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Hors d’Oeuvres at Disneyland’s 21 Royal

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Is This the Most Magical Meal on Earth?

A table at Disneyland’s 21 Royal commands an elite $15,000 price tag for what’s billed as the ultimate in Disney wizardry

The thing about Disney magic is that you either feel it, or you don’t.

You either swell with inexplicable joy watching Tinker Bell fly past Sleeping Beauty Castle and cruising through a tunnel of international child-bots singing on repeat, or you just power through it for the kids. The signature brand of Disney whimsy — too earnest to mistake for kitsch or irony — either drives you to spend hundreds for the privilege of wading through a sea of tourists high on manufactured glee, or sends you running.

There’s little room for apathy in the Disney universe, and I should know — a casual bachelorette trip spurred me into a Disney fanaticism so rabid it manifested as a career in theme park journalism.

21 Royal’s main dining room

For those of us who buy into the Mickey Mouse club, there’s nothing quite like it. Themed Caribbean cruises, Hawaiian getaways, jaunts to China simply to ride on the back of a Tron Light Cycle — when Disney sorcery is good, you’ll spend whatever it takes to get the purest uncut taste of it. So while it was a surprise to learn that Disneyland was turning its formerly inaccessible Dream Suite into a private dining space where, for $15,000, a dozen friends could eat and drink in luxury a few floorboards up from Jack Sparrow and his animatronic pirate pals, the fact that the place is still open — and thriving — is not.

These days, Disney fandom knows no economic boundaries. The upper crust loves its Donald Duck and Darth Vader as much as the next guy, and the company has been steadily broadening its brand to embrace its ultra-high-end clientele. At $1250 per person, 21 Royal is not even their most expensive offering. Club 33, Disneyland’s historic high-roller club, has expanded to Orlando, where individually themed lounges throughout Walt Disney World serve truffled popcorn and craft cocktails to guests allegedly forking over a $50,000 initiation fee. The Golden Oak residential community at Walt Disney World, which boasts its own members-only restaurant, has already built more than 200 multimillion-dollar mansions, some of which share amenities with the Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, a favorite of well-heeled travelers.

Disney’s AAA four-diamond Grand Californian Hotel and Spa

Even Disney fanatics with significantly fewer zeros in their bank account will shell out. According to Touring Plans, since 2013 the price of single-day tickets for Orlando’s Magic Kingdom has risen four times faster than it would have if it had been tied to the rate of inflation, with attendance increasing on both coasts along with theme park expansions, broadened holiday offerings, and new food festivals.

With a price tag that makes it arguably the most expensive dinner experience in the country, 21 Royal has been steadily booked multiple nights a week, not with corporate groups and celebrities (though they have had those), but with diehard Disney devotees celebrating birthday parties, baby showers, and other milestone events.

The grand staircase entrance to 21 Royal

But in terms of cold, hard cash, what does one actually get for a reservation the price of a 2018 Mitsubishi Mirage? First off, VIP status for yourself and 11 friends along with valet parking at Disney’s Grand Californian hotel, “park hopper” tickets for all (about $166 each), and an elaborate seven-course meal — with tax, gratuity, wine pairings, and a couple of cocktails included. You are also paying a premium on par with an event rental space, rendering 21 Royal in a different category than Saison’s $298 tasting menu or Masa’s $595 omakase, especially as its 19th-century-French-inspired interiors and waterfront views of Disneyland’s serene Rivers of America can only be visited during this mega-money meal.

That exclusivity hints at the true value of 21 Royal, which lies not in the overall quality of the food and wine — delivered via menus curated for each party by executive chef Andrew Sutton and his team — but the degree of Disney magic folded into the package. So, when I was given the chance to experience the full Royal treatment as part of a small media group hosted by Disney public relations, I bit. After all, if anyone is able to judge whether a theme park hideaway offers enough of a Disney rush to splurge your life savings on, it’s someone who has already dedicated their life to it.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, our group boards a black coach mini bus from Disney’s Craftsman-style Grand Californian hotel to be transported about one mile “backstage” — Mickey-speak for the industrial, unthemed areas not visible by guests — and cross over the Disneyland Railroad tracks into New Orleans Square. It’s here, through a nondescript side gate into a literal magic kingdom, that we meet Paul, one of three professionally trained butlers on hand for the night.

Here, Paul makes the first of several allusions to people thinking we’re celebrities. It’s a mood that prevails as our group, dressed in crisp, clean evening wear, saunter past strollers and bathrooms and sweat-drenched summertime parkgoers toward 21 Royal’s chained-off staircase perched atop the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

We enter the salon and are handed a cool towel and cold beverage (Champagne and creme de violette). A short speech is given and portrait taken (videography is not allowed) and then we’re invited to roam the space, which is less a restaurant and more like an open house.

