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Helen Rosner

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Start Here: The State of Disney Dining

Welcome to the Eater Guide to Surviving Disney World

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Eventually, everyone ends up at Disney World. An estimated 70 percent of Americans visit the Orlando parks within their lifetimes, and over 19 million people visit the Magic Kingdom alone each year. Whether it's for your children, your relatives, your work, yourself — chances are you're going to Disney.

And if you're a food-eating human, a visit to Disney can come with a unique set of challenges. So Eater editors Bill Addison, Helen Rosner, and I went down to Florida in the middle of June to suss out the situation. What's noteworthy? What's utterly skippable? Where should a food-obsessed mom or dad or aunt or uncle — or childless, full grown Disneyphile — drag their traveling party for dinner? And first things first, where can one get a decent cocktail? We attempt to answer those questions and more on the following pages. (And, to preempt the curious, Disney didn't even pay us to do it!)

Want to skip ahead? Check out our list of every country in the Epcot World Showcase, ranked. Or our handy guides-within-a-guide to ice cream, cocktails, and caffeine. There's also a Disney 38, our guide to the most baller Disney restaurants, a TL;DR on dining at all four Disney parks, the perfect four-day Disney itinerary, an interview with the woman who's eaten at every single Disney World restaurant, at least one picture of a massive smoked turkey leg, and so much more.

But first, let's take a look at the General State of Disney Dining:

San Angel Inn
Pizza at Via Napoli

San Angel Inn and Via Napoli, both in Epcot's World Showcase

The Walt Disney World complex in Orlando — which encompasses four major theme parks, two water parks, 36 hotels, a boardwalk, a campground, and a nightlife and shopping center — boasts 449 food and beverage establishments that feed over 53,000 human beings a day. There are food trucks and street carts, fast food concepts, fast-casual counter spots, mid-tier restaurants, and high-end chef's tasting counters — and everything in between. You can grab a hulking turkey leg from a stand for lunch, and later on sit down to a four-hour dinner that begins with caviar and ends with a cheese trolley. Cuisines from over two dozen countries are represented, some more faithfully than others. Vegan, gluten-averse, kosher, allergic to an obscure nut? Disney's got you. Prefer a fruit snack to an ice cream cone? Disney's got you too. They do a pretty good job of covering the bases.

Where Disney excels, both in dining and in general, is in the details

But sheer breadth of offerings isn't the true impressive aspect of the Disney dining scene. Where Disney excels, both in dining and in general, is in the details. The corporation's designers and engineers are masters of ambiance, able to transport a visitor to a different time and place and set of emotions, whether with music or light or tchotchkes (mostly with tchotchkes).

Eating at the Harambe Market in the Africa section of Disney's Animal Kingdom park, with its pastel walls, quirky hand-painted signs, and sluggish ceiling fans, is about as close to Kenya as many Disney visitors are going to get. Walking out of the blazing heat into the windowless, almost freezing Biergarten buffet in Epcot — complete with a fake evening sky, iron lampposts, and a four-piece polka band — is the Germanic oasis you didn't know you so very much needed. And Danny Meyer wishes he had staffers as committed and empathetic and well-meaning as the (often unionized) waiters, bartenders, ice cream scoopers, and maitre d's that staff Disney's 400-plus joints. By sheer force of will, they will make sure you have a good experience, regardless of whether or not the food's good.

Harambe Market

A corner of Harambe Market in Animal Kingdom

Which is a good segue into the bad news. The food quality at Disney World can often be as mediocre as you might expect for a resort serving 50,000 people a day. Flavors tend toward sweet — in cocktails, in desserts, in allegedly savory items — and accessible. That's great at the ice cream parlor, not so much at the bar or the Chinese restaurant. With some exceptions, the children's menu options trend toward the fried and carb-heavy. Many of the international cuisines represented in the World Showcase are dumbed down, or executed poorly. Prices are often high. The restaurant in the America pavilion is an embarrassment to our nation.

But pleasures can very much be found — not only pleasures but ingenuity, quirky surprises, and pure joy. We had a grapefruit cake that gave me tingles in my brain. We fought over a bowl of cheese soup in a Canadian steakhouse. Helen and I ate a buffalo chicken waffle sandwich so good it obliterated our intense post-roller coaster nausea. We had a pitch-perfect rendition of Paul Bocuse's famous red snapper with potato scales, followed the next day by brioche fresh from the oven.

Bottom line: We ate hundreds of dishes so you wouldn't have to. Read on to see how it all panned out.

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