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In a world of Disney fantasy, does authenticity matter?

For the twisty, thorny, slippery-slidey subject of food and authenticity at Walt Disney World, a trio of strawberries impaled on a stick is as good a place as any to jump in. I ate them last April, when I was on vacation with three generations of my family.

After several days of togetherness — most of which orbited around my young nephew, caught up in the quintessential Disney World cycle of manic delight and exhaustion— I ducked away one afternoon to wander Epcot's World Showcase alone. When I'd visited Disney World as a food-curious teenager, I'd felt happiest strolling this 1.2-mile promenade encircling a wide lagoon, anticipating each country-themed pavilion, and the restaurant menus I would scrutinize with my dad. I'd revisited the parks again in my late twenties, but not since becoming a dining critic nearly 15 years ago. Would I still enjoy Epcot?

On the path to the World Showcase, nostalgia and skepticism trailed me like a comet's twin tails. I rolled my eyes at the "croissant doughnut" offered at a stand near the Showcase's entrance. I was transported by the mystical pyramid-volcano tableau behind the Restaurante San Angel Inn in the Mexico pavilion, an old favorite that still transfixed me. Then I came to the China pavilion, its ornate architecture blazing gold and red. I scanned the menu at the counter-service Lotus Blossom Cafe: egg rolls, orange chicken, shrimp fried rice — the easy-listening hits of Chinese-American cooking. A smaller sign, though, advertised a special: "Beijing-style candied strawberries." The annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival was in full swing, and this dish was spotlighting the finale of Florida's strawberry season. A server in a yellow jacket with red stitching handed me three fat berries skewered on a bamboo stick, sheathed in crackly caramel, and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Disney Japan Pavilion

The Japan pavilion in Epcot

The strawberries put me in mind of a dessert I'd loved as a kid in my Maryland hometown, alternately identified on the menu of our local Chinese-American restaurant as "crystal banana" or "diamond banana:" slices of fruit battered, fried, dipped in hot caramel syrup, and then dunked tableside in a bowl of ice water to instantly crystallize the liquid sugar. Outside Epcot's fiberglass pagoda with my treat, I Googled "Beijing candied fruit." The images featured different fruits (notably Chinese hawthorn, with an appearance similar to a large cherry tomato) adhering to the suspended-in-thin-caramel principle, and more of them on the stick, but otherwise matched what I held. In English, several websites mentioned, the phonetic pronunciation of this Beijing street snack is bing tang hulu. Certainly, it was a simple preparation, but the Disney version impressed me. It smacked, I thought to myself, of authenticity.

There it was: the A-word. In discussions of food, few adjectives are as loaded as authentic. It's deployed to convey credibility, to communicate that the meal you're eating has been made from a recipe straight from the indigenous traditions of a place or people — and often, to suggest that a person from that place is preparing the recipe themselves. Lately, the word has been adopted by corporate giants to persuade consumers that the products they're peddling haven't been overly diluted to populist tastes; some restaurants use it for the same purposes. The ones most aggressively touting their "authenticity," though, usually are those who have indeed thinned the spicing, and swapped in proteins, grains, and vegetables more familiar to the generic American diet.

Absolute authenticity is a myth, but we champion the chefs who strive to reproduce flavors and textures with specific cultural accuracy.

Food critics tend to avoid using the A-word, but at restaurants serving any cuisine beyond broadly defined "New American" cooking, notions of what's true and what's ersatz lurk in our brains. Those of us who crave the truest tastes of foods from other cultures strive to suss out the places that make, say, the gooiest cheese bread from the Republic of Georgia, the most delicate Lowcountry she-crab soup, or the spiciest Korean monkfish stew. Absolute authenticity is a myth: There's no replicating the water and soil and exact kitchens of other places. But we champion the chefs who strive to reproduce flavors and textures with specific cultural accuracy, even if we've never been to Korea or the Republic of Georgia. And we scoff when an immigrant cook or restaurant owner overtly alters a dish to please less adventurous palates; we dismiss them as not being true to their own culture. So many societal and racial subtleties play out silently in restaurants.

