Sunday, April 6, 2014

Disney Dining with an (Almost) Toddler

Prior to our recent Disney adventure, I'd heard mixed advice about how to eat at Disney World. Some folks swear by the meal plan and others say, "No way!" The complaints of the latter group seemed to completely vary too: "the meal plan isn't enough food!" "the meal plan is too much food!" "it's too expensive!" "the options for children are limited!" Everyone has an opinion and good luck convincing them otherwise!

So upfront I'm going to say it: we got a Disney Dining Plan and, for the most part, our group was very happy with it.

Disney Dining Plan is available to guests staying at Disney Resorts. To take advantage of the Dining Plan, you must purchase your tickets as part of a Magic Your Way Package. That basically means you are paying for your hotel, food, park tickets, and some small extras (i.e. a refillable drink mug) in advance. The thing about these packages is that you get meals for each night you are staying at a resort, not for each day you are visiting a park. So we were staying seven nights (Thursday-Thursday) so we got seven day's worth of dining (even though we only purchased five days worth of park tickets). I note this because you will need to arrange your meals within the parks accordingly: you can't schedule six meals at park restaurants if you only have a five day park pass so you'll need to check out some of the restaurants at the Disney Resorts.

We ultimately decided on a Dining Plan because we knew we wanted to do character meals and we knew that they were pricey! One character brunch alone can set you back close to $40/person and we did three! For us, even if we didn't eat all the allotted snacks, we made our money back with the table service choices we made.

The menfolk at a buffet breakfast -
this was a table service credit.
So what does "table service" mean? Well, it turns out there are several different types of Disney Dining Plans and that all the restaurants on the Disney property are categorized into three separate types of restaurants: table service, quick service, and snack. Table service restaurants are just what they sound like: you walk in, are seated, and order food which is brought directly to your table. Buffets are also included in table service restaurants. Quick service restaurants are like "fast food" restaurants: you order at a counter and then take food to your seat. Snacks can be found on the menu at certain quick service restaurants or at separate snack stands in the park.

The meal plans vary in the variety of each type of restaurant which is included. For example, there is one plan that is two quick service meals each day and one snack. You may notice that Disney offers "free" Dining Plans occasionally throughout the year: nine times out of ten, this is the Dining Plan that they are offering. The downside of this Dining Plan is that it does not include any table service credits which means no character dining. Another Dining Plan includes three table service meals each day! I guess some people like fine dining, but sitting around waiting to eat for 3+ hours every single day was not our idea of a good time...and I doubt our stomachs could have handled that much food either (especially before Splash Mountain!) Ultimately our Dining Plan was called the Magic Your Way Package Dining Service Plus and included one table service meal, one quick service meal, and one snack per person per day.

Children under three do not need a Dining Plan. Disney advertises that they can eat "free" but that requires some clarification. If we went to a buffet, Baby O was "free" to eat whatever he wanted off my plate, but if we were at a table service or counter service restaurant, we had to pay for a kid's meal. By the end of our vacation, however, we realized that my dad and grandmother were subsisting on merely our table service meal so we started using quick service meals for Baby O's lunch.

Disney Dining Tip: There is no distinction between children's quick service meals and adult quick service meals. If you have 49 quick service meals available (as we did at the start of our trip), you can use those credits to purchase meals for any member of your party. So if a member wants to eat light and chooses a kids' meal: no problem. Or if you want to use a credit so you don't have to pay for a kids' meal with cash: do it. Obviously this only works at quick service restaurants because one person is at the counter ordering. A waiter might give you a hard time if you were sitting in a restaurant trying to order filet mignon for a 5 year old using his meal plan!

Okay so we have our Dining Plan and we're ready to just start showing up at restaurants, right?

Oh my gosh, no!

Disney Dining Tip: Reservations to table service restaurants can be made up to 180 days in advance. Get out a calendar and count back 180 days from the start of your trip. On this morning at 7am EST, you must be either on the phone or at your computer if you have any hope of eating at some of the most popular Disney restaurants.

