Epcot Festival of the Arts Review

With only one weekend left in its schedule for the year, a review of Epcot’s International Festival of the Arts is a bit late to be of any value for most of you for 2017. However, given my strong feelings about it and since it’s likely going to be a recurring event, I think it’s worthy of a post. Plus, it might not be too late for some of you locals.

For those unfamiliar with it, the Epcot International Festival of the Arts is what Walt Disney World describes as “the ultimate cultural celebration as food, art and entertainment.” The event features cuisine, visual arts, and live entertainment in an exciting extravaganza replete with phenomenal artists, gourmet food, musical performances, stage productions, and other excellent artistic acts.

September 21, 2017 Update: Epcot’s Festival of the Arts will return January 12 through February 19, 2018. The event will run 7 days per week, with some entertainment offerings planned only on the weekends. This is great news for fans of the event, and we’re optimistic that other improvements will be made to this surprise hit of an event. What follows is our original review of the Epcot International Festival of the Arts…

In our post previewing the Art Festival, I expressed optimism about the concept, and felt it was a natural fit for Epcot. As the dates of the event drew nearer and scant details were made public, I felt some trepidation. Was this being thrown together at the last minute because attendance was lagging? Would it actually deliver in terms of entertainment, or was that just puffery? Was it actually just another excuse to sell booze?

After one lap of Epcot on our first day at the Festival of the Arts, all of my fears were allayed. This wasn’t just Food & Wine Festival: Winter Off-Season Edition. The Epcot Festival of the Arts was an engaging and fun addition, worthy of the park to which it was added.

The first thing that struck me was how well-designed all of the displays and photo ops were for the event. From the brush-stroke designs on the decor around Spaceship Earth to the immersive painting PhotoPass photo ops, everything was done at a really high level. Going off of decor alone, it certainly didn’t look like the event was thrown together last-minute.

Then there was entertainment. I was surprised by the sheer number of acts. Behind Fountain of Nations, there was a stage that alternated between youth (and perhaps other) groups and artists starting and completing artwork in the view of guests.

When neither was occurring, there were living statue performers in front of the stage who would mess with guests. We spent a good chunk of our days in Epcot at this stage, and I think there was pretty much always something occurring here until 5 p.m. daily.

Back in World Showcase, there were artists scattered around, painting/sketching/etc. scenes in the view of guests. The highlight of these (for me) was the chalk artists, working on the sidewalks. All of these artists coupled with the musical acts that normally inhabit World Showcase gave the pavilions a palpable, lived-in energy. It was fantastic.

We attended one of the Disney on Broadway concerts, and it was also exceptional. We are mostly indifferent to the Flower Power & Eat to the Beat concerts, but we both loved this. If we were locals, I think we would’ve gone to see each duo of performers–the show we saw was that good and left us wanting more.

I loved the interactive nature of virtually everything at Epcot Festival of the Arts. From artists who talked guests through their work to statue performers who engaged with the audience, there was a lot of this.

The highlight for me in all of this was the paint by numbers murals that guests could help complete. This just screamed “EPCOT Center!” and it felt like the park reclaiming some of its ‘inquisitive youth’ that has been lost since the mid-1990s.

We helped paint this mural, and it was a ton of fun watching it progress throughout the day into something beautiful. The concept and process was an unequivocal hit with guests, all of whom seemed to be having a great time.

Of course, as with any Epcot festival, there are food kiosks. There has been a ton of coverage about these on numerous other blogs, so we’ll keep this brief. We thought the food was generally really presented exceptionally well, and tasted very good.

What we tried was at least on par with Food & Wine Festival in terms of inventiveness and quality. The downside of that was that all prices, even by Epcot Festival standards, seemed to be inflated by about $1-2. This was particularly true with the savory options.

The foods were fun and tasty, but relative to other offerings and entertainment at the Arts Festival, they barely merit mentioning. Unlike Food & Wine Festival, you won’t be missing out (at all) if you attend the Arts Festival and don’t spend any extra money. (That, in itself, is refreshing.) Food is a fun enhancement to the Arts Festival, not a crucial element.

Although we spent 3 days at Epcot during the Arts Festival, there was a lot we missed. We didn’t do Figment’s Brush with the Masters, we didn’t peruse all of the art galleries, and we didn’t see all of the atmospheric art acts (nor could we have–they were constantly changing). Not being able to see it all was definitely a plus, from my perspective.

Since this is a review, what little “bad” there was merits mentioning, too. My biggest criticism of the Arts Festival is that it used Odyssey as its Festival Center rather than the old Wonders of Life pavilion utilized by the two other festivals. The larger location would have allowed for better/more galleries like those honoring Mary Blair and Herb Ryman.

