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Like all good gourmands, I appreciate excess. And our friendly, neighborhood Disney World (oh, okay, so it's four hours' drive time) is the epitome -- ironically in the land of "It's a Small World," everything is bigger, longer, brighter, hotter, and more expensive than its counterpart on the regular ol' planet. Still I cringe when confronted with the possibility of a trip to Orlando, a requirement most South Florida residents feel the need to fulfill when they become parents. I can't even comfort myself with the knowledge of an ice-cream cart on every make-believe corner and bales of popcorn to sustain me through the deceptive mazes the attendants call lines. Fact is, I far prefer the Magic City to the Magic Kingdom; gluttony comes via a magnum of Cristal and untold ounces of caviar rather than a daughter-bewitching parade of whiny Cinderellas and helpless Belles.
See, the Magic Kingdom is dry. As in alcohol-free. As in the equivalent of Salt Lake City. On a Sunday before noon. During Prohibition.
Just how is a Magic City-less mommy to survive?
By hauling the kids to Epcot first. On a day in the last two weeks of October and the first two weeks of November. During the annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, when twenty or so cultural food-and-wine-tasting kiosks are added to the park's eleven World Showcase countries.
Make that a dry day, weather-wise, and a wet one, palate-wise. The month-long event, which just concluded its seventh year, enjoyed a spectacular spell of sun just about every weekend except for the final one, when I decided to tour South Africa, Scandinavia, and the like, buying a four-sip (or two-gulp) cuppa German Riesling here, a surprisingly vibrant Alsatian onion tart there. The rain, which hadn't been accurately predicted, was like static on a television screen: busy, relentless, and driving in all directions.
The weather was so bad I not only wore the oversize Mickey poncho that turns park-goers into anonymous, canker-stricken lemons, I put up the hood. And lemme tell you, lemon is my color about as much as lemonade is my signature drink. But when it comes to a festival that caters so aptly to the epicure, well, I'd go so far as to be seen in rubber boots -- if I owned any, that is.
It probably would have been smart to invest in a pair, because coupled with the water factor was the chill temperature. Then there were the enclosed spaces -- buses, Metrorail trains, boats -- in which we breathed each other's recirculated germs as we were shuttled from parts of one park to another. Which in turn led to the development of a pretty nasty community-acquired illness, in keeping with the Disney-esque policy of being as dramatically over-the-top as the typical animated-movie storyline.
Now that I think about it, this isn't the first time I left Epcot only to be faced with health issues. My husband, then my boyfriend, took me to Epcot for an inaugural visit so many years ago it was when we were still greedily consuming the privileges of spring break. And in the spirit of greedy consumption, we decided that we would sample a food or beverage item at every single country represented in the World Showcase. Our mistake was that we started with a sit-down lunch of caesar salad and fettuccine in Italy, moved on to sake in Japan, had a bit of shepherd's pie in Britain, followed it up with a stout in Ireland, and so on. Not exactly the lightest choices. We probably didn't need the foot-long hot dog to tide us over on the way out, nor should we have stopped for an all-you-can-eat salad bar and barbecue dinner on the way home. In any event, it proved impossible to tell whether the week-long stomach virus that followed was due to overeating, food-borne bacteria, or Norwalk-inspired viruses.
Even with the best, gluttonous intentions, it's probably impossible for a normal human being to embark on a something-from-everywhere spree during festival times. In addition to the eleven host countries and twenty-plus regional marketplaces (six of which were new this year), the event was supplemented by beer gardens, wine seminars, and culinary demonstrations. For extra fees, parkgoers could participate in the Signature Dinner Series: five-course, chef-and-vintner-driven "themed evenings reflecting the world's great wines and food"; Reserve Dinners, six-course menus written by celebrity chefs and paired with reserve wines; Bordeaux Wine School-accredited education programs; and vertical wine tastings. Ad nauseam.
You'd have to be the Schwarzenegger of gastronomy to tackle it all in real time. Which is something of a shame, because Epcot, the first to highlight global cuisine in the U.S., is currently promoting topographic-specific gastronomy with kiosks like "Explore the Western Cape of South Africa" and "Discover Andalucía, Spain," down to the bobotie and the copitas of sherry. This trend -- food stemming not so much from a country of origin but from said country's distinct and individual regions -- is the trend we have started to see replacing the global beat in our contemporary restaurants.
Still, why dwell? Thanks to fellow media and friends who'd been at the festival in this and prior years, we knew exactly how to make the most, bargain-wise, out of Epcot: BYOC. Bring Your Own Corkscrew, because while tastes of wine went for about $4 apiece, bottles, ostensibly to take home, cost a meager ten-spot each. Or Bring Your Own Coffee Cup, one of those lidded, plastic traveling jobs that not only prevents telltale fumes from escaping; it's allowed on the rides, a policy that makes even the It's a Small World dinghy ride a tasty, international adventure. And the worst case of bronchitis just a mite more sympathy-inducing than a mere hangover, no matter how extreme.