Pros: Many good places to eat, variety, character dining; dining plan might save you money.
Cons: Lot’s of crappy eateries, expensive, reservations needed for sit down dining, the dining plan.
We've been to Disney World Florida six times most recently was 3-4 weeks ago (June 14 to June 19 2010, six people). Dining options at Disney World is a challenge for a number of reasons. There are a lot of fast food places with bad and expensive food; there are lines, crowds, and places with nowhere to sit.
The way we have learned to deal with it is to have a sizeable breakfast at the hotel in the morning, drinks and snacks during the day, and a nicer sit down dinner in the evening. Even though it is possible to have some great culinary experiences at Disney World, for example, there are a lot of great restaurants in downtown Disney and at Epcot; gaining culinary experiences is probably not why you are in Disney World. Your goal is probably to eat well enough without emptying your bank account and perhaps have a few great culinary experiences if you can afford it.
Junk food alert
There are 100's of places to eat at Disney World. The six theme parks have several places to eat some of them have around 30 places. Downtown Disney have about 20 places to eat, and the 24 on-site hotels typically have one or more restaurants as well. Many of the eateries serve items like hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, chicken fingers, French fries, ice cream, desserts, etc, which does not constitute a good dinner and is not healthy. On top of it, your Disney hamburger is likely to cost double as much as your McDonalds hamburger. Some places are worse than others and some theme parks are worse than others.
Magic Kingdom and the two water parks are the hardest places to find decent food in my opinion. As an example of how bad it can be take "Friars Grove" in Magic Kingdom. It sells a hot dog with French Fries for $7.00, and a small chef salad for $8.00, French Fries as a side, and that's it. You cannot buy only a hot dog and "Friars Grove" offer no where to sit and close to 100% of the patrons were standing while eating. The reason we picked "Friars Grove" was because we did not have any plans. Almost every place with decent food required a reservation and the "Cosmic Rays Starlight Café", which has plenty of seating and decent food, was on the other side of the park. I paid $7.00 for a hot dog and I was ready to kick myself. I should say that we goofed like this only one day (this time). However, unless having lunch this way is alright with you, you need to do a little bit of planning for lunch and dinner. As for us, we typically eat breakfast at the hotel unless we are having a character breakfast somewhere else.
There are places like "Cosmic Rays Starlight Café" in "Magic Kingdom" and "Studio Catering Company" and the food court in Hollywood studios which offer cafeteria food which is somewhat better than fast food without being too expensive, and that typically have plenty of seating available (without reservations). I suggest that you look at the map and find such a place and decide a time to meet at your selected place. Randomly picking the closest fast food merchant will leave you dissatisfied. The many crummy fast food places around Disney World know that finding somewhere to have lunch is a problem for you if you don't plan ahead. They will take advantage of you for the convenience of being where you just happen to be, both with the price and the lower quality.
Character Dining at Disney World
Character dining, or character breakfast or lunch, is a fun thing to do for younger kids. You eat, typically buffet style, while characters are greeting you, serving you, hugging you, taking pictures with or just goofing around. Characters could be Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Chip & Dale, Cinderella, other Princesses, characters from Disney movies, etc. It depends on the venue. My kids loved this when they were younger and I suggest that if you are visiting Disney World with kids under ten that you make a reservation for a character breakfast, lunch, or dinner somewhere, in a theme park or at a hotel which offers it.
We did not do character dining this time partially because our kids are now too old to fully appreciate character dining (our youngest, a girl is 11). However, we've done character dining several times on past visits. We've had character breakfast and character dining at the "Garden Grove" restaurant at the Swan hotel (the kids met Chip & Dale and others) when we stayed there. We've had character dining with Goofy and Mickey Mouse at Disney's Contemporary Resort (but we did not stay there) and we've had character dining at "Akershause Royal Banquet Hall" in Norway at Epcot which features princess characters (for girls). Actually our daughter was still somewhat interested in the latter and since I love the food at "Akershause Royal Banquet Hall" we tried to eat here this time but we did not call ahead so we couldn't. You really need a reservation for "Akershause Royal Banquet Hall".
