It’s Festival Prep Week! *Scary Music Here*

It’s all coming back to me now.

The heat! The sweaty grossness! The dirt and grime and long hours!

I have a tendency to romanticize the past, make things that were difficult all so wonderful and rosy in my mind. And the Food and Wine Festival is no different. Only here’s the thing: the festival has a weird effect on Cast Members. Everyone is a walking-talking-working zombie at times, but when the Festival ends, everyone is sentimental and absolutely enamored by the events that have just occurred.

I won’t lie. I am charmed by Epcot. I think the Food and Wine Festival is the best experience in the world.

But it’s so hot. It gets so hot you forget what it’s like to feel A/C. Sometimes you’re so hot that you even forget that you’re hot until someone opens a cooler and you feel a nice breeze and you just want to move to Antarctica on the next available flight.

This year I’m working under a new team of chefs, and they’re… um, intense.

And if you haven’t heard of Chef Jens, the Executive Chef of Epcot, let me just tell you that man strikes fear into my very being. (When he shook my hand today and welcomed me back to the Festival, it was all I could do not to just throw out a slew of, “YES CHEF! HEARD! ALL DAY!” and run across the kiosk. As it was a managed a surprisingly cool, “Yes, Chef, thank you Chef.”)

My new chef team is based out of the Norway kitchen (Akershus, the princess dining in the Norway pavilion, is a name that everyone has a hard time pronouncing, so we just call it “The Norway Kitchen” to keep it easy.) They are, for the next three months, my immediate superiors and nothing that goes on in my work life occurs without their explicit approval. My fellow Cast Members, who will be running the left-hand side of World Showcase with me–that’s Patagonia, New Zealand, Australia, Florida Fresh and South Korea–are my family for the next 53 days.

I will do nothing but eat, sleep, breathe and dream of the Food and Wine Festival. I will get to know my team inside and out, and converse with nearly no one else.

“Here are the ground rules,” one of my chefs said to us today. “First, if you have family here, tell them goodbye for the next three months. You’ll get two days off a week if you’re lucky. Two, you’re being moved and placed and judged on your performance. You don’t walk, you stride. You don’t talk, you communicate. Understood? Third, this is your restaurant. You’re inviting thousands of guests over, and you’re their host. Take some pride in your work. And, lastly, don’t try to out-drink the Norwegians, or any of the International College Program Students, okay? They’ll drink you under the table. If you come to work hungover, I’ll send you home. If you come to work drunk, you’re fired. Clear?”

“Heard!”

“Yes, Chef!”

My other chef is a slim, snappy woman who has probably heard the line, “You’d make a great hostess!” as many times, if not more, as I have. But that’s where our similarities stop. She’s tough. She takes no crap. She is the most fierce chef I’ve ever encountered, as if she’s making up for her looks by being as strict and tough as possible. She scares me a little, but I also have tremendous respect for her. I kind of hope she has a little bit of mercy for me–you know, a girl-chef-to-girl-chef kind of way. (We’ll see how that goes.)

Anyway, all I can recall about last year is being thrown into the festival without hope of a life raft. I had none of the on-site training I needed. I just showed up and was told to grill lobster in Hops and Barley, my first kiosk. (Awww.) I learned the hard way last year.

This year, my new area and my new chefs seem to very adamant that we learn the menu back and forth, that we learn how everything is to be produced and that we make no mistakes and have little leeway. I, like the crotchety old grandma I am on the inside, keep thinking things like, look at these newfangled contraptions! as I look at my menu lists and listened to the safety spiels. I was actually given a tour of the kitchen. I was shocked. (Where was I last year? How did I miss all the important stuff like, where do we store the food?)

As the chefs educate everyone on their jobs and the upcoming 53-day culinary boot camp that is Food and Wine, I find myself nodding along like a redundant bobblehead. Of course, the second I realize I’m doing it, I stop, because I don’t want to be that guy” that thinks he/she knows everything. I detest those people.

So I stand, in the front, trying to look both eager and serious at the same time. It’s hard, because on the inside I’m jumping up and down and skipping and singing and thinking, “Yes! I’m back at Epcot! Oh, how thrilling!” On the outside, I’m just trying to keep my, “Yes, Chef,” as even and monotone as possible, because I’m pretty sure everyone would think I was crazy otherwise.

