What You Need To Know About Disney's Upcoming Holiday Food Festival

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but Christmas this year is going to look a bit different. While we wish it was all sugar, spice, and everything nice, theme parks have been met with the unprecedented challenge of operating while navigating government mandates for COVID-19. Nevertheless, the holidays have arrived at Disney parks across the globe. The most magical place on Earth, Walt Disney World, is joining in on the action with the addition of decor and modified limited-time celebrations. Located in central Florida, its parks and resorts transform into a flurry of festive fun while maintaining the guest's healthy and safety at the forefront.

Epcot is a celebration of innovation that examines the past and looks toward the future through a series of attractions and dining experiences. Located within Epcot, World Showcase is a year-round World's fair celebrating the diverse cultures of the world. It's the only place on the planet where you can experience the spirit of Norway and, within minutes, take a stroll to romantic Italy. Cultural appreciation meets culinary experimentation each year at the park's food and wine festivals.

The largest, Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival, has been taking place annually each fall for 25 years, but the parks also serve as host to several other smaller festivals throughout the year. Foodies who have a soft spot for the holidays will delight in the Epcot International Festival of the Holidays, with the added bonus of milder temperatures and lighter crowds.

Disney's Epcot's International Festival of the Holidays kicks off November 27

Taking place around World Showcase, the Disney Epcot International Festival of the Holidays is a feast for all five senses. The festival kicks off November 27 and runs daily through December 30. Guests experience the holiday traditions from various destinations around the globe through entertainment, decorations, stories, and of course, food. During this festival, 16 different types of food are represented in the form of holiday kitchens where you can dine on a sampling of traditional dishes each culture serves during the holidays. These dishes are designed as small plates meant to be shared, so you can sample a little bit of everything around the festival.

The celebration isn't limited to food, as the sights and sounds plays a major role as well. There's entertainment to be found throughout the festival, including holiday twists on some of Epcot's long-standing musical groups. Additionally, limited-time entertainment includes the Santa Claus Promenade and a lively vocal ensemble. Beloved Disney characters, including Mickey, appear decked out in their holiday best. The festival begins when you enter World Showcase Plaza, the central hub that is adorned with a massive Christmas tree with decor reflective of each nation.

Admission is included with your Disney park ticket ...

Given all that's included, this sounds like it would be an expensive upgrade to your current Disney ticket. Wrong. Admission to the festival is included with your regular park admission ticket. The winter is an ideal time to visit Central Florida as to avoid the scorching hot temperatures found there most of the year. You'll also get to experience the very special holiday overlays of certain attractions.

Living With The Land is a boat attraction in Epcot that takes you on an agricultural journey through greenhouses while learning about conservation and the future of farming. For the holidays, it receives a merry makeover with the addition of Christmas lights and decor, including colorful wreaths and snowmen.

The feasting isn't limited to the holiday kitchen marketplaces — year-round food and beverage locations get in on the action as well. Did you really visit a theme park if you didn't scarf down a funnel cake? We think not. For the holidays, Epcot takes their regular funnel cakes and gives them a major upgrade in the form of a sweet potato casserole funnel cake. If you're looking to turn it up a bit (because *2020*), you can find T.G. Lee Eggnog loaded with spiced rum. Even your average coffee gets a twist in the form of a Caramel Tinsel Latte from Joffrey's, the official specialty coffee of Walt Disney World. Epcot is awesome year-round, but these little touches make it an extra special time to visit. 

... But you'll need a Disney park reservation

Planning a Walt Disney World vacation is a massive undertaking, and unfortunately, it proves to be a bit more challenging given recent times. Long gone are the days of park-hopping (that's Disney talk for visiting multiple parks in one day), and until 2021, guests are only able to visit one park each day. Because of limited capacity, advanced reservations are required through their website via a newly created theme park reservation system

Safety is a priority, and masks are required at all times for anyone over the age of two, including while walking around, taking photos, and while enjoying attractions. It's important to note that you can no longer actively be walking around while eating and drinking. Social distancing is also practiced throughout the parks and in line queues.

Cast Members (that's what Disney calls its employees) are dedicated to maintaining a safe environment for all and ready to enforce these new protocols. This does prove to be a bit of a challenge while attending a food and drink festival, but Disney has overcome this obstacle by providing many spaces to enjoy your eats and libations. Socially distanced high-top tables and picnic tables are found throughout World Showcase. Additionally, they are now utilizing World Showplace, previously only used as a special events space, as an indoor, temperature-controlled relaxation zone with plenty of seating, food and beverage booths, and entertainment.

