When it comes to fine dining, the most magical place on earth has a bit of an image problem. For many people, Walt Disney World is far better known for giant turkey legs and Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream bars than haute cuisine.
This misconception has caused so many guests to miss out on one of the best aspects of visiting the House of Mouse – the food! You caneat really well while on vacation. With more than 90 full-service restaurants and a hundred more quick-serve options, there is something for every palate. Incredibly fresh sushi. Fluffy, hot croissants filled with buttery escargot. Red wine-braised lamb shank. It’s all there.
Don’t get me wrong. Not everything eaten on vacation has to be fancy or require a knife and fork. Sometimes a bite or two of something naughty is just the trick. (Just-baked churros dipped in warm caramel from the small cart in Frontierland is a favorite.) I’m just saying it doesn’t have to allbe that way. Imagine enjoying meals made with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Recipes loaded with creative twists and real thought behind them. Wine lists actually curated by sommeliers with a keen eye on the what the kitchen is making. Sounds good, right?
As a wine and food educator and writer, it’s my job to seek out the finer bites in life. I also happen to be a fan of Walt Disney World. I’ve been there nearly every year of my life, and I revel in the opportunity to share it with my young son and wife.
As a veteran of the venerable Orlando vacation destination, I’m constantly on the lookout for great food and drink. With a little strategy and experience, I’m rarely disappointed. For anyone assuming every meal will be a gluttonous overload of boiled hot dogs, soggy french fries, and little mouse-eared waffles drowning in syrup, I promise there’s a better way.
Trust me. I’m a professional.
Here are six suggestions for dining like a pro in Walt Disney World.
Experience a signature restaurant.
For guests who want all the trappings of dining out, Walt Disney World offers a broad range of signature restaurants. Located all around the property, these upscale options feature award-winning menus, extensive wine, beer, and cocktail lists, and great service. Reservations are pretty much always needed and fill up quickly. Disney’s comprehensive (and totally free) bus, boat, and monorail transportation system means getting to any of these destinations is easy.
A favorite, the California Grill, is located on the 15th floor of the Contemporary Resort Hotel. Elegant and sophisticated, their menu focuses on fresh, seasonal choices like salmon crudo with coconut and citrus, grilled bison loin, and Tonkotsu ramen topped with candied ginger butter and rich Anitsuke egg. The wine list rivals the menu in quality and variety. From prestigious bottles of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon to glasses of Dom Perignon, there is no shortage of great options to enjoy with your meal. (Pro tip: Snag a reservation towards the end of the night to experience the fireworks above the Magic Kingdom. The view cannot be beat.)
For a more exotic meal, consider Jiko – The Cooking Place at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Bringing together the vibrant cuisines of South Africa, India, and the Mediterranean, Jiko offers some of the most unique dishes anywhere in Walt Disney World. Elk confit flatbread, Chermoula chicken, and Bo Kaap Malay seafood curry pair beautifully with Jiko’s comprehensive South African wine list. Select from aged Chenin Blancs, Pinotages, Pinot Noirs and many others offered at all price points.
From seafood to salads, chops to canapés, there is no shortage of excellent restaurants spread across the entire property. Disney’s signature dining is a great way to experience just how good their cuisine can be.
Book a unique dining experience.
When it comes to one-of-a-kind meals, Disney more than has you covered. These unique events require advance notice and usually involve some planning to get the details just the way you like them. Call their special reservation line to arrange everything.
Imagine sitting at a table in a bustling, active kitchen watching a chef prepare dishes just for you. Sound good? Then book the chef’s table at Victoria & Albert’s. Located in the Grand Floridian Resort, this coveted experience is a culinary extravaganza. Your menu is unique and tailored to your preferences, made with fresh ingredients sourced daily. Their in-house sommelier can guide you through the optional wine pairings to make sure every sip and bite is perfect.
If over-the-top service and elegance is more your style, arrange for a private dining experience. Maybe it’s a quiet dinner for two on a balcony overlooking Cinderella’s castle, complete with a personal butler. Or a dinner party on a luxury yacht touring the lagoon. What about enjoying lunch with one of the creators of Disney magic, an Imagineer? There are so many ways to create a unique dining experience you won’t soon forget.
