This post is the fourth in a series about our 2015 family vacation to Orlando. The series includes these posts:
- Trip Recap
- Planning and Prep
- Travel and Accommodations
- Food for Five (this post)
- Our Family Favourites
- Tips and Tricks
Short of ordering for the kids and telling everyone to just suck it up, it’s hard to feed a family of picky eaters. We don’t agree on what kinds of food to eat, let alone agree on *where* to eat. So finding the right balance of dining locations on our Orlando trip took some effort. We weren’t going to eat chicken fingers and fries for 20 meals. This post covers four aspects: our dining destinations, groceries and in-room meals, snacking, and Disney dining.
Our Dining Destinations
Outside of the airport, all our restaurant destinations were on property at Universal and Disney. We had quite a few memorable meals and a number of forgettable counter service meals. Actually, let’s start with that distinction: the parks have table service and counter/quick service restaurants. Table service means you order from your table and waitstaff serve you. Counter or quick service means you order at a counter or kiosk and carry your own food. In other words, restaurants and fast food.
Dining at Universal was mostly a disappointment for me. We were excited to eat at Three Broomsticks but found the food fell short of expectations. The atmosphere and Butterbeer were pretty great though! I also had high hopes for the Classic Monsters Cafe because it sounded like fun. It is a counter service restaurant with, unsurprisingly, a classic monster theme – think werewolves, Godzilla, aliens, Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc. Who doesn’t like some retro monster movie theming?!? Unfortunately the burger was bad enough that I couldn’t finish it and the pizza was only OK. Again the atmosphere was pretty good although you need to know what your kids can handle – we had to move sections because one of the kids was getting freaked out by the lighting and displays.
The meal we did really enjoy at Universal was at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co restaurant at Universal CityWalk. Yeeessss, this is a gimmicky chain restaurant but shrimp is one of the rare items that our whole family agrees on and the adults don’t mind the Forest Gump theme. We even did OK at some of the trivia questions from the servers.
Dining at Disney was much more enjoyable overall than Universal. Our first meal was quick service at The Mara at Animal Kingdom Lodge and that meal was better than anything we’d had on the trip to that point. The adults tried zebra domes for dessert. I had heard so much about them online as a must-try Disney treat; I wanted to know if they would be a guilty pleasure for the duration of our stay. I kind of feel like we dodged a bullet when we didn’t love them.
Our first in-park meal was 50’s Prime Time Café at Hollywood Studios. This makes the must-try list. The theming is straight out of my memories of visiting the homes of those from my grandparents’ generation. The food was a satisfying array of comfort food options like fried chicken and meatloaf. The waitstaff were a hoot – chastising guests for poor manners or not cleaning their plate. One “lucky” diner was asked to stand up and sing I’m a Little Teapot, complete with actions. Another was put in timeout. Another had to help clear the table after the meal. The whole experience was excellent.
Our second visit to Hollywood Studios featured the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater for lunch and Pizza Planet for dinner. The Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater is a novelty: you eat at faux car booths at a drive-in movie theater. Classic alien monster movies played on the big screen throughout the meal. It was fun but the food wasn’t amazing and the dim lighting made it a little tricky to eat. I wouldn’t prioritize eating there again. Pizza Planet was just desperation. Everyone was tired and hungry with no nearby options (we tried to get into Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano but no dice). Although it is Toy Story themed, this is not a replica of Pizza Planet from the movie.
At Epcot we tried Coral Reef Restaurant for lunch and a variety of locations in the World Showcase added up to an informal dinner. Coral Reef was a pleasant dining experience. Personally I’ve always found under-the-sea theming to be a bit tacky but the food and the service were great (the pork belly and the mahi mahi were popular at our table). But the main attraction is the 5.7 million gallon aquarium. Sharks and sea turtles kept stealing our attention away from our food. We had a moderate view of the aquarium; if I was going again I would definitely request seating closer to the glass even if it meant waiting a bit longer.
Eating throughout World Showcase was a nice change of pace for the afternoon and early evening at Epcot. Nothing especially stands out in our memories except the Werther’s Caramel Popcorn in the Germany pavilion. Oh the popcorn! Make time and save room for the popcorn. So worth it.
Dining at Animal Kingdom was lunch only since the park closed at 5pm. I tried to take the family to the Flame Tree Barbecue (I am a bit of a low-and-slow bbq addict) but the kids were not digging the menu so we wandered over to Restaurantosaurus where the theming was fine and the food was mediocre (good for fast food, nothing special for Disney). That evening we split up: mom and one daughter had room service back at Animal Kingdom Lodge while I took the other two kids back to Hollywood Studios. We must have picked up food along the way but I honestly can’t remember what we ate so it couldn’t have been anything too spectacular.
