The value of your 401(k) is hovering in the single digits, the tax appraiser says your home is worth less than a tank of gas, and pundits proclaimed Sarah Palin the victor of last week's vice presidential debate by virtue of not swallowing her own tongue. We're just a handful of plagues away from the Seven Signs of the American Apocalypse. It seems like a perfect time to relocate abroad and/or start drinking heavily. Luckily, you can do both without leaving town, for slightly less cost than a trip to Sweden.

Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival (through Nov. 9) has long been my favorite event on Disney's annual calendar. With beautiful, breezy weather and some old friends visiting from up north, I figured an afternoon of gastronomical overindulgence would be an appropriately irresponsible way to celebrate my impending underemployment.

The theme for this year's festival is "Cities in Wonderland," so the 27-plus food kiosks circling the World Showcase section are now designated not just by country of origin (Ireland, South Africa) but also hometown (Cork, Capetown). This gimmick has little effect on the food, but it did spur new signage with a mod aesthetic apparently inspired by colorist Mary Blair, designer of It's a Small World.

Another change is an expanded emphasis on seminars and demos held daily in the Festival Welcome Center, formerly known as the Wonders of Life pavilion. Entering the gold dome, which has rarely been open since 2004, is a bittersweet experience for Disney fans like myself who fondly remember the Body Wars and Cranium Command attractions. I sipped a glass of Caposaldo prosecco while scoping out the queue for the free cooking demos. I would have loved to line up for scallops seared by Hell's Kitchen winner Rock Harper, but we had a whole world to imbibe around.

It isn't fiscally prudent to attend Food & Wine on an empty stomach. Admission aside (assuming you have an annual pass), you can spend $50 on snacks and still not be satiated. At about $3 to $5 for each half-scale appetizer or drink, there are cheaper ways to get full (or drunk) at Epcot. Just accept that you are paying a premium for atmosphere, variety and portion control. As for value, my barometer for evaluating the festival is the Canadian cheddar cheese soup, which is a smoky sip of heaven. It now costs $3.25 per diminutive Dixie cup for the same soup sold in the nearby Le Cellier restaurant for $6.99 a bowl (and the green-onion-and-grated-cheese topping is a distant memory).

Still, with worthy companions and a solvent credit card you can have a great time. Of the new dishes I tried, my favorites were the Austrian brisket (tender, but not as good as mom's) and the earthy Polish mushroom soup. The best discovery was Dorothea goat milk Gouda at the Mouse Couch, a cheese stand. Among returning dishes, the pair of Shangri potstickers in spicy soy holds up, and they go down well with a spiked, slushy "mango gingerita." Just bypass Barcelona's chilled tomato-garlic soup; it's closer to Ragu than gazpacho.

Before you get the idea that my column has gone all theme parks, all the time, I'll close with a few impressions from last week's First Friday Art Stroll on North Orange Avenue. The event is bounded by Princeton and New Hampshire, which sacrifices a few stores to the south for the sake of pedestrian accessibility. I enjoyed the range of styles Nouha Katkhouda was displaying at her Art Edge studio/gallery: paintings with tactile-textured brushstrokes and delicate china-ink drawings. Local theater fixture Barb Solomon was open for business at Oldies but Goodies Antiques, and I commiserated about the action-figure resale recession with my fellow comic geeks at Docking Bay 94. My girlfriend was even gifted with a bouquet by Tim at Botaniq Floral. But the most unexpected sight of the night was the Spa's monthly martini-and-massage soirée in the neighboring stone store, headlined by a foot basin full of flesh-nibbling fish. Pint-size piranha pedicures are the latest craze, and I'm planning to strip my socks off for one next chance I get.


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