My Disney Top Five - Walt Disney World Counter Service Restaurants

by Chris Barry, staff writer
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Welcome back to another Disney Top 5.

Steve Russo had a great article last week about the upcoming changes to the Advanced Dining Reservation process at Walt Disney World. If you haven’t read it, and really…what kind of MousePlanet reader are you if you haven’t read Steve’s latest…in a nutshell, all Disney dining reservations must now be made with a credit card number attached. If you don’t cancel at least 24 hours in advance, you will receive a penalty charge. Previously, this policy was reserved for only the signature Disney Dining experiences. Now, it will be for every reservation taken.

I joined in on the lively MousePad discussion and stated my (forgive me) distaste for the Disney Dining Plan and what I feel it’s done to the whole idea of dining out while on a Disney World vacation. We’ve all been there. Unless you figure out where you’ll be and what you’ll want to eat 6 months ahead of time on a given day in a given Disney park or hotel, you’re more than likely going to get shut out of the most popular restaurants. Over the last several years, especially since the Dining Plan came into existence, it’s become commonplace for guests to plan out their dining reservations way ahead of time to insure that they will have a place to eat and make sure they use their pre-paid dining credits. Quite honestly, I have no interest in doing this. We had the Dining Plan once when it was offered for free. Despite the obvious cost savings we received on a ten-day trip with free food, we vowed never to use the plan again. It was too much food. There was too much planning centered around food. There were too many carrot cakes jammed into my Port Orleans fridge by the end of the week. I took it for free, but I couldn’t imagine ever paying for it. We haven’t opted for it since and probably won’t.

That said, we do make dining reservations. We don’t make them six months out. We don’t panic about them. We do get into great restaurants and if we don’t score that coveted reservation at Le Cellier or ‘Ohana, there’s always plenty of great food to be found throughout Walt Disney World. Places like the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom, the Grand Floridian Café at Disney’s flagship hotel of the same name, and Marrakesh tucked away in the back of Epcot’s Morocco pavilion have always been delicious dining experiences and are always an easy reservation to get.

Sometimes, however, you just don’t want to be tied down to a reservation. You don’t want to completely stop what you’re doing and leave the park you’re in to make your way over to a sit-down restaurant. Sometimes you just want to grab something good on your own terms. And that’s where the topic for this article comes into play. Counter service food at a typical theme park consists primarily of hot dogs, burgers and deep fried stuff. Granted, there’s plenty of that to go around in the Disney parks, but there’s also some great atypical counter service food to be had throughout the resort. So, let’s put down the menus, stand in some lines and check out my Top 5 Walt Disney World Counter Service Restaurants.

5 – Captain Cook’s Snack Company – Disney’s Polynesian Resort


The view from early morning breakfast at Captain Cook's. Photo by Chris Barry.

There are two main reasons to start off with this counter service restaurant at my all-time favorite Disney hotel – the Tonga Toast and the self-serve Dole Whips! This small and simple dining area on the ground floor of the Polynesian’s Great Ceremonial House serves up some good solid food choices. The Aloha Pork Sandwich is great as is the stir-fried noodles with chicken. Make sure to give the flatbreads a try as well. My favorite meal here was an early morning breakfast. We sat outside, surrounded by beautiful plants and flowers, listening to the calm sounds of the stream trickling down to the volcano pool, feasting on the delectable Tonga Toast – battered and deep fried sourdough bread stuffed with bananas – and gazing at Cinderella Castle out across the Seven Seas Lagoon. What could be better than that? Oh yeah – how about stopping by here midday for a cold, creamy, refreshing, world famous Dole Whip and sitting out on the beach in a hammock or on a swing? Need a break from the Magic Kingdom’s craziness? Hop the monorail or the ferry and pay a visit to Captain Cook’s…no reservation required!

4 - Pecos Bill’s Tall Tale Inn and Cafe– Magic Kingdom


The sign for Pecos Bill's in Frontierland. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Pecos Bill’s, tucked back in the Magic Kingdom’s Frontierland is a great place to grab dinner, find a place to sit outside afterwards and wait around for the nighttime parade to come by. This place is known for its burgers, but it’s even more known for having an awesome fixins bar. The heaping bowls of sautéed mushrooms are the perfect compliment to a delicious Angus burger and fries. Sounds simple, but sometimes the right burger with the right fixins really hits the spot and for that, Pecos Bill’s delivers.