Disney will let you book meals for your entire vacation that morning (i.e. you don't have to call back every day all week), but some things are going to be booked already so have several workable plans in mind and try to be as flexible as possible. Remember, while you are hemming and hawing over whether you'll take a 5:15 reservation instead of a 5:30 reservation at Be Our Guest, the last reservations for the day at Cinderella's Royal Table were just snatched up. Here is a link with some of the most popular Disney restaurants (and alternatives if they are already full).

Disney Dining Tip: Use the Disney Food Blog website to figure out where you want to eat. The bloggers have been to Disney an enviable amount of times and have dined nearly everywhere and tried nearly everything! This website was a great help in figuring out which table service restaurants were worth visiting!

So my mom called and got reservations at our preferred restaurants at almost our preferred times. The restaurants we chose to eat at during our stay were: Mickey's Backyard BBQ (Fort Wilderness Resort), Coral Reef Restaurant (Epcot), Crystal Palace Character Lunch/Dinner with Winnie the Pooh and Friends (Magic Kingdom), 'Ohana Restaurant (Polynesian Resort), Chef Mickey's Character Breakfast with Mickey and Friends (Contemporary Resort), and Be Our Guest (Magic Kingdom). Phew!

Character Dining:

Mickey's Backyard BBQ at Fort Wilderness Resort:

The "gang" does their musical number.
We went to this dinner on our first night at Disney. We hadn't even gone to a park yet, but we made a very conscious effort to schedule this dinner first. Why? Because it was a character "experience" and show. What's the difference between a character "experience" (my totally made up word, not Disney's) and a character meal? In an "experience" characters don't come around from table to table. They are there at the meal, in this case out on the dance floor dancing and posing for pictures in predetermined spots, but they don't just show up behind you unexpectedly. We booked this meal first to gauge how Baby O was going to react to the characters. If this experience had gone poorly, we would have cancelled our other two character meals.

If you haven't ever been to Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort, it's worth visiting for a meal at least once if only to confirm that you will never ever ever stay there. We arrived at the resort via car only to find out that we had to load onto a bus that would take us deep into the woods where the BBQ was taking place. As we drove, the accomodations became more and more frightening: first, there were "cabins" (i.e. actual built structures), then we saw trailers and I swear by the time we were pulling into our stop (literally 25 minutes later - be sure to build that extra travel time into your schedule), there were just folks pitching tents. A little too woodsy for my blood!

Now because this was a show and a meal, it costs two table service credits. In real money that's equal to anywhere from $36 to $59.99/person. Zoinks! However, as Husband pointed out NUMEROUS times, unlimited beer and wine was included in that price. And the show. And a buffet. And, most importantly, a chance to determine if an almost two year old was terrified by Mickey Mouse.

Now the show itself is cute. It's a little rodeo with a band and two hosts. There is a cowboy who does rope tricks (with an audience participant). And the characters come out to do a little performance before joining the crowd to dance. Baby O was not really into being on the ground yet with the characters (who could blame him, it was very crowded), but he seemed to have fun as I carried him and bounced him around. At one point we spotted Minnie dancing in the corner with a smaller crowd and he was willing to dance near her. Finally, we saw Mickey and Minnie doing a photo opp right behind our table so we lined up. I held him, he smiled and said, "Hi," , we got a photo and he didn't scream or cry hysterically. All told, I'd call it a win.

Mickey bars were a hit.
The food here is barbeque food. I've seen reviews complaining that it was too "backyard" but it's not like Disney is hiding the ball here: it's called Mickey's Backyard Barbeque. There were ribs, chicken, burgers, and sides like macaroni and cheese, coleslaw and cornbread. Dessert was a Mickey bar. Don't show up expecting it to be a five star dining experience and you won't be disappointed. Was it the greatest food I've ever had in my life? No. Was it the greatest food I had during our Disney trip? Not even close. Was it the perfect way to start our vacation and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Absolutely!

