The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Dining at Disney's Hollywood Studios

by Tom Richards, contributing writer

Two weeks ago, we visited Disney's Hollywood Studios for a classy lunch at the Hollywood Brown Derby, located at the end of Hollywood Blvd. Today, our lunch experience is far less fancy: a meal at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, located near the Streets of America and the ABC Commissary at the Hollywood Studios.

Opened in April 1991, the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater brought themed dining to a whole new level. The restaurant is designed to look like a working movie set. The entrance area is much like those found "backstage" at the Muppet-Vision 3D attraction and at the original entrance to Star Tours: lots of plywood and two-by-fours create a "rough set" atmosphere. Guests enter the dining area via a long corridor, and once inside, the effect is quite clever.

The restaurant is designed to look like an outdoor drive-in movie theater, the kind that was prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s throughout America. It's basically a parking lot full of cars facing a huge movie screen. The entire area is surrounded by a high wooden fence with a "snack stand" in the rear. It's nighttime, and the night sky is filled with stars.

The tables—cleverly designed to resemble classic cars of the 1950s and 1960s—are fun. Most offer double seats in the front and back, while larger cars feature tables with traditional chairs that seat larger groups, albeit not all facing the movie screen. My kids loved the vintage license plates on each car as well as the headlights, taillights, and interior lighting over the small tables.

The large movie screen in the front of the restaurant features a continuous loop op clips from classic low-budget B movies, especially those featuring a science-fiction theme. There are clips from truly awful-looking films like The Horror of Party Beach, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, Devil Girl from Mars, IT Conquered the World, Giant Gila Monster, Invasion of the Saucer Men, Robot Monster, Attack of the 50-foot Woman, and The Amazing Colossal Man. These previews are truly awful, so awful that many of them are unintentionally funny. Cheesy special effects, hokey over-acting, and over-the-top narration epitomize early science-fiction fare.

Unfortunately, some of the clips feature potentially frightening scenes for very small children. We intentionally waited until our children were five to bring them here, but even at that age, there were some moments when they needed reassurance that it was all just pretend. The other problem with the visual loop is that familiarity breeds contempt; after the first few previews, the effect falls flat. Surely, more humorous additions would punch up the entertainment value of the "coming attractions" portion of the presentation.

There is humor, and some of it very funny—in the advertisements, future predictions, and the cartoons. Some of the ads are great, particularly the video phone of the future, self-driving electric cars, the automated nursery, and the kitchen of tomorrow. These predictions of things to come are truly entertaining for the entire family, and struck just the right tone that the entire Sci-Fi Dine-In strives to create.

We also enjoyed the cartoons. Strangely enough, none of them are Walt Disney Studios cartoons. Instead, there are two Tex Avery creations: "The Cat That Hated People," and a Tom and Jerry space travel cartoon. For those of us used to the more family-friendly Disney cartoon shorts, these Tex Avery creations—with his characteristic speed, sarcasm, and fast-paced action—might come as quite a jolt. While there's nothing wrong with the two cartoons included here, it seems a shame that there aren't some Disney cartoons integrated into the video loop.

Also included are some of the typical drive-in movie intermission ads (think the drive-in scene from Grease). Highlights include "buy the drink and keep the glass," the food circus, the reminder to "disconnect your speaker," and the warning to young lovers to avoid excessive public displays of affection. There are also some very entertaining music mixes of campy pop songs, like "Great Balls of Fire" and the "Flying Purple People Eater." These are great, feature just enough footage from the old B movies, and held everyone's attention. There was one nod to Walt Disney and his Imagineers: a clip of Walt himself and Garco, the WED-created robot. Fun, indeed.

Overall, the film loop enhanced our enjoyment of our meal here. With fewer lengthy clips and more music and Disney cartoon footage, this aspect of the Sci-Fi Dine-In would get an A+. As is, it rates a solid C.

One thing that is odd about dining here is the intense quiet; perhaps it's due to the film screen or perhaps it's induced by the subdued lighting. Whatever the reason, dining here is a strangely quiet experience.

The wait staff at the Sci-Fi Dine-In is appropriately dressed in vintage-looking costumes reminiscent of those worn by "car hops" at drive-in restaurants.

