The Dos and Don’ts of Dining at Disney World

Food. It seems like it should be a pretty simple topic, but when traveling with kids, it’s anything but (because, you know, kids). It seems my little people are often hungry on “off times,” sleeping during “dining hours,” hating whatever it is I ordered for them (usually the only thing that would eat the day before), and wiggling about as they struggle with sitting quietly in their chairs while everyone at the table finishes. It just isn’t easy.

Think it’ll be easier at Disney World? Well, actually, maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. (But hopefully it will.) Because, again, you know, kids. But there are a few things you should and shouldn’t do to make your Disney World dining experiences as seamless as they can be.

Do look into the dining plans

Disney World offers three different dining plans: The Quick-Service Dining Plan, The Dining Plan, and The Deluxe Dining Plan (more about each of them here). If you’re traveling on a budget, these can be a great way to keep track of what you’re going to spend on food and to plan and save for it ahead. Each of the plans offers a varying degree of coverage, and the one that suits you best will depend on what type of dining experience you’d like to have (and what kind of an eater you are).

The dining plan is available only to those who are have booked a Disney Vacation Package, so if you’re staying off property, it isn’t available to you (and probably wouldn’t make sense sense some of your meals will probably be off property as well.) Another option limited to Annual Passholders, Vacation Club Members, and Florida Residents (basically those that will be frequenting the park’s restaurants throughout the coming year) is the Tables in Wonderland Card, which gives 20% off food and drink at most places. The card itself, though, costs $150 for Annual Passholders and DVC Members and $175 for Florida Residents, which is why it only makes sense for those who will be getting to the Disney restaurants on a fairly regular basis (keep in mind that many new restaurants do not accept it initially either, so check ahead). The card is good for a year, expiring the last day of the month that you purchase it in (meaning you could potentially get 13 months out of the card if you buy it close to the beginning of the month).

Hollywood Studios is the only place to see Disney Jr characters and you can eat with them at Hollywood and Vine (another one of our “must dos”).

Do make reservations

It’s a long day. It can be hot, so, so hot. In the midst of it all, I always feel such peace knowing that at a particular time I will get to sit at a table I did not have to throw elbows just to get (you know that feeling…holding a tray with food and a tiny hand while hovering over filled tables, stalking those who are about to get up so you can snatch up their chairs). Going all day long is hard no matter where we are, but stick us in one of the most emotionally overwhelming places in the world for a little person, and it is fodder for epic collapse by at least one of our littles. Having a place to sit and take a full-family time out during the day is necessary for us. It also provides a bit of structure to what could be a fairly unstructured day. There’s no rambling about or squeezing one more thing in. We simply have somewhere to be.

Judging by the way the sit down restaurants fill up and the difficulty of finding a reservation (let alone one at a decent time), we aren’t the only family that feels this way. This means that reservations are a necessity. The only way to get into a sit down restaurant is usually through reservations, and for those restaurants that are in high demand (dining with Princesses or The Beast, for example) those reservations need to be made well in advance, as in as soon as you can. For those staying on Disney-owned properties, you can make reservations 180 days in advance of arrival and up to ten days following the first day (so up to 189 days out), and for those staying at other hotels it is just 180 days out without the added “length of stay” convenience (so you must call each day to book for the 180th day). (Note: If you’re buying a dining plan close to your arrival date and are going to be choosing one with table service restaurants included (The Dining Plan and The Deluxe Dining Plan), then make sure you will be able to actually be able to eat at the table service restaurants as reservations are recommended and usually needed).

Breakfast at the Tusker House in Animal Kingdom is a “must do” for us.

Do plan to eat earlier than you think you’d want to

My little people are hangry little people. They need to be fed on a fairly constant schedule of every two hours. Or it gets ugly. Real ugly. Combine this with the fact that my tiniest little has some tummy issues that means he has to eat dinner well before he lays down for bed and that means we’re usually eating at what most people would consider an insanely early time (well, maybe not those with little people of their own).

But because my little people like to eat around 5:30, that does not mean I make reservations for 5:30. Instead, I try to get them for 5 or earlier. The issue at Disney World is that even with a reservation, the wait to be seated can be anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour (the length between checking in and getting seated grows as it gets later). And with hangry little people, that feels like forever. After seven years of Disney, multiple times a year, I can confidently say I have never been seated directly upon showing up for my reservation. Never. Anywhere. I have always had to wait.

The longest wait we’ve had you ask? Once, we were scheduled to eat around 6:30-7 pm.  (I don’t remember exactly as I chose to block the experience out for quite some time. I just know my husband and I were young and naive enough to believe we could consistently be risky and shift our little people’s bedtimes wily nilly. After checking in, we waited over an hour to be seated. And we still weren’t. And they didn’t know when we’d be seated. And so we had to just leave. We have, in fact, returned to that restaurant, always with a reservation much earlier than we intend to eat. On our last visit there we asked if there was always a wait and the hostess told us that there always was, and that the wait only grew as the night went on. So, I present you with one more reason to eat earlier than you normally would: to avoid an even longer wait to get seated.

Eating with the Princesses. Whether it’s breakfast or dinner, we’ve enjoyed them both.

Do make dining an event

Since you’re still at Disney and the little people haven’t somehow forgotten that fact, so they’re are still wiggling to get out and experience the Magic, make dining part of the magic. One thing we’ve found to save ourselves some time and sanity is to use the meals to meet characters. First of all, it keeps my little people entertained and excited. They don’t complain about all the things they are missing outside because they’re just swept away by all that is happening inside (no matter how many times we’ve done it too). Second, it is one less thing to do when we do leave the restaurant. We no longer have to go wait in line to see Pooh Bear or Princess Sophia. We’ve just broken bread with Mickey and Goofy, so it’s one less stop in our day. Two birds, one stone. And it is glorious.