Crystal Palace Lunch/Dinner with Winnie the Pooh and Friends

I call this a lunch/dinner because we had reservations at 2:45 and were seated around 3pm. This was also intentional on our part: there's a 3pm parade that runs past the Crystal Palace every afternoon. We lucked out and got a window table with a decent view, but unfortunately it started drizzling so everyone came up onto the covered patio portion of the Crystal Palace and blocked our view. No worries though - we got an amazing view of the parade on our last day (read about that here). It was also lunch/dinner literally: we went through the buffet the first time and then our waitress told us that they had switched over to the dinner options if we wanted to go through again (we did!)

Piglet took time to come see Pops.
This was our first character meal of the trip and not surprisingly, Disney runs these things like clockwork. I couldn't figure out how the Cast Members could keep straight which character had visited which table, but lo and behold somehow despite our ten person group taking numerous trips to the buffet and the restroom, the characters taking breaks, and new people arriving to be seated, not only did all the characters come to our table, but they brought them over in order of a child's likely interest (i.e. Eeyore first, Piglet, Tigger then Pooh). The characters were delightful. Seriously. They interacted not only with Baby O but with other people in our group too and, of course, were completely in character the whole time: Piglet was sweet and wanted to acknowledge everyone, Tigger was full of energy, and Pooh was very kind and gentle to Baby O, who was thrilled with the whole experience!

Food-wise, buffets really are a great value on the Dining Plan. This was also retails between $36-$59.99 and while the food was good, I would have had a heart attack if I'd gone to a restaurant and gotten that bill (especially since there were ten of us at that point!) Baby O ate free which meant that my first trip to the buffet was to fill a plate with anything that looked appealing and possibly not unhealthy. Then my second trip was for my own plate. Because he's an almost toddler, Baby O was much more interested in my plate than his (even though it contained some of the same things!) The Crystal Palace also does a character buffet breakfast, which is also very popular.

Overall, this was a good meal. We got to meet Pooh and Friends, which Baby O loved and it was a nice midday meal. We split some quick service meals that evening for dinner and were all satisfied. The location is prime: right off Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. This one is popular so be sure to make your reservations ahead of time: there's no walking in off the street for this restaurant!

Chef Mickey's at Contemporary Resort

We ate here on our gloriously perfect last day at the Magic Kingdom. That being said, I don't know if we were biased at all, but everyone agreed that this was an amazing character meal. There is both a breakfast and a dinner option. We chose breakfast and got 10:30am reservations. That actually worked out perfect because we arrived at the Magic Kingdom just as it opened (accidentally catching the morning show outside the park!), rode a few rides at Tomorrowland, met Buzz Lightyear and then hopped on the Monorail for the 5 minute ride to the Contemporary Resort.

As we waited for our table, the Cast Members lined us up for a photo opp with a Mickey statue. Later they come around to your table and give you the option to buy the photo. It's about $30 for a 8x10 and two 4x6. Overpriced? Yeah, probably, but it was our last day and it was a rare full group shot so we splurged. We got a big table against the back corner of the restaurant. Our waitress came right over, took our drink orders and sent us away to the buffet.

Oh my goodness, this buffet. My dad (Pops) is a huge breakfast fan and he definitely looked like he was in heaven. The options were endless: savory (breakfast pizzas, sausages, omelets), sweet (pancakes, Mickey waffles, about 300 types of Danishes), and healthy (fruit platters, granola, yogurt). I filled about four plates and still hadn't gotten one of everything! Baby O was a fan of the Mickey waffles and Danishes, but we managed to get a banana in him as well. I was just tasting everything and it was all delicious!

Baby O joined in the napkin twirling fun.
After we had our plates filled, the fun started. The vibe in this restaurant is straight-up Mickey nostalgia. As a child I had this little record player and a Disney 45 record that I played nonstop. Those were the songs playing at this restaurant!  Songs like Digital Duck and Mickey, She's Got a Crush on You. I was like a kid again, squealing each time I recognized a song from my past! The whole restaurant would start twirling their napkins in the air to the music and then the characters would appear! No messing around here, Chef Mickey's brings out the big guns: Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, and Pluto all dressed in chef garb. Once again the characters seamlessly made their way from table to table, spending just enough time with everyone.

