An opinionated vegetarian ranks the festival food from best to worst, and shares what to seek and what to skip.
Epcot is my favorite Disney park. As a kid, I loved the magic of visiting different countries in rapid succession, and some of my oldest Disney memories are of the now-defunct Wonders of Life Pavilion, which included my favorite ride as a kid, Body Wars. Now as an adult I still love it, mostly because it hosts the many Epcot festivals on a nearly year-round basis.
About the vegetarian: All vegetarians are different. For me, I’ve been a vegetarian for 23 years. I don’t eat any meat, including fish. I do eat eggs and dairy, including yogurts and cheeses. I don’t eat ingredients like gelatin or non-vegetarian cheeses intentionally, but I realize that sometimes I get it accidentally from ordering in restaurants. If I can avoid it, I do. I cannot guarantee that the items recommended below will meet all readers’ standards for vegetarian foods!
The Epcot Festival Tradition
Epcot hosts four international festivals a year around World Showcase, the eleven country-themed pavilions that surround World Showcase Lagoon. The Festival tradition started in the 1990s with the International Food and Wine Festival and the International Flower and Garden Festival. More recently, Epcot has introduced the International Festival of the Arts and the International Festival of the Holidays. These festivals all have some distinct differences, but they all include a “festival kitchen” component, where themed food is served out of temporary festival food booths. These festivals are my favorite thing to do at Epcot, and are the primary reason we ended up buying annual passes to Disney World (we started out buying multi-day tickets to use during the festival season, and kept increasing the number of days each year until it just made more sense to get an annual pass). However, as a vegetarian I definitely find some festivals to be better and more accommodating than others. Keep in mind that some menus and food booths update or change each year, but most things are consistent and come back year after year. That means I’m able to have a pretty good idea of what each festival will be like based on several years of previous festivals. Here is my ranking list, based mostly on the food (let’s be honest, the food is the reason we’re here) but also on the festival as a whole.
Number 4: Festival of the Arts
This is one of the newer festivals at Epcot, and I’m hopeful it will continue to expand and improve. We were there for the first Festival of the Arts back in 2017, when it consisted of only six food booths and was only open on weekends. Now, in 2020, there were twelve food booths (called “food studios”) and the festival was open every day. Epcot has done a great job expanding this festival to include more art features, such as crowd-sourced paintings, wall murals, and 3D chalk art, musicians from the community (for the “performing arts” component), plus the usual artist vendor tents that surround World Showcase. The artistic elements are everywhere, and you can tell they’re trying to find new ways to lean in to this theme. Nevertheless, my opinion of the festival food remains largely unchanged. This festival is great if you’re there for the art, but it is disappointing if you’re there for the food. The “culinary arts” tie-in feels forced, and the menus focus largely on how the food looks and/or sounds, and unfortunately the tastes mostly fall flat. My first day at the festival I didn’t find a single thing that I would order again, and there were multiple things that I could not even bring myself to finish. This year’s festival also loses points for not properly labeling vegetarian items on the menus for easy identification. I’m not sure how the meat-eaters were faring, but this vegetarian had to rely on quick service to find anything decent.
Despite an overall disappointing festival, there were a few stand-outs for this vegetarian:
- Rainboba from ‘The Deconstructed Dish’ booth: This drink was fun and refreshing, but with an $8 price tag for a small, non-alcoholic drink it was hard to be as enthusiastic about it as I otherwise would have. Still, I bought multiple of them over the course of my visit there.
- Lemon and Blood Orange Tart from ‘Decadent Delight’ booth: You’ll see a consistent theme emerging across all of the festivals; often the only vegetarian items are the dessert items. I actually sampled multiple items at Decadent Delights and they were all pretty okay, but they are indeed decadent so a little goes a long way on this menu. The Lemon and Blood Orange Tart tasted a bit like a key lime pie or lemon meringue pie. I enjoyed it, but wouldn’t order it again.