The most popular places, and perhaps the best places, to have character dinner (breakfast & lunch) are "Cinderella's Royal Table" (in the castle at Magic Kingdom) and the "Crystal Palace" at Magic Kingdom. You really need a reservation for those two places. You can also meet Donald Duck for breakfast at the "Tusker House" in Animal Kingdom and Lilo & Stitch at Ohana's restaurant at the Polynesian resorts. I should say that you don't need to stay at the hotel where you are having the character dining. However, unless you are really lucky you need to have a reservation.
If you are like us you probably want something a little nicer than fast food or cafeteria style food for dinner, at least some of the days. In that case you need to make a reservation. Nicer sit down restaurant at Disney World hardly ever provide walk-ins without an excessive wait, if at all.
Well if your timing is odd and you are lucky you may get into a nicer restaurant without a reservation but don't count on it. It did not use to be this bad but now a day you've got to call ahead. Reservations were always suggested in the past but it is even more important now a day. For popular places or for character dining you need to call ahead several days. For dining with Disney characters I actually recommend making a reservation when you book your hotel and tickets, weeks, or months ahead.
Epcot features a lot of pretty good restaurants so what we did on several occasions was that we took the monorail to Epcot for dinner after we were done with one of the theme parks. We were able to eat at an upscale Chinese restaurant without reservations and at an upscale Moroccan and an upscale French restaurant by calling the same day. We failed to get a reservation at our favorite Disney restaurant "Akershause Royal Banquet Hall" in Norway-Epcot. They said we should have called a few days ahead, not the day before. Last time we were here we were able to just walk into "Akerhause Royal Banquet Hall".
Is the Disney Dining Plan for you?
The Disney dining plan, which you can get if you stay at an on property hotel, is aggressively advertised and often recommended by travel agents and reviewers. In my opinion it is hype. The Disney dining plan can save some people money but others will have a considerably more expensive Disney vacation if they sign up for it.
The Disney dining plan allows you to eat for "free" if you pay $42.00 per person and day (10 years and older, cheaper for kids). Well there are other deals. For example, we just received an offer from a hotel offering the dining plan for free (but we've just been here). If you get a deal like that, yeah go for it. In the continuation I will assume the full price $42.00.
With this plan you get one quick serving meal (breakfast), one snack, and one meal at a sit down restaurant, per day. Alcoholic beverages and gratuity is not included and you have to eat at on-property locations that support the plan. If you don't use all three daily meals for every day that you are staying, you'll loose them when you leave.
What many people (especially Disney staff) will tell you is that you will easily spend a lot more than $42.00 per person and day at Disney World unless you eat poorly. I disagree with those claims. First, since gratuity, alcoholic beverages, refillable cups, second snacks, etc, are not included in the $42.00 you will easily spend at least $50.00-$70.00 per day and person with the dining plan. Secondly, for the plan to be worth it you need to have a nice sit down dinner every day and select fairly expensive items. If your kids order spaghetti with meat sauce for $8.00 at a French restaurant you'll loose money. If you don't have a reservation you'll also loose money. What if your kids don't want a sit down dinner at all? Thirdly, the plan is of no benefit to you if you eat outside of Disney property.
For six people and five days you'll pay $1,260.00 just for the dining plan. Five people and seven days is $1470.00. Add gratuity, alcoholic beverages, uncovered extras and you might pay almost $2,000 with the plan.
On our first night (June 14) we ate at Planet Hollywood in downtown Disney. This is a multilevel fancy looking restaurant shaped like a globe. It is filled with Hollywood memorabilia and it serves food similar to TGI Fridays or Chili's for a price not much above those restaurant chains. Between the three of us who were there we spent less than $42 excluding gratuity and alcoholic beverages (I had two beers). The rest of the party did not have dinner at all. The savings for not being on the dining plan were $42X6 - $40 = $212. Sure, if we had ordered the most expensive items on the menu it would have been more than $40.00 but why would we do that if that is not what we want.