We've been "Goofy bombed!"
We did have a funny incident where Donald and Goofy arrived at our table at the same time from
different directions! The Cast Members quickly stepped in to swoop Goofy away but not before he "Goofy bombed" our photo with Donald! We all got a big laugh out of that! It even inspired a page in my Disney scrapbook with all types of different "Goofy" shots of us during the trip! An event bigger treat? The characters came around twice! So we were able to retake some pictures that hadn't quite come out the first time.

We momentarily panicked when we realized that Mickey had been detoured right as we were getting ready to leave so we mentioned to our waitress that he hadn't been back a second time. A few minutes later, Mickey's "handler" came over and told us that when we were ready to leave, she'd meet us in a little alcove by the kitchen. I was so thrilled because I really wanted to try to get a Baby O picture with Mickey by himself and ultimately I did! I thought it was so wonderful of them to accommodate us when there were like 200 other families that obviously wanted Mickey time too!

Once we got our Mickey picture, we hopped back on the Monorail to the Magic Kingdom. As far as character meals go, this one ranks up there in popularity with Cinderella's Royal Table. The execution is flawless and the food is delicious. We used one table credit for the meal which generally runs between $30-$59.99. I'd definitely recommend it for anyone who has kiddos who want to meet the big five Disney characters. It was definitely a highlight of our trip.

Non-Character Dining:

Okay, before I dive into the other three restaurants we ate at, I want to say upfront that I had a hard time figuring out what to label this section. It's not "regular" dining because some of these restaurants are anything but so I settled on non-character dining which simply means that the characters do not come around to your table or interact freely with guests.

Coral Reef Restaurant at Epcot:

One memory my family had of our last trip to Disney (circa 1991) was eating at this restaurant and being stunned, literally stunned, when we were seated next to the giant fish tank wall. Since Baby O is a huge fish fan and we were in a Finding Nemo room, we figured this would be a nice place at Epcot to eat. Despite having "Advance Reservations", we waited a long time before we were seated.

Disney Dining Tip: Advance Reservations aren't exactly reservations so plan accordingly. Even if you've been told by Disney to arrive at a certain time, all that really means is that when you show up, you'll be seating before people who walk in off the street are. It doesn't mean that they are holding a table for you. We waited particularly long at Coral Reef because we were a big group (10, at that point) who asked to be front and center of the aquarium. Luckily we had snacks for Baby O and kept him occupied while we waited.

Once we were seated, we ordered our food. The food here is fine, probably on par with a Red Lobster, but if you are looking for amazing seafood creations, this is not the place to get it. We all enjoyed our dinners and it was neat to watch Baby O's reaction when the team of sea divers popped up in the aquarium, but had I been out looking for a "nice" dinner, I might have been disappointed. I think we all agreed that of the restaurants we ate at, we could have skipped this one and not minded.

The first of many "happys"!
Baby O, however, had a blast. It was at Coral Reef that we realized that he had started calling cupcakes "happy" presumably because you sing "Happy Birthday" and then get a cupcake! So we thought it was all kinds of adorable for the rest of the trip to reward him with a "happy" every time he asked! We also thought it wasn't fair that girls get all the fun of dressing up at Disney so we (okay, fine) I dressed him in his Nemo Halloween costume, which EVERYONE thought was adorable!

'Ohana Restaurant at the Polynesian Resort

Any disappointment we might have experienced with the food at Coral Reef was immediately rectified the following evening at 'Ohana. This was our last meal as a big group (Mimi and Poppi left the next day) and it was just perfect. A note: the Polynesian Resort is on the Monorail line and as a result isn't exactly driver-friendly. Husband and I would literally drive right up to the Magic Kingdom parking lot and then you had to take a quick turn or you missed the resort. Once we finally got on site, someone we ended up in a bus only lane! If you have park tickets, I'd just take the Monorail and leave the car at your own resort!

