As we round the corner towards the end of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, right next door, the Swan and Dolphin hotels recently celebrated their eighth annual Food & Wine Classic. I attended the event this year for the second time, and thought I’d help others see why I think it’s the hidden gem of the Food & Wine season. Here, I’ll tell you about how the event usually works and compare it to the familiar festival at Epcot, so you can see if this is a must-do to add to your agenda for next year. After all, I know you’re all planning ahead for next Food & Wine season already!
How the Food & Wine Classic Works
Think of the Swan & Dolphin Food & Wine Classic as a mash-up between the regular Epcot International Food & Wine Festival and Epcot’s Party for the Senses. Held outdoors along the causeway between the Swan and Dolphin hotels, the event lasts about 5 hours on a given Friday and Saturday night in late October or early November. The Classic features dozens of booths serving wines from around the world and food samples representative of the Swan & Dolphin’s 17 restaurants. Similar to Party for the Senses, live music accents a lively atmosphere, with seated and standing tables available for guests to use whilst enjoying all their samples.
For the 2017 Food & Wine Classic, a la carte tickets, allowing you to sample a few items from all offerings, ran $50 for 25 tickets (each item is 2-6 tickets). This is a great way to sample options on a fixed budget, but depending on your tastes, you may run out of tickets quickly. The most common choice, and the best deal, is a causeway ticket, which cost $108.26 (tax inclusive). This allows unlimited sampling at every standard booth in the event for that particular night (causeway tickets are purchased for either Friday or Saturday, though many guests attend both nights).
For a few dollars more, you can upgrade your causeway ticket to allow access to the Beer Garden, a separate section featuring craft beer booths and a few more food selections. Prices have increased a bit in recent years, but, as I’ll describe a bit later, I still find this to be a heck of a value if you typically go wild at the Epcot Food & Wine Festival. Other upgrades include several beverage seminars and specialty events, like a champagne brunch, each season. Seminar tickets are sold separately, and each seminar takes place the hour before the regular event kicks off for the evening – a nice touch, as it doesn’t cut into your causeway sampling time.
All in all, the Food & Wine Classic features about 20-30 total dishes for sampling, with specific dishes from each booth varying between Friday and Saturday night. (Be sure to check official menus before purchasing tickets if something strikes your fancy!) I found all of the portions to be similar or just slightly smaller in size to those you get from the Epcot Food & Wine Festival – about 3-4 bites each, but with one vital difference: the food quality is far away better at the Food & Wine Classic. Nearly every booth represents a Swan & Dolphin dining establishment, and chefs from those specific locations are on-site at every booth preparing the food fresh in front of you, as well as plating them for presentation. This ensures high quality from every booth for every sample.
With each booth representing a different dining establishment, the Food & Wine Classic becomes a neat and easy way to sample representative dishes from each restaurant – Il Mulino’s booth typically serves a pasta dish, Shula’s always serves steak, sushi is available at Kimono’s booth, etc. Separate of those booths, celebrity Chef Todd English (whose signature restaurant, bluezoo, sits downstairs at the Dolphin resort) serves up a specialty dish each night (often times himself, manning the food booth and taking photos with fans), and then several themed areas (generally a Carnival section and a Chinatown area) feature the resort’s catering teams and specialty food groups. Desserts from the kitchen of world-renowned pastry chef Laurent Branlard are served out of one centrally located (and generally, very crowded) booth, with four different offerings on hand each night.
The Wine (And More…)
The true standout for me at the Food & Wine Classic is the sheer variety of wines available for tasting. At this event, you can sample wines from eight of the largest wine-producing countries of the world, alongside domestic wines from five different states. Each wine region is featured in several different causeway booths, and each booth usually has 2-3 tastings available. You’ll see a wide variety of mid-range to high-end wines out each year, with some specialty gems thrown in. All in all, it’s an easy way to sample lots of different wine varietals to find your wine sweet spot, or, if you already know what your favorites are, you can head straight to them and find out more.
New for this year was a separate champagne room (the Bubbles Lounge, which cleverly required exchanging a piece of bubblegum as your entrance ticket to the room). Though “secret” and somewhat tough to find, as it was off the beaten path from the causeway, the champagne room was a fun addition with new vendors that I hope continues next year. A few beer and liquor booths are also available for standard causeway guests, but for those looking for more brews, the upcharge Beer Garden is where it’s at – six breweries with multiple samples at each, including a specialty cider booth. Local favorites like the Cigar City Brewing Company and St. Augustine Distillery make regular appearances at the Classic as well.