3 - Sunshine Seasons – The Land, Epcot


Great food awaits inside The Land pavilion in Epcot's Future World. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

This is a great example of Disney trying to offer more and more variety as well as healthier choices at their counter service locations. Sunshine Seasons is essentially a food court with five different food stations; the Asian Wok Shop, the Sandwich Shop and Bakery, the Soup and Salad shop, the Wood-Fired Grill Shop and a well stocked selection of “Grab & Go” scattered in between each station. This has to be the most varied quick service location in all of Walt Disney World. There’s beet and goat cheese salad with honey sherry dressing, or the oak-grilled vegetable flatbread sandwich. I love the tabbouleh rolls from the “Grab & Go” and my son Alex says they have “the best mac & cheese in the world.” Once you’re done with this delicious healthy meal, grab a Fastpass for Soarin’, and then hop on the classic Living with the Land boat ride and you'll see why this is a true gem of a spot to dine in Epcot.

2 - Tangierine Cafe - Morocco, Epcot


To your right of the fountain is the Tangierine Cafe. Photo by J. Jeff Kober

We’ve always found this to be one of the most underappreciated places to eat in Walt Disney World. The detail throughout the entire Morocco pavilion is truly breathtaking and this café is no exception. The food is fantastic. The shawarma platters are always my favorite – chicken or lamb served with hummus, tabouleh, tangierine couscous salad and Moroccan bread. It’s delicious and healthy and it’s what an Epcot pavilion meal should be—a non-threatening taste of the host country’s food culture. Couple your meal with my favorite soft drink in the entire resort, the Moroccan Mint Iced Tea; finish it off with some excellent fresh pastries and you’ll be more than satisfied, I promise you.

1 – Flame Tree Barbecue – Disney’s Animal Kingdom


The view of Everest from Discovery Island's Flame Tree Barbecue. Photo by Chris Barry.

Flame Tree is hands down the best counter service restaurant as far as seating goes. The gardens, pools and views of the Flame Tree’s seating areas are some of the nicest places to sit and enjoy a meal anywhere in Walt Disney World. The intricately detailed dining pavilions featuring Animal Kingdom’s beautiful woodcarvings are a sight to see. The surprising theme carried throughout this area is animals eating other animals! You may have missed it on your last visit. Check it out the next time you’re there. It’s interesting and disturbing at times, but beautifully pulled off. Order up a smoked chicken salad, go grab a seat by the reflecting pool or alongside Discovery River gazing out at Everest and you’ll see why Flame Tree Barbecue is widely considered one of the best places to have a meal in Walt Disney World. The food is great and the setting is absolutely amazing.

This was a tough list. There are plenty more places that could have made the cut. Boulangiere Patisserie in France, Kringla Bakeri og Café in Norway, the Yak and Yeti in Animal Kingdom and of course the brand new Be Our Guest Lunch in the Magic Kingdom all could have found a place on this list. You may have your own favorites that I didn’t mention. My point is this: the dining options are pretty endless when it comes to Walt Disney World. There’s everything from a killer hot dog at Casey’s Corner in the Magic Kingdom to the Five-Diamond exclusive Victoria and Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian and everything in-between.

Enjoy the dining experiences when you’re there, but if you happen to get shut out of the most popular sit-down restaurants, don’t fret. All throughout the “World” there’s a wealth of great food waiting for you being served across a counter. Some of them are as good, if not better than some of the full-service restaurants. You may wait in a line, but you don’t have to book a spot in line 180 days in advance, now, do you?

Did I miss your favorite counter-service food at Walt Disney World? Do you agree with my list? Click on the link below, let me hear your thoughts, and I’ll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.

Comments

  1. By Gunnels Family

    Great article! I second the choice of Flame Tree and Sunshine Seasons!! The bad part of Flame Tree, though, is the lack of cup lids and walking downhill with a tray of large amounts of sloshing liquids. However, the view is worth it!! We LOVE food in our family and try to find as many non burger/hot dog/french fry places when we are in WDW.