As it stands, folks, there are FIVE days until the official opening.

Less than a week.

Are you ready? I’m ready. I was born ready.

LETS DO THIS THING.

 

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Ten Days Until Food and Wine!

The leaves are changing (in places that are not Florida, I am sure) and the Pumpkin Spice Latte has made a reappearance at the local Starbucks. I personally adore these delicious pumpkin-caffeinated beverages, but have not ordered one out of respect for baristas who hate making PSL’s. (My best friend is one. I did this for you, Miss Barista. I’ve sacrificed my autumn goodness out of respect for your kind.)

Anyway, other than the season starting afresh with all sorts of autumn feel-good nostalgic memories, this is the best season for one simple reason.

It’s Epcot International Food and Wine Festival time.

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It is the absolute BEST time at the best place in all of the Walt Disney World Resort, and that’s saying a lot because WDW is the size of Manhattan. Sure, you can make/buy food that is just as delicious as what we serve, and you can even buy the unique varieties of alcohol we distribute here. But can you ever come close to replicating the feeling of the warm evening air, the twinkle lights, the laughter and the music of World Showcase in the fall?

I’ll answer that right now. You can’t. Because the best cocktail we serve doesn’t have anything to do with the alcohol–it has to do with the perfect blend of atmosphere, experience and music, shaken–not stirred–and served in a sparkling glass.

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My favorite kiosk last year! (I own the photo)

Bear in mind I am not being paid by the company to say any of this. I truly believe it because I’m cheesy and full of it. And I have good reason to love Food and Wine. My very first job (ever-ever) was the Food and Wine Festival, and it was my dream job. It was hard. Guests have it easy–relax, knock back a few cocktails, sip a few beers, eat some sliders, hop from kiosk to kiosk and watch the fireworks explode before retiring to a luxury hotel on property. Cast Members, on the other hand, get to spend eight to twelve hours a day in the searing Florida heat, clothed head to toe in long, unbreathable costumes, leaning over grills in kiosks that reach upwards of 90 degrees, all while plastering that ‘Welcome to Disney!’ smile on their red, borderline-heatstroked faces.

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Some of my fellow Cast Members from last year’s festival! (I own this photo)

And you know what? We love it.

Because we have a chance to put smiles on your faces. Also, we have a blast back there. You would not believe the people I’ve met! My fellow Cast Members, who are in Culinary Boot Camp serving thousands of plates an hour, become family. We’re spending 56 straight days together crammed into kiosks the size of a postage stamp. We get to listen to Illuminations: Reflections of Earth for 56 nights straight. We’ve got that song memorized. I can snap my fingers to every crackling firework shell.

Today, as you may have guessed, was my big training day for Food and Wine. I’ve been ‘deployed,’ in Disney terms, from my ‘home location’ of Columbia Harbour House, Magic Kingdom, to Epcot for the duration of the Festival. I left today’s Festival Overview totally pumped, which is kind of lame because I’ve seen this all before and it can get a little boring for normal people. I, on the other hand, was trying to wipe the ridiculous smile off my face so I didn’t look entirely crazy.

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Last year’s festival! (Again, my photo.)

Walking into Epcot just feels like home. It’s a system I understand. It makes sense to me.

My kiosks this year will span from Mexico to China, to the left of World Showcase. This is a fun and new experience for me, considering last year I worked the back half of the festival, from Germany to Morocco. I’m looking forward to a change of scene and meeting all the new and wonderful people I know I have yet to encounter.

It’s going to be hot. And busy. And a serious workout. But the food is going to be delicious, and the experience is going to be awesome.

So, with just TEN days to go (nine, if you count the not-so-soft opening on the 18th) until the Festival starts… who’s ready for some Food and Wine Festival fun?

Discovery Day: Take Two

To anyone who has ever been an Epcot Cast Member, you remember Discovery Day. (Probably.)

You know the drill–a run-through of the Four Keys Basics (repeat after me, class: Safety, Courtesy, Show and Efficiency!) and a mostly-walking tour of Future World, followed by a boat ride around World Showcase and a visit from your respective Coordinator of Training.

