This is a continuation of our Back to Basics Series. Scroll to the bottom to see our other Basics posts.
With four theme parks, a couple dozen resort hotels, and thousands upon thousands of guests on any given day, it should come as no surprise that there are a lot of places to eat at Walt Disney World. To a first time guest, when and where to eat is likely something that isn’t thought to be a big deal. You’re hungry, you see somewhere that looks good, and you go eat there. Unfortunately for most first time guests, getting a table at a restaurant at Walt Disney World is not as simple as going to your local Olive Garden on any given evening. Disney has a great many mouths to feed every day and only so many tables from which to feed them. Toss on top of that the great theming and Disney character presence at many restaurants coupled with “free dining” promotions driving guests to eat three-squares every day and what you have is a recipe for crowded and fully booked restaurants, seemingly year-round. So yes, like most things at Walt Disney World, where and when you are going to eat is a decision you need to make months in advance.
Disney’s restaurants all generally fall into one of a few categories. First are the carts and stands. These are vendors around the park selling everything from ice cream bars and popcorn to craft beer and eggrolls. Enjoying the offerings from these stands requires no advance planning and as such they are from whom you will be purchasing most of your meals if you pay no attention to the rest of this article. Even this comes with a caveat…during Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival in the fall (and to a lesser extent the Flower & Garden Festival in the spring) booths are set up throughout World Showcase featuring international cuisine and libations. They are equal parts a great option for people who don’t have advance dining reservations and something people need to plan to wait in line at, especially on weekends.
As far as actual restaurants, there are two basic styles: Quick Service (or “counter” service–think fast food) and Table Service (sit-down, with waitstaff) restaurants. Quick Service are the most casual and allow for no advance reservations (with one exception that I will mention below). They are located all around the theme parks, in the water parks, and at the resort hotels. Cuisine ranges from standard American theme park fare like hot dogs and pizza to gourmet macaroni & cheese and sushi.
Table Service restaurants are what would come to mind when most people conjure up an image of a “restaurant” (tables, menus, waiters, etc.) and often require reservations months in advance or a great deal of waiting. There are also variations on the normal table service restaurants including buffets, family style, and signature dining experiences including dinner shows and five star cuisine. What follows is a brief outline of what kind of dining options you will find throughout the Walt Disney World resort as well as a few tips on how best to enjoy them on your vacation.
A quick service restaurant is one where you wait in line, place your order with a cashier using an overhead menu board, and get your food on a cafeteria tray to carry to your table (like, for instance, Burger King.) Most of these are passable; some of them are great. They require no advance planning or knowledge other than common sense (for instance “they will be busy at lunchtime”).
Disney’s park maps will offer a quick description of the fare at each quick service restaurant (burgers, pizza, Asian, etc). Some are small with only a few options while others are sprawling food courts with numerous stations offering even more numerous menu options. Quick service restaurants range from the most mundane burgers and chicken nuggets to some really quite inspired cuisine including Animal Kingdom’s Harambe Market and Flame Tree BBQ as well as Epcot’s Sunshine Seasons and Disney’s Art of Animation Resort’s Landscape of Flavors.
Adult meals at a quick service restaurant generally range from $7-12 and most items are included on the Disney Dining Plan. It should also be noted that Disney has done an excellent job in recent years of adding healthy foods and options for those on special diets (vegetarian, gluten free, etc.) so a quick service meal doesn’t necessarily mean an unhealthy one.
Quick service restaurants are included in almost every “land” in all parks as well as every resort hotel. They tend to be most crowded at peak mealtimes (11am-1pm, 5-7pm) and finding a table can be difficult especially for larger parties.
There are buffet restaurants in every theme park and many deluxe resort hotels. Buffets are a great choice for families and groups as they offer a gigantic selection of food, sure to please both picky and adventurous eaters. Some buffets give guests the chance to experience exotic or unusual food that they otherwise would be unlikely to try as a full meal or at home, like Boma at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge and Biergarten at Epcot’s Germany pavilion. That having been said, all of Disney’s buffets include kid’s sections and “standard” American menu items like baked chicken, ham, macaroni & cheese, and salad at lunch/dinner; pancakes, waffles, bacon, and cereal at breakfast.
