TouringPlans #Everwhere: Dining in Disneyland…HELP!

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Photo Courtesy Guy Selga, Jr
Photo Courtesy Guy Selga, Jr

This is the fourth in my series of printed histrionics about my first ever trip to Disneyland as part of’s desire to take over the world visit every Disney-run location in the world. I previously wrote about my general excitement, how I budgeted for the trip to California, and the random things I expect to find as a first time visitor to Disneyland. This post is all about choosing my dining in Disneyland, specifically for any meals where I may need a reservation.

I am about 2 months away from my Disneyland trip (I know because my kids have been counting down for over a month already). If I were traveling to Walt Disney World, at this point I would have all of my Advance Dining Reservations, FastPass+ attraction reservations, morning alarms set with precise wake-up times, and my pacemaker linked with Disney’s new heart rate excitement inducement program. Things are a bit different out west; there are no FastPass+ reservations (at least not yet), and dining reservations can only be made 60 days in advance.

That 60 day dining window opens for me on August 10, and being a Walt Disney World-trained super-advance-planner, I want to be ready early in the morning to grab my spots. In direct opposition to my last post, where I asked for no spoilers (and you were great about that, by the way), I need your help with this one. I know a little bit about dining in Disneyland, but not enough to make selections out of all of these amazing-sounding restaurants.

Background Info

Here are the relevant stats: Family of 4 with two adults (in age only) and two young children, a girl of almost 6 and a boy of 3. We will be visiting the two Disneyland Resort parks for 5 days, and I’m expecting to eat around 4 or 5 sit-down, or table service, meals. My kids are pretty good (if I do say so myself), but they are still kids, and would still rather not sit quietly for an hour. Therefore, meals that have some sort stimulation for them are a higher priority and the super-fancy experiences like Napa Rose are out.

I’ll also take this moment to re-emphasize my family’s love of character dining. We have done almost all of the Walt Disney World character meals, often more than once (the lone exception being the Garden Grove at the Swan). As you probably expect, we would also like to try at least some of the Disneyland character dining experiences, although probably not all 5 of them due to overlapping characters.

IMG_0589The Choices

These are not all of the options for table service dining in Disneyland, rather a handful of spots that sound interesting to me for whatever reason. If you have a favorite that is not on this list, by all means suggest it below.

Character Meals

Since I’ve already explained how much we enjoy these, we may as well start with them. I don’t really mention the food here because let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter. Sure, I’d love a haute cuisine experience, but that’s not happening and it’s not really what we’re paying for. So, here are the options:

Ariel’s Grotto (California Adventure) — There is a 99% chance we’ll end up doing this one because my daughter is princess-crazy. The details (other than that princesses are there) barely matter, but both breakfast and lunch are served with Ariel and a few of her royal gal pals.

Disney’s PCH Grill (Paradise Pier Hotel) — The punctuation-challenged Surf’s Up! Breakfast with Mickey and Friends happens here with the same breakfast buffet stuff that is served everywhere. It seems like Mickey’s friends often include Minnie, Pluto, and Stitch.

Goofy’s Kitchen (Disneyland Hotel) — Breakfast and dinner are the meals here and Goofy is the main man…uh, dog? He is often joined by Minnie and Pluto.

Plaza Inn (Disneyland) — With a great location at the end of Main Street, U.S.A., this character breakfast is frequented by Disney celebrities Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, Chip, and Dale.

Storyteller’s Cafe (Grand Californian Hotel) — Breakfast features Chip n Dale and “friends.” Who exactly the friends are seems to be in some doubt, but it appears as if the restaurant is usually infested with critters such as Meeko (from Pocahontas) or Terk (from Tarzan, and yes, I know a primate is not a critter).

Excluding the princess meal, Minnie and Pluto appear at 3 of the other 4, and Chip n Dale and Goofy are at 2. We probably don’t need to repeatedly meet these characters, although my children might totally disagree with me on that.


Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue — An outdoor, all-you-can-eat barbecue joint. I love barbecue and I enjoy any place that lets me eat until I burst. On the other hand, what I generally love is good barbecue (I don’t trust the theme park version) and I don’t actually enjoy the act of bursting. I’m also not sure I would even need advance reservations for Big Thunder Ranch.


