By nature, our family tends to over-plan. On one vacation, we even set aside specific time to ‘be spontaneous – within our own limitations.’ But for some reason, our quick dining – while generally guided – wasn’t set in stone. On our first day in Epcot, we chose Sunshine Seasons, one of the jewels of counter service dining in the parks, according to all the checks we’d made. We began enjoying our Asian-infused lunch until our only adventurous eater started to look a little queasy. The sights and aromas had overcome our (somewhat) melodramatic child. Thankfully, she was only four. And we didn’t stick around for the clean-up.
Since then, we have planned all of our meals. For many Walt Disney World vacationers, counter service fills up half – or more- of our theme park dining. Plenty of information exists for table service restaurants: menus, meal reviews, countdown to reservation times, and strategies for landing the elusive meal spot. Comparatively little exists for the compulsive planner when it comes to quick service. While outlining burgers and nachos may seem overly obsessive, building a plan – with a back-up, too – may save time, effort, and enable you to put more enjoyment into your vacation. If nothing else, you might slide a column into your managed spreadsheet for your ‘other’ meal.
Counter service restaurants participate uniquely with the Disney Dining plan. Almost all table service restaurants in Disney World parks are on the meal plan, but only some counter service restaurants are. Some will serve snacks only. The leg conundrum for me seems the strangest. Some places – like the pork shank legs at Min and Bill’s in Hollywood Studios-Covered. Gaston’s Tavern in Magic Kingdom-Not covered. You can use a snack credit there, just not on the shank.
At some locations, selections may be deceptively narrow. At the smaller carts and walk up windows, that makes sense. I’m not expecting a ton of variety there. But at the large locations like Sunshine Seasons or Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe in Magic Kingdom – I am expecting diversity. They do deliver – but for an exceptionally picky eater – or a person with allergies – it might be more difficult. While the restaurants have many choices – each offers limited kids’ meals. None of which are the hamburger or hot dog, either.
Capacity may be small in some counter service restaurants. For example, Tangierine Cafe in Epcot has indoor seating – but nowhere near enough when that afternoon Florida rain shower rolled by. As we sat outside, huddling as best we could under the umbrella – the Cast Members were wonderfully attentive- but the rain draining down the sides of the umbrella put a damper on an otherwise outstanding meal. Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn in Magic Kingdom seems huge – but I dare you to try and find a table in June during dinner. Just locating a place to sit could add ten minutes to your meal.
Table service restaurants are inside – and air conditioned. Counter service seating may be inside, outside, or both. Seating may be entirely outside in the sun – or exposed to the wildlife. Animal Kingdom’s two most popular counter service locations, Flame Tree Barbecue and Yak & Yeti Local Food Cafes both seat entirely outdoors. Flame Tree is known for its delicious food, huge portions, beautiful settings, and lots and lots of ducks. On our first visit, our then two year old daughter was alternately quacking along with and then screaming in terror at the ducks walking by and under the table.
Counter service menus may change from meal to meal or vary seasonally. I’d love to stop into Magic Kingdom’s Columbia Harbour House to try their new Seafood Macaroni & Cheese, but that item is only offered at dinner and we already have Table Service Dining Reservations planned for those days. Additionally, some locations have hours that are different than the rest of the park. Les Halles Boulangerie & Pâtisserie opens with the park, while the rest of World Showcase doesn’t open until 11 am. Starring Rolls Cafe in Hollywood Studios closes at 4 pm. The Tomorrowland Terrace and Diamond Horseshoe in Magic Kingdom only operate during the busiest times of the year.
One of the biggest considerations of counter service dining is time spent waiting in line. Ever tried eating in the Sunset Boulevard area at Hollywood Studios? There are four different counter service options clustered together there, and if everyone wants something different, you might be splitting up or waiting through multiple lines- just to get all of the food your family has requested. (Ed. – this is also a problem at Cosmic Ray’s.) Can you guess why I rarely call counter service ‘quick’ service?
Finally, there can be other unexpected advantages to dining in certain locations. While many of the menu offerings at Epcot’s Electric Umbrella underwhelm, it – along with Hollywood Studio’s Backlot Express – offers self-service beverages. For people wanting to refuel and rehydrate, the variety of drink options is more than just refreshing. I wouldn’t say that they are ‘free refills’ places, but I haven’t seen guests turned away, either. (Ed. – you also get this at Sunshine Seasons and at Restaurantosaurus at Animal Kingdom. These locations are GREAT places to fill up a water bottle, much colder than filling from a water fountain.)
For many of us, counter service restaurants fill up at least half of our Disney dining time. And if you’ve followed this blog, and are planning table service options, you have your 180 day Advance Dining Reservations warning on your calendar. But during that lull between it and Fast Pass+ reservations at 60 days, take some time to review the counter service menus, too. Your time may well be worth it.