The Disney resorts worldwide provide a wide variety of finer dining options. Parents have to face difficult decisions balancing their desires for those wonderful meals when traveling with their young children, even if they only visit the parks for a day. This week we asked the Parenting Panel:
What do you wish parents of young children would do about dining in fine restaurants with their children? How could they reduce the impact of their young children on the other guests? Should they have to reduce the impact of their young children on the other guests if they're at a Disney park or resort?
Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock's three boys are now 13, 11, and 8. They've been visiting the Disneyland Resort since they were each just weeks old and Annual Passholders since their 3rd birthdays. Adrienne writes:
Recently, my husband and I enjoyed a rare treat: A mid-week lunch date at Carthay Circle Restaurant in Disney California Adventure, without our children! Naturally, at Disney theme parks, we often see children dining in fine dining restaurants. I even commented to our server that I did not mind other people's children, just as long as mine were elsewher.! Little did I know that my patience faced testing—after our first course arrived, so did the guests at the table next to ours. The party included a preschool-aged child and his parent.
For a preschool-aged child, he was rather well behaved, but, without enough input and guidance from his parent, the little boy disrupted our lunch. Over the course of his meal, he whined about wanting to leave, not liking or wanting to eat his food, and spreading his activities beyond his seat and table into our space.
I later commented to my husband: I do not mind children behaving like children. I do mind parents who neglect their parenting responsibilities. As a a Disney theme park traveler and mother of three boys, I have taken my children to some nicer restaurants at Disney resorts. But parenting our children does not stop at the gates of the Disney property.
I believe that before parents decide to take a child to a finer restaurant on Disney property, they should take a brief inventory:
- Will your child be able to behave during a long meal?
- How bored will your child become?
- At what point will your child beg to leave and ride attractions instead?
- Is your child going to be hungry?
- Is your child going to be hungry for the food on the restaurant's menu?
- Will your child be able to stay in his or her space?
- Are you prepared to manage your child in the situation?
Many parents already bring distractions to restaurants with them. Toys, be they mechanical or electronic, that make noise and be turned off or muted, are inappropriate because they distract other restaurant patrons. Toys with small parts that can fall on the floor are a hassle in fine dining restaurants with dark carpets and dimly lit dining rooms. Frankly, I am not a fan of bringing electronics into restaurants for family dining because they distract the children. Why bother having the children there? Crayons and paper provide interactive opportunities. Drawings initiate conversation when parents ask their children about the illustrations. Parents and children may play games together on the paper. Whatever the distraction, they should be quiet and minimize small parts that would be hard to retrieve if dropped.
Even with toys to distract them, parents need to remember that the lure of the rides and attractions outside of the restaurant will be stronger than the appeal of a toy and food. A child who ignores his food may not be hungry or not be hungry enough for the items on that menu. Everyone will be better off if the child is hungry enough to eat because that will help occupy their time and attention during the meal. Parents need to make sure that there is something available on the menu that the child will like.
How big of a footprint will your family leave? At many restaurants, multiple parties may share the same bench with space between the tables against the bench. At our recent lunch, the child at the table next to ours, took over the bench space between his table and mine. At one point he was laying in the space just adjacent to my left leg. Frankly, I was shocked that his mother never reminded him to return to his own space. His behavior distracted my meal more than he should have. He stood up repeatedly to walk around his table. Surely, he could be reminded to return to his seat. The child himself seemed to be relatively well behaved, considering his young age. Children need reminders on how to behave, especially in unfamiliar situations. Parents need to be prepared to pay attention to their children and manage those reminders. Parents planning meals at finer restaurants should be prepared to keep their children at their tables, in their own space.
When my husband and I take our own children to fine restaurants, we do so with these challenges in mind. I appreciate the opportunity to test the waters of finer dining with my children in the safety of the family friendly resorts. But. Even at resorts, families need to remember to maintain manners and courtesy and take the opportunities to teach these to our children. Everyone in the restaurant deserves to dine without unnecessary distractions from other diners. If parents want a more relaxing meal without that stress, then we should perhaps skip the finer restaurants or make alternate arrangements for our younger children.
MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry his wife Diane, 11-year-old Samantha, and twin 8-year-olds, Casey and Alex, live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:
One of the great things about a Walt Disney World Resort vacation, and I think one of the true surprises to first-timers, is the amount of top-notch dining options available throughout the resort. The restaurants run the gamut from the simplest to the fanciest. If possible, any trip should include a visit to one of Disney's finer signature restaurants. You shouldn't let the fact that you're on a family vacation hold you back from eating in one of the higher-end dining establishments on property. If you're able to spring for the extra cost, they're completely worth it. The question is, can you and should you bring the kids?
The obvious answer at first glance is yes. After all, this is Walt Disney World. The place is just about crawling with kids. Kids are expected. Kids are catered to. They belong at California Grill in Disney's Contemporary Resort as much as they belong at Casey's Corner in the Magic Kingdom. You will never feel out of place in any Disney restaurant if you are there with children. However, it's important to realize that California Grill is not Casey's Corner. A different level of decorum is and should be expected when you're indulging in one of the fancier places.
However, we've made it a point with our kids to reinforce a certain code of behavior in any restaurant. It doesn't matter how low key of a place we are, a restaurant is a restaurant and we crack down on the kids no matter where we are. We have always made sure they're aware that their actions may be affecting other guests. If we make them behave at the food court in the hotel, then we have a good chance of them continuing that behavior in a more sophisticated environment later on. People tend to let their guard down with the kids at Disney. After all, it's their vacation, too. Staying up later, doing things you don't normally do and having fun is all part of the package. That doesn't mean that behavior goes out the window though, especially in a restaurant.
Still, a Walt Disney World trip can get to even the most well-behaved child. A long hot day in the parks without a break is a recipe for disaster in any child. So, before you book that Flying Fish dinner at Disney's Boardwalk or Jiko at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, keep a few things in mind.
- Book an earlier dinner whenever possible. Yes, it's pretty awesome when they dim the lights at California Grill for the Wishes fireworks extravaganza, but that also means that it's probably 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., and your kids are probably wiped and ready for bed.
- Ask around for advice, especially on MousePad. For example, my wife and I love Artist Point at Disney's Wilderness Lodge and we feel it's very kid friendly. On the other hand a place like Epcot's Bistro de Paris, where we've eaten sans children, has no kids menu and doesn't really seem like the kind of place where we'd want the kids with us.
- If you've got a fancier meal booked, make sure you take that crucial midday break, especially in the warmer months. You're paying good money for an excellent meal. If you keep the kids rested, they're more likely to behave and you'll feel like you've gotten your money's worth.
- Always pack a distraction. Those Disney kids menus are good for a while, but we always made it a point to have something else in our bags to hand them when they get antsy.
As far as our personal dining experiences:
- Once again, Artist Point at the Wilderness Lodge has always been a favorite. The food is awesome. The room is beautiful and having the kids with us has never been anything but a pleasure.
- High on top of The Contemporary, California Grill still stands up as one of my favorite meals anywhere and dining there with our 5-year-old daughter was no problem.
- We ate at the Grand Floridian's Citricos on our adult's only trip. The food is fantastic. The room is sophisticated and has some wonderful views. We both commented on how kid friendly we thought the place was. I'd have no problem taking the kids there.
The bottom line is don't miss out on some of Disney's Signature Restaurants. They are all excellent dining establishments and are part of the whole Walt Disney World experience. Keep the kids well rested and distracted. Remember if you insist on good behavior at Toy Story Pizza Planet at Disney's Hollywood Studios, you'll probably get it later on at The Hollywood Brown Derby.
Jen, also known as *Nala*, is an engineer, a Disney fan, and a MouseAdventure fanatic. She lives in Southern California with her husband and two future MouseAdventurers, ages 8 months and 2 1/2 years. Jen writes:
My husband and I have been Disney fans since long before we had kids, and have eaten at many of the signature restaurants at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World resorts. We've seen excellent examples of children in fine dining locations, such as an extremely well behaved 10 year old girl sitting through an entire 3 hour meal at Victoria and Albert's. We've also on occasion noticed the other end of the spectrum, including a kid climbing the handrails and running up and down the aisles in Jiko while the adults in the party sat and drank coffee. These experiences have helped us to consider what we do and don't want to do with our kids at nice restaurants now that we are parents.