Carthay Circle Restaurant
Carthay Circle (photo courtesy

Blue Bayou — The dark, iconic Cajun restaurant that sits inside Pirates of the Caribbean. As you probably expect from a Disneyland first-timer, I find this place fascinating. On top of that, my kids might get a kick out of watching the boats float by provided we can get one of those highly coveted railside tables. What I am also fascinated by is how on Earth they manage to charge $25.49 for a Monte Cristo Sandwich…and that’s at lunch! By contrast, the Big Thunder Ranch all-you-can-eat dinner is only $2.50 more and the Plaza Inn’s character breakfast buffet is $4.50 more. That better be a heck of a sandwich.

Cafe Orleans — I keep hearing that the pomme frites here are worth every penny. The Monte Cristo Sandwich here is also “only” $17.99, which still seems ridiculous, albeit less ridiculous. And no, I don’t know when I became obsessed with Monte Cristo prices either (I really tried to work a Count of Monte Cristo joke in here but it was too bad, even for me).

Carnation Cafe — I’m more interested in the history of the Carnation than the food since the place has been open for the full run of the park. That said, the food sounds pretty decent and the prices aren’t too bad.

California Adventure

Carthay Circle — The Carthay Circle sounds beautiful and the food sounds wonderful. My only concern, other than the slightly high prices, is that there won’t be anything of interest for the kiddos.

Wine Country Trattoria — Let me start by saying that I love all three words in the title of this restaurant. Much like Carthay Circle, it sounds very good and much like Carthay Circle, I’m not sure my kids will enjoy it.

Let’s Summarize

As of this moment, I’m thinking of making some reservations for three of the character meals (maybe Ariel’s Grotto, The PCH Grill, and The Plaza) and some combination of Cafe Orleans, the Carnation Cafe, Carthay Circle, and Wine Country Trattoria. And now we’re back to the part where I need your help.

What reservations should I make? Should I be considering something else? Thanks in advance!


Brian McNichols

In addition to blogging, I also do some analyzin' here at Touring Plans. I am a travel nut, planning nut, Disney nut, wall nut. Husband of 1, father of 2. Hilariously funny in my own mind. Find me on Twitter @YesThatBrian if you like really dumb jokes.

23 thoughts on “TouringPlans #Everwhere: Dining in Disneyland…HELP!

  • August 6, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    Disneyland is entirely different from WDW when it comes to reservations. The only place I’ve ever needed reservations is for Blue Bayou. Any other place should be a walk-in or a minimal wait (less than 20 mins). Of course, there’s a lot of variables here – weather, crowds, the time you choose to eat, etc.

    I’m not a fan of character meals, so I can’t offer any advice here.

    Also, I wouldn’t skip Big Thunder BBQ or Storytellers. And, have the Chicken Gumbo Crepes at Cafe Orleans.

    • August 6, 2014 at 3:15 pm

      A week ago I saw a family get turned away from dinner at Ariel’s Grotto because they didn’t have reservations. The hostess said that there was nothing available.

  • August 6, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Well, I’m a long-time local and former CM from another era, so my thoughts will vary from the average tourist quite a bit. But you are right that dining planning is a night and day difference from Disney World.

    Honestly, the only ‘must do’ restaurant in my view at Dland is Blue Bayou. Obviously being as close to the water as possible is key, but I do think it’s worth the money (and that is saying something).

    Ariel’s Grotto is decent food overwhelmed by the princess factor. Sit outside and enjoy the water and the bustle around you.

    We’ve done Goofy’s Kitchen a couple time in the past couple years (two young daughters) and you’ll get more characters than listed above. At least one (likely two) princesses and usually one prince. I’d expect at least six characters total.

    Storytellers is better food, but less characters.

    I know it doesn’t count for your list, but I’d count Flo’s V8 Cafe as a must do that is more ‘fast casual’ than ‘fast food.’ Sit outside and enjoy the amazing theme around you.