There are 16 Disney holiday kitchens

In order to proceed with this experience, you must take all of your preconceived notions about what theme park food is and throw them out the window. While we'll gladly gorge ourselves silly on a Mickey pretzel any day of the week (this is a judgement-free zone), the chefs at Disney know what's up. Walt Disney World is, after all, home to a AAA Five Diamond Award-winning restaurant, the only sommelier-owned wine bar in Florida, and one of the nation's top tequila bars.

Food is serious business at Walt Disney World. Culinary creations for all the parks and resorts are dreamt up at the property's dedicated facility, dubbed the Food Lab. Highly top secret, this lab is an uber-private meeting space for chefs, mixologists, sommeliers, and food experts to dream up their next over-the-top creations for guests. After years in the festival business, they have gotten it down to an art. Each festival kitchen features several food items reflecting the culture's cuisine as well as drink pairings, including native wines, beers, and cocktails. The booths typically open around 11 a.m. each day, and in order to avoid the crowds that typically swell in the afternoon, the early bird gets the worm here. 

There's a Disney cookie stroll (what?)

We appreciate Disney and their attention to details. It's the little things that enhance our visits and set Disney apart from the countless other destination theme parks around the world. If you've ever been to a Disney festival, you've likely grabbed what they call a festival passport. These pocket-sized guides include menus, entertainment schedules, and general festival info. They also double as a guide to track what you've consumed throughout the festival. Stickers are provided that represent each marketplace experience. You simply apply them to your passport after each visit.

If you're up for a sweet (pun intended) challenge, Disney has announced the return of the Cookie Stroll. The cookie stroll takes you around to five different holiday kitchens that have their own unique cookies. This year's cookies include a chocolate crinkle cookie from the American Holiday Table that has been a fan favorite, a Linzer cookie from the German-themed Bavaria Holiday Kitchen, peppermint pinwheel cookies from Canada's Yukon Holiday Kitchen, and a classic New York-style black-and-white cookie from the L'Chaim Holiday Kitchen.

Upon devouring all of these cookies, you are gifted with a reward cookie. Your progress is marked by a stamp that is provided by a Cast Member upon purchasing all of the five cookies. This is a fun group activity that's reasonably priced, as each cookie typically costs less than $3.00. This year's completer cookie is a peppermint Minnie cookie that looks both adorbs and delicious. 

There are some returning food favorites at Disney

Epcot's festivals rank as some of the top food and wine festivals in the nation. With its success comes the droves of visitors who make the annual pilgrimage year after year. Naturally, there are some clear standouts every year. Some items have been a welcomed part of the festival for many years. The L'Chaim Holiday Kitchen celebrates Jewish traditions and delicacies and also happens to be a crowd-pleaser year after year. It's a safe bet to say that when we visit the festival, you can usually find us noshing on some deli-inspired delights here. They've been continuing to offer a standout pastrami on rye slider that's maintained its ranking as a festival favorite. 

The American Holiday Table is another favorite that's reminiscent of traditional dishes you'd expect while gathered around Grandma's dinner table. For the ultimate taste of home, Disney continues to offer a slow-roasted turkey dish complete with all the fixings, including stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and cranberry sauce. Be careful with this one. It's been long known to be a rather generous portion, and you're going to want to ease up if you plan to make your way around to all the holiday kitchens. 

There are also some new menu items at Disney

While we're all about the nostalgia associated with a returning favorite, we also love checking out Disney's newly created dishes. The annual release of menus in advance of the festival is a time-honored tradition that has loyal fans glued to their devices. We'd go out on a limb and say that 2020 owes us. Gladly, the new additions to the festival this year have us pretty excited.

A new booth will be joining the festival lineup this year. Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say and eat. This holiday kitchen will have us singing its praises (we hope!) with a kalua pork dish served over Okinawa purple sweet potatoes and topped with mango salad. Oh, what yum! Holiday Hearth, another new holiday kitchen, will be serving up desserts and milkshakes, including festival newbies, like a red velvet mini bundt cake and a salted caramel Spaceship Earth cookie, modeled after the park's centerpiece attraction. Over in Mexico, we always anticipate to be pleased by the Las Posadas Holiday Kitchen and can't wait to try a new giant tostada de chorizo.

Local is the name of the game when it comes to drinks at Disney

Of course, we need something to wash down the festive fare with. The Disney festival offers a stellar collection of cocktails, including a frozen hot chocolate martini. But local is the name of the game when it comes to the wine and especially beer options. Florida is home to stunning white sand beaches and a bustling tourism industry to say the least, but it also has one of the fastest-growing craft brewery scenes in the country.