- Vanilla, Rose Water and Pistachio Panna Cotta from ‘Masterpiece Kitchen’ booth: This was probably the best thing at the festival for me. I almost didn’t order it because some other reviews on Disney blogs said that it wasn’t good, and with an $8 price tag I was hesitant to order something that I had already heard was disappointing. However, I decided to give it a try since pistachio and rose are two of my favorite dessert flavors, and I’m glad I did! It was delicious, although I can see how this might be variable. The reviews I read complained that it was melted and watery inside; mine was frozen solid but I can see how it could lose a lot of its structure if it was left sitting out. For my part, I loved this, but still only ordered one because it was pretty pricey for a fairly small panna cotta. (A side note, I am not sure what the ingredients are for this panna cotta. I know some vegetarians do not eat some ingredients that are often used in panna cotta, such as gelatin. I made the decision to try it, but I cannot attest that it meets the standards of all vegetarians regarding their possible use of gelatin).
- Taiyaki: Fish-shaped Cake stuffed with a Sweet Red Bean Filling served with Green Tea Chocolate and Whipped Cream Cheese from ‘Goshiki’: This one may look like a fish, but it is actually a dessert! This one was great, although the plating was nothing like the signs and marketing photos, for those of you hoping to get a instagram-worthy picture. My guess is it was too unwieldy on original plates, because mine were served in a bowl. This booth also had a vegetarian gyoza, but I do not like mushrooms and this was heavily mushroom-based (the vegetarian default ingredient) so I didn’t order it. For those that do like them, this was one of the few non-dessert vegetarian options.
I could honestly sum up most of the rest of the menu in this list, but instead I’ll focus on a couple of items that sounded good but were really disappointing.
- Plant-based Bratwurst with Spicy Turmeric Aïoli, Coffee Barbecue Jackfruit and Slaw from ‘Refreshment Outpost’: Refreshment Outpost is technically not a food booth, but this was a special “festival menu item” that is not usually part of their regular item. Many quick service stands get in on the festival fun by offering themed items. This was probably the saddest menu item for me, because it sounded so much like something I would like. Instead, the bun was completely soggy to the point it just turned to mush in my hand when I picked it up. The “sausage” and jack fruit slaw were cold, and the jackfruit combined with the “sausage” was a really terrible combination in both texture and flavor. I’m willing to admit that it could have just been a “bad batch” that had sat out too long, but it was so terrible I wasn’t willing to give it another shot. I ended up throwing almost the whole thing away.
- Almond Frangipane Cake layered with Raspberry Jam and Belgian Chocolate from ‘Pop Eats’: This is a pretty cake, but that’s where my compliments end. The frangipane cake has been at the Festival of the Arts since the first year. I usually like frangipane but this one was really dry, and the raspberry jam and chocolate frosting made it taste even more dense and dry. I couldn’t even get my kids to eat it, and ended up throwing most of it away.
Bottom line: If you’re there for the art, this festival is great. If you’re there for the food, especially if you’re a vegetarian, it’s a dud.
Number 3: Festival of the Holidays
This festival started as Holidays Around the World but was rebranded as Festival of the Holidays, making use of Epcot’s “festival” reputation. In 2019 it included thirteen food booths (called “holiday kitchens”). The menus center around traditional holiday foods around the world. The festival also includes other holiday traditions, like musical performances and storytelling, and of course lots of holiday decorations. The atmosphere is fun and festive, and they get bonus points for having a festival kid play area (although in fairness, it was actually the leftover play area from the Food and Wine festival, they just never took it down). I was pleasantly surprised by this festival, and despite an emphasis on a lot of hearty roasted meat and potato-type dishes, I found a lot of items to order here. I also liked that the menu included “kid approved” recommendations, which did not always jive with my kids’ preferences, but still it was nice to see those suggestions.
- The Andalusian “Poinsettia” Cocktail from ‘Sapphire Holiday Kitchen’: I’ve served a more low-brow version of this cocktail at holiday gatherings. It’s a bit like a mimosa, and it was delicious.