    Finally, if you can escape Disney and can find a discounted ticket, go to Knott’s — hit Camp Snoopy, the Log Ride and Calico. Finish with lunch at Mrs. Knott’s. Well, well worth the trip (and honestly I think 5 days at Disney is too many in CA).


  • August 6, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    OMG, how could I have forgotten about Flo’s V8. Another must-do!

  • August 6, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    So Character Meals – I’ve done two of them (someday I will do the rest!). Surf’s Up! Breakfast with Mickey and Friends is fairly underwhelming food and atmosphere-wise. PSH Grill really just looks and feels like a “hotel restaurant.” I have gone twice because I was staying at the hotel. It IS the only Character Meal with Mickey though. Daisy has a fairly high chance of appearing. My second time there Stitch was out and THAT was magical. My BABW turtle Filbert was there dressed as Stitch and Stitch had a field-day with “Stitchbert.” Tried to kidnap him, eventually gave him his own place-setting at the table (and his own hot cocoa) and made it very very VERY clear this was Stichbert’s cocoa.

    I know some people swear by Plaza Inn (ONE DAY) and it does have a pretty neat mix of characters every time I walk by, but Goofy’s Kitchen is really the classic Character Meal. I mean that is all the location does. I do find that those chipmunks turn up Every Single Time I Go (really guys, don’t you have your own breakfast to host?!), but we’ve always gotten several others like Baloo, at least one princess (including Belle in village wear!), and at least one other face character (Alice or Aladdin most often.) And they aren’t kidding when they say kids go crazy for the PB&J pizza. I’ve probably been to this one four or five times, often with small kids and they never did seem to get tired of it.

    One day I will take my honorary nieces to Ariel’s…

    I happen to like Big Thunder BBQ, but no, it is not the BEST BBQ, though it is fine. I’ve always been able to walk into it, but a friend went in mid-July and was told it was packed sorry, so clearly that can change. Blue Bayou – yeah, the atmosphere cannot be beat, but I’ve never been that impressed with the food (though when I was considering going for my birthday I looked up the menu and they seem to have rotated in some more interesting offerings.)

    You. Must. Have. The. Pomme. Frites. At this point I go to Cafe Orleans and order a french onion soup and the frites and I am on cloud nine. I have no taste for Monte Christos but I have dined with many that do and they dubbed the one here identical to Blue Bayou. Also since the vast majority of the seating is outdoors, there is a lot to distract bored kiddies with. Not to mention it is pretty easy to remove one if they need a timeout. This is also a place I’ve lunched at several times with kids younger than yours and it worked out pretty well.

    Carthay Circle I’ve eaten at once for my birthday last year and it was… okay? Steakhouse 55 had much better food IMO. Very nice building, but I suspect if I go back it’ll be because I’m doing a WoC dinner or something. As for Wine Country Trattoria – that is where I will be having my (belated) birthday dinner next week on the 12th! Never been there, but my understanding is that it is not as “upscale” as Carthay Circle, so it might be the better choice with small kiddies.

    Not sure if you can swing it unless you were planning a “parents only” dinner, but I do recommend Steakhouse 55. I’ve never left there disappointed.

  • August 6, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    My family was just at DL for 2 days. We have 6 and 8 yr olds. We too know WDW inside and out, so this was a little bit of a change. We did a park a day, a because of Touring Plans we were able to do everything we wanted to, minus any long lines for character meets. Which we thought was pretty impressive since it was in the middle of the summer.
    In DCA we did lunch at Cocina Cucamonga, which was probably better than any counter meal I’ve had in MK or DHS. For dinner we ate at Ariel’s Grotto to get the FP for World of Color, while the food wasn’t great, it was worth the FP.
    Interested to see how you are going to spend 5 days there. We felt at most we could have used another day to split between the parks.

  • August 6, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Are you not considering any restaurants in Downtown Disney? They are much closer (therefore more accessible) than WDW. I myself don’t have any specific recommendations. But, I’ve found that reservations at Downtown Disney restaurants might be more vital than reservations for restaurants in the parks. I feel like I always have to wait forever (30-40+ min) for those, no matter what time of year.