Morocco platter

Clockwise from top left: Dumplings at Nine Dragons in China, a vegetarian platter at Tangierine Cafe in Morocco, sashimi at Tokyo Dining in Japan, and poutine at Le Cellier Steakhouse in Canada

The House the Mouse Built proposes to streamline those dynamics for us. Disney creates its own fifth dimension, a hyper-fantasy where cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation blend into a seamless dreamscape. That's as true of the company's animated films like Frozen and Pocahontas as it is for the sombrero- and hula skirt-clad animatronic dolls that populate the It's A Small World ride in the Magic Kingdom. With regards to food, the utter breadth of the Walt Disney World Resort means that it can meet us at whatever level of engagement we desire. The park receives 52.5 million visitors annually, who collectively consume nearly 8 million hamburgers, 5 million hot dogs, and 8 million pounds of fries. In terms of authenticity, I can't think of any forms of sustenance that mainstream America owns more than those three dishes.

Epcot's World Showcase is its own special template, though. Walt Disney himself envisioned it as an educational attraction, one where the food of each of the eleven represented countries was one of the central draws. For many visitors, the pleasure comes in the imaginary passage, the curated journey, and the pleasant-enough Chinese-American dishes delivered by staffers from China (working there, as with other Showcase "cast members," on special 15-month visas arranged by Disney with the U.S. government) in a meticulously constructed setting.

Disney creates its own fifth dimension, a hyper-fantasy where cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation blend into a seamless dreamscape

After last year's visit to Disney World and a more recent stay this June, I find I'm often sidetracked by the degrees to which foods at the World Showcase truly represent their origins. At the France pavilion's brasserie, I can love a crackery, handsomely spare Alsatian flatbread smeared with crème fraîche and scattered with onions and bacon, while bemoaning a soupe à l'oignon gratinée with undercooked onions and tinny-tasting beef stock. Eating at the Germany pavilion's Biergarten buffet can resemble a scavenger hunt, where the white sausages and schnitzel and the pickled beets and cucumber rings are the prize finds, and the mac and cheese seems like it wandered in lost on its way to a chain restaurant's children's menu. (Here's betting even the pickiest kids would love spaetzle.) I daydream fondly of those Beijing-inspired strawberries, but wish the dull Shanghai spring rolls and the bland Canton beef at the China pavilion's Nine Dragons restaurant more fully embodied the provinces for which they're named.

But lately I've also grasped this: Eating at Disney may not be an authentic ideal, but its impact is undeniably real. Last year my family stayed at Disney's Port Orleans French Quarter resort, and my nephew fell hard for the beignets served at the food court. His fingers would dance around them until they cooled enough to bite into, his face smeared with powdered sugar after he demolished a plate. The food critic uncle wanted to say, "Wait until you taste them in New Orleans." I do hope to bring him to Louisiana one day, but how can I know where his life will take him? Maybe this will be the closest he gets to the actual French Quarter; at least he's now tasted something he can associate with the place. Possibly another kid will try sushi and be inspired to know more about Japan. Perhaps parents will forever remember the way the whole family bonded over the Neapolitan-style pizza at Via Napoli in the Italy pavilion. Hopefully eating beef bobotie and spiced basmati rice at Tusker House in Animal Kingdom can humanize Africans and South Asians for any Disney-visiting Americans who never see anything but white faces back home.

My own young Epcot epiphany happened on New Year's Eve, almost 1987, at the elegant Bistro de Paris, upstairs in the French Pavilion. (In closed in 2012 and the renovated room became Bocuse-inspired Monsieur Paul.) Our server that night, Giles, asked us what we'd like to drink soon after we sat down, and my mother requested a glass of dry white wine and my father a red. Giles, with his suave Gallic accent, tried to persuade my parents to invest in a bottle instead — it being a holiday, he was encouraging guests to celebrate. A beautiful Burgundy, perhaps? When my folks held fast to their by-the-glass order, Giles' demeanor turned with vicious speed from kindness to frost. He was surly for the rest of the dinner.