My general rule of thumb is this: If it has a wine list (as opposed to the generic house red / white / blush offerings), I'm going to think hard before bringing my little kids there. If we do choose to bring them, we'll make a reservation for a lunch or an early dinner, for a couple of reasons. First, my kids go to bed at 8 p.m. and are used to eating dinner around 5:30 p.m., so they are much more likely to behave well if we don't drag them out to eat at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. Second, couples looking for a romantic night out are probably less likely to grab the earliest dinner reservation, so there's a better chance we'll be surrounded by other families with children.
Even for an early dinner we are conscious of the fact that our children are very young, and have plans in mind before we eat at a fine dining location. We'll bring a small quiet toy or a sticker book for the toddler, and some finger snacks to occupy the baby. We also will eat in shifts or cut our meal short if necessary. Yes, it's Disney and people expect to see little kids just about anywhere. It's also still a nice restaurant, so people who are paying a fair amount of money to eat there probably wouldn't appreciate my 2-year-old climbing their chair or my baby shrieking her head off.
We very much enjoy eating at nice restaurants, and want to teach our kids how to be good diners. As our kids get older, we plan to take them to more and more fine dining locations, and will make a point of doing so at Disney. There, we know there will be a kids menu and probably something to entertain them, but the signature restaurants are still good places to practice eating from nice dishes and using their table manners. Then again, it won't be too long before the kids are old enough for the Disney children's clubs, so we may also occasionally take the opportunity to enjoy a parents' night out!
Chris, also known as GusMan, is always planning his next family trip to the Walt Disney World Resort and loves to help others plan their trips, as well sharing his experiences. Chris writes:
Dining at Disney is definitely one of the major events during your vacation. Some may think that dining is limited to quick-serve fare on paper plates when that is completely not the case. Disney has some of the most unique dining experiences anywhere and sometimes the choices can be somewhat overwhelming. Sometimes its the cuisine that makes you wonder. Sometimes its the price that gives you pause as everyone is looking for the best experience for the dollar. Then there are times where you want a no-expenses-spared trip into dining nirvana. That, too, can be easily arranged. However, such a dining experience may give way to a very sincere question: What to do with the kids?
This question can be a source of debate, if not looked at from all angles. At the same time, Disney or not, we have all experienced a dining experience that was marred by a child who was obviously not used to dining in public. Its not that the child is bad, do not get me wrong. Like everything else in the world, restaurant behavior is learned and children need different opportunities to do so. Disney is a great place to dine with children, as the venues and cast members know how to interact with children like no other. At the same time, choosing an expensive meal, such as one at California Grill, might not be the right choice to see if your child will stop throwing their macaroni and cheese.
I know that every child is different, and every situation is different. Here are some thoughts that we used when determining if our children were ready for a more upscale dining experience:
- Know your child – If you experience consistent dining difficulties at home, chances are, you will experience them while on vacation. While many of the top dining venues require ADR's six months in advance, your child might grow out of the phase. You can always cancel your reservations before your trip if you feel necessary.
- Practice dining out – Feel free to start out small—and with a purpose. Tell your kids that this will be practice for your Disney trip and you help them understand restaurant behavior. Slowly move into nicer venues with the same purpose. After a while, when you think they are ready, maybe make a celebration out of it by going to a more upscale establishment in your area and see how they do.
- Review menus online before your trip – Sometimes its not the location that bothers the kids, its the actual menu choices. The good part to this is that Disney has a way of catering to children quite well. From food preferences to food allergies, I don't think there is anything that Disney cannot address.
- Know when to say when – Sometimes you have to prepare yourself for excusing yourself and your child from the table in order to calmly, yet firmly, reinforce proper table manners. This is a must in order to maintain a good experience, as well as to not impact the experiences of others.
I know that every child is different and every new experience has the potential of being a milestone or a possible setback. At the same time, it can be hard "being a parent" on vacation when children are super-excited and reacting to the constant stimuli that is found at the parks. From that point, it becomes a delicate balance between making sure the magic is not spoiled for you and your child, and making a scene for everyone to talk about over dinner.
By no means should dining concerns cause you to rethink a Disney vacation with young ones. Think of the teachable moments leading up to fine Disney dining as a great opportunity to not only be with your family more, but to teach them life skills that has a great reward for everyone in the family. It's something that needs to be taught so you might as well make them a part of the plan!
It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!
Visit the Parenting in the Parks forum on our MousePad discussion board, and share your opinions about this topic or many others, or send your suggestions via e-mail. Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!