  • August 6, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Our family (which includes children the same age as yours) tends to do more counter than table service options, but I can offer a little advice for you. I think of the character breakfasts Goofy’s does tend to have the best variety of characters (the last two times we had different combinations of the Mad Hatter, Belle, Chip, Aladdin, Baloo, and Pluto). Ariel’s has good food from what I remember, but seeing my daughter so excited about meeting the princesses was the real highlight for me. As far as other restaurants go- I think Carnation Cafe is always a hit for our family. Their food is always fantastic and the service is AMAZING. Our server recommended we try the peanut butter and jelly soda on their menu and when we did (and didn’t like it) she brought us out another drink on the house to replace it. Kid offerings are good here, too, and if you sit out on the patio you can watch the Main Street vehicles go by as you eat. If you are considering counter service options our family favorite is Hungry Bear. The fried green tomato sandwich is worthy of its own pilgrimage and the ambiance in the seating area (especially on the second level near the back) is peaceful and lets your kids run wild without anyone noticing. 🙂 I’m sure you’ll have a great time. Can’t wait to read all about it!

  • August 6, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    I’ll throw my hat in for Goofy’s Kitchen. We ate there the day after Thanksgiving 2013. It was a last minute trip but we easily got a table for the earliest morning seating just by calling the night before from the hotel. It was my (then) 3-year-old daughter’s first experience with character dining and it was a huge hit. She got to meet Goofy, Pluto, Baloo, Alice, Cinderella, Chip & Dale, Belle, and a couple other “fur” characters although their identities escape me at the moment. We thought the food was good value, and my daughter is still talking about the “worms and dirt” she got to eat for dessert. I mean really, dessert for breakfast?!? Hard to beat!

  • August 6, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    I’m a DL AP holder and have eaten almost everywhere in the parks… my favorite by far, that I’ve done many times, is the Plaza Inn character breakfast. The characters always seem to hang around and interact for a long time, much longer than I’ve seen at Ariel’s Grotto (though that’s a must too if you need to see princesses). I will say I have never seen Goofy or Pluto at the Plaza Inn and I’ve done this breakfast 5+ times in the last 2 years. In addition to Minnie they usually have Captain Hook, Fairy Godmother, Chip & Dale, Rafiki, Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and maybe a couple others… it’s pretty random!

    My other top recommendations from your list:

    Blue Bayou – Expensive but worth it for the atmosphere, and the food does not disappoint. A true classic Disneyland experience.

    Carnation Cafe – I think I may have mentioned this on one of your posts before, but a CM once told me that their cherry malt was Walt’s favorite treat in the park, and it truly is amazing! You can order it at any meal. The history is great and it’s fun to sit outside on the patio, especially at parade time.

    Carthay Circle – Not too exciting for the kids, but if this is your first/only trip for a while, it’s not to be missed. Service can be slow at lunch time; I haven’t been for dinner. The good news is if it takes extra long, they’ll give you a fastpass to make up for it for any ride you want.

    Flo’s V-8 Cafe – You don’t need a reservation but this one is definitely worth visiting! It’s excellent food for quick service, and very filling. They have milkshakes too!

    Quick service honorable mentions: River Belle Terrace (eat on the patio overlooking the Rivers of America), Hungry Bear Restaurant (fantastic food and fun location for the kids), and Jolly Holiday bakery & cafe (decent sandwiches/salads, but the best treats!!)

  • August 6, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    I will also add a vote for Cafe Orleans. My husband, 1.5 year old daughter, 8 year old son, and I had a delightful lunch there June 2013. The weather should be lovely when you are there, and sitting outside overlooking the Rivers of America whilst sipping a beverage that someone brings to you in a real glass will provide a welcome respite from your touring plan. Since the Monte Cristo seems to intrigue you, I would recommend ordering one of those and a salad to split with your wife. Half a Monte Cristo is bad enough, no one should eat a whole one. Get the pommes frites to share. Compared to the MC, the fries are practically a diet food. We usually do not order macaroni and cheese out for the kids because…you know, ick… but the Mac ‘n Cheese at CO was freshly made and served baked in a crock. My son really enjoyed it. This is not your typical Disney orange stuff.

