Sometimes a day at Epcot feels like a race, a downright sprint. Maybe it’s the theme park’s layout, which insists you make an entire lap around World Showcase. Or perhaps it’s the low-grade roar of Test Track.
Disney encourages folks to explore its national pavilions, and I find that is an especially good idea during the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, which is running daily through May 28. You’ve got to stop and smell the roses.
On my second trip to the festival, my sidekick was a gardening friend, one who swears that she has been inspired enough by elements of Flower & Garden to install similar features in her own yard. We examined potted plants in Italy and checked out unusual greenery off the beaten path in Japan.
I relaxed and watched her wander. And I made a list of some of simple pleasures from the fest. Exhale. It’s Epcot.
• The How-to Garden, set up along the Future World West shortcut to World Showcase, is a natural place to rake in crafty ideas. One lingering in my mind is how to turn an umbrella and netting into a butterfly garden, although a good hurricane warning could uproot everything.
• In the Tropical Rainforest Garden that’s in the Mexico pavilion, check out the brilliant orchids that reach up into the treetops.
• The bamboo garden in China is presented in pots and displays many options. (I took extra interest because recently I was told that a flat-style bamboo from Portugal will be used to represent grass in the Toy Story Land being built in Shanghai Disneyland).
• Most of my favorites are in the park this year, with the possible exception of a dancing royal couple. But this year I’m especially drawn to the Three Caballeros, set up near Mexico, of course. They look almost as real as their animatronic counterparts in the Gran Fiesta Tour ride.
• Other winners: Belle and Beast holding court in France, Buzz Lightyear back in front of Mission: Space and Daisy, flanked by Chip ‘n’ Dale, who are in between the Character Spot and the Imagination Pavilion.
• In the non-Disney-character category, it’s always good to see Bromeliad Dragon – which could double as the name of a wrestler or a leafy superhero – in the China pavilion. (Check out its mouth and its standing-on-standing-water feet.)
• The new “outdoor kitchen” is called the Honey Bee-stro, and I was initially unmoved by the prospect of its roasted cauliflower offering. But its mixture with asparagus, grapes (“honey-blistered” ones at that), sunflower brittle and buckwheat honey carrot puree was tasty and gluten-free.
A Bee-stro beverage is the honey peach blueberry vodka cobbler freeze. Say it softly and it’s like a prayer.
“It’s one of those drinks that came together so perfectly,” says Rick DeCicco, festival proprietor. “To be frank, it’s my favorite drink that we’ve done over the last three or four years of festivals, all of our festivals together.”
• Another surprise, this time from Northern Bloom kitchen: the griddled maple pound cake with warm peach compote and sweet corn gelato. Sweet corn gelato?
“We seeped fresh corn in a gelato and then we froze it and spun it,” says culinary director Gregg Hannon. “You should get some sweet corn flavor in the back with the creaminess of the gelato.” Who knew?
• Other edibles of note: Toasted pretzel bread with Black Forest Ham and melted Gruyere cheese (at Bauernmarkt), the large chocolate macaron lollipop (Fleur de Lys) and beef brisket burnt ends and smoked pork belly slider (Smokehouse). “This could be our No. 1 seller,” Hannon says of the slider. “It’s definitely messy. You’ll want to lick your fingers after.”
• The Imagination Play Garden has activities for kids in several age brackets – think high-climbers and those who should stay close to the ground. They’ll let grown-ups play the chimes in the music maze, I know from personal experience. There are other lures for adults here, including comfy seating and stylized checker sets.
• Kid-friendly topiaries representing “Cars” characters Lightning McQueen and Cruz Ramirez are in a shady spot near Test Track.
• Applause for incorporating Spike the honey bee, an old, old-school Disney character from short films, into the scavenger hunt called Spike’s Pollen Nation Exploration. A purchase is required, but it pays off with patches, kiddos. The rest of us can have fun spotting Spike buzzing around various gardens (The figure is about the size of two fists.)
“I love that we can take an activation like this for our festival and bring to prominence some of the lesser-known characters,” DeCicco says.
• I remain a fan of the Butterfly House. I’m told the cold doesn’t bother them. And I’m told that there are more of them flitting about as the fest progresses because, well, someone has told the butterflies about the birds and the bees.
• This year’s festival merchandise, sprinkled around the park, is typically floral or includes characters such as Orange Bird and Figment.
• Finally, if you are accustomed to wandering over to the Festival Center, don’t bother. It’s not there this year. It was thought to be more convenient for that programming to be nearer to World Showcase, organizers say. A Port of Entry store is home base for that and merchandise.
The festival requires theme-park admission; food and drinks are a la carte.