From burgers and fries to escargot – how theme park food is changing

CChafer Disney Teppan Edo 

No burgers on the menu at Epcot's Teppan Edo. 

By Camilla Chafer

CHICKEN nuggets or burgers and fries – they're all on the menu at theme parks.

In America, your eyes may also have boggled at the turkey legs families plump for.

Who could blame you for turning your nose up at such an artery clogging, lack lustre menu? 

But now Disneyhas been working hard to change theme park food perceptions, thanks in part to an annual International Food and Wine Festival at Epcot. 

When I was invited by Disney to try out the foodie options at Walt Disney World, I was somewhat sceptical. My run ins with theme park food have, so far, not been great. Fast food at inflated prices isn't what I want to feed my family.

Disney wanted to see if they could change my opinion and challenged me to find out what's on offer throughout their parks in Florida.

Our first stop is Epcot, which six years ago I found utterly boring. Here, they play host to the International Food and Wine Festival, an event that runs for six weeks from late September to early November (and neatly coinciding with our October half term).

Now in its 14th year, the festival has drawn together 25 street-style stalls to serve up tapas style portions to guests with prices that are, crucially, comparable to general theme park fare. Head to the Greek stall for Chicken Souvlaki with Tzatziki (delicious) or Canada for a beer-infused thick Cheddar Cheese Soup, Maple glazed salmon and Maple Syrup candies (tiny and very sweet) shaped like mini leaves or over to Japan for sushi.

CChafer Epcot FW

Pick up Paprika Beef Stew in Vienna or peruse the cheeses on offer on the Mousecatch menu. 

As portions generally cost between two and five dollars, it's cheap enough to flit between zones to sample the different country's produce, all of which have been created by that country's chefs and paired with complementing wine or beers (at any extra cost).

It works well for family dining too – you don't all have to agree on the same restaurant, instead you can walk around the boardwalk until one of the kiosks grabs you and as the portions are tapas-style (think small side plate with mini portions), food isn't wasted. The only thing I thought may be difficult for family diners were the lack of tables and chairs. There were a smattering of benches overlooking the lake and a few tall tables of the 'stand and lean' variety but otherwise it was a case of eat and walk, not easy if with smaller children.

The grazing idea should appeal to families who may rather snack here and there in the sunshine rather than have a sit down meal and it's certainly fun to try out new meals. We may have sniffed at the escargot on the French kiosk but Karen Haynes, head of Food and Beverage, told us it was a popular option that made it to the final menu cut year after year.

The festival is also good if you want to test new foods on the children. We had the occasional hit and miss such as the slices of cheese and bread in Ireland that were too thick and dry but for just $3.75, we didn't have the anxiety of wasting food that would have occurred if ordering a main meal at a restaurant. I also don't think my Morrocan iced mint tea at $2 had any tea in it.

Of course, good food isn't limited to Epcot's festival. The restaurants we dined at couldn't have been further from typical theme park fare. 

Let's be clear about one thing though. We're now talking American portions. Everything is bigger here and you, like me, may well struggle to finish your plate. Naturally, being Disney, there is still some theming but it's not so pushy that it becomes tired. Instead, it's a case of making sure that the restaurants are in keeping with their hotels and the ethos of the resort.

At the Grand Floridian, a glam hotel with inspiration drawn from LA's Chateau Marmont, we dined at Citricos. I started with Ahi seared tuna carpacchio paired with a blackberry vinaigrette ($13), so delicate that it melted on my tongue, before following it up with pan fried halibut, perfectly cooked so that it flaked to the touch, and teamed with risotto and a lemon and thyme broth (around $30). My lemon cheesecake ($8) had an edible chocolate plaque suggesting I 'celebrate today' whilst one companion's dessert arrived with a spun chocolate tiara. Both were pretty and sweet touches rather than cheesy. The chef was more than happy to quickly discuss a food allergy I have which I thoroughly appreciated, after all, one never wants to revisit one's dinner. For those also with food allergies, I noted that most menus suggested that were happy to discuss requirements.

CChafer Jiko starter

The following night at the Animal Kingdom Lodge we were surprised to find that Jiko's boasted the largest South African wine cellar outside of South Africa. Flatbreads made a good sharing choice if you don't want an appetizer. However, the Savanna crispy rolls ($9, above), stuffed with sweetcorn and veg, was served with a delicately spiced creamy curry vinagrette. The grilled Chermoula Tanglewood twin chicken breast ($28) served with goats cheese mash and harissa was delicious and put paid to any idea of dessert.

Breakfasts are of a similar high standard. Kouzzina by Cat Cora on the Boardwalk near The Yacht & Beach Club resorts served good American fare – try the Americana, two eggs scrambled or fried, bacon and breakfast potatoes to set you up for the day. A character breakfast never goes amiss either – I cuddled up to Donald Duck and spotted Minnie Mouse in surfwear at the Beach Club's Cape May Cafe where they served up a hot and cold buffet.

However, if you want to really treat the kids, head over to the Rainforest Cafe at the Animal Kingdom. Not only are the surroundings amazing, but the food is fab too, just don't come here if you want a quiet start to the day. Designed on a jungle theme, you'll need to pass through vertical fish tanks to reach your table. If you're lucky you may get seated near the animatronic elephants or the gorillas. Food wise, start your day with the Tonga Toast ($9.99). With six slices of sugar-coated cinnamon toast, served with strawberries and bacon plus a jug of maple syrup, it's big enough for two to share. A glass of raspberry lemonade washed it down nicely.

If you're not too stuffed by lunchtime, head to Yak & Yeti in the same park. Serving Pan-Asian fare, I was quite happy to just stick with the Lettuce Cup appetizer, a fun, if not messy, dish involving stuffing the lettuce leaves with minced chicken, veggies finished with a drizzle of maple sauce ($12.99).

But if it's cooking with a bit of a show you want, teppanyaki restaurant Teppan Edo in Epcot (pictured, top), is a cleverly orchestrated affair with a chef cooking everyone's main course from the menu. My assorted tempura ($6.50) arrived first then our chef, James, started off with a showy but brilliant creation of an onion volcano, with stream streaming through before preparing my Ebi, a prawn dish served with rice and vegetables ($23) followed by an indulgently gooey chocolate ginger cake ($5.50). Do be prepared to use chop sticks, it's not hard and the waitresses will make yours up beginner style if you ask.

Let's get back to those chicken nuggets for a moment. Disney reps told me they are in no way trying to hide what they call 'fast and casual dining'. If fast food is what you want, you'll find it in food courts situated throughout the parks. You can easily mix and match a quick, light lunch with a more sophisticated dinner and vice versa. But if fast food turns you off theme parks, you won't be disappointed with the alternatives. Karen Haynes, tells me over a light lunch at The Grand Floridian Cafe, that the fine dining options are so popular that they've now opened bookings up to 180 days in advance.

A year of planning goes in to each Food & Wine Festival and it attracts millions of visitors, enough to turn it into an annual event. If Disney can do dining this well, I can only hope that British theme parks take note.

TOP TIP:Alcohol is only served to over 21s. Do note that if you want to drink alcohol here (or anywhere in America), you should bring some form of ID, especially if you are blessed with youthful looks. I found my UK driving licence was accepted as proof of age.

Camilla was invited to DisneyWorld, staying at the Beach Club Resort, as part of a group of journalists, to discover the food and dining options available throughout the parks and hotels.

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