Taking your kids on their dream vacation and enjoying top-notch dining? Sounds like an oxymoron. But actually, spending time at a Disneyland or Walt Disney World doesn’t mean you have to resort to hot dogs and pretzels for lunch (though don’t miss out on the cream cheese-stuffed pretzels at Disneyland). Instead, food options abound, often leaving visitors feeling overwhelmed when it comes to deciding where to take the next meal.
To help you navigate Disney's dining offerings, we’ve put together some of our theme-park favorites, from unforgettable fine dining experiences to the character breakfasts you and your kids will not want to miss (you’ll have to get that picture of dad gnawing on that jumbo turkey leg, Flintstones-style, another time).
1. Fine Dining: Napa Rose
For an upscale, adults-only dining experience in the evening, a cozy and quiet meal at Napa Rose at the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa is not to be missed. Allow the sommelier to assist you in choosing a bottle of wine from the restaurant’s award-winning selections to enjoy with your pick of seasonally-inspired dishes like Hawaiian Ono, or a decadent poached pear atop pound cake with a fruit compote and sauce. If you’re lucky, you can snag one of the few seats watching the chef’s at the kitchen-side counter and order up the special Vintner’s Table prix fixe menu.
2. Family Dinner: Catal’s
For a good meal to share with the entire family, head to Catal’s in Downtown Disney. Serving up modern interpretations of Mediterranean classics, you can choose from a variety of dishes like paella a la Valencia and braised short ribs, or opt for a light yet flavorful salad, like the mixed greens with dates, cherries, and Manchego. There is also a special menu with pot pies and chicken fingers for the kids. If dining upstairs isn’t your thing, go for an outdoor café table at Catal’s more casual sister spot, Uva Bar and Café, which serves over 40 wines by the glass and offers an array of tapas dishes.
3. Lunch: Blue Bayou
Credit: Disneyland Resort
One of the most-loved restaurants at Disneyland, Blue Bayou has been serving up lunch and dinner since 1967. Sit “outside” in the perpetual evening light and order up Cajun-inspired Louisiana favorites, like seafood Jambalaya and the not-to-miss Monte Cristo sandwich (only available at lunch); just make sure to think ahead, though, when making a reservation. It can often be difficult to get in.
4. Breakfast: Carnation Café
It’s best to head to this Disneyland classic early in the morning, before the park opens, to ensure a spot at the outdoor, table-service spot on Main Street U.S.A. that’s been around since 1955 (back then, it was the Carnation — as in the milk products — Ice Cream Shoppe). Sit under the candy-striped awnings and choose from dishes like Mickey Mouse waffles, the classic “Oscar’s Special,” with eggs and a croissant, or, for cinnamon roll fans, the unforgettable icing-topped cinnamon roll French toast.
5. Dining with Disney Characters: Storytellers Café
While opportunities to dine with Disney characters like Minnie or Goofy abound at Disneyland, we’ve found that Chip ‘n Dale’s Critter Breakfast at Storytellers Café at the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa comes out on top. The food is excellent, and they offer both a buffet and a menu with a la carte options, like pancakes and huevos rancheros, so there is something for everyone. The best part of the experience? The kids are all invited up to dance the conga line with characters like Chip, Dale, Pluto, and Kenai.
Walt Disney World Resort, Fla.
1. Fine Dining: Victoria and Albert’s
Credit: Walt Disney World Resort
For a an upscale, intimate dinner in a true Victorian-fashioned setting, the place to go is Victoria and Albert’s, a recipient of the prestigious AAA Five Diamond award ten years running, located at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. While butlers see that your every need is met, you will enjoy a meal paired with wines from their award-winning cellar while dressed in your finest (it’s the only restaurant that has a formal dress code). Or, for the ultimate gourmand experience, opt for a special, seasonally-inspired, seven-course meal at the Chef’s Table, located inside the kitchen. Enjoy some of the best food in Florida while interacting with Chef Hunnel as he offers culinary tips and personalized treats for tasting. The romantic mood won't end with dinner, as each lady is sent home with a long-stemmed rose.
2. Dining “Underwater”: bluezoo
Seafood lovers, don’t miss Todd English’s new bluezoo located in the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort. Sit in a modern underwater-themed setting and choose from dishes fresh from the sea like miso-glazed black cod or simply cooked fish, served with your choice of sauce; land-lubbers will enjoy creative meat dishes, or English’s signature classic flatbread also found in his Olives restaurants. Pair your meal with your choice of wine from bluezoo’s cellar — they’ve received Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence on more than one occasion.
Credit: Walt Disney World Resort
Dining at Disney, the meals aren’t just about the food, but the show, too. Lucky for some, the team at Teppan Edo in the Japanese Pavilion does both well. Similar to hibachi-style cooking (hibachi uses a grill over a gas or charcoal flame; teppanyaki uses a solid flattop griddle), your teppanyaki-style food is prepared by your own chef on the griddle in front of you. Not a fan of Japanese food? Our next favorite is Le Cellier, in the Canadian Pavilion, which is modeled after Canada’s Le Château Frontenac and Fairmont Château Laurier. While you can feast on your choice of steak or fish along with your wine, their rich Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup is a dish that can’t be beat, though our sources warn us you might be too full to eat again that day.
4. Dining on a Movie Set: Tony’s Town Square
For those who’ve always wanted to see what it’s like to be a movie star, take a step behind the silver screen and enjoy a traditional Italian meal at Tony’s Town Square, located on Main Street U.S.A. Remember the scene in Lady and the Tramp where the two pups share spaghetti — and a kiss — outside the Italian restaurant? Tony’s is modeled after that exact trattoria, and whether you’re dining on spaghetti or chicken Parmigiana, with your family, or just your lad or lady, it will be an experience any movie-fan will never forget.
5. Dining with Disney Characters: The Crystal Palace
When it comes to dining with Disney characters (and dining well), we would rather avoid the massive crowds at Cinderella’s Royal Table breakfast. Instead, you’ll find us dining with Winnie the Pooh, and the rest of his Hundred Acre Wood friends, at The Crystal Palace, located inside the Magic Kingdom in a landmark, Victorian-styled building. Children will be delighted with the chance to dine with Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore (it’s the only meal with Winnie, and we’re not sure if the kids or the characters have more fun dining together!), while adults will enjoy watching their meals be prepared in front of them in the live, on-stage kitchen. While the buffet offerings are extensive, the Magic Puffed French Toast is an ethereally light sweet and crispy interpretation of French toast that is not to be missed.