All told, managers made it known that if you sampled one of everything at the Food & Wine Classic, it amounted to nearly 385 oz of alcohol – obviously not recommended, but that gives you a sense of the scale of the Classic’s liquor offerings. Many guests who attend both nights of the event split their sampling up between the two nights, focusing on wine one night, beer the next; or white wines on Friday, reds on Saturday, etc. This can help avoid overconsumption, and keep your night on track.
I attended my first Food & Wine Classic seminar this year (the Craft Cocktails seminar), which turned out to be one of the true hidden gems of the entire Food & Wine season. For $50, two highly experienced managers of Swan & Dolphin dining establishments took us through a brief history of cocktails, and then taught us how to create our own Cucumber Southside Fizz and Whiskey Sours. Over the course of an hour, we learned about the importance of the quality and shape of ice in our drinks, how bitters are made and what benefits they offer cocktails, and then we were given reign over our own stations to craft our drinks.
I had expected, similar to Epcot Food & Wine seminars and demos, that we’d had a small pre-made drink, maybe a few pre-measured items at each station, and we’d simply be mixing and stirring to create our drinks. Oh no. Not at the Food & Wine Classic. Each station was equipped with a full barware set – a strainer, muddler, Boston glasses and a shaker, and a juicer, plus full bottles of gin and whiskey that we’d be measuring ourselves with the provided jigger. This was the most practical demonstration I’ve ever attended – it well and truly taught me exactly what I’d need to make each drink, and how to do it, start to finish, at home.
Additionally, we had endless amounts of St. Augustine rum punch and snacks to sample during the seminar – a wonderful lobster roll bite, cheese crisps, and a deviled egg. In speaking with guests who attended wine seminars at the Classic this year, similar setups were also involved – two to three full glasses of wine as well as a snack or two. For the value, this is actually a pretty solid deal – I wished the seminar had been a little longer than an hour but I learned so much during that time that it definitely felt worth the money.
Showdown: Food & Wine Classic vs Epcot’s Food & Wine
The ultimate reason why many haven’t tried the Food & Wine Classic, it seems, is that they can’t decide whether it’s right for them, or if it’s a good value for the price. While prices have risen in recent years, I can heartily recommend an a la carte ticket book if you’re still on the fence and want to try the Classic. But what about buying a causeway ticket? Is it worth it? Let’s break down a “typical meal” at Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival and see if the Food & Wine Classic is a reasonable alternative…
In my experience, most people will only end up sampling 2-3 food items, a dessert, and maybe one or two drinks in a single “light meal” at Food & Wine. Using comparable examples from the Food & Wine Classic, an average meal would end up running you about $34 at Food & Wine Festival.
- China – chicken potstickers: $4.00
- Canada – filet: $8.00
- Farm Fresh – beet salad: $3.75
- France – crème brulee: $4.25
- Italy – Moscato: $9.00
- Spain – wine: $5.00
- Total: $34.00
So why would I recommend the Food & Wine Classic when a ticket is thrice that cost? It’s simple – this is a “light meal” at Food & Wine. If you’re looking to actually fill up with quality offerings, you’ll spend far more than $34 a person, and while there are fewer overall dishes to try at the Classic, the quality surpasses Food & Wine Festival’s offerings. The best part? The Classic is risk-free; if you don’t like a dish, you can have three more plates of steak, no loss. You can try as many wine samples as you’d like, tasting your way through the world of wine, rather than just through one or two country’s worth.
A closer approximation to the event, as described earlier, is probably the Party for the Senses, offered on select weekends at Epcot. Tickets for one 2 ½ hour party will set you back $179-199, depending on how much guaranteed seating you’d like (“none” or “some”). If you like Party for the Senses but have never tried the Food & Wine Classic, I highly encourage you to give the latter a shot next year (instead, or in addition to the party). The ticket is half the price for an event twice as long, and features entertainment, a lively atmosphere, and great food and wine, just as Party for the Senses.
Ultimately, if you’re into wine and want to have a fun night out, a causeway ticket to the Swan and Dolphin Food & Wine Classic is a no-brainer. If you’re only in it for the food, your best bet is sticking to an a la carte ticket book or with Epcot’s Festival. Or, split the difference: the Classic is a great complement to Food & Wine Festival if you’d like to sample Epcot’s food, but the Classic’s wine, as well. And though weather can vary, Swan & Dolphin management plan ahead – this year, when rain was forecast for Saturday’s event, they moved every booth indoors and allowed guests to party the night away without having to trudge through puddles with a poncho on.
So what’s my Hot Take after attending the Swan & Dolphin Food & Wine Classic for the last two years? It’s a great way to experience the best parts of Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival, whether through seminars, specialty events, and the causeway itself, for a better price. Though it’s a bit off the beaten path and not your traditional Epcot Food & Wine experience, I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for a great night out.