'Ohana does character meals but we just made reservations for the family-style dinner. Family-style dining is amazing: it's like a buffet that comes to you! They'd bring an entire platter of the most amazing little wontons I've ever had in my life, I'd eat them all, and they'd bring another platter! Glorious! There were delicious wings as well - both were appetizers and I seriously could have made a meal of those two choices! The main course is a thousands types of meat brought to the table: fish, beef, chicken, shrimp in unlimited amounts! As we entered the restaurant, several people stopped us to say, "Leave room for the bread pudding."

Oh my goodness, the bread pudding! Now I'm a chocolate dessert girl myself: if there's no chocolate, my interest lessens significantly. But this bread pudding was just ridiculous. They served us an enormous platter of it and I wanted more! So good!

I swear he's taunting me! "Look, Mommy - it's 8pm and I
have a cookie!"
Our waiter was also amazing. With big groups Disney automatically adds in a gratuity which you pay in cash, but we were so impressed with our waiter at this restaurant, we added in a bit extra for him. Baby O was particularly a fan. Why was that? Because at one point during the meal, he was refusing to eat the chicken (or whatever) that we had put on his plate and said, "Cookie!" Apparently the waiter heard him and brought him out a cookie. On the house! Then when the bread pudding came out, he presented Sir O with a dish of ice cream in case his delicate palate wasn't interested in the bread pudding. If it hadn't been almost 9pm at this point, I might have been more pleased. "Yes, thank you for loading my child up with sugar two hours after his bedtime!" Luckily Baby O slept well that night!

If you've seen Lilo and Stitch, you know that 'Ohana means family and that's obviously the theme of this restaurant. Between the family-style dining and the dinner entertainment, the emphasis on family was pretty clear. The entertainer is a ukulele wielding singer who first invited children onto the dance floor to dance the hula. Then he asked if anyone was celebrating anniversaries. As it so happens, Lolli and Pops were celebrating their 37th Anniversary so they went up and got leis. Then the singer sang a special song for them. Really sweet!

The group consensus is that this was our favorite food experience while at Disney. It just narrowly missed being our overall favorite dining experience, however. That honor goes to...

Be Our Guest:

What can I say? This restaurant is gorgeous! It's brand new, situated in New Fantasyland and they just capture every little detail about Beauty & the Beast so perfectly. Even from outside, the castle looks like it's far out in the midst (when in fact the entrance is right there) - how did Disney do that? This was actually the most difficult reservation for us to get. We wanted an early dinner (which to us meant 6ish), but the only thing available (and remember we called 180 days out) was 4:15! It turns out Baby O was having a rough after-nap transition and we were late to our reservations. Lolli masterfully told the Cast Member we were changing his diaper and somehow managed to carry on that charade for 20 minutes while we raced from the parking lot!

Once we finally arrived, they were ready but only if we wanted to sit in the West Wing.

The answer to that question is always, "Yes!"

So they led us in. Security here at dinner time is seriously tight: they won't even let you in the restaurant during dinner unless you have a reservation. There is a lunch option available which is counter service dining, but supposedly it's still very crowded and frankly turning this gorgeous restaurant into a "cafeteria" ruins the ambiance a bit in my mind.

There are three distinct dining areas at Be Our Guest: the Ballroom, the Rose Gallery, and the aforementioned West Wing. The Ballroom is the main dining area in the center of the restaurant. It's the largest (and claims online to be two-stories, but I didn't notice that). This room has the least amount of "character": it's a large room and diners are packed in very close to each other. Additionally, every single diner is going to walk past your table as they head to theirs. We had originally asked for Ballroom seating on the advice of one of our guidebooks, but in the end we were thrilled that there were no seats available.

The Rose Gallery is the "overflow" room. There is an enormous music box featuring Belle and the Beast in the center of the room. It's very pretty but if you end up in this room, you might be dining alone (or with very few other guests). It was nearly empty when we poked our heads in to take photographs.