While I enjoyed seeing their artwork in something larger than a coffee table book, each of these exhibits could have been double (or 100x) the size. Hopefully the positive guest response to the event’s inaugural year will lead to the Wonders pavilion being the Festival Center next year.

I wonder if this event is something that was a struggle to bring to fruition. In recent years, part of Epcot’s problem is that it has devolved to cater to the lowest common denominator, talking down to guests to (supposedly) meet them at their level. Modern Epcot’s wisdom has told us that the marvels of the ocean can’t speak for themselves: they need exposition from a talking cartoon turtle. (Etc.)

The Arts Festival bucked that “wisdom.” Instead of pandering to guests, it challenged them with exhibits and entertainment that educated and inspired. And–surprise, surprise–guests rose and met Epcot at its level.

It was great to see people embracing every aspect of the event, making days in the doldrums of January and February nearly as crowded as peak season.

It’d be naive to think that the Epcot International Festival of the Arts will mark the moment in time when Epcot self-corrected, changing course to live up to its lofty ideals and legacy. When Bob Chapek says he wants to fix Epcot, I do not think that’s what he has in mind. (Quite the converse, actually…)

Rather, my suspicion is that the Arts Festival is a passion project that a small but caring team made happen. It also wouldn’t surprise me if this group had a good amount of creative latitude, with only modest expectations for the level of crowds the event would draw.

In our anecdotal observations, Festival of the Arts drew huge crowds. I would be absolutely shocked if its performance did not exceed expectations. This generally leaves me optimistic about its future. The logical thing to do would be expand it, increasing the performances, exhibits, and decor.

The other possibility is that the above happens, but along with greater efforts to monetize the event. Add in paid seminars, more food booths, and eye-catching drink options throughout the park. Scale back on performers since not as many are “needed” to draw big crowds.

The former is the optimistic outlook, the latter is the cynical one. In reality, my expectation is that the event will return for 2018 with more dates and more to see, but also with more ‘premium’ offerings and more food kiosks.

I’m fine with this. Grazing the food kiosks was fun, but it’s non-essential to enjoying the event. If that is “needed” to justify the cost of performers and other elements, that’s a fair tradeoff from my perspective.

As it stands, in only its inaugural year, the Epcot International Festival of the Arts is my new favorite festival at Epcot. It’s not even a close call, either. It cherrypicks the elements of Flower & Garden and Food & Wine that I like best, while including a substantive element that is (personally) more interesting to me. Most importantly, as an EPCOT Center fan, it conveys (some of) the spirit of the original park with an ambiance that makes it even more enjoyable to just wander around Epcot.

I’d go as far as to recommend planning a Walt Disney World trip around Festival of the Arts to some people. Prior to this, our #3 time to visit Walt Disney World (on our Best and Worst Months to Visit Walt Disney World) was late February into early March; I’d now move that forward to late January into early February. This recommendation certainly isn’t for everyone; I still prefer Halloween and Christmas seasons at Walt Disney World, so if those seasons appeal to you and you’re only visiting once, go then. If you want an offseason visit with low crowds and mild weather, planning a visit around Festival of the Arts makes sense.

There’s another group to whom I’d suggest planning a trip around the 2018 Epcot International Festival of the Arts: out-of-towners considering a trip for Epcot’s 35th Anniversary on October 1, 2017. Delay your visit.

Unless the nature of the Epcot’s Art Festival changes significantly, it’s imbues EPCOT Center more than whatever D23 is able to cobble together for October 1. This is no knock at D23–that team has done some tremendous events. The problem is that Walt Disney World management is otherwise uninterested in honoring anniversaries, and the ragtag D23 team doesn’t have the resources to put together an event of the same scope and scale as the Festival of the Arts.

Granted, there will be plethora of limited edition merchandise (so if a pin set is what EPCOT Center means to you, by all means…) and likely a couple of panels looking back at a park that no longer exists, but that’s probably it. I enjoyed being at the 30th Anniversary of Epcot, but the contrast between what we saw celebrated in the seminars and then what we saw upon walking out into the park was…depressing.

On the other hand, Festival of the Arts offers the best of both worlds: it pays homage to EPCOT Center’s creative legacy while also offering something fresh and substantive. Earlier in the post, I proclaimed this Epcot’s best festival of the year. I’ll go one further: this is the best thing to happen to Epcot in years (admittedly, not a high bar). It is a breath of fresh air for present-day Epcot, and will make EPCOT Center fans rekindle their love for the park, instead of lamenting the past. If you attended this year’s Epcot International Festival of the Arts, what did you think? Any other thoughts or questions?

27 Responses to “Epcot Festival of the Arts Review”
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