- Potato Latkes with Sour Cream from ‘L’Chaim!’: Always a great festival item. These have previously been offered during Food and Wine, but have shifted to the Festival of the Holidays, which is a great fit.
- Cheese Fondue in a Bread Bowl with Fresh Steamed Baby Vegetables and Marble Potatoes from ‘Bavaria Holiday Kitchen’: Not as good as the cheese fondue at the Food and Wine Festival (below), but it was pretty good, the portion was huge, and as advertised, it was in fact kid friendly; my kids ended up eating most of it.
- Matcha Crème Brûlée and Ichigo Milk Boba from ‘Shi Wasu Holiday Kitchen’: These were both great items. The matcha is a little overpowering in the crème brûlée, but overall I thought it was pretty good. The ichigo was good, but on the small side. It was gone way too soon.
The most disappointing thing about this festival were the things that included meat, but didn’t need to. I felt like more vegetarian options could have been included. Much like how the latkes were served with a salmon option or a sour cream option, I would have liked to see things like vegetable egg rolls available (after all, a meat version is already available at the Joy of Tea booth year-round; let’s mix it up a little at the festival booths!). In America, I could have eaten 80% of the main dish there (mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, etc.) but it was all stacked together with the turkey so I couldn’t pick and choose. In the past, I have ordered items like the pierogies at the Food and Wine Festival without the sausages they are served with, or with the sausages on the side to share with my meat-eating companions. By stacking everything together I don’t have that opportunity, which is disappointing.
Bottom line: There are not a ton of options for vegetarians at this festival, but the ones that are available are delicious!
Number 2: Food and Wine Festival
This is the big one. While the other festivals find ways to make the food booths fit with the theme, at the Food and Wine Festival the food booths are the main event. There are more food booths at this festival than any of the others and the emphasis is on variety, experimentation, and flavor. For me it is a close tie between Number 2 and Number 1, and it comes down to the kinds of food that are available. As a fall festival, the Food and Wine Festival trends towards heartier-type foods, with a lot of stews and soups, which tend to be less vegetarian friendly. Nevertheless, with the size and scope of this festival it is easy to find a lot of vegetarian options. Some of the best ones are listed below:
- The IMPOSSIBLE™ Burger Slider with Wasabi Cream and spicy Asian Slaw on a Sesame Seed Bun from ‘Earth Eats’: This was definitely my favorite thing at the latest Food and Wine. It was a unique combination of flavors and a great presentation.
- Butternut Squash Ravioli with Brown Butter Vinaigrette, Parmesan Cheese and Pumpkin Seeds from ‘Wine and Dine Studio’: This was a great fall-flavored dish, and my kids loved it too!
- Liquid Nitro Chocolate-Almond Truffle with Warm Whiskey-Caramel from ‘Chocolate Studio’: This was even better than I expected, and a really unique concept too.
- Tropical Mimosa with Sparkling Wine and Passion Fruit, Orange, and Guava Juices from ‘Shimmering Sips Mimosa Bar’: This was a welcomed light and fruity drink at a festival that usually trends towards the brewed and heavy. Runner up was their mimosa flight. Let’s just say this was my first stop each day we visited this festival.
- Warm Irish Cheddar Cheese and Stout Dip with Irish Brown Bread from ‘Ireland’: This was really fantastic, especially on a cooler day. My only complaint is that it felt like we didn’t have enough bread to balance out the cheese.
- Warm Raclette Swiss Cheese with Baby Potatoes, Cornichons and Baguette from ‘The Alps’: I ordered this once and never again. The description sounded like ingredients I liked, but they managed to put it together into something that was not very good.
- Spicy Kenyan Vegan Githeri with White Beans, Pigeon Peas, Curry Rice Pilaf and Kachumbari Slaw from ‘Africa’: It was vegetarian, and I wanted to like it, but it was way too spicy for me. If you can handle spice I’d say try it, but if you’re a wimp like me than skip it. It’s spicy to the point of inedible.
