This is the first post in the Weekend Getaway to Orlando series.
I remember loving Epcot Center my first time visiting Disney World, back when I was in middle school. My mom, sister, and I took a quick four-day trip down to Florida to visit all the parks. At the time, the Disney classic filsm which would become some of my favorites (Beauty & the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King), had not been released yet. As a result, I didn't really dig the Magic Kingdom as much, which I felt was more geared towards little kids with Cinderella's castle, Mickey & Minnie, and the like.
However, the little science nerd in me loved the focus on science and innovation at Epcot Center. Additionally, the side of me that loved world travel (even at that young age!) was fascinated with the World Showcase at Epcot. For those who haven't been to Disney World, the World Showcase is like a permanent World Expo, where different countries each have their own "land" where they showcase their culture, architecture, and food.
What's especially cool about the World Showcase is that all the people who work at each "country" are actually natives from that country. Disney has a program that brings over people from all over the world. The one-year program includes housing at a nearby complex, a job at your "country" at Epcot, and a chance to spend a year living and working in America. For those of us visiting the different "countries", we get a chance to meet actual people from that country. Plus, it makes the "country' feel more authentic when all the people are speaking their native languages to each other.
From a food perspective, we had fun walking around the different countries and tasting different dishes (more on that below!). Bryan especially enjoyed trying beers from all the different countries. There is a surprisingly decent selection, everything from Tsingtao in China and Sapporo in Japan to more unusual beers from Germany and Norway. We even tried a local Florida-brewed beer. And yes, unlike at the Magical Kingdom, you can walk around the park with a beer (although you can't enter lines for any rides).
I was pretty impressed with the architecture in the World Showcase. Some may argue that things in Disney World are "fake" and shun it in exchange for the real thing. Of course, there's nothing like actually visiting real places and exploring their cultures by traveling. However, I think Disney does a really good job of creating tasteful (even impressive in some cases) reproductions of some of the world's most famous buildings.
Just for fun, I've peppered throughout this post a couple comparison photos - Disney versus the real thing. You may be surprised at how well of a job Disney has done. Here's also a look at some of the fun food we enjoyed while traveling "around the world."
The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom Pavilion resembles a typical neighborhood in London filled with your English pubs and Fish & Chips shop. Because Boston boasts so many such types of restaurants, Bryan and I decided not to eat in the UK, even though we'd heard that the fish & chips there were pretty awesome.
At left, a telephone booth in the UK at Epcot. At right, a real telephone booth I photographed while visiting London a couple years ago.
The France Pavilion is one of my favorite "countries" in the World Showcase. First of all, it's just so pretty, just like the real France.
Second, as part of the annual topiary displays for the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, the characters from Beauty and the Beast were displayed in France (of course!).
Finally, the food in France was really good.
For lunch, we stopped by the bakery, Les Halles Boulangerie & Patisserie, for a simple baguette sandwich. Bryan got on my case for not ordering something more "French" (they had croque-monsieurs and the like), but I guess I just felt like having some veggies in my sandwich?
One of the not-to-be-missed shops in France is the Artisan Ice Cream shop.
There's delicious ice cream, of course, but one of the most unique things they make is the Croque Glace, a crazy ice cream sandwich made with a toasted brioche bun!
It's really, really good.
The Mexican Pavilion is one of the more elaborate locations, complete with a night marketplace inside a pre-Columbian pyramid and a boat ride inside that takes you through Donald Duck's adventures based off of the 1944 film "The Three Caballeros."
Bryan got a Mexican beer and a simple Taco Al Pastor. It was fine, though quite expensive by any standard ($5.75 for one taco!).
I've never been to Morocco, but the interior reminded me a bit of areas I'd seen in Thailand and Malaysia.
We actually booked a sit-down lunch at The Spice Road Table, a pleasant Mediterranean restaurant with beautiful views of the large lake that sits in the middle of all the pavilions. According to the waiter, the restaurant represents multiple countries, like Greece, Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon. The food was solid. My favorite was the falafel fries, which had the beautiful spices of a falafel but were fried into these super crunchy sticks.
Our waiter highly recommended the kabobs. Although the cilantro-based sauce was delicious, the meat was woefully overcooked and pretty tough.
There's no question that the Japan Pavilion was another one of my favorite locations (which I visited at least twice!). At left above, a photo of the real Kyoto from my visit there in 2013. At right, me posing with the Japan Pavilion at Epcot. It looks pretty real, doesn't it?
My favorite part was the huge Mitsukoshi department store inside the Japan Pavilion. It's a huge store, and definitely has one of the best selections of Domo and Totoro stuff in the U.S. I picked up few Totoro things while I was there and had to hold back from picking up more stuff!
China is another really impressive pavilion. Pictured above: Top left is the real Temple of Heaven from my trip to China in 2010. Bottom left is our selfie with the China Pavilion this past trip. In order to show the temple a bit more clearly, I've included a photo from our trip 10 years ago (!) when we visited Disney World back in 2005.
Inside of the China Pavilion is a miniature replica of the famous Terra Cotta Soldiers from Xi'an. At left is the replica from Epcot; at right is a photo of the real soldiers from my visit to Xi'an back in 2010. We didn't eat any of the food in China this time around, though we did dine at the Nine Dragons restaurant 10 years ago, which includes a selection of standard Cantonese fare alongside famous dishes like a Beijing Duck dinner.
We decided to stop by the Germany Pavilion for our next "snack."
We got a German sausage topped with sauerkraut, German potato salad, as well as some beer. It was tasty - nothing particularly special - but it was satisfying.
The Italian Pavilion is fun - you get a mix of Piazza San Marco in Venice and Bernini's Neptune Fountain in Rome all in the same lively Italian square. Picture above: at left, the Italian Pavilion in Epcot. At right, Bryan posing in a piazza (square) in Rome from our trip in 2012.
The pizza restaurant in the Italian Pavilion boasts a real Neapolitan wood-fired oven that makes excellent authentic Neapolitan pies.
Bryan and I were extremely impressed with the pizzas here - they are fantastic. This was one of our favorite meals in the entire park (!). We also had fun talking to our server, a native of Rome who told us a bit more about the Disney program and why she decided to move here. More on that in my full post on this restaurant!
All in all, it's really fun to visit the World Pavilion at Epcot. Plan to spend an extended lunch time hopping between the countries and snacking on various bites. Or do a beer crawl. Or come back multiple times throughout the trip. Because Epcot has better food than most of the other parks, we sometimes would just leave another park to come to Epcot for lunch before heading back to that park. Other times we would just come to Epcot for dinner. Having a Park Hopper ticket makes these things much easier (though it does take time to travel between the parks).
One word of caution - try not to ride the stomach-wrenching rides on the other side of Epcot before heading over here to eat. Some rides, such as the shuttle simulator Mission: Space (which spins you around to emulate G-forces), can make you feel so queasy you might not be able to eat for hours afterwards.
I'll write a full-fledged post on some of the more interesting places from the pavilions, such as the pizza restaurant in Italy and the ice cream shop in France, so you can see everything we ordered and enjoyed. I also have several other posts planned which cover some of the other restaurants we tried while in Orlando.