Also, our tiniest does not like the characters. At all. It’s frustrating for both him and I when we wait in a long, hot, slow line to see a character that just makes him cry and cling. But you know what? He loves food. Loves it. So, neither he nor I find it a waste of time to sit and eat while the other little people get hugs and snuggles (and an occasional dance party) with their favorite friends. (Note: Character dining can take a bit longer than the average table service meal as you wait for all the characters to make their way to you.)

But it goes beyond just meeting characters. Often my husband and I crave food that isn’t, well, buffet (though the buffets are no joke at Disney), so we book at restaurant that has a show that draws the little people in and holds them there. Two places we love going back to are the Biergarten Restaurant in Epcot’s Germany and Restaurant Marrakesh in Epcot’s Morocco. Both have delicious food and drinks that keep my husband and I entertained, and, more importantly, both have great music and dancing shows that keep my little people entertained (and in their bolder moments make them get up and dance).

Dancing with the band at the Biergarten Restaurant in Epcot’s Germany.

Don’t forget to keep checking for openings

So there’s the perfect restaurant and you haven’t been able to get into it and you’re tremendously disappointed? Don’t be. At least not yet. Keep checking back. People cancel reservations continuously, even the day of (though more typically the day before in order to avoid the potential per person cancellation fee that some restaurants apply). We’ve managed to get into restaurants with just a day before booking because we are continuously searching the My Experience app in order to shift our plans to better accommodate our shifting needs last minute change of plans our (and yes, even with all the planning, they can change at the drop of a hat).

The Garden Grill in The Land at Epcot offers family style dining, along with a collection of characters (and a restaurant that turns in a circle).

Don’t overbuy

While those dining options may sound appealing, they don’t always work out in the consumer’s favor. A simple meal at a table service restaurant (think chicken or pasta) isn’t going to get you your dining plan’s worth. But, if you’re a steak eater and that’s your continual go to, or if you are a family that likes to eat (teenagers I’ve heard have this ability), then you can get your money’s worth out of a plan. What can happen here though, is that in order to get your money’s worth, you may find yourself ordering something on the menu that isn’t what you’d really like, but would stretch your dining plan dollars to the fullest. And then, really, that’s no fun. Vacationing is for doing the things you want, not the things you should.

The other thing to keep in mind when looking at the dining plans is whether or not you really will eat those snacks allotted to you and does that make it worth it. For example, it’s hot. And when it’s so hot out, we tend to just eat less, a lot less. On hot days we’d never get through those snack credits and would end up wasting them on a milk to take back to the room for bedtime or a bag of M&Ms. The point is, think about whether those credits will actually get used and whether they will get used in a way that maximizes their value, because if they aren’t that dining plan could be money wasted.

The new(ish) Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd., Skipper Canteen Restaurant in Magic Kingdom. The food is delicious and the jokes are reminiscent of those on the Jungle Cruise.

Don’t be late

I’ll admit it. I’m late. Like all the time. I am I-have-three-small-children late. (I say that now, but honestly I’ve always been this late, I just have an excuse now.) But Disney has me changing my ways (for like a day or two at least.) You see, late doesn’t work when you’re at Disney. So, if the only reservation that you can get for breakfast is at an unforgivable hour and the likelihood of actually getting there is like a dark cloud over you (and potentially the rest of the day), then perhaps it’s just not worth it. Cancel that reservation. (But do it in a timely manner to avoid the per person fee that many restaurants may charge you.)

Disney gives a grace period of fifteen minutes to make a reservation (hello 14 minutes and 59 seconds). After this period, it is up to the restaurant whether or not they will honor your reservation. This could be just the type of thing that  brings the crazy out in a hangry child. So, we’ve found there’s considerable cost to being late at Disney: a potential per person fee, a sudden need to scavenge for food, a collapsed child (or more), and surely, a moment of heated exchange regarding who was responsible for being late (it’s usually me, but I try to pretend like it’s not).

The view at Epcot’s Coral Reef restaurant. We were almost late, which would’ve been catastrophic for a fish loving toddler I know.

Don’t forget about the hotel options

The thought of Disney World brings about images of characters, iconic rides, a Princess’ castle. But when thinking about dining, think beyond this. Some of the best meals to be had at Disney World are offered in its hotels. And those hotels? They are a sight on their own. It can be an event just to see the hotels, with their themes, their maze of hallways, each offering something new. It can be refreshing to get out of the crowded park and go to a hotel. It’s still immersive enough that the magical feel of Disney is all around, but it’s removed enough to calm an over-stimulated toddler.

Beyond just the beauty of the hotels themselves and the lure of the amazing restaurants that they have within them though, is the fact that the hotel restaurants often have great happenings that can’t be found elsewhere in the parks. For example, your little people can have Perfectly Princess Tea at the Grand Floridian, go to the Hopp-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at The Campsites at Fort Wilderness Resort, or see some animals pre-dinner at the Wanyama Safari at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Just because you aren’t staying there, doesn’t mean that all these dining options aren’t available to you, and it’s amazing what a change of pace, a change of venue, can do for group morale after a long, hot day.

When we eat outside of the park, we often head to The Flying Fish in the Boardwalk area. It’s grown up on the inside, but has all the fun of a boardwalk right outside its doors.

Disney World doesn’t have to be all about characters, rides, and frenzy. It doesn’t have to be chicken fingers, Mickey shaped mac n’ cheese, and hot dogs devoured under a blazing sun. It really can include amazing food and special, quiet moments filled with relaxation and a bit of restoration. But finding these and affording these takes some work. As with most things Disney related, family travel related, and little people related, plan ahead but stay (extra) flexible.