The menu reflects this dining establishment's burger-joint roots. For example, the menu features many sandwiches like the "Famous All American Picnic Burger," complete with sauerkraut and pickle spear. There is also a salmon BLT, a Reuben, a smoked turkey, a build-your-own Angus burger, and a build-your-own chuck burger. In addition to sandwiches, the menu also features entrees such as a flame-broiled New York Strip steak, house-smoked St. Louis-style pork ribs, shrimp or chicken pasta, and vegetarian shepherd's pie.

For kids, there was the usual fare, but the menu also features some healthier choices like grilled chicken, grilled grouper, and whole-grain penne pasta. The kids really loved the old-fashioned milkshakes here. Smooth, creamy, and refreshing on a hot summer's day.

The desserts were tempting, especially the ice cream sundaes and the "out of this world" cheesecake, but we were too full to try any during this visit.

The food was tasty, but nothing extraordinary. The prices were a little steep for burger and fries fare: we all ordered burgers (at $17.00 each) with a milkshake ($5.00 each) and the kids had $12.00 kids' meals. Still, our family of five ran up a bill close to $100 (and there were no desserts, appetizers, or adult beverages on our tab).

While we enjoyed out visit and are certainly glad we booked advanced reservations for the Sci-Fi Drive-In Theater, we aren't in a big hurry to go back. The repetition of the film loop and the high prices for ordinary fare are two major drawbacks. Still, it's hard to beat this location for unique atmosphere and clever theming. It was a fun meal and a memorable time.

Please feel free to share your experiences dining at the Sci-Fi Drive-In Theater at Disney's Hollywood Studios.


  1. By clonetopia

    It's funny that you should mention how quiet it was in the restaurant because that was the first thing that my wife and I noticed. Is was a very welcome peace as we were there in August on a level 8-9 day and I needed a rest. I would have stayed longer (and consumed 3-4 more glasses of tea) but my kids notified me that they were watching the clips for a second time. I'm not sure how long the loop is but I would imagine 60 minutes.

    Our party consisted of myself, my wife and our kids (ages 12,10,7,4). Instead of having my two older kids order two $17 burgers off of the adult menu, we had them each choose an appetizer ($11 chicken wings and $9 onion rings) and they shared those. The adult portions are way too large for my kids anyway. We also ordered a pair of shakes and the waitress was happy to split the shakes into four separate glasses.

    The kids loved the Sci Fi Dine-In and we will be back. I enjoyed the dark, quiet atmosphere and the picnic burger was pretty good. I would have people ask the host to make sure they are seated in one of the cars. There is a row of picnic tables at the back of the "drive-in" and I wouldn't want to go there for the experience and then sit at regular tables.

  2. By DwarfPlanet

    "Overall, the film loop enhanced our enjoyment of our meal here. With fewer lengthy clips and more music and Disney cartoon footage, this aspect of the Sci-Fi Dine-In would get an A+. As is, it rates a solid C."

    I would have to disagree, if this was in the Magic Kingdom I could see more Disney cartoons, but we are in Hollywood "supposedly". We actually thinking back enjoyed not being bombarded with Disney shows while here. While at the same time got to see some previews for movies we have only heard about due to they were so bad and at the same time I'm a Tex Avery fan so it was fun seeing his creations on the screen.

    Your right it was quiet in there, but it didn't stop us from having fun or talking about what was on the screen. Prices were higher but thats to be expected in a Disney park but I didn't mind paying the extra for the atmosphere.

    I could get bored with going here everyday, but it will be one of those places we return to on our next trip.

  3. By BrandonH

    The loop is definitely shorter than 60 minutes. It may be closer to 30 minutes, as I saw some clips at least 3 times during my meal. My biggest complaint is with the length and selection of the clip reel. The Great Movie Ride showcases awesome movie trailers in its queue, and even that gets old on repeats. They should focus on making the screen presentation fun to watch and less about adhering strictly to old and/or bad sci-fi films. I'd love to see clips from movies like Wall*E, The Phantom Menace, The Day the Earth Stood Still, ET interspersed with the Plan 9 type trailers.

    To help solve the repeat clip problem and mediocre food problem, I recommend just going for an adult drink (or dessert if it's a kid-friendly group). Get an appetizer for yourself or the table, and you'll have had a tasty, filling, fun experience with less time and money spent.