The problem with the plan is that everyone is charged the same amount no matter how they use it. If you don't get your money's worth, you are just subsidizing those who make sure they do.
In comparison to the dining plan we saved money by NOT getting the dining plan. However, that may not be true for you. If you are pretty sure that you will stay on property, eat at a nice restaurant every evening, order more expensive courses, and not mess up on your reservations, then the plan is for you. If you have young kids and want a character dinner or a character breakfast, then the plan will probably save you money as well. Character dinners cost more and require reservations and the kids do not want to miss them so the dining plan might save you money there. Maybe the dining plan is for you, or maybe not, just don't believe the hype. Try to estimate how much you will spend on food and then make a decision.
Great Places to Eat at Disney World (and for dads to have a Beer)
There are hundreds of places to eat at Disney World and we have not been to even half of them and we have forgotten some of them. Therefore I am recommending places we liked and mentioning places we did not like but without making it into a "top", "best" or "worst" list.
Epcot is the theme park with the most interesting dining options in my opinion. The main reason for this is that the tapestry of nations, Canada, UK, France, Morocco, Japan, USA, Italy, Germany, China, Norway and Mexico have restaurants, inexpensive as well as upscale restaurants, featuring fairly authentic food prepared by chefs from those countries and served by their country men. We often visit Epcot just for dinner.
There are hits and misses. For example, my wife who grew up in Paris said that she had the worst "Pain aux raisins" in her life at "Boulangerie Patisserie" in France but she loved the restaurant called "Chefs de France" in France. "Boulangerie Patisserie" was also crowded and lacked seating but it was inexpensive and good if you really wanted something inexpensive but French for lunch. However, for an inexpensive lunch and a good beer I would rather recommend Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe (Norway), Sommefest (Germany), and Lotus Blossom Café (China). Or why not have a beer at the little street pub in the UK?
These are my special recommendations for Epcot.
Restaurant Marrakesh - Morocco
Restaurant Marrakesh in Morocco was a pleasant surprise. We ate here for the first time on this visit and the Middle Eastern cuisine they served was superb and quite affordable and the service was outstanding. Morocco also has a cheaper restaurant called the Tangierine Café.
Akershause Royal Banquet Hall - Norway
Akershause Royal Banquet Hall in the Norway Pavilion in Epcot might be my favorite place to eat at Disney World. The ambiance is Scandinavian and the dining room luxurious and the staff is friendly. They serve Norwegian food which is essentially Swedish food (my background) including salmon, meat balls, meat dishes (chicken, beef, lamb), and they have a sort of smorgasbord and a sizeable selection for children (pizza, pasta, grilled chicken, hot dogs). They have a good selection of beer and wine. They also have plenty of desserts. The food is fresh and a little bit healthier than at most restaurants in Disney World. As mentioned they have story book princess character dining here as well. Unfortunately Akershause Royal Banquet Hall is quite pricey (prepare to spend at least $40-$50 per adult).
Across the plaza is an inexpensive Norwegian place called "Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe" which serves sandwiches (large ones) and desserts and good beer (I think I had a Carlsberg last time). I recommend them over "Boulangerie Patisserie".
Chefs de France - France
There are three restaurants/bakeries in the Epcot Pavilion for France, Chefs de France, Bistro de Paris, and Boulangerie Patisserie. On our latest visit (three weeks ago) we lunch ate at Boulangerie Patisserie and dinner at Chefs de France. As mentioned we were not too pleased with Boulangerie Patisserie, however, we found Chefs de France to be somewhat authentic (country side food rather than Parisian) and the service exceptional and it was not too expensive. They offered a three course dinner for $27. You selected an appetizer, a main course and dessert. I selected a salad, chicken in wine sauce, and an apple cake with ice-cream and I had a glass of white wine. My wife was chatting with the waiter in both English and French (I did too but only in English) and he was a jolly and friendly fellow who wanted to immigrate to America because he liked it better here (he said something negative about the politics in France).
