I hosted an all-vegan Illuminations dessert party at Epcot in December of 2015. It was an incredible experience, and worth every penny. Watching Illuminations from a private location while snacking on custom vegan desserts is a fantastic way to celebrate any occasion, and I highly recommend it.
There were a few hiccups during the planning process (my assigned event manager wasn’t the best communicator), but the event night couldn’t have gone better. We had a scare early on when they thought they didn’t have the plate for my gluten-free guest, but shortly after one cast member told me they didn’t know what I was talking about, another came out with her plate. So I’m not really sure where the miscommunication came in, but it was resolved quickly.
A chef even visited us (I’m not sure if they visit every group, or if it was because ours was all-vegan, *or* because we had a GF person with additional intolerances whose meal was momentarily lost). The chef was fantastic and told us how he made everything earlier that night and what was in it (everything was sweetened with agave, for instance). We asked him for the recipe of one item, which he said he’d send to my event coordinator (but I never got it 😦 ).
I designed my own menu, but you can also leave things up to them if you choose. I had a few things in mind that I really wanted. I requested a re-creation of the blood orange cupcakes from Terra at F&W 2014 (it’s different from their normal vegan cake and icing that I don’t care for; it has a tofu icing that is super smooth and creamy), a cherry cobbler with whipped cream, a chocolate eclair (so they made chocolate eclair jars), and the last item was a lemon berry trifle jar. The original menu offered also included a chocolate bundt cake, but I removed it figuring that the 4 desserts would be enough, and the chocolate bundt would be redundant with the chocolate cupcake, which was the right call, because there was more than enough! But a bundt should be an option as well.
My GF guest had a special alternative of berry cake jars, spice cake jars, and a packaged allergy-free brownie. She liked the berry cake jars best, while I preferred the spice cake ones (she had me try bites of hers. :D). I could definitely tell a difference between her cake texture and ours, and while it tasted good, our gluten texture was better. She’s been GF a long time, so she doesn’t have a comparison to gluten cake anymore, and she thought they were fantastic.
I also really wanted a Mickey incorporated somehow, so I requested a “hidden Mickey.” When I first looked at the dessert table, I thought they’d forgotten my Mickey request (no big deal). But then I unscrewed one of the jars to take a picture and there was the cutest screen printed Mickey head on the top of the dessert! He was hidden! That made my night.
There were so many desserts, we couldn’t finish them all! I was expecting one of each item per person, but it was more than that. It was pretty much all you could eat… and then some. Even for our GF person; the server there brought her out extra jars of her special top-8 free desserts. The jars came in handy, since we were able to screw on the lids and take the leftovers home. :p
Personally, I found all the desserts but the cupcake to be much too sweet for my liking. Everyone else enjoyed them (they agreed they were really sweet and even our boys who can demolish an entire Chef TJ meal weren’t able to finish them–I think because of sugar overload).
Presentation wise, as you can see from the pics, the jars aren’t as spectacular looking as the cobblers and cupcakes, but they are very convenient for taking home! Everyone had different favorites. Mine was definitely the cupcake. I prefer a tart cherry pie to a sweet one, so I didn’t care for the cobbler, but others loved it. Both of the jar desserts were very good, but there was a lot of icing that again was very sweet so I enjoyed them but could only eat a couple bites (but again, the jars were favorites of some other guests). If I were to do one of these again, or if I had advice for someone who’s doing one, I’d request that they go a little easier on the sweetening. I think we all could have eaten more of them if they’d been a little less sugary. Although, I don’t think it’d be possible to finish, regardless. There were so many! Because of that, I’d also go with fewer than the 4 options for the group. I’d probably go with just 3 different desserts (which would cost a little bit less, too!).
The first step is to reach out to Disney Catered Events. From there, you’ll be contacted by a Conversion Services Manager, who will get details about your event from you (number of people, dates, location, etc.). After those initial details are settled, you’ll sign a catering agreement and give them a deposit (mine was $250, but that may change based on the size of the venue).
Next, you’re assigned an event manager who will work with you from that point on to plan your menu and coordinate the event. I explained our dietary restrictions to the event manager (all vegan and one person vegan + gluten free), and I made suggestions of menu items I wanted, as mentioned above. We discussed several menu options and their pricing.
Once you decide on a menu, you’re sent the BEO (Banquet Event Order), which lists your menu, per person cost, times and decor for the event, the number of people who need park admission, etc.–basically all of your party’s details. Make sure to review it carefully and be certain it lists everything exactly as you want it! Feel free to make changes if necessary before signing–this is your event contract. Along with the BEO, you’re also sent the “estimated” final bill (estimated, in case you add anything else on later), and you pay the remaining balance (less your deposit) when you sign and return the BEO.
After that, your event is finalized, but you can still contact your event manager if anything else comes up before the event.
There are two main costs associated with the dessert parties–the venue rental fee and the food cost (with minimum food and beverage expenditures specific to each venue). The venue rental fees are static, but the food cost varies based on your menu selections. You can go as low (as long as you meet the minimum) or as high as you like. For a menu similar to mine with the 4 desserts listed above, plus coffee and teas, you can expect $30-$40 per person (obviously, prices can change and will likely go up over time).
There are venues for dessert parties all around the World Showcase at EPCOT. Their capacities range from 10 to 150 people. If you have a small group, there are two venues that hold a maximum of 10 people: Bonsai Terrace in Japan and UK Pubside in England. Because of their smaller maximum capacity, they have the lowest venue costs and food and beverage minimums. They also happen to be two incredibly unique venues with spectacular views. Other small party venues I was offered were Vikings Landing in Norway and Parisian Point in France (both of which hold up to 20 people), and Kazbah Point in Morocco. Of those, my favorite is Parisian Point, followed by Kazbah Point. From there, the sizes (and prices) go up. Germany, Italy, and France have popular large party venues.
Fireworks View from Bonsai Terrace
The Illuminations globe is docked just to the right of the view from the Terrace. So, when the globe comes out, it’s right in front of you, which is really cool. Another fun thing about the Terrace is that it’s elevated. We were able to see the Magic Kingdom fireworks going off in the distance, and when they set off all the flares on the water during Holiday Illuminations, you have a fantastic view of all of them from the raised platform at Terrace. The view from the majority of the Terrace is completely unobstructed (just dodge the couple trees, as you see in the pictures below).
I had a difficult time communicating with my event manager. Initially, he proposed an entirely gluten-free menu, and didn’t seem to understand that I wanted the whole menu to be vegan, but not gluten free (in fact, I wanted gluten/wheat for our cakes!). However, with persistence, my desire for gluten was eventually communicated. I had another surprise when he told me everything would be soy-free, but the cupcake I requested had a tofu icing when it was at Food and Wine Fest. So I reiterated that I wanted it to be like the one from F&W, and after a few more emails, he told me the chefs would recreate that recipe (with the tofu!).
There were a few other communication issues like that, so I was a bit worried prior to the event, but everything came out as expected on the day of the event. If you have difficulties with your event manager, just continue to politely explain your desires and everything should work out.
One piece of advice that’s common among large events that rely on a BEO is to make sure that everything you want is on the BEO, because if it’s not on there, you may not get it. So be sure to make sure your BEO is accurate.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience that I’ll definitely consider doing again for another special occasion.