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A First Look At EPCOT’s Culinary Renaissance

EPCOT Center was well-received upon its debut in 1982, but in the endless amount of press coverage at the time a number of issues frequently bubbled to the surface. Amid all the grumbling about long lines and technical breakdowns, or of a lack of attractions in World Showcase, a glaring and oft-repeated complaint was the lack of food offerings and the difficulty of obtaining dining reservations. At the time, some of the fast food locations and food carts we now take for granted had yet to debut, some existing locations had yet to expand, and China’s Nine Dragons Restaurant and France’s Bistro de Paris did not exist – not to mention the then-unbuilt Morocco and Norway pavilions.

This wasn’t the result of a lack of foresight on Disney’s part; in fact, many food expansion plans already existed when the park opened. But as with the park’s rides and attractions, there simply hadn’t been time to complete the park before its opening day. A number of facilities and attractions were still under construction when the park opened, but that did little to assuage the concerns of parched guests who needed somewhere to sit down and have a snack after the long trip around the World Showcase promenade. Disney didn’t have the luxury of waiting for permanent facilities to be completed – they needed new food facilities immediately.

To solve this problem, the Renaissance Food Festival opened in the early summer of 1983. For about a year this blue-and-white striped tent, which sat between the United Kingdom and France pavilions, offered a selection of international quick-service food during peak tourist seasons. Reports from the time describe offerings which included bratwurst, corned beef, and lasagna.

Because this was a temporary facility – operating roughly a year between the summers of 1983 and 1984 – and because it was one of the first EPCOT offerings to vanish, very little documentation of this historical oddity has emerged. In fact I hadn’t ever seen a picture of the Renaissance Food Festival until…

We’ve talked in the past of the frisson of nerdy exhilaration that comes from the discovery of something you have never previously found documented. And so it was when this picture, taken in June 1983, turned up:

Computer! Zoom and enhance!

Hello, gorgeous!

Ok, so it isn’t a high-def three-dimensional rendering, but it’s the first picture I’ve ever seen of the fabled Renaissance Food Festival. The blue and white tent was tucked away to the side of the United Kingdom pavilion, in what is now a hilly area that conceals the backstage facilities behind the International Gateway. It’s striking how much the landscape has changed in that area over the years – notably, how completely different it looks from thirty years of tree growth. Look at this comparison, which, although the images were taken from different angles, at least gives you an idea of where the tent’s site would be today.

The United Kingdom pavilion in 1983 (top) and in 2011 (bottom)

The only major structural changes to the United Kingdom pavilion in the thirty years between the two photos is the addition of covered seating outside the Pub and the small building you can see that now houses the fish and chips stand. The other changes to the area, which really changed the topography, came with the addition of the International Gateway. It’s hard to judge from this angle, but it appears that the Renaissance Food Festival sat behind a small berm and occupied what is now a small parking area and loading dock behind the International Gateway.

There you have it – another weird historical relic from EPCOT’s past. Now go and check your old vacation slides – does anyone have any more pictures of a mysterious blue and white tent?

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3 comments to A First Look At EPCOT’s Culinary Renaissance

  • steve2wdw

    I remember this quite well, although we didn’t eat there. As each expansion pad was hidden behind a small berm, the Food Festival was actually hard to see, if you didn’t actually go into the facility. You could enter on either end of the facility, near the UK pavilion, or near the canal near the France pavilion. (Before the Internationl Gateway was constructed, the whole area from the UK to the bridge in front of France was available for another country-there was actually only the lower bridge into France, the island didn’t exist). We were there during a “slower” period, so it wasn’t open (so sadly, I have no photo documentation), but I’ve often thought of it, as I walk through what is now the whole International Gateway area.

  • Sean O

    I have a great third-party book from about 1985 (including coming soon: The Living Seas!) on visiting WDW that I picked up cheap about a year back. In it, amongst the many other astonishing thoughts (Mr. Toad’s being reviewed as nothing special, Horizons not being seen as the end-all-be-all attraction it is now, etc), most of EPCOT’s food options were savaged.
    The book mentioned the… unique Worldkey setup in Future World, but generally it didn’t say too much positive about the food quality. Glad it has changed so dramatically. In fact, on our very lengthy trip last January, we would do an “Epcot Food Assist” ala Mission Space, where we would always slingshot through Epcot for lunch when going between DAK, MGM and MK. Best trip-related idea I’ve come up with in a long while.

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