Our reservation was 8:45PM which may seem late but it turned out to be a perfect time. At 9:00PM they have the Illuminations show at Epcot and we were able to order and then watch the show and then go back in and eat. Unlike the rest of the circle there are not many people watching the show around France and Morocco so the kids also got the best possible view.
To avoid: Boulangerie Patisserie
Nine Dragons Restaurant - China
The Nine Dragons Restaurant in the Epcot Pavilion for China was in my opinion a pretty good Chinese restaurant. I ordered Kung Pao chicken and a beer. The ambiance was nice; the food was good and the prices not too expensive. The service was somewhat inattentive but friendly and hard working when he got to it. Outside the restaurant they had an amazing and very entertaining acrobatic show. Perhaps we were lucky but we did not need a reservation. We were able to walk straight in to this restaurant (this time).
For lunch we ate at the Lotus Blossom Café which was simple and cheap Chinese food similar to "Panda Express" but with a nicer ambiance and some better soups. In addition to the "Nine Dragons Restaurant" for dinner I can recommend the "Lotus Blossom Café" for lunch.
Sommerfest & the Beer Kiosk - Germany
The main restaurant in Germany is the Biergarten Restaurant which did not have any seating available when were there last time. I'll been there a long time ago and remember liking it but my memory is fuzzy. Then there is an inexpensive place called Sommerfest with good Bratwurst and desserts which I can recommend for lunch.
However, the main reason for this entry is the beer kiosk which I do not remember the name of. They sold Beck's Beer and some other German beer. I bought a beer called Oktoberfest something (on our trip 3-4 weeks ago). It was cold, tasty (it had a fuller taste), big, and it was great to drink in the humid Florida heat. Since the beer kiosk is right by the main walk way path is it easy to swing by and pick up a good beer. You can do that any time. It does not have to be lunch.
Additional note: there is also a good beer kiosk in the UK Pavilion and it is right by the main path way. Its name is "Pub" something.
San Angel Restaurante - Mexico
In Mexico they have a more upscale Mexican restaurant called San Angel Restaurante (and a cheaper lunch stand - Cantina de San Angel). The San Angel Restaurante is situated in slightly dim lights to the background of a big Maya pyramid, jungle trees, an artificial sky with stars, and Mexican Music. The food is good and the atmosphere quite romantic. They also have a boat ride featuring Mexican singing dolls that passes by the restaurant. I can recommend this ride. We do it every time we are here. This time we did not eat here (did not make a reservation) but we did last time.
Magic Kingdom features a lot of places to eat including the much famed character dining "Cinderella's Royal Table" and "Crystal Palace". Other than that I can't say there aren't any great places to eat at Magic Kingdom. There are some nice ice cream shops (Plaza Ice Cream Parlor) and bakeries (Main Street Bakery) on Main Street but there are mostly crummy fast food, snacks or cafeteria places here (like the dreaded Friars Grove) or places where you must have a reservation. However, as mentioned, "Cosmic Ray's starlight Café" is a cafeteria style eatery which does not require reservations and typically have open seating and the food is not too bad. It is located in Tomorrowland. There are other sit down places that are decent (but nothing great) like Pinocchio Village Haus, and Columbia Harbour House but they require reservations for lunch (believe it or not). For dinner I would not stay at Magic Kingdom unless you are having a character dinner.
Animal Kingdom is a little bit more interesting from a dining perspective than Magic Kingdom. It is a smaller theme park and fewer places to eat but in general we have been luckier with what there is. However, it is still very far from what Epcot can offer. I have not been to most of the restaurants and cafeterias in Animal Kingdom so I am only going to offer a little bit of advice.
Suggestion: Tusker House
The Tusker House is a cafeteria style eatery with interesting food (African style, carved meats, salads). It is inexpensive and still much better than fast food (hot dogs, pizza, burgers) and usually never crowded. They also have a character breakfast here in the morning which we have not tried.
