with in the park?
From an iconic standpoint, it’s making that fun, interactive thing… in one of our small marketplaces [during the Festival of the Arts], we did painted churros. So it looked like paint brushes and matched that element of art… So, what are these guests walking away with that they can just be wowed by? And also, it’s guests passing them and saying “Where’d you get that?” We have a few of those items around. We try to make sure the quality level and the content is good first, and then how do we uniquely serve it… Like, for Food & Wine we had our Guinness and Bailey’s milkshake… but we took it a step further and we sourced a small pint glass that had the logo for the actual [kitchen] location. It became a very collectible item.
HEAVY: For parents with young children who want to come to Epcot, how do you find a balance so there’s something for everyone in that family?
We’re extremely focused on family-friendly offerings. We understand that Epcot is great for adults, but we want it to also be great for families. The Flower & Garden Festival is a really good example of that with our activities that we have, between our playgrounds, our scavenger hunts… for Flower & Garden we have Spike’s Pollination Exploration… There will be different Spike the Bee maquettes hidden throughout the park. There’s a map you explore and then when you return with your completed map, of course, you receive a prize. And this year, that’s a different series of patches… We have a permanent playground that we’ve built here in Epcot, and we also do temporary playgrounds… We have some fun mac and cheese areas, kid-friendly little desserts.
What other entertainment are you offering for guests during the Flower & Garden Festival this year?
Our Garden Rocks concerts are actually going to be 7 nights a week now, as opposed to 4. We found that that’s a big draw for our guests and some really fantastic talent this year and some returning favorites because we have to make sure we keep some things the same… I can’t say enough about the merchandise collection too. It’s really the best stuff that I’ve ever seen. And think about the agriculture, too. The topiaries – we have a new Bo Peep & her sheep… we’ve got one in France, too, with Kermit the Frog on a bicycle. And Mickey & Minnie in front of Smokehouse at American Aventure.
HEAVY: How do you take crowd management into consideration when planning for the festivals, and prepare for the extra draw that the festivals bring to the park?
We think about the holistic park, especially during Food & Wine – that’s our busiest one – we want to have 32 iconic (or more) items out there, but we also have to say, you know, Canada’s our biggest kiosk during Food & Wine. Everybody goes there for a filet, everybody goes there for the cheddar cheese soup, and it gets crowded. So how can you pull them away? We have to have those items that steer our guests… When you go to the back of the park, we have marketplaces like Belgium that are serving waffles. Who doesn’t want a waffle? And you can smell it. There are aromas on the promenade that draw our guests, so we try to do a little bit of that hidden way-finding without signs, more of the smells… And there are guests that have to come here for the lobster roll. We serve it for the time of Food & Wine and we don’t do it at any of our other festivals… you can get the Desert Violet Lemonade in Flower & Garden, but when Flower & Garden’s over, you need to think about it for a year until you can come back to the next Flower & Garden… but you know what? It stays special. And, you know, Disney to me? It’s all about traditions… and that’s why we do what we do.