    I might regret posting this, as this is another "hidden gem" in MK. Columbia Harbor House, just outside of Haunted Mansion. When we were there the day after Thanksgiving, a level 10 day, a CM was outside ringing a bell to invite people in to dine at 12:00pm!! Many pass it by. It has a delicious salmon, but a vegetable/hummus sandwich, The Lightouse. This is one of my husbands favorite sandwiches. No burger chicken options here!! Atmosphere is great here. Another one of our "hidden gems" in HS is the Backlot Express, just behind Indiana Jones. It's a basic counter serve, but has a better quality, fun atmosphere, and our favorite part, REFILLABLE drinks (Coke Zero is available here).

    Enjoy your articles! Thanks much!

  2. By DwarfPlanet

    It's funny you mentioned carrot cake for we had a couple come by in Hollywood and give us their carrot cake with the comment they were tired of it.

    We were not impressed by Captain Cook's and truthfully we had a bad meal there, this was my review on Tripadvisor for them:

    "Went there to eat lunch one afternoon. We ordered the pork aloha sandwich, stir fried noodles with chicken, and the pork nachos. I think we may have gotten the bottom of the barrel for the pork on both pork dishes. The pork was overcooked and was abit to crispy in spots. I took the pork off my nachos and ate the rest, without the pork the cheese and salsa on their chips was pretty good. My son ate all of his fries and part of the pork sandwich, I tried it and the pork on it was just as bad as what was on my nachos. My other son who ordered the stir fried noodles and chicken couldn't tell that anything had been stir fried it was more of a soup and looked like it never saw a wok. The one redeeming feature of this place was they have a Dole whip station, we came back again for Dole whips but nothing else. In other Disney restaurants there were plenty of folks to help you, we also noticed that nobody in particular payed attention to us or other guests until you basically drug the aside to ask them a question."

    On the other hand we all had a very good experience at the Contempo Cafe in the Contempry resort with the food and the CM's.

  3. By DisneyGator

    I definitely agree on the Flame Tree. My wife and I hit this place on our first visit, and not it's a must everytime we're in AK. I'll also agree with Tangeriene at #2 - I love the gyro sandwiches and the baklava. And Pecos Bill's is my favorite Burger joint - the fixens make it great and I love the old west atmosphere.

    I've never tried Sunshine, but now I really want to try it out. Just reading the review reminded me of the "Sound" of the pavillion and reminded me how much I love it. I'll definitely have to try it.

    As for one place that didn't make the list but should have was Sassagoula's Float Works at the French Quarter. They have good ribs, great collared greens, and some of the best fried chicken I've ever had. But the topper is the beignets - the deep fried puffy french pastry with powdered sugar covering it. That dish alone makes me want to skip any kind of hotel discount and stay at the French Quarter. And the place is even better on the nights when they have live jazz musicians there.

  4. By relaaxedwheniamthere

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyGator View Post
    I definitely agree on the Flame Tree. My wife and I hit this place on our first visit, and not it's a must everytime we're in AK. I'll also agree with Tangeriene at #2 - I love the gyro sandwiches and the baklava. And Pecos Bill's is my favorite Burger joint - the fixens make it great and I love the old west atmosphere.

    I've never tried Sunshine, but now I really want to try it out. Just reading the review reminded me of the "Sound" of the pavillion and reminded me how much I love it. I'll definitely have to try it.

    As for one place that didn't make the list but should have was Sassagoula's Float Works at the French Quarter. They have good ribs, great collared greens, and some of the best fried chicken I've ever had. But the topper is the beignets - the deep fried puffy french pastry with powdered sugar covering it. That dish alone makes me want to skip any kind of hotel discount and stay at the French Quarter. And the place is even better on the nights when they have live jazz musicians there.

    hush disneygator lets just keep pofq our little secert

  5. By disnut8

    Loved the list and I really think the article pointed out that there are plenty of non table service places that serve up good food. We go a lot but rarely will make reservations, preferring to eat when and where we want. One place I did want to mention that gets overlooked so maybe I shouldn't mention it but The Studio Catering Company at, naturally, The Studios, has some pretty good sandwiches. One of my family's best treats in January 2012 when all the indoor seating counter service places were mobbed so were braved the outdoor temps in the high 30s and had a fantastic time.