    Do you not know anyone who can get you in to Club 33? Doesn’t Len know anyone?!!! Sadly, I am not that well-connected. Sigh.

    I also need to add a recommendation for counter service at Bengal BBQ. I wish WDW offered something as tasty and quick as this. My whole family enjoyed our lunch there. Make sure to get the tiger tail to go with your meat skewer, and the veggie skewer is tasty and ups the nutritional value of your meal. Get a veggie one to share as a side dish.

    One last vote for a Pooh’s Hunny Pot apple. It’s fruit, right? And since you only ate half of the huge battered and fried sandwich sprinkled with powdered sugar, plus you ate some veggies at Bengal BBQ, you deserve a treat…right? Have fun at Disneyland. We are headed back there next May/June. We love WDW! But I honestly think that we love DL just a bit more. 🙂

  • August 6, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    For my family Goofy’s Kitchen is a must, we love the food and the mix of characters. They also have a character dinner that is very good. We also always go to Big Thunder Ranch BBQ, good food, great atmosphere and a nice place to rest your feet. Most of my favorites are counter service.

    Go to Flo’s!

  • August 7, 2014 at 1:05 am

    I’m so excited for your trip to DLR! It truly is an amazing place!

    I just wanted to add my vote for Blue Bayou. Yes, it’s super expensive. But it is pretty cool to eat in POTC. I feel like it’s a “must do” for any Disney lover, at least once. However, the portions there are pretty big, so you could totally share! I had the crab cakes last time I was there, and I could only finish one and a half of the three crab cakes. My husband also had leftovers. And we aren’t small eaters! So two adults could easily share a meal, especially since they come with either soup or salad and delicious warm rolls.

    For character dining I would pick Plaza Inn.

    I also want to put in a good word for Carthay Circle. The food here was fantastic! And they are really good with the kids, they have coloring books and crayons, and there are fun old movie posters from Snow White all around, so you can go look around the restaurant while waiting for your food. Plus Shirley Temples. Who doesn’t love Shirley Temples? I feel like this one is a must for Disney fans too, because the atmosphere is just incredible. You feel like Walt is going to walk around the corner at any moment!

  • August 7, 2014 at 11:13 am

    If you think your kids are going to want to meet Minnie, I would definitely do the Plaza Inn; her wait times are always longer in the actual park. Of course, never on ‘Frozen princess’ levels of ridiculousness, but still, that’s half an hour saved.

    I’ve also got to recommend Bengal Barbecue (though I know it’s counter service, not table); really, more theme parks should offer bacon wrapped asparagus. This needs to become a staple. Also, the Banyan Beef skewer is fantastic, but probably too spicy for young kids. And it’s also conveniently close to the Tiki Room, to get a Dole Whip Float for dessert…

    • August 7, 2014 at 11:14 am

      Also, Goofy’s not always out in Toontown, but when he is, he usually only has a few minutes wait, if that helps.

  • August 7, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    You’ll hate your trip if you pack it with ADRs at Disneyland Resort. DLR is far more laid back than WDW, and counter service is significantly better and more varied. Lots of people who do multiple ADRs at DLR end up resenting that their laid-back Disneyland touring has to keep being interrupted by running to a dining reservation.

    I know that’s the opposite of the way WDW works, but you have to remember you aren’t at WDW in Anaheim. If you want to experience DLR the way we DLR vets do, choose no more than one ADR every day (and really, one every two days is enough) and explore the counter service options. They’re amazing. If you don’t, you’ll just be trying to do DLR the way you do WDW–and any DLR vet will tell you that’s a recipe for disaster.

  • August 7, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    (And really, no one makes reservations at the 60-day mark except for WDW vets doing DLR for the first time. You are stressing out needlessly. Nothing will fill up–if anything even does–until much closer to your travel dates.)

  • August 7, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    My own family — wife, brother and two young teenage boys — ate at Blue Bayou during our own Disneyland trip two years ago. It definitely is expensive, but we thought the food was all really excellent. Two of us had the Monte Cristo, which was wonderful (though it may be equally wonderful, and less expensive, at Cafe Orleans). I also had a gumbo that was amazing, and, as I recall, everyone else really liked everything they ate as well.