Other than Club 33, 21 Royal is the only place alcohol is served within Disneyland Park
21 Royal includes a sitting room complete with carousel horse and antique furnishings

The apartment layout and cozy interiors are a holdover from the location’s past iteration as the Disneyland Dream Suite, a promotional prize offered to contest winners sleeping overnight in the park as recently as 2015. Intended to be Walt’s upgraded in-park residence prior to his passing, Imagineers drew upon famed production designer Dorothea Redmond’s original mid-’60s sketches to bring the vision to life during the last decade’s remodel. (His actual studio above the Main Street Fire Station still stands.)

Until 2007, though, this second-story flat was operating as an art gallery, selling oil paintings of Daisy Duck as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and other fan accoutrement, with many of its structural bones still intact. The pastel-pink patio, with a water feature bookended by the Disney family crest, was — according to personal accounts — used as a lunch stop on group tours, and the wrought-iron balcony for ticketed dessert parties with prime views of evening entertainment at under $100 a pop. Now, both are reserved for Disneyland’s flushest guests, who wander between museum-like rooms playing house in Walt’s would-have-been retreat.

The Victorian living room, with its patterned chairs and striped settee, serves as a nod to Walt’s muses for Disneyland: Strewn about the space are a half-size carousel horse, a miniature tiki bird cage, and a fresco of Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle — the supposed inspiration for Sleeping Beauty Castle. There are other conspicuous magical winks, too, like “hidden Mickeys” sewn into the rug and a grandfather clock programmed with synchronized music, lights, and effects.

A grandfather clock comes alive throughout the night with scenes and music from various Disney classics
The courtyard patio at 21 Royal

Hors d’oeuvres are passed — smoking slices of seared tuna on dry ice, tiny duck spring rolls — and the quaint patio unfurls to an open bar, serving a choice of bourbon Manhattans or a spiced gin fizz named in honor of Walt’s wife, Lillian, beneath strung lanterns and trees with firefly lights.

The two bedrooms are where the magic happens: Push a “Good Night Kiss” switch and a model train chugs to life around ceiling-height shelves of trinkets and toys, mermaids float within an illustrated grotto, and stars flicker over the master bathroom’s delicately tiled tub. Only, you can’t sleep beneath the canopied wooden bed or luxuriate in the spa jets because this Empire-style escape is purely for show.

One of two bedrooms in the 21 Royal suite

The Jacuzzi soaking tub complete with starry night light effects anchors the master bath

After a seemingly brief cocktail hour, we’re ushered into the dining room. It’s neoclassical by way of New Orleans, all jewel-toned wainscotting and aquamarine velvet chairs with idealized murals of the park’s Mark Twain Riverboat churning through open waters and the famed Haunted Mansion in all its antebellum glory. A floral eruption of sunset-hued ranunculus, roses, and sprigs of rosemary on the table would almost have you forgetting you’re a stone’s throw from mouse-shaped beignets until a candelabra on the mantle is magically lit by, what else, fairy dust.

Sommelier Matt Ellingson does most of the talking throughout the night, with lengthy backstories for every pour, including our first — a Dom Ruinart champagne named for, as we’re told in detail, the 18th-century inventor of “wine with bubbles.” The first course lands, Osetra caviar offset by an acidic yellow tomato sauce and Alaskan king crab with a delicate potato mousseline crepe. The wine and food pairing isn’t just nice, it’s nearly unprecedented: Save for Club 33, nowhere at the original Disneyland Park sells alcohol, for now.

A king crab and Osetra caviar starter

Disney’s iconography of numbers is on full display here at 21 Royal. Gilded forks are etched with its symbolic crest, golden charger plates boast the ornate badge, and wax seals on each monogrammed menu bear its emblematic form. Upon being directed toward the restroom I am excitedly told I’ll be “breaking the seal” of a numerical insignia impressed upon the start of the printed toilet paper roll. I tear off the triangle and shove it into my pocket.

From hotel rooms to roller coasters, storytelling is at the core of every Disney Parks experience, an aspect of 21 Royal promised right on its website. But strip away the decor and the meal’s theming was rather minimal — no single narrative linking the dishes, no dishes masquerading as mossy logs or enchanted forest floors, not even a rogue character-shaped butter.

A seafood soup gets covered in sea urchin foam
Wine service comes complete with one-of-a-kind decanters

Instead, it came through in small moments, like in the presentation of a seafood “soup” inspired by chef Sutton’s childhood memories of tidepooling. At the exact moment he describes a wave crashing over sea creatures, a choreographed team of waiters pours sea urchin foam over morsels of Santa Barbara spot prawn, red abalone, and Kona kampachi. Generally, Disney’s childlike sense of whimsy almost antipodes elegance, but here, the refined theatrics made for the evening’s best dish.