    And I totally agree with your opinion on the dining plan - way too much food for us and I would feel so obligated to use every credit to the full potential. Too much pressure when I'm on vacation.

  6. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Gunnels Family View Post
    Great article! I second the choice of Flame Tree and Sunshine Seasons!! The bad part of Flame Tree, though, is the lack of cup lids and walking downhill with a tray of large amounts of sloshing liquids. However, the view is worth it!! We LOVE food in our family and try to find as many non burger/hot dog/french fry places when we are in WDW.

    I might regret posting this, as this is another "hidden gem" in MK. Columbia Harbor House, just outside of Haunted Mansion. When we were there the day after Thanksgiving, a level 10 day, a CM was outside ringing a bell to invite people in to dine at 12:00pm!! Many pass it by. It has a delicious salmon, but a vegetable/hummus sandwich, The Lightouse. This is one of my husbands favorite sandwiches. No burger chicken options here!! Atmosphere is great here. Another one of our "hidden gems" in HS is the Backlot Express, just behind Indiana Jones. It's a basic counter serve, but has a better quality, fun atmosphere, and our favorite part, REFILLABLE drinks (Coke Zero is available here).

    Enjoy your articles! Thanks much!

    Thanks for the kind words.

    The Flame Tree views and seating areas push it to the top every time on my list. I think it's the nicest place to sit and eat in all of Walt Disney World.

    The second best Columbia Harbor House secret, of course, is to eat upstairs. It's "away from it all" in a place where it's hard to get "away from it all."

    The best part of Backlot Express for me is the theme and the props. Very cool place to walk around and look at stuff.

    Thanks for reading,

    Chris

  7. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by DwarfPlanet View Post
    It's funny you mentioned carrot cake for we had a couple come by in Hollywood and give us their carrot cake with the comment they were tired of it.

    We were not impressed by Captain Cook's and truthfully we had a bad meal there, this was my review on Tripadvisor for them:

    "Went there to eat lunch one afternoon. We ordered the pork aloha sandwich, stir fried noodles with chicken, and the pork nachos. I think we may have gotten the bottom of the barrel for the pork on both pork dishes. The pork was overcooked and was abit to crispy in spots. I took the pork off my nachos and ate the rest, without the pork the cheese and salsa on their chips was pretty good. My son ate all of his fries and part of the pork sandwich, I tried it and the pork on it was just as bad as what was on my nachos. My other son who ordered the stir fried noodles and chicken couldn't tell that anything had been stir fried it was more of a soup and looked like it never saw a wok. The one redeeming feature of this place was they have a Dole whip station, we came back again for Dole whips but nothing else. In other Disney restaurants there were plenty of folks to help you, we also noticed that nobody in particular payed attention to us or other guests until you basically drug the aside to ask them a question."

    On the other hand we all had a very good experience at the Contempo Cafe in the Contempry resort with the food and the CM's.

    Sorry to hear you had a bad experience at Captain Cook's. We've always been lucky with the food and the cast. Every time we're at the Contemporary I think that the Contempo looks like a good place to escape to for a quick meal but I always forget to take advantage of it. While we're on the monorail resorts, I have to give strong mention to the Gasparilla Grill at the Grand Floridian. While staying at the Poly, we walked over to the Grand Floridian, had a nice easy meal at Gasparilla and then hopped on the monorail over to Magic Kingdom for the night. Easy, convenient,tasty and most importantly...empty. You have to love a food court that sells little bottles of champagne!

  8. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyGator View Post
    I definitely agree on the Flame Tree. My wife and I hit this place on our first visit, and not it's a must everytime we're in AK. I'll also agree with Tangeriene at #2 - I love the gyro sandwiches and the baklava. And Pecos Bill's is my favorite Burger joint - the fixens make it great and I love the old west atmosphere.

    I've never tried Sunshine, but now I really want to try it out. Just reading the review reminded me of the "Sound" of the pavillion and reminded me how much I love it. I'll definitely have to try it.