    I couldn’t afford to eat there regularly, but it’s definitely worth it for a splurge: after all, you are eating inside the best Pirates of the Caribbean in the world.

  • August 7, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Hi Brian,

    My family has been visiting the Disneyland Resort once a year since my daughter was three. We are currently planning our 5th visit.

    Character Meals

    We dined at Ariel’s Grotto with my nieces about four years ago. The food was so-so, the princess interaction was awesome. My daughter still loves her pic with Ariel.

    We have had the breakfast buffet at both the Plaza Inn and the Storytellers Cafe. The food at the Plaza Inn is not good. We were visited by Minnie (of course :>), Dale, Max, Tigger and Captain Hook. (Then we all got gastrointeritis so the Plaza Inn is not our favorite.) The Storytellers Cafe has better food and we saw Meeko, Brother Bear, Baloo, Chip and Dale and Rafiki. We had a lot of fun with Rafiki, he stole my husband’s hat and played with us a bit. We’re going to try Goofy’s Kitchen this time around.


    We ate at Blue Bayou last year. The food was okay, the atmosphere was a little oppressive because it is very dark and very close quarters with the other tables. I don’t care for Monte Cristo sandwiches and I didn’t much care for what I got for lunch. Honestly, it seemed a bit more than it was worth, even with a water-side table. I think Cafe Orleans is a better bet.

    This year Hungry Bear Restaurant and Big Thunder Ranch BBQ is on our list to try.

    California Adventure

    The Carthay Circle is lovely and has great food. I wouldn’t call it a “fun” restaurant for kids, though. And the meals take a long time. We’re checking out the Wine Country Trattoria this time around.

    I agree with the recommendations for Flo’s V8 Cafe. Great atmosphere and the food isn’t bad.

    I hope you have a fabulous trip! I think you’re arriving a week after us.

  • August 8, 2014 at 12:23 am

    In DCA the Boardwalk pizza and Pasta has lovely outdoor seating, plus their flatbread pizza and the pasta’s are amazing!

  • August 8, 2014 at 1:51 am

    Another vote for the Blue Bayou! We celebrated my husband’s birthday there and it was amazing. I might be biased though, because I love a good Monte Cristo and Pirates is my all time favorite ride. It’s definitely a Disneyland classic. 🙂

  • August 10, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Another vote for Blue Bayou!! It is such a unique experience to be IN POTC and see the boats float by – and then when you are in the boats, to look at the people dining in the restaurant and remember how fun it was.

    We did out first character meal this past February with our 3 year old son at Goofy’s Kitchen. It was pretty darn busy for ‘off season’ and it seemed everyone had ADRs (I grabbed mine about 4 weeks before hand). We saw Chip, Minnie, Mulan, Alice and Pluto. Pluto and Alice were amazing interactions. None of them were rushed and my son seemed to love having dinner guests. We went for dinner, but next time I would do breakfast as it was very expensive for dinner and none of us ate very much.

    And another vote for Bengal BBQ! So delicious!

  • August 12, 2014 at 1:57 am

    I know you’ve probably made reservations now, but as you’ve probably noticed, you can easily change dining reservations for DL. I’ve had a DL AP for about 10 years now, and I usually go with my 2 year old son, and nephews (6, 3, and 1). I totally know what you mean about kids being entertained making a difference…

    With that in mind I would highly recommend taking a closer look at Big Thunder Ranch BBQ. The food is pretty good, the desserts are AMAZING (especially like the cobbler), and there are performers singing folk tunes all day. The kids love it because of the performers, and especially like it when they invite kids on stage.

    They also enjoy Carthy Circle. My son likes the lo mien, and all of the kids like it when we get seats on the second floor near the balcony during parade time.

    Also great for kids, with pizza very similar to Via Napoli in EPCOT, Naples in Downtown Disney may be worth a try. Several of the restaurants in DD have people making balloon animals for kids in the evening, and Naples is one of them.

    For quick serve, the kids like to eat in the lower area of Hungry Bear because they like to watch the ducks.


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