Review: Food & Wine Festival at California Adventure

Last year was the first time that Disney held a Food & Wine festival on the West Coast in six years, and we missed it! So this year we went all-in for the full experience to see how California Adventure’s version compares to Epcot’s.

Festival Center

The Festival Center is located inside the old Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? sound stage in California Adventure’s Hollywood Land. They’ve given it a light Mission/Craftsman-style retheming around the entrance, but it’s basically still just a cavernous sound stage. You East Coasters are gonna laugh when you see how tiny our West Coast Food & Wine Festival Center offerings are….

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There are only two presentation areas in the Festival Center: The main stage is at the back of this shot, and the autograph corral is on the left in this shot.

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This is it. The whoooooooooole entire festival gift shop. And eeeeeeeeverything they sell. Thirty percent of which is Cutco knives.
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So many knives, and me without a single penny to cut!

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Never mind… Cutco provides its own pennies!

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Sweet Sundays Seminar

Outside of D23 events, the only reservation-required Food & Wine event I’ve been to at Epcot is a Sweet Sunday seminar, so I thought we should try the West Coast version for comparison. They cost $79 (plus tax)/person and include breakfast. I’d never heard of Emily Ellyn, but when I saw the phrases “Cupcake Wars,” “Cake Genius” and “retro-recipe-redo,” visions of pink layer cakes and aqua buttercream frosting danced through my head and I bought tickets for that Sunday. I should have read more carefully….

The setup was very nice, just like the ones at Epcot and pretty close to being a TV cooking show set. We were seated in groups of six at 10-top tables, with chairs only around the back of the table so no one had to turn their chair or crane their neck.

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The centerpieces contained some of the ingredients in the recipe Ellyn prepared.

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And, oh, what a recipe it was…  Apparently Emily Ellyn’s shtick is wearing vintage cat-eye glasses and spoiling classic recipes with needlessly trendy ingredients, up to and including ash. In a dessert. That’s right—one of the R’s in Emily Ellyn’s Retro Rad Arsenal of Alliteration stands for Ruin!

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The first thing I did when I sat down was a spit-take!

If you like Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, you’re gonna hate Candied Fennel Upside-Down Cake served with Citrus Chocolate Pudding, Toasted Fennel Sesame Brittle and Orange Ash!

Really, my disappointment stemmed from expectation. If the chef had been Sherry Yard, the fennel, ash, etc. would have been par for the course. But when you bill yourself as “The Retro Rad Diva,” people who don’t have cable TV are going to be expecting classic icebox cakes and whoopie pies, not “whatever’s left at the farmer’s market, set on fire.”

Fortunately, I’d had the brilliant idea to mark the “Food Sensitivity” box when I bought tickets and told them I was allergic to fruit. So I didn’t actually have to eat the dang thing!

Another stroke of luck was that they fed us a decent breakfast before the presentation started. None of that overly ambitious stuff from the Jungle Cruise Sunrise Safari Breakfast—this was just scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns, and quite tasty!

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As we finished up our food, the presentation kicked off with an introduction by a Disney chef who would be assisting with the dessert prep. Then Emily Ellyn came shimmying out into the audience like she’d stepped through the wrong Monsters Inc. door into a nursing home breakfast instead of a wild conga party. As she exhorted them to get up and dance, the crowd remained motionless, blinking through their early-morning food comas as the last bacon bits dropped from their lips. Bless her heart, Ellyn didn’t miss a beat, hootin’ and hollerin’ and waving her arms in the air like, well, she just didn’t care!

I don’t have photos of any of this because Patrick finally took pity on her and became the sole guest to leap up and begin dancing, gyrating so wildly that even Emily Ellyn took one look at him and made a hard right turn just before she reached our table.

The next 15 minutes of the presentation was a recitation of all the reality shows she’d been on, so maybe we weren’t the only people in the audience who hadn’t heard of her.

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“Did I mention I’m Retro?”

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“…And Rad?”

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“…And I’m gonna Ruin YOUR favorite dessert!”

When they finally got down to actually baking, the presentation became interesting. I picked up a couple of tips, like placing a dish towel over the mixer to keep flour from flying everywhere. Also that they have improved lemon-juicers since I last shopped for one in, like, 1998 (handheld? who knew?!).

You get the sense that Ellyn is a good cook who’s had to adopt this schtick to survive the cutthroat world of reality TV. Patrick picked up on the forced-casual “You can put any quantity of any ingredient in any dish—don’t worry about it!” bit and ran with it later as we strolled the festival. I wish I had a video of him reciting all the non-food-items you can incinerate and “just throw in the pot” to make a delicious dessert.

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“Who wants this? You? Go long!!!!”

Before they presented us with individual portions of the featured dessert, they sent out tasting spoons of the sauce. This is Patrick’s fruit-sullied chocolate pudding….