    As for one place that didn't make the list but should have was Sassagoula's Float Works at the French Quarter. They have good ribs, great collared greens, and some of the best fried chicken I've ever had. But the topper is the beignets - the deep fried puffy french pastry with powdered sugar covering it. That dish alone makes me want to skip any kind of hotel discount and stay at the French Quarter. And the place is even better on the nights when they have live jazz musicians there.

    Hey Gator,

    Seems like we're on the same page when it comes to counter service! Maybe we've been at these places at the same time and didn't know it. Try the Sunshine. It's got some great choices and you can hop right on Living With The Land right afterwards with no line.

    Sassagoula was hovering closely on my list. We always loved staying at Port Orleans Riverside, and when the food court there was jammed...we would either walk or take the boat over to Sassagoula and find it practically empty and the food is great. We have great memories of the kids sitting there coloring before and after meals. I haven't been to French Quarter in so long. Now I'm itching to go back. How could you not love the beignets?!

    Thanks for reading!

    Chris

  9. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by disnut8 View Post
    Loved the list and I really think the article pointed out that there are plenty of non table service places that serve up good food. We go a lot but rarely will make reservations, preferring to eat when and where we want. One place I did want to mention that gets overlooked so maybe I shouldn't mention it but The Studio Catering Company at, naturally, The Studios, has some pretty good sandwiches. One of my family's best treats in January 2012 when all the indoor seating counter service places were mobbed so were braved the outdoor temps in the high 30s and had a fantastic time.

    And I totally agree with your opinion on the dining plan - way too much food for us and I would feel so obligated to use every credit to the full potential. Too much pressure when I'm on vacation.

    I always forget about Studio Catering for a good sandwich when we're there. We always end up at Pizza Planet for my sons and I could use a change next time. Thanks for reminding me.

    Food shouldn't be pressure. We love having the ability to cancel reservations and do something else instead. The only thing now is...we'll have to cancel a bit sooner than later to avoid the cancellation, but I'll live with it.

    Chris

  10. By danyoung

    You scored big credibility points by putting Flame Tree at the top of your list! As to Pecos Bill's, I think the burger from Cosmic Ray's is just as tasty, and they have the cool fixin's bar there too. And you get a show from Sonny Eclipse to go along with it!!!

  11. By anniedg

    Quote Originally Posted by cbarry View Post

    The second best Columbia Harbor House secret, of course, is to eat upstairs. It's "away from it all" in a place where it's hard to get "away from it all."


    Chris

    Thanks for a fun article. Columbia Harbour House definitely gets my top vote though. We're vegetarians and it gives us some interesting choices, other than the ubiquitous veggie burger, along with that upstairs hideaway. And for my sweet tooth, definitely Boulangerie Patisserie!

  12. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by anniedg View Post
    Thanks for a fun article. Columbia Harbour House definitely gets my top vote though. We're vegetarians and it gives us some interesting choices, other than the ubiquitous veggie burger, along with that upstairs hideaway. And for my sweet tooth, definitely Boulangerie Patisserie!

    I've been questioned on this article how I can leave out the Patisserie and it was a tough choice to leave out. The sandwiches are great and it's hard to beat the desserts. I guess I don't consider it a dinner place, kind of like Kringla over in Norway. You could certainly grab a sandwich for dinner and be satisfied, but I'd rather save these places for treats.

  13. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    You scored big credibility points by putting Flame Tree at the top of your list! As to Pecos Bill's, I think the burger from Cosmic Ray's is just as tasty, and they have the cool fixin's bar there too. And you get a show from Sonny Eclipse to go along with it!!!

    Scoring points with you Dan is always a plus!!

    I've always found Cosmic Ray's to be a bit more hectic and crazy than Bill's. I like some of the hidden spots to eat and get away from the noise in Frontierland. However, there is an awesome patio at Ray's looking out at the castle near the waterfalls that has become a favorite "secret" spot to eat.

  14. By HelloBowlesHall

    The cafe in Norway, for sure. I'll go for one of their Ham and Apple sandwiches any day. Yum! That one is definitely at the head of my personal list.

    We always enjoy Yak & Yeti in AK - different than the same old burgers, while still kid-friendly.

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