We're pleased to see that the festival supports a number of these local breweries in their beverage offerings and celebrates their unique holiday brews. The Prost! Holiday Kitchen will be offering a M.I.A. Beer Company White Christmas IPA. Also at Prost!, 3 Daughters Brewing Company, from St. Petersburg, Florida, will be serving a Blueberry Peppercorn Hard Cider. Over in the Canada Pavilion, the Yukon Holiday Kitchen will be serving a Maple Cinnamon Coffee Beer from the 81Bay Brewing Co. from Tampa. 

Your favorite Disney characters will be decked out

Grabbing a photo with your favorite character is practically the hallmark of a successful visit to a Disney theme park. Given the current mandates and health protocols the parks have in place, a visit with Pluto and Goofy is going to look a bit different. Gone are the traditional meet-and-greet experiences, parades, and nighttime fireworks. Characters now appear in the form of character cavalcades, basically mini parades. These experiences are spontaneous and unscheduled as to not produce a crowd and typically include one moving float and a few characters. While you won't be able to grab a photo up close and personal, it is the perfect opportunity to take a pic selfie style. You may feel a little apprehensive, but we promise you these have become a welcomed surprise and addition. And, to be honest, we'll take what we can get at this point. 

The 2020 International Festival of the Holidays will be incorporating characters into the mix in this unique way. Mickey and the gang are adorable, but have you seen them decked out in their holiday best? Now, you can. Mickey and friends will be appearing in spontaneous world tours throughout the day during the festival. You can also catch a glimpse of the Disney princesses as they travel around World Showcase in a horse-drawn carriage. And we just couldn't let it go if we didn't get a visit from Queen Anna and Elsa

Entertainment will look a bit different this year at Disney

Entertainment is a cornerstone of each of Epcot's festivals. Disney has previously brought out A-list talents, like Neil Patrick Harris and Whoopi Goldberg as well as musical acts Hanson and Boyz II Men. The annual Candlelight Processional will not be happening this year given the current crisis, but they've managed to still keep the spirit of the holidays alive through a variety of modified musical offerings. Over in the American Garden Theater, you can catch socially distanced gigs from Mariachi Cobre, the JAMMitors, and Voices of Liberty. These three longstanding and iconic Epcot music acts will be performing special holiday versions of their sets.

Yes, there is a Santa, but you will not be sitting on his lap this year. Instead, Santa Claus himself will be appearing throughout the day around World Showcase in his horse-drawn carriage. One of our favorite annual appearances are from the JOYFUL! vocal ensemble. This powerhouse vocal group performs an electrifying selection of R&B, Gospel, and holiday songs celebrating Christmas and Kwanzaa.

There's an Olaf-themed scavenger hunt at Disney

Unless you've spent the last near decade in hiding, there's no way you could have avoided hearing "Let It Go" on repeat. Love it or hate it, Frozen is a hit spawning a sequel, spin-offs, merchandise galore, and even upcoming themed lands in Disney parks across the world. Whether you are Team Elsa or Team Anna, we can all agree the true star of the show is Olaf, their lovable snowman companion. While winter is a good time to stay in and cuddle, we can't resist a good challenge. Walt Disney World has played host to a number of self-guided scavenger hunts throughout the parks for years. These are activities the entire family can participate in on their own time. 

For the first time ever, they will be introducing an Olaf-themed scavenger hunt to the festival. Olaf's Holiday Tradition Expedition is a quite the mouthful to say (especially while chomping on a fruit cake), but will have you on an Arendelle-sized quest around World Showcase on a hunt for our favorite snowman's holiday traditions. This experience will cost you a small fee but includes a scavenger hunt map and stickers. Not sure about you, but we're down to unwrap this newest holiday tradition. 

There's a ton of super-cute merch exclusive to this Disney event

Disney tends to send us into a frenzy each season with the release of limited-time merchandise (don't @ us, we just HAVE to have it!). We can't help coming back for more, like with the Halloween collection that included super-cool Haunted Mansion hitchhiking ghost sippers and popcorn buckets. We continue to materialize in the parks for our shot at snagging these unique mementos. Epcot's festivals are not exempt from this, and with each new festival comes its own line of merch to commemorate the occasion.

The festival collections are typically themed around a central character or motto (we loved the "olive to cook" collection), and feature gifts for the foodie in your life, like kitchen accessories and glassware, as well as a slew of everyday practical items, like t-shirts, sweatshirts, and even MagicBands. Each collection also features a themed festival Spirit Jersey, which is basically the unofficial uniform for any hardcore Disney fan. Annual Passholders (guests who hold yearly passes to the parks) will also have access to an additional collection available only to them