After the third course — roasted foraged chanterelles dusted with ramp salt atop corn-egg dumplings — and fourth — A5 wagyu transformed into delicate slices of Kobe pastrami — we’re given a luxurious 10-minute break. We sit on the patio, the sunset and pinot noir settling in.

The assortment of flashy wines (including a bottle of St. Eden from Napa Valley that goes for upwards of $400 a pop) is almost as varied as the staff’s bewildering set of decanters, each more whackadoo than the next. We learn the sommelier made 24 painstaking attempts to find the perfect red to serve with our spicy curried pheasant dish (red wine with curry is, we’re told, a traditional pairing no-no). The entirety of our meal feels a bit like an ability flex, which, given that the menu was customized for an audience of food writers on assignment, is not surprising. Other dinners, which take guest preferences into account, have included accommodations for pregnant diners, food allergies and aversions, even showering french fries in freshly shaved truffles as a surprise for the world’s fanciest tweens.

Bison tenderloin with hay-roasted vegetables

After a dish of buffalo tenderloin with vegetables roasted in hay, we’re given a grand finish by way of a singular albeit heavenly peach “snowball” for dessert. Then, once cappuccinos and upon-request digestifs are in hand (I was initially told the bar was closed when I asked for something stronger than coffee, but they eventually obliged), the event caps off with a balcony view of Fantasmic!, Disneyland’s long-running waterfront nighttime bonanza. It’s magic incarnate, and the park’s grandest extravaganza quickly becomes the highlight of the night.

Peach “snowball” dessert

From ground level, Fantasmic! is a rousing multimedia mix of beloved characters, villainous battles, and pyro-theatrics viewed amidst a hurried crowd — but up here, tipsy and primed for revelry, nothing delights more than Mickey Mouse spewing golden sparkles out of his white-gloved fingers. After an evening of whim-catering and decadence, it’s hard not to feel like this cavalcade of characters on the back of a riverboat are waving only to you. This, Disney fans, is what you pay for. Not the caviar.

A premium view of Fantasmic! from 21 Royal’s balcony

After a round of fireworks, I’m given a branded maroon gift bag (containing a commemorative lapel pin along with tea, pastries, and coffee beans for the morning) and told we can spend more time on the patio — an empty gesture considering the booze has already been packed up. I opt out of the bus ride back and, as some fellow diners accept the offer of complimentary travel flats (tipsy women teetering in heels on concrete is a liability, natch), we head toward Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for a Disney-approved nightcap before the park closes. The wait is 40 minutes and I stand in line, sweating, yearning for that upstairs hideaway and not fully ready to be among the vacationing masses once again.

A fountain bookended by the Disney family crest on the courtyard patio of 21 Royal

The five-hour experience certainly reaches beyond its price tag, creating an evening that cannot be replicated anywhere else. But, while 21 Royal’s service may be extraordinary, the pace was too quick. Each course, on average, took 19 minutes; I never saw the bottom of a wine glass, which would have been an unfortunate turn for an indulgent evening if its ending wasn’t utterly spectacular in pure Disney fashion.

Round out Joshua Skenes’s onetime $1000-a-head woodsy Sonoma escape with the joy of balling out within a literal nostalgia daydream and a free park ticket, and 21 Royal’s $1250-per-person price tag doesn’t feel so crippling. Still, I found myself itching all night for things I should be able to do for that whopping price.

Cinderella’s illuminated glass slipper on display

For $15,000, I should be able to take a video, an object of my choosing, or at least a bath. For 15 grand I should be allowed to ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with a FastPass, but also into the wee hours of the night. For that much coin I should get a piggyback ride around Fantasyland on Goofy’s shoulders and arise by Mickey gently singing “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” in the morning.

But a night at 21 Royal won’t get you any of that. It won’t even get you a final cocktail after the show’s water projection screens dissolve or a hand-delivered Dole Whip, regardless of how half-jokingly you ask. For some diners, namely those enthralled by balled-out meals and envy-inducing Instagrams, it’s not enough. But for 21 Royal’s target audience, even with a subtle shortfall of culinary whimsy, nothing else will even matter.

It won’t matter that Chef Sutton spent seven years helming a famed Napa Valley kitchen or that one of the wines was made by a couple who found each other in a hurricane or that the Osetra caviar was sourced by some guy named Chuck. Spending the night — even without spending the night — in a place with a thread of association to Walt, standing on hallowed ground that cannot be accessed otherwise, feeling like Cinderella while staring at her actual glass slipper illuminating as a magical grandfather clock chimes “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” — it’s plenty. It’s enough.

And $15,000 is all it will take.

Editor: Lesley Suter
Copy Editor: Rachel P. Kreiter
Fact Check: Emma Grillo

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