Explore festival cuisine.
Throughout the year, Walt Disney World hosts a variety of festivals. From the International Festival of the Arts in late winter, to the Flower & Garden Festival in the spring, to the always delicious Food & Wine Festival in the fall, there are many opportunities to indulge in culinary creativity.
Each festival offers guests a different menu of food and drink to enjoy, tailored to the season and occasion. The Flower & Garden Festival serves up dishes with an eye on spring and warmer weather – think roasted cauliflower with buckwheat honey carrot puree and mascarpone cheesecake with orange blossom ice cream.
Unlike most food and wine shindigs, Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival runs for over ten weeks, and features authentic cuisines of 25 different nations. This extended run means you can tackle all the amazing offerings over the course of your vacation rather than trying to cram it all in over a day or two. That’s good because with options like South Africa’s buttered chicken, New Zealand’s Green Lip mussels, and Brazil’s crispy pork belly with black beans, you’re going to need some time to recover each day.
Experience dining outside the parks.
Although there are lots of eating options within each of the four theme parks at Walt Disney World, it’s a mistake to assume every meal should be consumed there. Some of the best restaurants on property are found outside the parks.
Thai coconut meatballs offered in Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian Village Resort Hotel are tropical and rich. The beignets at the Port Orleans French Quarter Resort are legendary. The Grand Floridian Resort’s Citricos offers a quinoa and Provençale ratatouille that is full of wild mushroom and tomato confit.
Head to the boardwalk a few minutes’ walk outside Epcot for even more options. Some of the best seafood in all of Disney can be found at the newly-remodeled Flying Fish. Their excellent wine list and selection of martinis are a great pairing as you knock back some Snow crab croquettes or Hokkaido scallops with sweet corn and grits. Trattoria al Forno’s pasta Carbonara is a classic.
A quick taxi or complimentary bus ride from any resort will bring you to Disney Springs, an outdoor marketplace overflowing with restaurants, shops, and clubs. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by more than 60 dining options. From the amazing barbacoa from the 4 Rivers Cantina food truck, to top-notch Mexican cuisine at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Cocina, to the incredible Japanese A5 Wagyu beef at Morimoto Asia, there is simply no excuse for every single person in your party not finding just what they’re looking for.
Take advantage of the discounts.
Disney is not shy when it comes to pricing. The cost of a vacation adds up quickly once you put all the pieces together. Fortunately, there are ways to help curb the cost of dining. It’s well-worth considering some of the options to help keep your budget in check.
If you plan to stay for a lengthy vacation, or return more than once within a calendar year, you’ve likely considered the annual resort pass. One of the benefits with this pass is the 20% discount on selected dining. (It doesn’t cover every single restaurant, but it comes really close.) As an extra benefit, annual passholders are eligible to purchase a Tables in Wonderland card. It, too, offers 20% discounts on dining but unlike the annual pass, this includes alcohol. (That can add up real quick, especially once you discover the Cava del Tequila in Epcot’s Mexico pavilion.)
There are additional savings opportunities for those willing to commit to a dining plan for their stay. These prepaid plans offer a variety of options that range from simple quick service snacks to full-on signature dining. While they certainly can save money, it’s important to make sure to take advantage of all the meals and snacks included. Any unused credits are not refunded or carried over to your next visit, so eat up!
Plan ahead and book early.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but do not underestimate the importance of planning ahead. Walt Disney World is one of the most-visited vacation destinations in the world, welcoming over 52 millionvisitors each year, and they all want to eat.
To help guests, Disney allows dining reservations to be made up to 180 days before your check-in date. Take advantage of that lead time and have your restaurant preferences ready to go so you can book when your window opens up. You don’t want to miss out.
Adam Centamore is a writer and professional wine & cheese educator in the Boston area. His book, Tasting Wine & Cheese – An Insider’s Guide to Mastering the Principles of Pairing, was a finalist for the IACP Cookbook of the Year award. Adam conducts tasting events and seminars around the country and has written for Saveur Magazine, Culture Cheese Magazine, the Boston Globe, and other publications. When not working, he enjoys traveling to discover new ways to enjoy cuisine and culture. Adam loves to eat, drink & learn!