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Adding food and wine to Epcot's Flower & Garden fest

Dewayne Bevil on Attractions

Theme Park Ranger

11:50 AM EST, March 7, 2013

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You can stop and smell the roses at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival this year … and then take a swig of blueberry wine. For the first time, Disney World is giving food and beverage quality time in the spotlight at the theme park's annual event.

Although the concept sounds similar to the park's big event in the fall, the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, there are differences.

"It's not Food & Wine. It's the Flower & Garden Festival. So we just took a different approach," says Michael Jenner, event content development manager at Epcot.

There are fewer marketplaces around World Showcase during Flower & Garden, and they have built-in gardens that represent the menu items sold there.

"Where we have blueberry wine, we have blueberry plants growing," Jenner says.

There's also a backyard cookout feel to the festival, as evidenced by a large cooker at the park's American Adventure. Epcot will smoke pork and brisket there.

Epcot executive chef Jens Dahlmann "is always about the sense of smell. He always wants that freshness happening and those aromas," Jenner says. "Before you even get to the marketplace, your appetite is whetted."

Some menu items have a twist to them. The Dole Whip, a popular pineapple snack at Magic Kingdom, is served with spice rum. ("It's a Disney concoction. I don't know of anyone else doing it," Jenner says.)

One marketplace offers watermelon salad.

"When you think of watermelon, you think of a chunk of watermelon or it's in your fruit salad. But this is great baby arugula salad with feta cheese, balsamic reduction, pickled red onions and watermelon in it," Jenner says. "Instead of having it for dessert or a snack, it's actually for your first course."

How it's growing

The concept of adding food to the Flower & Garden lineup has been around for years, says Eric Darden, horticulture manager for the festival.

"We noticed that if you make a garden an edible landscape, traffic in that garden goes way up," he says.

At one marketplace, taro root — used to make poi — is grown. In Florida, it has a different story.

"It's actually elephant ear, which we grow as an ornamental," Darden says. "All 12 of the locations have a story, something like that." Storyboards talk about the food and each station sports two large planter boxes.

"Many of the things that are served in that pavilion will be grown in the boxes, which can be sort of a challenge in Florida," Darden says.

The topiaries at Epcot's entrance form a cookout scene with Mickey Mouse at the grill, Donald Duck playing badminton with Daisy and other characters.

Two fresh gardens have tie-ins to Disney films. Topiaries of one-eyed Sully and Mike, backed by monstrous flower towers, push to "Monsters University," coming in June. A large garden touts "Oz the Great and Powerful," which opens today. The Oz area has a large playground and seats shaded by the canvas of a landed hot-air balloon.

"We're a storytelling company, so we're even using the tent to tell the story of the film," Darden says.

Oz also sports a tunnel (for a tornado effect) and a floral yellow-brick road.

"Oz is a giant garden and probably [has] the most play equipment we've ever had in a single garden," Darden says.

And there was light

Lighting has been added to select gardens for evening viewings. In previous years, sunset signaled the end of the day's events.

"When dusk hit, the festival part kind of shut down, even though we had our Flower Power [concert] series," Jenner says. "With our marketplaces and the lit gardens, you can enjoy the festival until the park closes."

The bulk of the gardens has lighting, Darden says. One exception is the butterfly area.

"Butterflies don't fly when the sun goes down," Darden says.

The butterflies are joined this year by Tinker Bell and other Disney fairies, who are migrating over from their former home near Test Track. This year, that's the spot for a Radiator Springs area, featuring the Lightning McQueen and Mater topiaries, characters from the "Cars" films.

Changes help keep the 20-year-old festival vibrant.

"It's going to feel like a really fresh festival for our returning guests. There's a lot to offer that guests who might not be gardening fans," Darden says.

dbevil@tribune.com or 407-420-5477

Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival

Where: Off Interstate 4, southwest of Orlando

When: Daily through May 19; park hours are 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

Cost: Included in regular park admission. A one-day, one-park pass is $89 ($83 for ages 3-9).

Phone: 407-934-7639

Online: DisneyWorld.com/flower

Flower Power concert series

Pop singers perform in Flower Power concert series at the America Gardens Theatre on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the festival. Showtimes are 5:30 p.m., 6:45 p.m. and 8 p.m. each day. The remaining lineup includes:

Friday-Sunday: Micky Dolenz

March 15-17: Chubby Checker & the Wildcats

March 22-24: The Guess Who

March 29-31: Nelson

April 5-7: The Turtles featuring Flo & Eddie

April 12-14: Paul Revere & the Raiders

April 19-21: Village People

April 26-28: The Orchestra, featuring former members of ELO and ELO II

May 3-5: Tommy Roe

May 10-12: Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone

May 17-19: Starship starring Mickey Thomas

On the Designers' Stage

Personalities from the HGTV and DIY networks make appearances on Friday, Saturdays and Sundays at the Festival Center. Their sessions are at noon and 3 p.m. each day. The schedule is:

Friday-Sunday: Chris Lambton, "Going Yard"

March 15-17: Chris Grundy, "Cool Tools"

March 22-24: Egypt Sherrod, "Property Virgins"

March 29-31: Brandon Johnson, "My Yard Goes Disney"

April 5-7: Meg Caswell, "Meg's Great Rooms"

April 12-14: Jason Cameron, "Desperate Landscapes" and "Man Caves"

April 19-21: Sara Peterson, editor-in-chief, HGTV Magazine

April 26-28: Carter Oosterhouse, "Million Dollar Rooms"

May 3-5: Casey Noble, "Design on a Dime"

May 10-12: Dan Faires, "DanMade"

May 17-19: David Bromstad, "HGTV Design Star," "ColorSplash"