Avoid: The Rainbow Café
The Rainbow Café is a sit down restaurant that has an entrance both to the park and to the outside of the park and it is a very popular establishment. Unfortunately the food is mediocre (not bad but mediocre) the service is below bad, it is over crowded, and a stressful place to take your kids.
Studio Catering Co. - Lunch
As mentioned the Studio Catering Company features a decent selection of cafeteria style food items to a relatively cheap price. Well it is not a good restaurant but what makes me recommend it is the fact that it always has open seats. I guess that is due to its somewhat hidden location (which is a great thing for people who find it). If you don't have a reservation for lunch at a sit down place then come here. There is also a fun play ground nearby based on the "Honey I shrunk the Kids" theme (giant grass etc). This is good for parents with small children.
A decent alternative to the Studio Catering Company is the food court on Sunset Boulevard (Rosie's All-American Café, Catalina Eddie's, Fairfax fare, Toluca Legs Turkey Co.). The only problem is that it is quite popular and sometimes it can be hard to find a seat.
The Hollywood Brown Derby - Dinner
The most expensive and exclusive place at Hollywood studios is the "Hollywood Brown Derby". We ate here on our last visit and you'll find delicious steak and fish dishes here. We ate very well but my wallet complained. We paid more than $200 (without tip) for a dinner for four. I can recommend it for a nice evening dinner, especially if you are on the dining plan (get your money's worth). Because of the fact that the Hollywood Brown Derby is more expensive you might get in without a reservation but don't bank on it.
Other restaurants - Lunch and Dinner
There are many other restaurants that we've had good experience with in the past including the Sci-Fi Dine Inn Restaurant, and 50's prime Time Café. These places have good food; they are better than cafeteria style food and fast food, and not as expensive as the Hollywood Brown Derby. If you want to be careful with money I suggest these places for dinner instead of the Brown Derby.
Downtown Disney & the Waterparks (Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon)
The Waterparks (Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon) feature cafeteria style food (example, Lottawotta Lodge) and bars which is good enough for a water park but you should not plan to have dinner at Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon (if you want something a little nicer). I should say that the two water parks have several places where you get a beer or a drink which is great when you just want relax in the heat by the lazy river or the artificial beach.
If you want a nice dinner then Downtown Disney is a great destination, next after Epcot. Downtown Disney feature several large themed restaurants that are not too expensive.
We have not eaten a lot in Downtown Disney but we've eaten at more than one place and we've always been happy. However, my memory is clearest with regards to Planet Hollywood because we've ate here last time as well as the previous time and it is a quite memorable place. Both times we got in fairly quickly without a reservation but I still recommend a reservation.
Planet Hollywood is a spectacularly designed restaurant with a large seating capacity. It is shaped like huge ball and a big blue ball is located nearby it. It has three levels and the large inside is decorated with Hollywood memorabilia such as, King Kong, the Terminator, Frankenstein's monster, boats, cars, Indiana Jones memorabilia, actors an actresses. The restaurant also has a popular bar for those who like to hang around bars. You come here mostly for the ambiance and to look at the decorations. When I took my boys here the first time, my youngest son barely looked at his plate. He could not take his eyes off the ceiling and the walls.
The first time I ate here I had Jambalaya and a couple of beers. The second time I had Fajitas and a couple of beers. The food and service is similar in quality to TGI Friday's and Chili's and not much more expensive. However, Planet Hollywood is a little bit loud and seems crowded. I recommend it mostly for the experience.
Final thoughts and notes
Eating at Disney World can become a problem. There are many places with crappy food, it is expensive, there are tons of options and you need a reservation to get into most good sit down places. This requires that you are a little bit knowledgeable about the dining situation at Disney World and you need to plan ahead a little and decide whether you want to dining plan or not. I hope this essay/review can be of help. If it weren't for Epcot I would give Disney World two or three stars for the dining. As for now it gets four stars.
To assist you in making dining plans I suggest that you look at the Disney World maps.