Party for the Senseless? Epcot Food and Wine Festival's Party for the Senses Steps Off on the Wrong Soggy Foot

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Charles "Bubba" Dolson with top Party pick pulled pork.
Party for the Senses, the Saturday evening extravaganzas that have always been a highlight of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, got underway last weekend and will continue now through November 12. It’s a fun event, one of my favorites, and I’m always happy to be invited. I recommend it as a splurge: the event is $135 per person (plus tax) and admission to Epcot is required; that’s another $85, and parking $14. Yes, $234 is a lot of money, but the event was sold out. Some even paid an extra $115 to be allowed into a special gated area with reserved seating. So go.

I just hope it doesn’t rain if you do.

You may recall that last weekend Central Florida was experiencing a wet squall, or as many of us referred to it, an unannounced, unhyped hurricane. The downpours were constant and at times torrential.

So why in the name of all things holy did the organizers decide to make their attendees, many dressed nicer than the average theme park-goer, stand outside in the rain to pick up tickets, a process that took a half an hour or more? Seriously, what the hell were they thinking? It’s not like there isn’t enough space inside the World Showplace building, which could easily hold several jumbo jetliners and still have room for a cruise ship. And it’s not like Disney doesn’t have any experience in queuing people up -- they could have easily formed a snaking line inside and out of the elements. This was a major fail.

(In an acknowledgement that it took an inordinate amount of time to check people in, the Epcot F&W executives made a decision early in the evening to extend the event by 30 minutes. No concessions for dying wet clothes or soggy shoes were made.)

Once inside, the guests found the usual set-up, which is a food and wine lover’s fantasyland of savories and sweets and wines, beers and cocktails to wash it all down. The food and beverage stations were positioned throughout the cavernous space and lit colorfully so as to glow in the darkened room. And the party atmosphere was enhanced by the musicians from Cirque du Soleil. (More about that in a moment.)

The food vendors have always been comprised of a mix of Disney chefs alongside those from visiting restaurants participating in that week’s festival seminars and demonstrations. It seemed to me that this year there was a weighted advantage to Disney chefs over the outsiders, or maybe it was just that some of the visiting restaurants were neither recognizable nor all that memorable.

And I found it odd that at least three of the Disney slots were filled not by Disney restaurants but by the banquets catering divisions from various properties. Not that you can’t find culinary talent among them, but at these prices one expects to see the name brands you know.

Pulled_pork_squeezeOne of the highlights of the evening actually came from an unexpected source, the crew from Cinderella’s Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom. There, under the direction of chef Charles “Bubba” Dolson, the crew was handing out pulled pork sliders with an odd looking toothpick in them. The pick was actually a syringe of sorts, filled with green poblano pepper sauce. Dolson instructed guests as he handed them a plate to squeeze the top of pick as they slowly extracted it from the bun, thus allowing the spicy juice to flow through the meat. Cute idea, the perfect sort of food and invention for this kind of venue, and, not incidentally, pretty darned tasty.

I also liked the Five Spice Duck Breast with Crispy Rind Crackling from Sutilak Martin of Boma. Also a perfect food for this type of event.

Another food favorite came from the visiting chefs at zazu restaurant+farm, a lower-cased establishment in California’s Sonoma County. Duskie Estes and John Stewart (not that John Stewart) were serving “King + Queen of Pork” star anise pork belly with shiitake mushrooms. It was a mouth-filling treat or meaty juices and varied textures.

I was pleased to see David Ramirez, the celebrated pastry chef from Rosen Shingle Creek, manning one of the dessert stations. Hislemon mascarpone cheesecake was just as wonderful as I would expect it to be. (I’ll have more news about Ramirez for you soon.)

One of the visiting chef’s offering was a bit of a washout, and not because of the rain. Enzo Fargione of Elisir restaurant in Washington, D.C., was serving salt-cured duck breast with spinach polenta flan and mascarpone corn sauce with a merlot caramel gel. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I asked him if it was meant to be served cold and he said that it was not. It’s cold, I told him. Sorry, he said, then went back to rearranging the 30 or so portions he had already plated and placed on the table, waiting for guests to snatch them up.

As for wines, there were some nice selections but nothing extraordinary. I think the best quaff was a Stella Artois that went perfectly with the pulled pork.

There seemed to be a lot more tables, both low with chairs and tall-tops for leaning, than in years past, a welcome addition. Ironically, a dearth of places to plop your wine glass while you ate your sample was one of the selling points for the “Wine View Lounge” upgrade -- you always knew you had a seat to go back to. But if you’re sampling something from the other side of the venue, why would you want to traipse all the way back to the “lounge?” There was always a place to linger and lean -- I like that.

There was also an impressive improvement in the quality of the entertainment. For some years now, Cirque du Soleil has been offering entertaining interludes from performers at La Nouba. The ones I’ve seen have always been pretty tame. This year they brought in the trampolines and recreated, in miniature, but just as impressive, the wall-climbing act that leads to the finale. Nice job, and something that makes the ticket price a little more defensible.

Indefensible is the treatment of the guests before the doors opened. There simply is no excuse for it. I have a pass to Epcot, and my ticket was comped. I didn’t have the cash outlay that many of the people standing in line with me did (some locals even book a stay at a Disney resort for the evening so they don’t have to drive after the Party). I was livid; I can only imagine how insulted they felt.

Party for the Senses continues each Saturday through Nov. 12. Click this link for more information and to make reservations. Click this link to visit The Weather Channel.

Click the image below to see a video of Party for the Senses from a previous year.

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