Disney World has really stepped up its dining game since I first visited as a kid almost thirty years ago. My most recent visit had some definite winners, which I’ll share along with some general thoughts on when to reserve, when to eat, when to sit down and when to temper your expectations while your kids have an awesome time.
These days there are entire blogs devoted to reviewing and recommending Disney World food and beverage, and I can’t provide that level of detail. What you might find helpful, though, is that I don’t live and breathe Disney. At the prices printed on Disney menus, my expectations are on par with quality restaurants not located on theme park grounds. Sometimes the kool-aid is, in fact, overpriced, but on the whole I was impressed with Disney’s ability to deliver some excellent meals accompanied by strong service, despite the volume that they do on a daily basis.
The Disney Dining Strategy
If you’re planning a trip to Disney World, you’re probably wondering why everything has to be rolled into some kind of strategy. Hotels, parks, fast passes, and indeed, eating. Two weeks removed from my trip and I’m sick of reading that word, but here I am writing it. The truth is, every person in the park is going to want to eat at the same places you do, probably right around meal time – just like you – imagine that! There isn’t a one size fits all approach, as it matters where you’re staying, your park stamina, and many other factors. Here is what worked for us:
- Make an entire trip’s worth of dining reservations 6 months out, as you can make your dining reservations for the whole trip starting at 180 days prior. You can cancel or shuffle as your plans firm up, but have something booked for each meal you intend to eat on property.
- Prioritize your “important” reservations. For us, it was Cinderella’s Royal Table, which books up fast – we took what we could get and planned around it because it was something we really wanted to do with our daughter. If your kids can stay up, taking a later reservation here isn’t a bad thing, as you have the fireworks going on out the windows. We lucked into that, but it was really cool.
- Take advantage of Epcot if you are staying nearby – Beach/Yacht Club, Boardwalk, or Swan/Dolphin. In my opinion, the best food is in the World Showcase, so having dinner there every night isn’t a bad thing, and you can walk back to your room at the end of the night.
- Keep an eye on reservations the day before if you want to switch to something you couldn’t get earlier. The cancellation fee kicks in 24 hours out, so the day before, people will cancel the reservations they don’t intend to keep.
- Use specific times, rather than breakfast/lunch/dinner, when searching in the Disney mobile app. It appears that you get better results that way.
- The more flexible you are about meal times, the happier you’ll be. While the restaurants in Disney World are never slow, they are slammed from noon to 1 and 6-8pm.
- Skip the meal plan by default. Get it only if you really have a plan to use all of it, or it’ll end up costing more. We never really entertained it because it seemed like far too much effort to use it all up, and we’d end up with more than we’d really want to eat, and with choices we wouldn’t necessarily have made. It works for some, but if you’re on the fence, skip it.
- Last and probably the most controversial, but sit down at every meal. Opt for table service. I really disliked the counter/quick service meals where we ordered, grabbed food, and also had to scout a table. Table service gets you out of the crowds and the hectic pace, so do it, even at mid-day. Lunch is a nice time to take a break from the morning dash, sit together, talk, etc. We enjoyed the meals that we didn’t rush.
Generally speaking, we had our favorite meals in the Epcot World Showcase, and some of our worst in the Magic Kingdom. We also learned that many of the higher category (signature, fine dining, etc) in the parks were operated jointly with a partner, and in my opinion, those were consistently better. Whether they were worth the higher prices wasn’t as cut and dry, but we largely enjoyed them more. With that, I’ll break down our winners by approximate category.
High End: Le Cellier
This restaurant is located in the Canada pavilion and is said to be one of the tougher reservations. Going the last week of January certainly helped us in that regard, as we were able to visit twice. Our first dinner was here, and we had time for lunch before leaving – we chose this restaurant for the only return visit of the trip. The menu prices here literally reach out and punch you in the face. Steaks, which in my opinion were perfectly executed, reach into the high $40’s and low $50’s. And yet they’re absolutely worth it. Temperature was spot on for everyone in our party (ranging from rare to medium, and my own medium rare came out just right on both visits). I strongly recommend the ribeye which had a really nice maple compound butter on it, paired with a Fin du Monde draft. You can also save a bit on the bill with a burger or poutine, but the steaks are really where it’s at here. Taking advantage of our larger group, we did try two of the poutines, and I was really underwhelmed. We’re a bit spoiled being close to the Quebec border here, but these were more cheese fries than poutine – shredded cheese, not curds. The french onion version was tasty, but I was expecting something else. At $50-75 per adult, this was our second most expensive meal, but our favorite, twice.