And the magical secret Epcot initiation that I want so badly to share but swore not to, with my right hand raised and the oath “So help me, Mickey!” ringing in my ears.

This is my second Discovery Day, which is to say I have been re-Epcot-ized. No more Magic Kingdom for me! Not for the next few months, anyway.

And boy does it feel good to be back. I love Epcot, love with a capital LOVE.

There are some things I was reminded of on today’s walking tour, a refresher course in the magical world of Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. For example, there are over 11,000 triangle tiles on Spaceship Earth (the actual number seems to vary depending on who you ask or which website you use) and Ellen’s Energy Adventure is 45 minutes long. And Innoventions is a really awesome way to get out of the heat.

The best part about Discovery Day is arguably the ride portion. A quick trip to the past and future on Spaceship Earth provides air conditioning, a good synopsis of what Epcot is all about (uniting the world through technology, without forgetting our past) and some good fun facts.

“I can smell Rome burning from here,” one girl behind me said, inhaling deeply in the queue line. This is a reference to the piped-in scent featured on the ride, the smell of smoke (faintly like bacon, really) pouring from the scene where Rome burns the scrolls of Alexandria.

That launched the group into a discussion of other piped-in smells, like the Main Street sweets and confections scent and the popcorn in Storybook Circus. This, as most conversations do when speaking with other Cast Members, turned into a fact war. Who has the most information? The craziest Guest story? The most magical moment? (Cast Members are both defensive and territorial, and the ‘True Believers’ all like to out-magic each other, a rather angry defense system I think comes from smiling day-in-day-out).

“Have you had Beverly?” someone asked in a challenging tone as we walked past Club Cool. For the uninitiated, Club Cool is a Coca-Cola sponsored store in Epcot where you can taste various carbonated drinks from around the world in shotglass-sized portions. Beverly, an Italian aperitif with a horribly bitter aftertaste, is a bit of an initiation for Cast Members. It tastes gosh-awful, and it’s a running joke to not warn people about the taste and laugh at their reaction.

“I once chugged five portions of Beverly on a bet,” the girl I was with said. We all made respective disgusted faces, because most people refuse to even finish a single sip.

We strolled past all sorts of landmarks and discussed important facts at length. We made friends with our fellow Cast Members and checked out our costumes for the Festival.

Most of all, though, we got to high-five each other for escaping our respective locations for the next five months. Because everyone loves Food and Wine! (And those Hollywood Studios Cast Members were relieved to get away from Frozen.)

Actually, during the introduction portion of the day we were asked to list our name, location and favorite Disney song. When we’d gone around the room, our guide applauded and said, “I noticed not a single one of you mentioned Frozen. That’s how I can tell you’ve all been Cast Members for a while!”

(For the First Time In Forever, we do not want to Build a Snowman and think it’s time to Let It Go.)

No matter the reason or season or how we all ended up in the same room, there was a tangible zip of enthusiasm in the air. It’s a new season! A new Festival!

Hello, Food and Wine 2014! Bring it on.

Life Under the Castle

I wish I could show you a live feed of the Magic Kingdom Utilidoors.

Yes, they exist. Underground tunnels beneath a thriving amusement park, tunnels filled with boxes and people and the sound of the AVAC system carrying trash through big metal tubes.

I wish I could show you the people lurking in the Mouseketeeria on their breaks. They’re loud, happy, tired, often sweaty and overworked but tireless, tenacious and dedicated to a crazy and magical company.

I wish you could see the smiles! I wish you could hear the stories they tell.

I wish you could stand in the Subway line behind Cinderella or have your door held open for you by Peter Pan. I wish you could hear the bus drivers call all the ladies ‘princess’ as they scan our ID’s.

I know that at Disney it is the job of Cast Members to preserve the magic, but that job is hard. Not only do I want to show a Guest our inner cogs and wheels to prove just how hard we work for their enjoyable vacation, but I want them to see the real magic that keeps this place running. Not the showmanship. Not the fireworks. The honest to goodness people that work here.

Because as lame as it sounds, this is where the magic is.

I just wish you all could see it.