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They brought me some fennel pudding cuz it didn’t have fruit in it. It was actually quite tasty!
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I like that they have a roving camera man at these things, so you can see big-screen closeups of stuff you’d never spot from the audience. The finished fennel upside down cake was pretty good-looking!

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At the end, servers rushed out with pre-plated slices of the Candied Fennel Upside-Down Cake served with Citrus Chocolate Pudding, Toasted Fennel Sesame Brittle and Orange Ash. Patrick’s review: “It’s good. Just like Mom used to make!”
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I was impressed that I got my own special, fruit-free crème brûlée. Usually I just go hungry in these situations!

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After the seminar, they released us one table at a time to go over to the autograph area and meet Emily Ellyn/buy her book. We took a pass-adena and went out to explore the rest of the fest!

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Man, that is one huge cell-phone-charm kiosk!


Festival Marketplace Kiosks

This year there are a record 15 marketplace kiosks arrayed along the sun-baked asphalt stretch of parade corridor wrapping around the back of Grizzly Peak. Because the theme is “California” rather individual countries like at Epcot, all have the same vaguely Spanish-style shed look. In between are highly impractical unshaded pergolas that look awesome all lit up at night but are completely useless against the blazing SoCal sun. Why not drape a little shade fabric over the top?

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I did love all the pots containing attractive arrangements of edible plants.

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Money-saving tip: Skip the food kiosks and fill up on these free salads!

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Much has been made of the paltry savings of the Annual Passholder Sip and Savor Pass: $45 for 8 coupons you can redeem for anything at the kiosks except booze. Even the cast members staffing the registers will tell you not to use them for anything that costs less than $6. We always eat waaaaaay too much at these things, so we bought one pass with the idea of sharing each dish and paying out of pocket for anything under six bucks.

Our first stop (and, apparently, everyone else’s) was the Bacon Twist booth. It was prime lunch time and the lines stretched well past the single umbrella stationed at each kiosk. While Epcot has line management down to a science, DCA hasn’t figured it out yet. At Epcot you’ll see four or five cast members in each kiosk furiously slinging hash. At DCA, you’re lucky if there are two. Often there were unofficially two lines, one to order and one to pickup, and you could spend 10 minutes standing in the sun before a cast member would mention that you were actually in the wrong line.  Still… bacon!

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Smoked Bacon Mac & Cheese and Maple-Bacon Whoopie Pie

These were pretty good. The mac and cheese was basically flavorless, but you can’t go wrong with a pile of chopped bacon and fried onion bits. I’d heard that the apple in the maple-bacon whoopie pie was undetectable, but I beg to differ. Nothing a few scrapes with a knife couldn’t fix!

At IArtichokes, we tried the Fried Artichoke Carbonara and the Grilled Artichoke Hearts with Romesco Sauce. The artichokes were too tough for my taste, but Patrick really enjoyed them. If the grilled artichokes had been sitting in garlic aioli instead of romseco, I woulda scrafed down the whole thing!

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Fried Artichoke Carbonara and the Grilled Artichoke Hearts with Romesco Sauce


At Seafood…Sustained we had the Verlasso Sustainable Salmon Tataki and the Cage-free Cream Cheese Deviled Eggs with Smoked Trout. Both of us voted the tataki the best thing we had at Food & Wine—it was so fresh and cool and perfectly prepared. One of the only bummers about Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival is that so many of the regional dishes are hot, baked, heavy things that you really don’t feel like eating on a sweltering September day in Florida. It seemed like there were more cool, fresh options at DCA’s food fest, I guess because they only had to theme the food to California not, like, the Heavy Sausage and Hot Cheesy Noodles capitals of the world.

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Verlasso Sustainable Salmon Tataki and the Cage-free Cream Cheese Deviled Eggs with Smoked Trout

At Sweet & Sourdough we had Bay Shrimp Louie Salad in a Mini Boudin Sourdough Bowl and White Cheddar Lager Soup Also in a Sourdough Bowl, plus the Milk Chocolate Sourdough Bread Pudding. Patrick liked the Shrimp Louie salad — it had nice big shrimp. I thought the white cheddar soup was GROSS. I’m used to the Le Cellier cheddar soup, where the beer cooks off and you can’t really taste it. This one shoulda required ID to buy it! The bread was good and sourdough-y though. The “milk chocolate” bread pudding just confused me. Where was the chocolate? Were those brown spots supposed to be chocolate? It was very moist but didn’t taste like chocolate at all.

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Milk Chocolate Sourdough Bread Pudding, White Cheddar Lager Soup in a Sourdough Bowl & Bay Shrimp Louie Salad in a Mini Boudin Sourdough Bowl

The last thing we ate before buttons started popping off our shirts was the Black Garlic & Soy-Braised Pork Belly Bao at Garlic Kissed. We’d tried to get it earlier, but after waiting in a long line we discovered it was sold out. We swung back around later in the day, and it was worth it! Just as good as the ones we get at Bun Shop in Koreatown!

