The 20th Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival began Wednesday. It sports new topiaries, old favorites and tasty additions, most notably, a dozen "garden marketplaces" selling food and drink around World Showcase.
Of course, it's impossible not to compare it with its sister event, the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, which rolls around each autumn. I read a bit of online grumbling – from folks who hadn't been yet, naturally — that Disney should combine the events. (The Epcot International Food & Wine & Flower & Garden Festival?) That, my friends, is CrazyTalk (trademark pending). Why wouldn't Disney keep both and enhance one with more eating options? Moving on.
Here are a few notes I made during the round on Day One:
•In the front topiary display, known as Mickey & Friends, Mickey grills, Minnie lounges, Pluto grabs some hot dogs, Donald and Daisy play badminton and Goofy presents a 20th birthday cake. I liked that you can get a sense of the whole scene from many angles, which helps with the masses who must take a photo up here.
•Other new topiaries include Phineas & Ferb (behind Spaceship Earth) and Mike and Sully from "Monsters, Inc." and the upcoming "Monsters University" (at the entrance to World Showcase). The characters are backed up with spooky-looking flower towers. They're looking at you.
•Also new and from the Pixar family is Radiator Springs, with playground activities based on the "Cars" movies and loads of steering wheels. The festival has several play areas scattered across the theme park. Radiator Springs is near Test Track, in the spot where the Disney Fairies have been presented in recent years. (Tinker Bell's Butterfly Garden, also in Future World, is where all the winged ones are now.)
•OK, on to food matters. The entire menu is listed on the festival guide. In green type are items the Disney World has designated as TRY IT! I ate some of those, starting quite successfully with the watermelon salad at the Florida Fresh marketplace. It's melon, arugula, feta cheese, onions and balsamic reduction. I may never eat melon without feta again. I felt good paying $3.50 for it.
•Other TRY ITs I tried: potato pancakes with applesauce from Germany's Bauernmarkt (by the end, I had the necessary acquired taste to let apples touch my potatoes) and ratatouille tart with goat cheese at France's L'Orangerie. (I'm lukewarm on that one). Overheard by mom trying to get young son to try the ratatouille: "But you loved the movie!" … Does that ever work? I'm glad he didn't love "101 Dalmatians."
•Finally, the much-anticipated Dole Whip with spice rum. True confession: I'm not a fan of the classic Dole Whip, served primarily at Magic Kingdom. It's just too much pineapple for my taste. Having said that, the rummed-up version was an improvement to me. The portion is smaller than the MK Dole Whip, and the price is pricy for my taste -- $6.25. That's in line with the pricy-for-the-size drinks at Epcot festivals, I fear.
•I recommend doing the festival in a clockwise fashion around the lagoon. That way you get watermelon salad first and cap the day with Dole Whip at the other end of the loop. (Also note that the Dole Whip station, properly known as Pineapple Promenade, has entrances from both sides. Check out the other line.)
•I liked the spacing between the marketplaces. There are about half as many food stops as during Food & Wine, but that made it feel more relaxed to me. Of course, it was a weekday and there were no loud football fans as is seen on Food & Wine weekends. You know who you are.
•From the looks of the set-ups, I'd say Epcot is expecting a big crowd at the Smokehouse, set up at American Adventure and complete with a big smoker. You can smell it coming, in a good way.
•There are many food and drink options, and Disney has not repeated items from Food & Wine. The festival runs daily through May 19.
Flower & Garden Festival: What I saw (and ate)