The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival is back again this year, just in time for spring-like conditions. Except this year they’ve shaken up the status quo, tried new things, spent a bunch of money, and essentially re-invented the entire experience. The most visible change is the inclusion of many booths selling small bite-sized portions of upscale food. They’ve all but made it into ANOTHER Food and Wine Festival. So, Epcot functionally has two Food and Wine festivals. And I like this one better than the other one!

Do Mater’s plants look rusty?

To start with, this year they are bringing back pretty much everything that normally defines the Flower & Garden (F&G) Festival. That includes the gardening seminars in the festival center, the home garden oriented merchandise, the butterfly garden, the free Flower Power concert series, topiaries of Disney characters (mostly princesses) in many of the World Showcase pavilions–including the return of the giant troll in Norway–and throwing in a few topiaries in Future World as well, such as the Fab Five at the front of the park or Buzz Lightyear appropriately placed in front of Mission: Space.

I’ve previously mentioned the Oz playground that was added to the rose garden walkway. It has a few interactive midway games, some cardboard cutout photo opportunities, and a brand new playground installation with custom Oz decorations on it. Not only do the adults get comfy seats nearby, there are shade structures over them. And the shade is created by a highly-themed prop (it’s the deflated hot air balloon from the movie; the basket is nearby). Truly, they spent some money! The opposite side of the walkway is this year’s location of the herb garden and Rain Bird display (which used to live next to Canada, but a new DVC booth moved in there – because it’s Disney’s best kept secret, you know, but they are willing to let YOU know about it).

The other playground location, next to Mouse Gear, ALSO got new hardware this year. Did they unleash the budget or what? This one is themed to Radiator Springs, and in addition to the Mater and Lightning topiaries, it has a “find the car part” game like a scavenger hunt. I appreciated the thought and like that they are keeping kids in mind (this is not the most thrilling festival to most of them, and the food and wine additions probably do little to help, so any thought is appreciated). That said, it didn’t seem that involved (or successful) a game.

Disney re-uses topiaries around the property a lot. The “new” Phineas and Ferb ones (backside of Spaceship Earth) debuted previously at Downtown Disney. The Monsters University ones, however, really were new I think. They are front and center where the Christmas tree goes.

Note Sully’s more slender college physique

The former pixie hollow space next to Fountain on Nations was a little path to some comfy chairs this year.  I think it’s great they spent the money to provide a “little touch” like that.

Most of what is new this year came in the form of food booths set up around World Showcase. Visualize this as about one-half the scale/scope of the autumn’s Food and Wine festival, and you’ll have the idea. The pathways are not CHOKED with booths; it’s a more reasonable number (a little over one per pavilion, on average?) Apparently there are plans to raise it to twenty booths next year.

Beer flight from Germany: $13, 24 oz of beers.

And well they should. We saw crowds somewhat thin on Friday night of the opening weekend. It felt like the 2004 Food and Wine festival to me–definitely some interest, definitely some sales (no way was the park losing money), but almost no lines. That made it VERY pleasant to move around the “world” sampling and sipping.

The food is not as closely tied to “countries” as the Food and Wine Festival (there is no Thailand, no Poland booth), but they are loosely associated with the pavilion which is nearby. And the food is definitely influenced by the Flower & Garden theme, meaning you’ll find rose petals in things, fewer meat dishes in favor of flower and garden things. The sushi stand is serving Fruitshi (fruit instead of fish inside the roll).

Salmon and cheddar biscuit, from the UK.

Many of the items were top-notch (though curiously, I just realized we ate mostly dishes that included meat). One addition that was drawing big crowds was the booth at the end of the rose garden. This booth is always here, but for F&G it has been re-themed to Pineapple Promenade, and has pineapple-themed goodies (we tried the pineapple upside down cake). Their big seller and the chatter from online has been about the rum-spiked dole whip. Judging by the lines here, I think we can predict this menu item will be back in future years, maybe also in the regular Food and Wine Festival (and perhaps even full time in the park all year long?).

Food and Wine has always been more crowded than Flower & Garden. The nature of it just draws more people. I assume they spend more money (we certainly do) at Food and Wine. So it seemed a natural fit to try to borrow some Food and Wine magic for F&G, and I have to say it worked. Admittedly, part of the gloriousness for us was that it wasn’t crowded. Flower & Garden doesn’t attract the “flying by air” traffic that Food and Wine does, at least not historically. Once word gets out that F&G is just as good as Food and Wine (but with fewer crowds), I wonder if that will shift. Will we be seeing a Flower and Garden Marathon Weekend some point in the future?

Dole whip and rum!

Overall this has been a fantastic idea. The F&G Festival has seemingly stagnated in recent years, with the same thing showing up season after season. If anything, it felt like the festival was getting SMALLER each year. Remember those bamboo clacker displays? The home waterfall exhibits? The elaborate garden train set up? They shook it up this time in more ways than one. And the best part is, this is win-win. Their big new additions are MONEY-MAKERS for them, so I think we will definitely see this as a permanent shift.

What do you think? Would you make a trip for Flower and Garden instead of Food and Wine next time?

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Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History. Readers are invited to connect with him online and face to face at the following locations:

  • bamboo clackers etc