The day we visited Magic Kingdom was a good eating day. We visited Casey’s Corner for lunch, a fun little counter service spot on Main Street USA. The pulled pork hot dog with coleslaw was a great heart-stopping treat! The corn dog nuggets are also surprisingly tasty, if you can bring yourself to eat corn dogs. For dinner we ate at Whispering Canyon Cafe at Wilderness Lodge, a Magic Kingdom area resort accessible by water taxi. This was unquestionably our favourite dining experience in Orlando. It is faux rustic, rowdy, and rambunctious. Our charming British server cracked lighthearted jokes at our expense all evening long. The kids partook in a hobby horse parade around the restaurant. We had the quintessential Whispering Canyon experience of calling for ketchup and getting every bottle in the restaurant delivered to our table. But the highlight was when our server spotted me texting my mother and asked our daughter to take the phone and call her grandmother. He asked the entire restaurant to tell her they were sorry her son was too cheap to bring her along to Disney. It was a riot!
Near the end of our trip we had a leisurely breakfast buffet at Boma – Flavors of Africa at Animal Kingdom Lodge. It was expensive for what amounted to a brunch buffet but the food was definitely good, and it was a nice change of pace from the more pedestrian fare we were preparing most mornings in our room.
Groceries and In-Room Meals
We are a no-frills breakfast family: toast or English muffins or eggs most days; some boxed cereal occasionally; sometimes pancakes on a Saturday morning; French toast, bacon, sausage, and the like only come out for special occasions. Given our modus operandi for the morning meal, eating breakfast in the suite seemed more our pace because it would allow the kids to eat in shifts while waiting on the bathroom. So before our trip, I scheduled a grocery delivery to Animal Kingdom Lodge from Garden Grocer. Most Disney resorts will accept a grocery delivery for you and hold onto your food until you are ready to have it delivered to your room. They even have refrigerators and freezers to keep items.
Our grocery order contained breakfast items, in-room snacks, snacks for the parks, sun care items, and laundry detergent. We saved quite a bit of time and money with this approach and I highly recommend it, especially if you have a family that isn’t good at getting out the door quickly in the mornings. I will list out the specifics of our grocery order at the bottom of this post in case you want some ordering ideas.
I have been known to say that you spell vacation D-E-S-S-E-R-T. I like to indulge in treats and snacks when I’m on a trip and theme park operators are happy to oblige that impulse. Carrying some less sugary snacks with us (nuts, dried fruit, granola bars) gave us the willpower to seek out treats that we really wanted, not just the closest available thing to assuage the grumbling stomach of a grumbly child. We had the obligatory Mickey bars but skipped the Rice Krispie Mickeys. We enjoyed Dole Whips at Magic Kingdom. We sampled Coca-Cola products from around the world at Epcot. We bought cotton candy on Main Street, U.S.A. The adults tried Zebra Domes at AKL. We had a late evening ice cream indulgence at Beaches and Cream. And it was all goooooooood, except perhaps the non-alcoholic apéritif at Club Cool. But the snacks that really stick out in our minds are:
- Butterbeer at Universal’s Hogsmeade
- Werther’s caramel popcorn at Karamel Kutche in Epcot World Showcase
- Earl Grey & Lavender ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour in Universal’s Diagon Alley
Disney Dining Plan
We did not opt for dining plans at Universal Studios nor Disney. I’ve had numerous people question that decision to pay as we ate, but the math on a dining plan did not make sense for us. Our 10 and 12 year olds would have been charged as adults on the Disney dining plan and they just don’t eat that much. We are not extravagant diners and despite my spelling of vacation, we don’t order dessert at most meals so the value was questionable even for the adults. I also didn’t want the pressure of feeling like I needed to get my money’s worth out of each meal.
I was quite naive about the complexity of dining options at Disney, but I did my research before we left and was surprised by a few things. First that the standard Disney Dining Plan only includes two meals plus a snack per day, so this is not an all-inclusive kind of plan. If your family eats three meals per day, you still have to pay for a meal. Second that there are Signature dining locations that consume two table service credits (unless you’re on a higher end dining pan), which equates to a pretty expensive meal. Third that Disney’s “free dining” offers aren’t always the best deal because you cannot combine free dining with hotel discounts. And fourth that using the Dining Plan is a heavily discussed topic on the Internet with no right answer. My best advice: get a sense of the type of meals you want to eat on your trip then do the math. The dining plans were not the right choice for our family but they are for many.
Planning is Time Well Spent
Reflecting on our trip, I am surprised by how strong the meal-related memories continue to be. I’m glad I took the time to research options and was ready to make my advanced dining reservations via the Disney web site. Standing in the middle of a theme park with hungry kids is NOT the right time to start figuring out where you’re going to eat.
Here is what we had delivered to our room at Disney on check-in day:
- Case of sparkling water
- Jug of orange juice
- 12 English muffins
- Crispix cereal
- Cream cheese
- Peanut butter
- Cheddar cheese
- Granola bars
- Potato chips
- Ritz crackers
- Klondike ice cream bars
- Adult beverages
- Aloe vera gel
- Sunblock lotion
- Tide laundry detergent pods
Check out the other posts in this series for how we planned our trip, where we stayed, how we got around, what we ate, and what our favourite experiences were. Hope it’s useful to you:
- Trip Recap
- Planning and Prep
- Travel and Accommodations
- Food for Five
- Our Family Favourites
- Tips and Tricks