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Black Garlic & Soy-Braised Pork Belly Bao

At that point we took a break and Patrick dragged me to see Frozen: Live! The Musical! But Not On Ice! over at the Hyperion Theater. In 16 years of visits to California Adventure, I’d never once set foot in there, so that part (setting foot) was interesting at least. Actually, the staging of the musical was pretty great, with the big wraparound screens and the crazy dress transformation and all. But the original story’s such a mess, and it doesn’t get any better when you have to cram it into 60 minutes and play it to the back of the house.

I don’t have any photos because we wanted to be hip and edgy as the only people in the whole audience not watching from behind a phone.

We sat up in the mezzanine, so we had a pretty spectacular view of The Ride Formerly Known as Tower of Terror on the way out.

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We looped around through Bug’s Land and Cars Land on our way back to the food kiosks. It’s a nice way to escape Hollywood Land without going through the crowds at the front of the park.
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Flo’s V-8 Cafe was sporting authentically filthy roadside restrooms that evening!
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The cast member who sold us the AP lanyard told us we simply had to stop at The Onion Lair for French Onion Mac & Cheese. (Patrick thinks she was reading off a random-food-item generator to make recommendations for each new guest.) It was good but, like the bacon mac and cheese, had no flavor other than the toppings. We also tried the Braised Wagyu Beef on Creamy Polenta, and if that was real wagyu, I’ll eat my hat!

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Braised Wagyu Beef on Creamy Polenta, French Onion Mac & Cheese

The last thing we tried was Lemon Grove‘s Duck Confit on Potato Smash and the Meyer Lemon Macaron with Blueberry Marmalade. The duck was great sans cornichons, and Patrick thought the macaron was decent.

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Duck Confit on Potato Smash and the Meyer Lemon Macaron with Blueberry Marmalade

Festival Entertainment

One of the unexpected highlights of DCA’s Food & Wine Festival was the band. I mean, I knew there’d be a band but figured we’d just amble past them a couple times on our way to stuff down more food. But we were so taken with that day’s entertainment, Phat Cat Swing, that we braved Paradise Bay’s deadly combo of sweltering sun and heat-radiating concrete to catch half a set, then returned after dark to see a whole one. You had to admire their fortitude: five sets on an unshaded stage, and they were still bouncing around like springs at their last show of the day.

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OK, the photos don’t show it, but they were super-bouncy! Like, in-unison high kicks and everything! They played a good mix of swing and pop covers, with the obligatory Disney tunes thrown in. Their own swing arrangement of Grim Grinning Ghosts was particularly good, and each band member got a chance to show off his chops with a solo. It made me and Patrick wistful for the days when we were taking swing lessons for our wedding. Fortunately, if you can’t fit in with the OC teens cutting a rug up front, there’s always a hyperactive dancing toddler or two to emulate!

California Adventure’s Food & Wine Festival runs through April 16. Check it out!

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8 Responses
  • Christian
    May 27, 2017

    I actually laughed out loud several times reading this! I didn’t know DCA had a Food & Wine event. I was there for New Years and they had probably the same sort of kiosks set up around serving food and drinks, but it felt like it was sort of Epcot-themed because I think every kiosk was supposed to be a different country/region? Mostly I was there for the booze, preferably hot because it was pouring and kind of cold.

    • Carrie
      May 27, 2017

      That’s funny! I didn’t know they did that at New Year’s—they probably make a ton of money on booze then!

  • Moma
    April 13, 2017

    It doesn’t surprise me that Patrick got up and “danced”. I know his style.
    Which did you like better, the food event at Epcot or the food event at DCA?
    The amount of food they give you sure looks minuscule to me, especially split in two.
    As always, I love reading your posts!

    • Carrie
      April 13, 2017

      Thanks! I think I preferred the Epcot Sweet Sunday just because I liked what they made better, and it was more straightforward and informational. But it seems to really depend on which chef you pick, so we easily could have had the same experience at DCA if we’d picked a different date.

  • Erin
    April 7, 2017

    I literally laughed out loud many times with this enjoyable post. I also had no idea who Emily Ellen is- but the “Did I mention I’m retro?” comment was very funny. Bless Patrick’s heart for getting up to dance.

    I’m a Disney superfan, yet I wasn’t too aware of this CA event. But it certainly looks fun. Thanks for the enjoyable read!

    • Carrie
      April 8, 2017

      So glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

  • Robin
    April 7, 2017

    “Patrick finally took pity on her and became the sole guest to leap up and begin dancing, gyrating so wildly that even Emily Ellyn took one look at him and made a hard right turn just before she reached our table.”

    My computer screen will never be the same after the spit-take that statement caused! Oh, the mental picture…

    • Carrie
      April 8, 2017

      Hee hee hee! If only I had an *actual* picture!

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