Friday, April 15, 2016

Review: "A Tale of Two Festivals"

Spring break 2016 in Southern California saw two popular food festivals return to The Disneyland Resort and nearby Knott's Berry Farm.  Both events were unique and quite different from each other.  Many food festivals take place in the Summer and Fall.  So it was nice to see a couple of Spring offerings.  I had the opportunity to visit both events, and decided to review them together.

This event lasted for two weeks over the park's Spring Break period.  The daily event paid tribute to the boysenberry, which originated at Knott's.  With more than seventy different boysenberry inspired (or infused) food and beverage items, the event had plenty of food to choose from. 

The festival took place throughout Knott's Ghost Town area.
Ten different eateries and several temporary food booths featured the festival offerings.  Wine and craft brew tastings were also available in a special pavilion located at the Wilderness Dance Hall. 

Some of the most popular food items at the festival included the Boysenberry BBQ Short Ribs, featuring Kalbi Beef Ribs with white rice.  These Korean-style ribs were outstanding, and one of my favorite festival foods.  The Boysenberry BBQ Meatballs featured three large meatballs on a stick, covered with Knott's Boysenberry BBQ sauce.  The meatballs were tender and juicy, and the sweet sauce complimented the smokey flavor of the meatballs.  The very popular Fried Alligator Bites with Boysenberry Aioli was served in a cone, atop a bed of French fries.  The bites were tender and crispy.  A very generous portion of aioli was perfect for dipping the bites and the fries.

Boysenberry BBQ Meatballs on the grill

Boysenberry BBQ Beef Ribs with rice
 The Spicy Boysenberry BBQ Wings were another winner.  Each tray came with four to five chicken wings, smothered in the same sauce as the other meat items.  But in this case, the sweetness from the BBQ sauce, mixed with the kick from the wings made for a great combination.  On the dessert side, the Boysenberry Dessert Flautas were my favorite. Two flour tortillas are rolled and filled with boysenberry filling, then deep fried, and topped with a dusting of powdered sugar. I could have eaten these all day long.  The Boysenberry Panna Cotta was a cool, custard-type treat, topped with an Almond Crumble.  This item was not as sweet as the flautas, but it was smooth, and very good.

A tasting card was available for purchase throughout the festival, and was valid for the duration of the event.  For $25, guests could try all of the items in this review.  Not only was this a great value.  The portions were enough to share, so two people could spend an afternoon trying all six food items, and leave very satisfied, which is what we did.  A beer and wine Tasting Card was also available for purchase, but since I don't drink either of those beverages, I did not bother with that card. 

In addition to the food and beverages, there were shopping opportunities around every corner, with all of the Ghost Town shops, and many outdoor stands offering a variety of Boysenberry Festival merchandise, packaged food items and much more.  Kids were able to take part in the fun by building their own miniature Boysenberry Pie at the Beary Tales Pie Kitchen (a great tribute to the former Knott's Beary Tales ride that once occupied the space where Voyage To The Iron Reef now sits). 

There was also plenty of entertainment on the schedule day and night, with live music, a D.J. dance party, and shows featuring the Peanuts Characters.  Knott's did a wonderful job transforming Ghost Town into the ideal venue for the Boysenberry Festival.

The only criticism I would offer is that two weeks doesn't seem long enough for this event.  I understand the need to hold it during a busier time, and I appreciate it being open daily, for the entire two weeks.  But I hope in future years, they will find a way to expand at least the food offerings to include a few weekends before and after Spring Break.  Hopefully the popularity and
demand for this event will result in this happening.  Even though there were several refurbishments taking place in the park, in anticipation of this Summer's Ghost Town 75th Anniversary Celebration, it did not impact our experience at the festival.

We went to the Boysenberry Festival expecting to be overwhelmed by great food, in an atmosphere that only Knott's Berry Farm can provide.  This event certainly did not disappoint.  The food was delicious.  There was plenty of boysenberry-related merchandise to select from.  The park really seemed to embrace the berry that started it all more than seventy five years ago.  And judging from the lines of eager guests on a Friday, during Spring Break, this even has a great future.  I know I'll certainly be back next year.

