Okay, so you're actually heading to Disney World. You've picked your dates, cleared your calendar, and even checked out a guide (ahem, this one) to nail down your restaurant choices, what dishes and experiences not to skip, and what you might spend.
Restaurant hit-list in hand, you fly to Orlando, rush through the turnstiles, and brace for some Disney magic. Nope. Get ready to face rejection and confusion, unless you've done a little bit more work than that. With hundreds of restaurants on-property feeding tens of thousands of visitors a day, strolling up to your venue of choice at 6:30 p.m. and asking to be seated probably isn't going to fly. You need reservations, a budget, a plan, and a backup plan. Here are our top tips for making your Disney food experience as painless as possible.
1. Make Your Reservations Early
The reservation books at Disney World's genuinely great restaurants fill up fast. Tables open 180 days out — that's six months — and fanatics will wait until the exact minute (literally, to the minute) that the window opens, and then call Disney, wish list in hand, to make all of their hard-to-get reservations. Even you, thinking you're being proactive by calling or booking online a month in advance, may be out of luck for the hottest spots.
All you can really do is put an alert in your calendar for 180 days before the day that you want to get your table, get on the phone the minute the lines open up, and hope. Or, a good alternative for the busy (or impatient) traveler: use a Disney specialist travel agent. They'll book your dining reservations for you, and if they can't get what you're looking for right away, they'll keep calling Disney looking for openings. If all else fails, you can always try to show up at your dream restaurant day-of (there are cancellations, though the number is dropping as Disney now requires credit card deposits for even their mid-range restaurants), but don't be surprised if whoever's manning the host stand suppresses a little laugh while apologetically telling you the restaurant is fully booked.
2. Don't Assume You Need the Disney Dining Plan
It's not right for everyone, and if you're visiting Disney with a food-oriented attitude, it's probably not right for you. Check out our guide to the Disney Dining Plan to figure this one out.
3. It's All About the Resorts
With the exception of the World Showcase restaurants at Epcot, Disney World's very best restaurants are in their deluxe resorts. And it's a good thing, too, because those restaurants tend to be less crowded, quieter, slightly more formal, and much more relaxing than the in-park options. These also tend to be Disney's more expensive restaurants, but it's worth it: you're getting better food and service, not just paying the in-park restaurants' "dining in a theme park" premium for convenience.
4. If a Restaurant is Full, Try the Lounge
They don't always advertise it, but most of the bars and lounges attached to the fancier Disney restaurants serve at least some of the same food. Families with young children often don't want to eat in the bar area, so if your restaurant of choice is totally booked, ask the host or hostess if you can eat in the bar. Often, the answer will be yes.
Restaurants in resorts often have separate lounge areas that don't take reservations. Victoria Falls at the Animal Kingdom Lodge serves appetizers and has an amazing view over the resort and the animal preserve. California Grill, on the top floor of the Contemporary Resort, has a large lounge area with one of the best views in the park, especially at sunset.
5. Don't Turn Up Your Nose at Counter Service
Outside of Disney World, counter service generally means fast food. You don't want a mediocre burger and soggy fries after a long day of Disney magic, so why would you walk up to a counter for dinner, right?
Wrong. Very, very wrong. Disney's best counter service restaurants serve food that's every bit as good and as interesting as the sit-down spots, and you don't need a reservation. (Buyer beware: That's the best counter-service restaurants. There are plenty of soggy hamburgers to be found, if you go to wrong places. Do your research.) Our picks for the best counter-service spots in each area:
- Animal Kingdom: Skip the park options, and go to Mara at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, which is rarely crowded. Next to the pool, the Mara serves more vaguely african-inspired food (and more couscous. Don't skip the zebra domes, a chocolate treat you can take back to your room.
- Epcot: Sunshine Seasons in the Land Pavilion, especially for the delicious breakfast, and Tangierine Café in the Morocco pavilion, which serves a pretty great shawarma platter and many kinds of baklava.
- Hollywood Studios: I'm not that fond of the counter-service dining at the Studios. Head over to Epcot.
- Magic Kingdom: Columbia Harbor House, a restaurant themed to the nautical days of colonial New England. In addition to fried shrimp and fish, they serve an absolutely delicious hummus sandwich with broccoli slaw.
6. Have a Ready List of Good Backup Options
Let's say you have your Disney vacation planned out down to the nanosecond, and you know exactly where your family will be dining every night. Your reservations are all made, but then — swept up in the reality of the magic — you decide you'd rather spend an extra day in Epcot instead of going back to Animal Kingdom like your itinerary says you should. What then?
It's good to know a backup spot in every park, one that has good food but also doesn't tend to fill up so far in advance that you're left high and dry if you need to make a last-minute reservation, or to try to get a table as a walk-in. Here are our picks, one for each park:
- Animal Kingdom: Tusker House, for a buffet including spit-roasted carved meats with vaguely African flavors (including lots of couscous and chutneys)
- Epcot: Restaurant Marrakesh in the Morocco pavilion, for pretty great couscous and tagines, or the Rose and Crown pub in the UK pavilion, which boasts (of course) fish 'n' chips and a surprisingly good shepherds pie.
- Hollywood Studios: Mama Melrose, an Italian restaurant and pizzeria serving classics like pork saltimbocca and penne alla vodka.
- Magic Kingdom: There isn't a great backup option here, since the visitor traffic in this park is crushing, and most of the food is mediocre. Instead, hop on the monorail and head to Artist's Point at the Wilderness Lodge (which serves cuisine inspired by the Pacific Northwest, including a standout cedar plank-roasted salmon). [Update (12/18): With Artist Point transitioning to a character dine, your best bet is Skipper Canteen, a Jungle Cruise-themed restaurant serving shumai, char siu pork and thai noodles in the Magic Kingdom that more often than not has last-minute availability.]
7. If you have special dietary needs, speak up
Disney is renowned as one of the best places for individuals with any sort of special needs. You name it, they can accommodate it, and what's more, they're really, really nice about it. If your dietary restriction is fairly uncommon (phenylketonuria, for example), Disney asks that you contact them before you arrive and after you've booked all your dining plans — they'll check in with each restaurant and make sure you are taken care of. It's pretty awesome. If you have a more common dietary restriction (veganism, for example), the best way to deal with it is to tell your server as soon as you sit down. Most of the time, they'll bring out the chef, and the chef will work with you to design a dish just for you. And it's possible your dining companions might even get jealous, since your meal will be particularly creative, and completely cooked to order.