- So much cheesecake: Not so much a disappointment but just an observation, there is a lot of cheesecake at this festival, it seems to be the go-to dessert for a lot of the booths. To me, cheesecake is a little too rich and a little goes a long way. As someone who has to rely mostly on desserts at these festivals, I was noticing the lack of variety when it came to dessert options.
Bottom line: Food and Wine is all about, well, the food and wine. If you’re there to eat you won’t be disappointed. Luckily there are more booths than any other festival, and with more variety comes more vegetarian options, included dedicated vegetarian booths.
Number 1: The Flower and Garden Festival
For years the Flower and Garden Festival has been my favorite festival. As the name suggests, this festival is all about plants, and most of the menus are naturally plant-based. That means this is the only festival that trends vegetarian naturally. Sure, there are still some meat-based items too, but there are a lot more vegetarian choices, and all of the menus are light, fruit and vegetable inspired, making them great for the grazing approach the festivals encourage. In addition to that, the festival is beautiful, with flowers and topiaries everywhere. This festival also boasts the best kid play area of all four festivals, which is another big bonus.
- Tropical Mousse Cake from ‘La Isla Fresca’: I bought an embarrassing number of these cakes during my visits to last year’s Flower and Garden Festival. It’s the perfect example of what makes this festival so great – light and fruity foods that aren’t too dense or rich to enjoy. This year, this dessert has been reimagined into a ‘Tropical Mousse Cup’, sans cake. It will be interesting to see how it holds up to the cake version, but it looks like most of the flavors are the same.
- Farmhouse Meatball with Lentil Bread, Spinach, Marinated Vegetables, Creamy Herb Dressing from ‘Trowel & Trellis’: Don’t let the name fool you, this was a vegan food option! At the larger festivals there is usually an all-vegetarian and/or vegan booth, usually sponsored by a meat substitute company. Years ago there was a booth hosted by Gardein, more recently the vegan booth has been sponsored by Impossible. Needless to say, I always order one of everything at the vegetarian booth!
- Frushi from ‘Hanami’: Frushi is always one of my favorite Flower and Garden Festival foods. It’s been available at the festival for years, and is back again for 2020. It’s as pretty as it is delicious, and it’s a kid-pleaser too! The basic concept is fruit served as sushi, and it is the best.
- Panda Bubble Tea from ‘Lotus House’: I usually always order the festival bubble tea (or two!) but the Panda Bubble Tea has been disappointing. Instead of traditional boba or the popping bubbles used in previous years, this drink includes “white boba” which are chewy and squeaky in all the wrong ways. The tea itself is good but the white boba ruin it. You’re better off getting a regular bubble tea from Joy of Tea, around the corner from the festival booth.
- Chocolate Pudding Terrarium with Avocado Cream, Matcha Crumble, and Baby Herbs from ‘Trowel & Trellis: I was intrigued enough to try it, but this dessert was just the wrong combination of flavors. I typically like matcha but with the avocado the whole thing was a little overpowering. It looks like they’ve retooled this one a little for the 2020 festival, so I might be willing to give it another try.
Bottom line: Being a plant-themed festival, it is not surprising that a vegetarian would find a lot to love at the Flower and Garden Festival. There are so many options even beyond what I’ve highlighted here. Plus, the park looks magical with the gardens, flowers, and topiaries, and it is some of the best weather in Florida all year. This festival checks every box!
Ultimately, all of the festivals are excellent, and vegetarian or not, everyone can find something to love on the menus at the festivals. I love how the festivals have expanded year after year; at this point there are only a handful of weeks that don’t have a festival going on at Epcot. My hope is that as the Festival of the Arts and the Festival of the Holidays become more established and expand their menus they’ll become more vegetarian friendly too. In the meantime, I’ll be eating my way around the world, as usual.
Have you been to an Epcot festival? Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!