My grade for the Knott's Berry Farm Boysenberry Festival: A+

As the Boysenberry Festival at Knott's was winding down, over at The Disneyland Resort, an old favorite was returning.  After going away for several years the Disney California Adventure (DCA) Food and Wine Festival is back. This was a popular event during the early days of DCA.  Of course, back then, anything they added to the park was popular, because it made a dull, half-day park a little more appealing.  And it's no secret that anything alcohol-related at DCA is as popular with the adults as "Frozen" is with the little ones.

Where Knott's did a fantastic job of planning for the Boysenberry Festival, it looks like the folks at Disney dropped the ball in that area.  For starters, they placed the Festival Marketplace at one of the most congested areas of the park.  The walkway from the Grizzly Peak Waterfall to the Embarcadero features the gateways to Cars Land, Paradise Pier, A Bug's Land and Pacific Wharf.  Add eight food and alcohol booths, several retail carts, tables, chairs and stand-up eating areas, and you've just clogged one of the park's major arteries. 

The event, which runs from April 1 through May 1, has been billed as a "weekends only" festival  (Friday - Sunday).  But the Festival Marketplace is open daily. This has not been promoted, leading me to believe this was a last-minute adjustment to the schedule.  The food seminars, celebrity chef appearances and other upcharge events take place on the weekends.

The foods represent different California cuisines, with beer and wine pairings available for sampling as well.  Of course, this is not a farmer's market.  You will pay for your samples.  Food items range in price from $4 to $8 per sample serving.   A six-item tasting card (similar to the one from Knott's) is available to Annual Passholders for the rather steep price of $39.

In my opinion, the food items at the DCA festival fell way short in both, quality AND quantity, and failed to meet my minimum expectations for Disney.  The mass-produced "hot" food items were lukewarm at best.  The Triple Cheese Macaroni from the Goldrush booth was "heat lamp" warm, with small bits of tasteless chicken.  The three-cheeses apparently were in sauce form, leaving only the bread crumbs on the top as the stand-out from this item.  For $6, you got a half-empty, small black plastic bowl.
The fried Artichoke Chips with spicy aioli (top), and the
Triple Cheese Macaroni with Smoked Chicken.
The $5 Artichoke Chips with Spicy Aioli (also from Goldrush)  were served cold after being pre-cooked and left out for an extended period of time.  The portion included five, one-inch artichoke petals and about a half-ounce of aioli.

The most expensive item I had, was also one of the smallest ones.  This was the $7.50  Chilled Shrimp and Snow Crab Cocktail from By The Bay. It was served in a very small, plastic container,  The chunks of seafood were tasty and tender.  But the onions from the cocktail sauce left an aftertaste.  Again, the serving was just too small for the high price.  I had to take two trips to this booth for the cocktail, as it was sold out the first time I ordered it.

Also from By The Bay was the one item that I truly enjoyed.  The Coconut Tapioca with Mango Puree and Lychee Boba bursted with flavor.  At $4.25, this was the bargain of the festival, even though it was served in a plastic cup, about the size of a buffet dessert serving.

Chilled Shrimp and Snow Crab Cocktail
Coconut Tapioca with Mango and Lychee Boba
As a former food show participant myself, I understand the challenges to maintaining food quality at an outdoor festival.  But thousands of food vendors are able to pull this off without any issues.  The problem at Disney is that all of the food items were prepared at a kitchen (backstage or off-site), and transported to the festival booths where they were stored in refrigerators or warmers until sold.  This kind of preparation often leads to quality issues.  For the prices Disney is asking for these samples, they should do a better job with the final product.

Most casual Disney fans will probably ignore the lackluster quality of the product, and the steep prices, because it's Disney.  I'm as much of a Disney fan as anyone else, but I cannot give them a pass because they are giving us a new temporary event at a theme park.  Mediocre is not something I usually associate with Disney parks.  If you've been to Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival in Florida, you know the kind of standards Disney is capable of holding themselves to.  If I was to compare the DCA Food and Wine Festival to a professional athlete who gives a lackluster performance, I'd say that Disney "mailed it in" this time.

Because I visit the Disney parks very often, and I know the kind of first class events they can hold, I expect to see major changes to this event if it returns to DCA in the future.  In its current form, I think there is plenty of room for improvement.  Especially when compared to the far superior festival that Knott's Berry Farm just put on.

My grade for the Disney California Adventure Food & Wine Festival: C-

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