Disney’s California Food & Wine Festival

“You just won $250 in Las Vegas!  What are you going to do now?”

“I’m going to Disneyland!”

Even if I had left Las Vegas down in chips, I still would have wanted to go to Disneyland during the second half of my trip out west.  I love Disney World and have visited at least once a year since moving to Florida six years ago.

I couldn’t have timed my trip to southern California any better.  My visit to Disneyland coincided with Disney’s California Food & Wine Festival.  As a big fan of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival I was glad I finally had the chance to experience Disneyland’s version.  Now in its fifth year, this festival is held at Disney’s California Adventure Park, located across a pavilion from Disneyland.

Click here to read about the 2009 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

I arrived at Disney’s California Adventure on a warm and sunny Friday, ready to explore the park and drink some wine.  One thing I noticed right away about the park is that it already is a great place for food.  And not just standard theme park food like burgers, fries and Mickey Mouse ice cream pops.  There are stands where you can get all sorts of fresh fruit grown in California, and an area where you can learn more about the state’s food industries.  At the Mission Tortilla Factory you can snack on freshly made tortillas while getting a behind-the-scenes look at tortilla production.  At the Boudin Bakery (a favorite of mine in San Francisco), it’s slices of sourdough bread you get to taste while watching bakers prepare hundreds of boules.

As a four-time visitor to the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, I was interested in seeing how Disneyland’s festival was different — which it definitely was.  Rather than being the main event, perhaps the reason to visit, the California Food & Wine Festival felt more like an added bonus of visiting the park.  This festival was smaller and more low key compared to Epcot, where there are several food and wine stands to check out in every country in the World Showcase.

The main action centered around three “walks” where you could taste a variety of wines and beers.  Chefs demonstrated cooking techniques at the Showcase Stage, near the front of the park.  The Festival Showplace — the place to check out seminars and buy festival merchandise — was tucked away in a corner of the park by the Hollywood Pictures Backlot, away from the most popular rides.  There were no separate food stands for the festival; special dishes were added to the menu at dining spots throughout the park.

Overall, the festival added to the fun experience of visiting Disney’s California Adventure, without making visitors feel obligated to participate.

I began in the Festival Showplace, at the Belgian Brewer’s Collection and Star Lounge hosted by Stella Artois.  Here bartenders demonstrated the art of pouring a perfect Stella Artois beer from the tap, a multi-step process that includes washing the glass and “beheading” foam with a special spatula-like tool.  I got a glass of the Belgian Leffe Blonde, perfect for sipping as I strolled around the park.

After flying over some of the state’s famous sights in Soarin’ Over California, I was ready to taste some California wines.  For that I headed to the California Classics Wine Walk.  After paying $10 I received my tasting passport for a trip through the Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Central Coast and Paso Robles.  Each time I tasted a wine, my passport was stamped for that region.  Each region offered a choice of three wines.  For the selection of wineries (some well known, some unfamiliar) and the grape varietals, it was a nice overview of the state’s offerings.  Wine novices would definitely come away knowing more about different styles and their own tastes.  For fans of the Old World there was an Italian Wine Walk, which I did not get a chance to check out.

My next stop was the Craft Beer Walk, which featured 16 beers from around the world.  There were four stops on this walk: the Old World, West of the Rockies, the Islands (Hawaii and Japan) and the Hop Garden which featured brews from California, Florida and Missouri.  Like with all the walks, you could mix and match your tastings, skipping one area and getting two at another instead.  I skipped the Old World having tasted all four of the beers offered.  Instead I got to taste Japan’s Kirin Ichiban and Sapporo Lager back to back and discovered I prefer Kirin.  If I’m drinking beer at a Japanese restaurant I tend to order Sapporo over Kirin; now that I know I like Kirin better I’ll have to make a switch.

In addition to enjoying the wine and beer I checked out many of the park’s attractions.  My favorite after Soarin’ Over California was California Screamin’, a roller coaster that kicks the action into top gear right away.  Rather than slowly climbing up the first hill, the coaster accelerates at the start, making for a really fun ride that includes one upside down loop.  I’m guessing you might want to check this one out before eating or drinking too much.

I ended my day at the festival with a glass of California Merlot in the Festival Showplace, listening to a seminar on Pinot Noir led by a winemaker from the Central Coast.  Though I didn’t get to check out any winemaker or wine pairing dinners there’s always next year — hopefully my travels will take me to southern California again next spring.

Disney’s California Food & Wine Festival runs from April 16 through May 31, 2010.  Visit Disneyland’s website in the fall for details on the 2010 festival.