In any other setting, this treatment would not have gone well. My mother would have grown silent with anger and my brother and I might have stared at our plates, feeling like we'd done something wrong but not quite understanding what. The manager might have been summoned so he and my father could have a little chat. But on this evening — after a day of park-hopping filled with Pirates of the Caribbean and Captain EO, long lines that wound through Spaceship Earth, and a Mickey Mouse sighting halfway between Germany and Italy, we found Giles hysterical. Here was our very own snooty French waiter! For years after, whenever the subject of snobbery or over-fanciness came up around the dinner table, we would turn up our noses and try to outdo one another's Giles impressions.

Traveling to la vrai France was grander, headier, scarier, and more wondrous than Epcot could possibly prepare me for, but the seeds of interest and enthusiasm for Paris were planted there, at Disney World

France is five hours ahead of Orlando, so when the clock struck 7 p.m. that evening in Epcot, all the French servers suddenly stopped what they were doing and shouted "Bonne année!" to one another, hugging and kissing on both cheeks. The unguarded genuineness of the moment was startling. By that point in my life I was already enthralled with French food; in Baltimore, where we lived, French-Continental lingered as the aspirational cuisine. But something about those glimpses of intimacy and sincerity between the Bistro de Paris cast members stayed with me. It made want to visit their country, to be around more of them. The next year, my high school French teacher, Ms. Buxton, announced she was organizing a summer trip to Paris. When I begged my parents to let me go, they remembered how mesmerized I had been by our evening at the France Pavilion and found the means to make it happen. It was my first overseas trip. Sure, traveling to la vrai France was grander, headier, scarier, and more wondrous than Epcot could possibly prepare me for, but the seeds of interest and enthusiasm were planted there, at Disney World.

We ate at Bistro de Paris in an era when the France pavilion by far had the most culinary clout in Epcot. The bistro and the bustling, brasserie-like Chefs de France downstairs were operated by three of France's starriest culinaires: Paul Bocuse of Lyon, Roger Vergé of Cannes, and pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre, each a defining figure of the nouvelle cuisine style of cooking. Their involvement in Epcot brought cachet to Disney, though the chefs themselves likely had muddled feelings about the mass-audience modifications applied to their food. In a 1988 New York Times article about Chefs de France, Bocuse says to Bryan Miller, then the paper's restaurant critic, "We have had to cut down on seasonings because of the clientele we get at the restaurant. We are not cooking exactly like we do in Lyons, or if we were cooking for New Yorkers. People come here from all over America and they have different preferences."

If the great chef fretted over matters of authenticity at his own places, I wonder what he might have made of the other Epcot restaurants. At the time, Disney considered food an amenity, not a standalone enticement: a committee approved the menus, and a central commissary kitchen prepared much of what was served throughout the park. This tightly controlled practice fell in line with the company's autocratic approach; eating was just another sensory experience to curate.

Beef flatbread Photo by Bill Addison and Helen Rosner
American Pavilion
Italy ovens

Clockwise from top left: A spread of dishes from Harambe Market in Animal Kingdom, a Viking chocolate mouse at Kringa Bakeri og Cafe in Norway, the ovens at Via Napoli in Italy, and the menu at Liberty Inn at the American pavilion

During the next decade, a shift began. Eventually, it would complicate and change the conversation around authenticity and food at Disney, moving the culinary philosophy beyond the park's own insular structures (and the easy categorizations of its watered-down cooking) to ultimately take cues from the impossible-to-ignore revolution happening then in American food culture. In 1992, the company brought on German-born Dieter Hannig as director of food and beverage services for Walt Disney World Resorts. Hannig had previously helmed Hilton's worldwide food research center and helped Disney launch nearly two-dozen restaurants at the new Disneyland Paris.