Honorable Mention, High End: Monsieur Paul
In the France pavilion, behind the higher volume Chefs de France, is the partner operated Monsieur Paul. If we judged on service alone, this is far and away the winner. It was a comparatively slower night, so we chatted a bit more with our server, who explained that the particular post was competitive – you needed fine dining service experience to get in, and since the staff were all J1 workers, it meant European fine dining experience. Service itself was warm, attentive and professional. Food-wise, it was readily apparent that the kitchen really cared about every plate that crossed the pass. Plating was precise, with many different elements – think poached lobster in a mushroom broth with a light herb foam, perfectly medium rare duck breast sliced into geometrically identical portions alongside an oxtail ragout sitting atop a delicate round of rice wrapped in steamed cabbage, all bound together with a not-too-sweet sauce. Desserts were equally great, and the wines available by the glass were the best of any restaurant in the park. It was a close call, but the higher price tag – close to $100 per adult – put this behind Le Cellier for us. I realize the categories of cuisine are incomparable, but we voted with our feet when we returned to Le Cellier and not anywhere else.
Mid-Range: Yak and Yeti
Animal Kingdom and the Animal Kingdom Lodge have a lot of great food going on. While we didn’t make it to AKL, or any other resort, for a meal, we did really enjoy Yak and Yeti in the Animal Kingdom park. This is a partner restaurant, owned by Landry’s, which operates a slew of chains that I admittedly find overpriced and boring. This particular restaurant was massive and doing the kind of volume that had me worried, but we had a reservation and I was hungry, damnit. Service was very casual, but very attentive and well executed. The menu is pan-Asian, and of the 4 adults ordering, no one had a bad time – everything from korean barbecue beef to chicken tikka masala. I’ll admit there’s not a ton of authenticity to the recipes, but I’m not the kind of snob that thinks something needs to be authentic to be good. If it’s tasty, I’ll eat it, and we enjoyed everything we tried here. The dim sum basket is a good appetizer for 2-3 people, or a meal for one, with the highlight being the pork buns. Chicken Tikka Masala is really well done here, more like the British pub style than the Indian takeout variety. And don’t miss the pineapple upside down cake for dessert.
Honorable Mention, Mid-Range: Tutto Italia
This is the nicer of the two restaurants in the Italy pavilion and we really did enjoy ourselves here. As mentioned on the blog (or at least, I think I have), I grew up in an Italian home and am an Italian citizen, just like many of the folks working at this restaurant. So it may be a different experience, but it was nice to talk with some folks who were just getting to the US for the first time and that sort of thing. When speaking your native language with others, you tend to get a bit more about the reality of adjusting to new cultures, what it’s like to work at Disney, etc. I remember heading off to grade school not really speaking much English, so I’ll say the visiting workers from Italy definitely had a leg up on me there. The food itself is quite good as well. There are certainly some safe plays that you’ll find at almost every Italian restaurant in the US, like fried calamari or pasta with tomato sauce. But my understanding from talking with our server was that the kitchen had a lot of Northern Italian representation, so on that, I opted for polenta with braised short rib and sausage, and was not let down. I’m not sure if others were following my lead or what, but we all ordered the same entree, so I’m afraid I can’t speak to the other options. We did have some prosciutto which was served simply and was of high quality, as well as some very properly done calamari. On the whole, the kitchen kept it simple, albeit with a wide representation of Italian dishes, rather than the predominant Southern cooking you tend to find at Italian-American places.
Quick Service/Casual: Rose & Crown Pub
I didn’t want to call this low end because that implies not good, so let’s call it quick and casual. In the UK pavilion at Epcot, Rose & Crown pub exists as a pub serving drinks, a separate side with a dining room, and an attached counter serving fish and chips called the Yorkshire County Fish Shop. These are all good options, and we had as nice a time eating in the pub as we did getting fish and chips at the counter to eat while we walked or listened to the band. If you go inside, have a Scotch Egg. Have two. I enjoyed the pork two ways, served as braised belly and a brined and grilled chop. Lots of good beer options here, but I should mention they have Scotch flights. Because I love Scotch. My only complaint is more of a missed opportunity: The pub should be open in the morning and should serve a full English breakfast. While the World Showcase opens at 11, Les Halles in the France pavilion opens for breakfast, yet the UK does not. Maybe it’s a good thing, I’d never make it out if I sat down to a full English breakfast.
I’ve said nothing here of places like Cinderella’s Royal Table, Be Our Guest, and other high demand themed dining. From a pure dining perspective, these don’t make the cut. You feel the high volume, table turning, catering driven food service if you pay attention to the meal. Cinderella’s Royal Table especially was like a bad wedding meal served at a sprint. But you’re not there for the meal, you’re there for the experience. The fireworks during dinner at Cinderella’s Castle were a really amazing, unique experience. And in the middle of my entree coming out, practically being set on top of the appetizer I’ve yet to touch, while princesses roll through the dining room taking pictures with kids who are mid-bite on a chicken finger, we asked our daughter if she was having fun – really worried that it was rushed and that she wasn’t enjoying it. “Mom, dad, this is the most fun night of my life!” proclaimed the 3 year old. I may have written about great food, but some of the best experiences of your trip will happen over a meal that you’ll never remember. How’s that for negating the previous 2000 words?