Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dining at Walt Disney World

Can you eat well while on a family vacation at the the ginormous Walt Disney World (WDW) resort and theme parks in Orlando, Florida? After having dined at some of the best restaurants the world has to offer, I doubted it.  But with the advice from friends and a seasoned travel planner (Karen Kalinowski from Travel with the Magic) all who visit the parks regularly, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality and variety of dining options. With that said, make sure you make reservations well in advance if you want to sit down and dine while you're at WDW or her associated resort hotels. If you do not, you will find your dining options severely limited and you'll likely be eating fast food every night.

Julian's Toast to Disney
EPCOT:  Now, you aren't going to find a Michelin starred restaurant at Disney or in fact anywhere in Orlando. But you can get some well prepared food using the latest techniques under the supervision of a respected French chef at Monsieur Paul.  This EPCOT dining establishment is under the direction of chef Paul Bocuse, who is famous for the high quality of his restaurants and his innovative approaches to cuisine. He is one of the most prominent chefs associated with the nouvelle cuisine, and operates several establishments one of which (Lyon's L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges) does rate the highest Michelin rating. With that said, the food you will find at Monsieur Paul at EPCOT comes in relatively large portion sizes, assumingly to fit the American appetite. My lobster tail in a mushroom foam, was actually two tails and too much food. Kevin had the fish encrusted with potato 'scales' which as you can see below, was also a double portion and more food than necessary. We also liked the fact that they point out the fresh foods from EPCOT's own gardens, and because the restaurant is not as large as most at WDW, they are able to have a constant supply of organic grown vegetables and fruits.

Monsieur Paul's Fish with Potato "Scales"
Classic french preparations are also on the menu, as is a cute dessert that the pleasant and helpful young French waiter informed us was the most popular, but in his estimation, not the most delicious of the dessert options. (I like an honest waiter!) As they pour on the sauce the white chocolate sphere melts to reveal a cake/custard inside.... more Disney magic!

And like all Disney restaurants, young family members are quite welcome. They seated us at a nice table for two at the window in a more quiet section of the restaurant. But there were children from high-chair sized to young adult in the dining room. They do ask you to dress up a little (no t-shirts or cut-offs) but they didn't seem to enforce any dress code onsite. Most diners however did seem to make it a special occasion dinner, and were dressed a bit nicer even if they'd spent a day in the park. I highly recommend Monsieur Paul if you are looking for fine dining and/or a special occasion while at EPCOT. While we've had finer French food in France, this is about as good as French gets in America.

MAGIC KINGDOM: If you're at the Magic Kingdom and want something where you'll be more comfortable with the children who might get loud or messy at dinner, then consider Be Our Guest. This is a quick-service lunch and table-service dining venue in Fantasyland themed after the Disney classic Beauty and the Beast.  In fact, after dinner, you can have your photo taken with the beast in his library.  But before that you'll be offered a menu of nice options.

I enjoyed the pork chop with baked macaroni and cheese with a side of French green beans. Kevin had the encrusted lamb chops and I must say it was perfectly prepared and quite delicious.

Now mind you, this is a volume dining establishment and serves thousands of people each day. The main dining room alone (shown below) is very large and noisy. There is a second, less-formal looking dining room as well but it's also lovely and large. To deal with the volume, the menu is limited, so the kitchen is cranking out plates of each item well before you've ordered it. That's not to say they are poorly prepared or even not hot/fresh, but simply that your meal choices arrive quickly as most diners want to get back out into the parks. And after dinner, they offer a nice pastry cart of choices for dessert.

If you're wondering about wine in the Magic Kingdom, the mouse does drink! In fact, in addition to a modest selection of good wine options, this restaurant boasts it's own label. We had their Chardonnay and it was pretty good and made a fine accompaniment for our dinner. Titled "L'Ombre de la Bete" (or Shadow of the Beast) the wine is called this because you are dining in the Beast's castle and as the story goes it was grown in his vineyards.

Disney's Own Wine Label
L'Ombre de la Bete
Another good restaurant choice while near or in the Magic Kingdom is at the Contemporary Resort, which can be reached by walkway from the Magic Kingdom or monorail from select other resorts. Here you want to dine atop the property at California Grill.  With sweeping views of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Magic Kingdom, this is a great place to dine and afterwards watch the fireworks from the outdoor observation deck. I recommend a dinner reservation between 7-7:30PM so you are ready for the show from their high vantage that occurs around 9:00 PM.  The large menu of "California inspired" cuisine included things like sushi, crispy rock shrimp salad, kabocha squash and mascarpone ravioli and warm homemade fritters.

HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS: Looking for something less high-end and more casual? We enjoyed the Sci-Fi Drive-In Theater at Hollywood Studios. Modeled after drive-in theaters you may remember from your youth, you sit "under the stars" in 50's era cars and watch old clips from science fiction movies while you dine on burgers, ribs and mostly other picnic fare. You can get seafood, pasta and steaks as well, but we always say it's best to go for what the restaurant specializes in when making menu choices. We had some great local beer here as well.

Hollywood Studio's Sci-Fi Drive In Restaurant
I had the "Famous All American Picnic Burger", which consists of a flame-broiled Angus burger patty topped with grilled hot dog, sauerkraut, and sautéed onions. Healthy? No. Tasty. Yes!  After walking nearly 8 miles per day in the parks, we decided it didn't really matter.

ANIMAL KINGDOM:  This park, which is part zoo, part theme-park, has no real dinner options because the park closes by 7PM daily, as the animals are fed and cared for in the evenings. There is likewise no night-time show here. But you can get good dining at the associated resort hotel near the park entrance.  Jiko - The Cooking Place, offers a blend of traditional African, Indian and Mediterranean cuisine with vibrant spices, wood-burning ovens and a nice selection of South African wines. Some of the residents of the park seem to be on the menu, including roasted wild boar and crispy duck. But there is also a good selection of vegetarian cuisine.

Yachtsman Steak House Prime Steaks
BOARDWALK, YACHT & BEACH CLUB:  Likely the best steaks at Walt Disney World are found at the Yachtsman Steakhouse located at Disney's Yacht Club Resort. Here premium steaks are hand cut and well aged. The Yachtsman Steakhouse menu also includes fresh seafood all served in a family-friendly, New England-style facility. Here we found the steaks to be quite good, but the sauces and sides to be too salty. So take care in pouring on the sauce or piling on the sauteed mushrooms.

SUMMARY:  With all of that said, nothing comes cheap at any Disney property and that is also true for dining. You can expect to pay an upcharge for the privilege a being a captive WDW diner of around 20% over what you would normally expect for similar food elsewhere. But the convenience is certainly worth the premium price, keeping you close to the resorts and your hotel while enjoying a Walt Disney World magical vacation. And if you're using the new Magic Bands for entrance to parks and rides, why not pay with it in the restaurants too?  We did and that worked as seamlessly as everything else at Disney. Overall, you can enjoy great food even with the kids in tow during your WDW vacation. We were two adults traveling without children and found it equally enjoyable. Bon Appétit!

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