Hannig had been appointed specifically to elevate Disney World's culinary experience. He began by giving the resort's higher-end restaurants some creative leeway — including Epcot's other table-service establishments, not just chef-affiliated France. Dedicated front-of-house managers came in to orchestrate service, and kitchens started taking responsibility for sourcing ingredients and weaving in dishes that, while still adhering to overall corporate guidelines, could sharpen the focus of their cultural perspectives. At Restaurant Marrakesh in the Morocco pavilion, for example, a lentil soup called harira, which Muslims traditionally consume to break the daily fast during Ramadan, was welcome on the menu alongside dishes like mild chicken couscous. Hannig's goal was better food, but his changes also furthered Disney's It's a Small World dream of global connectedness.

Hannig's vision for Disney's dining overhaul culminated in the California Grill, which opened in 1995 on the top floor of the Contemporary Resort as a replacement for the outdated Top of the World Supper Club. The attitude of the new restaurant directly mirrored the dominant Los Angeles- and Bay Area-imported trends rippling through the whole nation: an open kitchen, goat cheese ravioli, grill-marked meats, fresh and seasonal produce (mostly then trucked in from the Golden State), a breezy atmosphere, and casual but attentive service of the "Hi, my name is Chad and I'll be taking care of you tonight" variety. An instant hit, it proved both to increasingly food-savvy visitors and to the company itself that Walt Disney World was capable of adapting its brand to the culinary zeitgeist.

California Grill
California Grill Ravioli

Wild salmon and goat cheese ravioli at California Grill

In the twenty years since California Grill opened, America's interest around dining and cooking has skyrocketed, and it's hard to find a craze or a trend or a lasting shift in predilections — locavorism, gourmet burgers, better coffee — that Disney hasn't integrated into some aspect of its food service. Okay, maybe not outright molecular gastronomy, but there is corn foam and tweezers-technique galore at the extravagant, tasting-menu-only Victoria & Albert's in the Grand Floridian resort. The countries of the Epcot pavilions may not rotate, but in 1995 Hannig (who left the company in 2009) spearheaded the first Epcot Food and Wine Festival. Now in its twentieth year, the 53-day event fills in Epcot's global gaps. Guests wander booths and purchase small plates of food, some pretty legit (Korean bo ssam, right in step with the times), some questionable. (Three sweet and savory variations on Belgian waffles — do its citizens eat nothing else?)

Not surprisingly, Disney has also embraced the corporate side of the American food boom.

Not surprisingly, Disney has also embraced the corporate side of the American food boom. Celebrity chefs hold events at the resorts for mutually beneficial promotion; several of the most ubiquitous ones (Wolfgang Puck, Todd English, Cat Cora) currently run or have previously operated onsite restaurants. The company has welcomed upscale chains like Il Mulino and the forthcoming STK Orlando in Disney Springs (the new rebranding of Downtown Disney, in progress through next year). And the drinks lists have followed suit, as well: I can mull over authenticity while savoring a Del Maguey Vida Blanco mezcal at La Cava del Tequila in the Mexico pavilion, with its list of more than 150 agave-based spirits, or sipping earthy-sweet Otokoyama at the sake bar in the back of the Japan pavilion.

For food-obsessed adults, a few days spent eating and drinking at Disney World is a microcosm of our everyday restaurant-centric lives. True excellence is rare but findable. Sometimes a street-food nibble can delight as much or more than a tasting-menu extravagance. There are astonishments and there are disappointments. Fixation over the lines between authenticity and blatant concoction or misappropriation is a constant. Or it is for me, anyway. Whether you believe Disney World to be the definitive escape, the ultimate swindle, or a complex stratification between the two, there's no denying one thing: Food is part of how we create our identities, and Disney is no exception.

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