Many buffets feature the Disney characters. Characters will go around the room posing for pictures and greeting guests. There is no need to flag or “chase down” a character, as they will go around the room in order and you should see every character at least once over the course of a meal. Among the most popular character buffets are Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary Resort (Mickey & friends,) Crystal Palace in Magic Kingdom (Winnie the Pooh & friends,), and Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot’s Norway pavilion (Disney princesses.)
Meals at Disney buffets, especially those with characters, should be booked from home 180 days in advance. Buffets average around $40 for adults and $18 for children for dinner.
The Disney restaurants that require the most advance planning are the Table Service restaurants. In these establishments you will generally be seated at a table, served by a waiter/waitress, and order off a menu, akin to a TGI Friday’s or Carrabba’s. Some, like those in Epcot’s World Showcase or in many resort hotels, have themes and menus to correspond to their location, while others gain their inspiration from Disney’s films like the extremely popular Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom. Be Our Guest is notable not just for dining rooms ripped straight from the beloved Beauty and the Beast film but also for being the only place in Magic Kingdom where alcohol can be purchased (only at dinner) as well as offering a pseudo-quick service breakfast and lunch (albeit one that is served by a waiter with real place settings) that must be reserved 180 days in advance.
Some table service restaurants feature “all you care to eat” family style meals where instead of ordering off a menu, you are served a prix fixe assortment of entrees and sides to share with one another. If you don’t like to share, many will also include some ala carte items. All of Disney’s dinner shows are served this way.
Table service restaurants can be found in every theme park, the deluxe resorts, most moderate resorts, and Disney Springs. Entrees may range from $12 to $50 and require use of a Table Service credit on the Disney Dining Plan.
SIGNATURE TABLE SERVICE
In many of Disney’s deluxe resort hotels and other spots throughout the resort one will find signature fine dining experiences to challenge the best cuisine in the biggest cities around the country. These restaurants include California Grill at the top of Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Victoria & Albert’s in Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and the soon-to-open STK Steakhouse at Disney Springs. What separates a Signature Experience from a standard Table Service? In a nutshell: price. Signature Restaurants are the top of the line places, the cream of the crop so to speak. They are somewhere you go for a special occasion, as a once-in-a-vacation splurge, or because your rich Uncle Scrooge is footing the bill.
Other signature experiences are designated as such not due to their gourmet menu but for whom will join you for dinner – namely the Disney characters – (in particular, dining with the princesses inside Cinderella Castle at Cinderella’s Royal Table) while others are because of the entertainment during your dinner (like the Spirit of Aloha luau and Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue dinner shows.)
Reservations are a necessity at these establishments and some even have dress codes and age requirements. Entrees may range from $15 to $60 or more and meals will cost two table service credits on the Disney Dining Plan. Advance dining reservations should be made for all signature dining experiences at the earliest possible date: 180 days in advance.
While this all may seem overwhelming to a first time guest, Disney has set up an online reservation system that is an ease to use. It allows you to check menus and prices, see photographs of restaurants, and most importantly “toy around” with dates and times for reservations until you can settle on exactly what you want. Log on to DisneyWorld.com and navigate to the “Things to Do” dropdown menu. Then you can search restaurants by fields including location, cuisine, price, and time available. Advance Dining Reservations can also be booked by calling Disney directly at (407) WDW-DINE.
Rest assured that even if your vacation is only weeks or days away and you have no reservations made, you can still find tables on short notice all around Walt Disney World. It is also helpful to consider dining at off peak times, at more “outside the box” locations (like opting to sample cuisine from Morocco or Germany instead of Italy or Mexico while at World Showcase,) or even to visit resort restaurants for lunch (the Contemporary Resort, for instance, is only a short walk or monorail ride from Magic Kingdom and has plenty of dining options available virtually wait-free at midday.) Then again…there’s always those ice cream bars and popcorn.
Additional Back to Basics Posts
- Walt Disney World First Timer’s Guide — The Minimum You Need to Know
- A Timeline for a Disney World Trip
- Using the Crowd Calendar to Decide When to Visit Disney World
- Using Touring Plans
- How to Use FastPass+
- FastPass+ Strategy
- Selecting the Right Disney World Hotel Category
- Selecting the Right Disney Value Hotel
- A Cost Analysis of the Disney Dining Plan
- Meeting Characters at Epcot
- Meeting Characters at Animal Kingdom
- Meeting Characters at Hollywood Studios