The West Wing, on the other hand, is a masterpiece. If you've seen the movie, you know the West Wing is where Beast keeps the Enchanted Rose, which is featured prominently in the room. The reason we originally did not want to eat in this room is because it is very dark and every 10 minutes or so, there are flashes of thunder and lightening. We weren't sure Baby O could handle it, but since we were already late for our reservation, we figured we'd take whatever table they offered us. After the first lightening strike ended, Baby O freaked out and we weren't sure why because the noise was over. Then the second strike ended and he did it again. He started whining something, "Beeeeees!!!" No idea. So I picked him up and carried him around. He kept saying it and I noticed it seemed to be when I passed by a portrait hanging in the room. The portrait is straight out of the movie and magnificent: it starts off as a portrait of Prince Adam (the Beast's apparent name) and then for a few seconds after each lightening/thunder episode flashes to a portrait of the Beast, which is what Baby O was saying: "Beeeeees!" He wanted to sit so he could see the portrait for the entire meal! We moved him to the other side of the table and funk be gone! He was a happy baby once more!

I'd read online that they were testing having the Beast join diners during their meal. I asked our waitress if the Beast was in and she responded that he wasn't feeling well so she wasn't sure. Well apparently that was just a ruse because after we placed our order, the Beast entered the West Wing! They announced him with fanfare and invited guests to meet him in his Library after they ate. Baby O was seriously about to lose his mind from excitement! I misheard the announcement and thought we could go while we waited so I gathered up Baby O and headed over to the Library. As it turns out, they want you to meet Beast right before you leave the restaurant so even though there was no one in line, they wouldn't even let us stand there and watch him. Luckily we spotted the music box in the Rose Gallery at that point, which satisfied Baby O's Beast craving for a while!

While the castle itself is the true star of this particular restaurant, the food is nothing to snuff at either! Several of us got a seafood pot pie which was just the right size to leave room for our dessert and not feel too full. The dessert comes over on a tray and was very tasty. If you are celebrating an event, ask for the "grey stuff" and they'll bring some on the house. Or you can select a brownie topped with "grey stuff" for dessert. Lolli got some for a celebration and then ordered the brownie too: she said the "grey stuff" was delicious! I'm told the dishes agree but I didn't ask them! :) Entrees run approximately $15 to $29.99 for adults and a meal costs 1 table credit on the Dining Plan.

On the way out, it was finally time to meet Beast. He doesn't do autographs because his paws are too big but they had a Disney Photo Pass photographer set-up and he was happy to take photos with a personal camera also. There was a short line once we arrived at the Library but they both moved people through quickly but allowed ample time with the Beast. It was finally Baby O's turn and he just about lunged out of my sister's arms into the Beast's!

Okay, all I can tell you is that the Beast is huge! It's one thing for kiddos to meet Mickey or Ariel, but Beast is a whole different ballgame. My dad is 6'4" and you can see in the picture how much taller Beast is: easily 7 feet. There's an option to just leave the restaurant and not meet Beast so you can peek in the Library and see how your child reacts. Or gauge them when the Beast is announced and enters your dining hall.

You really might be surprised though: never in a million years would I think that Baby O would love Beast as much as he does. We found him a special Beast plush (only available in the gift shop near Gaston's Tavern in New Fantasyland) which he carries everywhere and for Christmas he received the Beauty and the Beast DVD. We've watched "Belle Beast" at least 450 times since then!

So clearly Baby O's reaction to Beast gives us an additional sentimental component to why we so enjoyed this restaurant. It's tough to get reservations but well worth it in the end. I definitely recommend you try to check this one out!


Overall, we ate a lot of really delicious meals at some really gorgeous restaurants at Disney World. I was happy with all of our choices, particularly since none of the restaurants are considered "fine" Disney Dining. They worked out just fine for us! Ha! Since the odds are not in our favor that we're going back any time soon, I'd probably want to try some different restaurants if we were to go back, but I'd also really want to visit 'Ohana and Be Our Guest a second time. They both really are that outstanding! I'm not really a big breakfast person, but even so Chef Mickey's would be tempting as well!

Baby O found appealing options at all the restaurants, but the buffets were a big hit due to both the variety and the fact that he could eat off our plates. I didn't find that any of the kid's meals at the sit-down restaurants were outrageously expensive but note that you will be changed a gratuity that is not covered by the Dining Plan if you have a large party.

I hope my wrap-up helps! Enjoy!

No comments:

Post a Comment