Friday, May 1, 2009

Disney Dining Review 2009

I wanted to write a quick review of the dining experiences we had during this last trip to Walt Disney World. Dining is a big part of anyone's trip to the "Happiest Place on Earth." If you are someone who also takes advantage of Disney's "Dining Plan," you also know how important it is to have your all of your reservations planned out well in advance of your actual trip date.

So with that said, here is my summary and critique of the dining venues we chose to visit during our stay.

Our first advance dining reservation (ADR) was at "The Sci-fi Dinner Theater" in Hollywood Studios. The experience is what you pay for here. You are seated in a mock 1950's car where you face a big movie screen which is playing old 1950's black and white sci-fi movie trailers. The inside of the restaurant is constructed to feel like you are outside at an old drive-in theater. Everyone seated in one of the "cars" is facing forward so a party of 6 in a car would all be looking forward out the front of the car towards the movie screen. It is just a overall fun experience. The food, on the other hand, was mediocre. The dinner menu choices were somewhat limited and offered what I will call an eclectic selection. I had the butcher steak which came out over cooked and the veggies were already cool by the time my food arrived. So the food there does not really get a passing grade from me. The shakes, on the other hand, do. My wife commented that her shake was one of the best she ever had. So if you just want a fun place to dine during your trip, then this might be the place. We will probably look to other places now that we have experienced it this one time.

Our next ADR was a character breakfast at the Tusker House inside the Animal Kingdom (Donald's Safari Breakfast). This gets an overall grade of A+ from us. The buffet was well laid out so you never had to wait to get something on your plate. The food was hot and kept plentiful on the buffet line. But here is where it really makes the grade; for you who have children, the characters made their rounds quickly and easily. Everyone had the chance to get their picture made and autograph books signed. The staff also encouraged the children to join in on a parade with one of the characters around the restaurant. Just a great experience and one we will probably try to book again in the future.

Next...we had an ADR at The Coral Reef in Epcot. This was our most expensive meal during the trip. The main choices are either fish or steak. Since it is a ocean-themed venue, we chose to try a couple of the fish selections and were both fantastic. I would grade the food here an A-. The restaurant has a huge glass wall looking into a giant fish aquarium. It was nice to just sit there and watch the variety of fish swim by and our view was fine even though we were seated about as far away from the aquarium as you could get. The only major issue I had with the experience is that it was loud. You pay a lot of money to eat here ($80+ for 2 without dessert or alcohol) and you sort of expect a nice quiet dining experience. But since it is a restaurant on the dining plan, you will get large groups and families which can make for a not-so quiet experience and lacks the ambiance that you would expect for a $80-100 meal somewhere else. But I have no problem recommending this restaurant to someone else and we will probably visit it again someday.

Our last ADR was at Mama Melrose in Hollywood Studios. This is an Italian themed restaurant with a California twist. The decor is Italian intermingled with items representing Southern California. As with every ADR on this trip...we were seated quickly, but our service was very slow. This ADR was on a Sunday afternoon and was a part of the Fantasmic Dinner Package. The package includes a fixed price menu where you can select one appetizer per person, one entree and one dessert and a non-alcoholic beverage. The package also then gets you into a reserved seating area for watching the show "Fantasmic" (more on that in a bit). The food, once it arrived, was good. We were a little surprised to see the lack of actual pasta dishes in the menu (no typical lasagna offering or spaghetti and meatballs), but our choices were still good. For the price though, as a part of the package, it was not worth the extra money. Because they have now cut the Fantasmic show down to only a few nights a week, they still recommend those who pay for the package to line up at least 1 hour early which to me negates the value of the dinner package. Overall...the slow service and loud 60's California-themed music took away from the experience for us at this restaurant. We might give it a second chance on a future visit.

Those were the 4 table service restaurants (TS) we chose to eat at during our trip. The dining surprise on our trip were those places outside of the parks, but still on Disney property. I cannot say enough good things about "Everything Pop" which is the food court area inside the Pop Century Resort. Keep in mind I am speaking of counter service meals now versus the table service venues above, but we actually felt like we got more of our money's worth at the Pop then we did at any of our ADR's minus the character breakfast. Everything Pop had choices ranging from Salmon to beef stir fry to pizza to a bacon double cheeseburger. And on each night, they offered a "Mom's special" featuring some form of comfort food that your mom would have made back at home. We tried Mom's fried chicken and it was fantastic. Breakfast choices were also abundant ranging from omelets to pancakes to healthier choices. Some may disagree with me, but I feel our money was better spent eating back at the Pop then in most of the TS venues we chose on this trip. I haven't even mentioned the dessert choices yet at the Pop which ranged from a "tie-dyed cheesecake to hand made sundaes.

The next "out of park" meal that we had was at Downtown Disney. This meal was our best meal during our trip. We ate lunch at Wolfgang Puck's Cafe. Since it is on Disney Property, you can still eat there as a part of the dining plan or pay using your resort room key. We got seated immediately for lunch on a Saturday without any need of an ADR. Our service was what you expect at a place where the lunch is going to cost $40+ for 2. And the food was the best on our entire trip. You have to try their bacon wrapped meatloaf. All I can say is WOW! Their wood-fired pizzas are also fantastic. Don't overlook the dining choices at Downtown Disney during your trip. It was a nice break away from the crowds and noise of most of the venues inside the parks.

The 2 counter-service restaurants I will mention are Flame Tree Barbecue inside Animal Kingdom and the Columbia Harbor House in the Magic Kingdom. Food is good, not great, but the thing we like is the abundance of seating. Flame Tree's seating goes way back, further than people think and it is all mostly in the shade. In fact...I saw one man sitting on a ledge eating because he did not realize how much seating there was further back.

Columbia Harbor House is a step better because its seating is indoors. This counter service venue has seating upstairs as well as down and it is huge. We have gone during peak lunch times and have never seen every seat filled. We can usually find a window seat overlooking either part of Fantasyland or Liberty Square.

This concludes my short dining review. Next I will be writing a note which gives details of actual food costs and then comparing that with the "actual cost" of the Disney Dining Plan.

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