Food fest returns to Disney California Adventure with pricey VIP offerings
The Disney California Adventure Food & Wine Festival returns after a five-year hiatus with celebrity chefs, culinary demonstrations and beer, wine and spirits seminars.
I visited the revived food fest during opening weekend and came ready to eat and drink. But as you’ll soon see, I learned the hard way that the DCA food and wine fest is, ironically, not for the seriously hungry and thirsty.
Overall, I found the festival offerings to be of gourmet food truck quality. In general, the food was much better and higher priced than I’ve come to expect at a Disney park. As the festival progresses, the biggest challenge for Disney will be shortening the lines at the kiosk registers and pick-up windows.
The revived DCA event is an offshoot of the popular Epcot International Food & Wine Festival in Florida that has run every fall since 1995. The original DCA festival ran from 2006 until 2010 until a $1-billion improvement project forced the Anaheim theme park to put the annual event on hiatus during construction.
This year’s springtime festival at DCA runs on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until May 1. Some festival events are included with park admission while others require an additional fee and reservations.
The eight Festival Marketplace kiosks along the DCA parade route sell $4 to $8 tastings from a snack menu that includes chilled ahi poke, zinfandel-braised wagyu beef, roasted yellow beets and purple haze goat cheese, artichoke chips with spicy aioli and a chilled shrimp and snow crab cocktail.
I passed on the $45 Tasting Passport at the Blue Sky Cellar that lets annual pass-holders sample six items from the Festival Marketplace kiosks. The passport made little financial sense since the six most expensive festival food items came to a grand total of $43.25. In theory you could save $1.50 if you bought six grilled beef tenderloin sliders with the passport, but who would pay $45 for six sliders?
I started with the $5.75 Thai vegetable curry, which had a spicy kick, especially for theme park food. Like many of the other offerings, the sample-size dish was served in a bamboo bowl and was gone in a few bites.
Next up was the $7.75 grilled beef tenderloin slider. The bite-sized brioche bun was delicious but the shredded fillet portion was about the size of a stick of chewing gum. It was at this moment I realized I had made a mistake skipping breakfast and coming to the festival hungry.
The $5.50 white cheddar ale and bacon soup in a mini Boudin sourdough roll was creamy and cheesy but contained only two ounces of soup, which was gone in two spoonfuls. By now I’d already dropped $19 and was still hungry. And I’d waited in six lines - once to pay and then again to pick up at each kiosk - to eat a few bites of overpriced and undersized food.
I passed on the pedestrian California beers offered at the festival’s Brewhouse kiosk, knowing there was a better selection at DCA’s Golden Vine Winery. When I got to the winery, I stumbled upon a line waiting for a Stone Brewing beer seminar. I didn’t have a reservation, but I was surprised to find a few spots still available for the paid event on the winery terrace.
The 45-minute beverage seminars feature presentations by winemakers, sommeliers and brew masters along with sample tastings. Reservations are recommended for the $15 sessions that take place several times a day throughout the event. More than 50 seminars are offered by vendors like Modern Times Beer, Lasseter Family Winery and Henebery Whiskey.
During the seminar I attended, Stone Brewing’s Minister of Evangelism and Indoctrination Ken Wright offered a humorous take on the brewery’s culture, history and mythology along with simple beer-tasting instructions: “If you try it and don’t like it, try harder.” The 45-minute session included samples of the hop-loving San Diego brewer’s Saison du Buff farmhouse-style ale, Pataskala Red X IPA and Ruination 2.0 double IPA.
During the festival’s initial run, the challenge for Disney had been how to hold limited-capacity seminars in the middle of a theme park teeming with thousands of people. In years past, lines often formed hours before seminars and crowds bulged around the edges of the venues during the shows, creating traffic management issues and unhappy visitors who couldn’t see their favorite stars. This time around, Disney has opted to turn the most popular seminars into reserved VIP events with fees and amenities designed to control attendance and add an air of exclusivity.