  4. By DisneyGator

    We've done Sci-Fi twice: on our first trip in 2002, and our last trip in 2012. It took us 10 years to go back. For us, the food is just OK. But what makes it worse is he extreme low light. When you're eating ribs, it's hard to see where the meat is, or why your fingers are still sticky because you can't see the sauce all over them. The shakes are really good.

    I'll agree on the film footage. The loop is less than 40 minutes I'd guess, and you start to see the same thing again. It's cute the first time around, but then you start to hate it. And my little ones sure didn't like the scary clips either. Maybe they should throw in some Mystery Science Theater 3000 to make the attraction funny in a real way. It'll probably be another 10 year before we hit it again.

  5. By Jimbo996

    I went back in May and used the Dining Plan. I easily spent $80 for a party of 3, but didn't have to deal with the bill, thankfully. Compared to other table service restaurants, the bill was on the low side. I easily spent $90 to $100 at other restaurants, but on the dining plan.

    I enjoyed it very much as it was a second time for me, but a first time for my wife and kid.

    The dining plan gave us a pretty good deal as the drinks, milk shakes, and desserts were included. I would not rate it a C. The combination of ambience, entertainment, and food quality is excellent. I would rate it a B+.

    The popularity of this restaurant is uncomparable. I obtained it as a last minute reservation change due to inclement weather. It was raining all week long. The earliest appointment was 11am and I took it. When waiting to be seated, many patrons were trying very hard to get in. This is certainly a hot ticket.

    To me, it wasn't a quiet experience. The movie was not loud, but definitely noticeable. While it didn't impede conversation, it made the room louder than I expected. Certainly, it seems quiet when I left to use the restroom. It was as quiet as a movie theater, but the guests were allowed to talk.

    I thought the food was excellent. Better than the counter service restaurants. The milk shakes were good. The fries were filling. The BBQ ribs were good. Even better was the donut ice cream dessert and the hot fudge sundae. I highly recommend it. It was a change of place from the other character table service restaurants. Sci-Fi Dine In is an unique restaurant that we didn't forget.

  6. By Little Mitchie

    It has been several years since I have been to Walt Disney World and even longer since I have eaten at the Sci-Fi Dine In. I would have to disagree with you on your thought of this being a working movie set with rough cut 2x4's. What I saw was the back side of a fence around the drive-in movie theater's property. If I remember correctly it was rusty steel corrugated fencing and some wooden fencing. I think there were some trees too. I thought they were good burgers and fantastic milkshakes. I think it is time to revisit on my next trip.

  7. By davidgra

    This is one restaurant we normally avoid. While the atmosphere is mildly entertaining, it ends up being a lot less fun than you'd think it would be. This is mainly due to the uninteresting movie loop. Yes, it's quiet in there, but that's because there's no one sitting across from you for you to talk to -- everyone's facing the movie screen.

    We've eaten there maybe three times in the last 15 years or so. Each time, the food has been disappointing; you can actually get a better burger at some of the counter-service restaurants, for about half the price. The last time we took the kids, they didn't care for the food at all (all over 10 years old, ordering from the adult menu), and they were bored.

    Since there are several better food options at the Studios (the Brown Derby is our favorite restaurant on property), we've just sworn off the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater.

  8. By carolinakid

    Just not my kind of place....once was enough.

  9. By adriennek

    Every time I think of this restaurant, I hear in my head "Beware of the Blob!" Is that song on the loop?

    I agree with previous posters on two things: The loop is too short. (I do remember that one of the actresses is named Adrienne so I liked seeing that part...) And the food was just ok. When we went, we had the dining plan and I remember thinking that I would've been unhappy if I'd had to pay for our meal. I'm not usually super critical of food quality (especially if I'm not paying for it or I'm getting a deal on it.) It wasn't horrible but it was disappointing and just - eh.

    I loved the idea of the theme. At the time my kids were 5, 8 and 11. We picked it over 50s Prime Time Diner because I liked the menu options at Sci Fi better. The kids enjoyed it, but I wished we'd done 50s Prime Time Diner instead.

  10. Discuss this article on MousePad.