I'm among the legion of fans of "IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth," the end-of-night fireworks show at Epcot. But I'm also prone to hot-footing it out of the park the moment of the last bone-rattling pyrotechnics pop.
Last weekend, some friends and I took an option to buck that trend. We tried the new, limited-time Epcot After-Hours Wind Down. The separate-ticket offering allows visitors to stay in the park and enjoy select food and drinks in one of four locations around World Showcase.
We selected the Tutto Gusto Wine Cellar within the Italy pavilion over Rose & Crown Pub (United Kingdom), La Cava del Tequila (Mexico) and Spice Road Table (Morocco). I thought its locations might feel a little more removed from the usual theme-park hubbub.
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Our group was on the move toward Italy during "IllumiNations," and we witnessed the grand finale from China, two countries away from our destination. Although we were right on time — 9:20 p.m., as instructed — it felt like all the other parties already were settled into their spots. It was mostly couples and tables for four. Our boisterous group of nine was put at the big corner high-top table.
We were presented with four options, each containing a flight of three wines paired with a plate of food. Choices were the elegant reds flight, Piemonte Hills flight, vegetarian flight and sweet-dreams flight. A menu included pictures of the eats, which were primarily meats and cheeses.
We ordered a variety and waited. It was a good opportunity to absorb the atmosphere, and soon I began to feel detached from the world of Disney. Is this the advertised "Wind Down"? It helped that Tutto Gusto is on a dead end and doesn't face the main drag of Epcot. We could not see visitors leaving for the night, though we were surprised that guests were still arriving for very late dinners at Tutto Italia restaurant, which is attached to Tutto Gusto. But even that seemed European.
There was a noticeable gap between ordering and receiving the food. True, we were among the last to arrive, but with such a small gathering event and a limited menu, we should not have been be wondering "Where is our food?"
The dishes and drinks arrived with a little bit of fanfare and just a little information. Our server quickly reviewed which drink was which (in a fun Italian accent), but those facts were lost quickly in our minds. The menus were gone. A cheat sheet would have been appreciated. It didn't stop us from enjoying the libations, but sometimes we weren't sure what we were enjoying.
There was plenty of food on the small plates. I couldn't finish it all. Desserts got high marks from our crowd.
I had worried about having enough time in the venue and, thus, feeling rushed. But even with the food delay and our leisurely pace, we were out of there before the 11 p.m. ending time with ease. Did time stand still? Were we beneficiaries of the much-discussed Disney magic?
The park was quiet and almost deserted as we wandered through Germany, China and Mexico back to the front gate. Epcot's walkways are dark and spooky — yet picturesque — at that time of night. It's an odd little bonus to the Wind Down lineup.
At $35 a head, I didn't feel ripped off by Disney. We had good food in a unique environment. But at the same time, I could linger at lots of eateries for less — or just stay a while after the fireworks to get Epcot's ghost-town effect.
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Epcot After-Hours Wind Down
Where: Select locations at Epcot's World Showcase.
When: 9:20-11 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, through Sept. 15.
Cost: $35 per person (in addition to Epcot admission)