After my beer seminar I came to the realization that I had been approaching the festival the wrong way. The idea is to graze, relax and enjoy the festival atmosphere. If you’re really hungry or thirsty, go to any of DCA’s restaurants and bars. The festival is for sipping, savoring and sampling. And if you have a problem with high prices or long lines, a Disney theme park is the wrong place to be.
In the afternoon, I tackled the festival at a more leisurely pace when the lines were more manageable. The $6.50 fried shrimp soft taco delivered a burst of flavor with lots of textured layers of pickled red onions, jalapenos, queso fresco and avocado-lime crema. The $5.50 burrito was the most substantial item on the festival menu and combined two unique flavors: Anaheim chiles and roasted cauliflower. The tasty $6 triple cheese mac with smoked chicken was one of my favorites.
Clearly the most popular item of the festival was the $6.50 pork belly bao taco, which was sold out at least twice during my visit. The savory taco with pickled vegetables and a sticky glaze on a puffy steamed bun was worth the wait. Hopefully the Disney culinary staff finds a place for the delicious taco at one of the theme park’s restaurants.
The Festival Marketplace tasting menu also included several desserts: Milk chocolate caramel tart, blackberry tart, apple-bacon whoopie pie, Meyer lemon macaroon and coconut tapioca layered with mango and lychee boba.
California wine is available at most of the kiosks from $5 to $25 per glass. Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot Noir wine flights are sold at The Vineyard kiosk for $14 to $19. Disney’s done a good job of pulling together wines from throughout California -- from obvious places like Napa and Sonoma but also lesser-known wine regions like San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and Santa Ynez Valley.
California beer can be found for $7.50 to $9.25 a glass at The Brewhouse kiosk, with Northern and Southern California flights available for $11.25 to $12.25. You’ll find most of the usual suspects on tap - including Hangar 24, Karl Strauss, Bootlegger’s, Sierra Nevada, Anchor and Firestone. The most interesting pour: The Patsy coconut rye stout from Barley Forge Brewing in Costa Mesa.
The biggest change to the rebooted DCA Food & Wine Festival are the hefty fees and mandatory reservations required for the most popular events. In the past, celebrity chef demonstrations and beverage seminars were on a first-come basis and free with park admission. Now if you want to see Guy Fieri from “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” or Robert Irvine from “Restaurant: Impossible” you’ll have to shell out an additional $99 to $149 to get admission to the closed-door events.
The 90-minute Celebrity Kitchen events take place on Saturday afternoons inside Stage 17 in DCA’s Hollywood Land. The $99 reservation-only events include food and beverage tastings. For $149, annual passholders can get priority seating and take part in an autograph session with the celebrity chef. Among the participating top chefs: Graham Elliot from “MasterChef,” G. Garvin from the Cooking Channel’s “Road Trip,” former “Food Network Challenge” host Keegan Gerhard as well as Carthay Circle and Napa Rose chef Andrew Sutton.
Non-VIPs and those with lower credit limits can still attend dozens of free cooking demos by professional chefs and lifestyle seminars by artisans in Hollywood Land, but there are no samples and you’ll have to wait in line for the first-come, first-served chance to get a spot.
After feasting during the festival, I caught one of the free culinary demonstrations on the Backlot Stage in DCA’s Hollywood Land. The KABC radio host of “Food & Wine with Chef Jamie Gwen” took the audience through the step-by-step process of making a fresh summer lemon pie. At the end of the show, Gwen had to decline several requests to taste the pie, which seems ridiculous at a food festival. It would be easy enough for Disney to sell samples of the chef’s creation at the kiosk next to the stage.
There is certainly room for the DCA food fest to improve and grow in the coming years, but the event will never rival the 30-kiosk monster that’s held every fall at Epcot. Should the rebooted festival prove successful, expect the DCA event to introduce international themes and focus on delicacies and beverages from individual countries in coming years.
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