The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Character Dining at Chef Mickey's

by Tom Richards, contributing writer

As a rule, we are not character-buffet people.

All that changed, of course, when we started bringing the kids to the Walt Disney World Resort. Now that our traveling party has expanded, I tend to plan one character dining experience per visit. This year, based on the characters my kids love best at the moment and based on our Disney resort location, we choose the ever-popular Chef Mickey's, located in the Grand Canyon Concourse of Disney's Contemporary Resort.

Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary is definitely not an intimate dining experience. It's a large scale buffet that, according to friends who frequently take cruises, resembles the mass-produced meals served on cruise ships that accommodate large numbers of guests in an efficient, expedient manner. That's no necessarily a bad thing, but it is essential to understand in order to prepare for this dining experience.

A Unique Dining Location

As one of the original Walt Disney Resorts, the Contemporary Resort is unique indeed. Opened in 1971 along with the Magic Kingdom, the Polynesian Resort, and the Golf Inn (now Shades of Green), the Contemporary has retained its popularity among guests for several reasons. The location (closet to the Magic Kingdom) and its unique design (the Walt Disney World Monorail sails in on out of the main building) help the Contemporary remain, well, contemporary. The design of this resorts seems relevant today even as many of the original "futuristic" designs of Tomorrowland and Future World became outdated and changed radically through the years.

The impressive Grand Canyon Concourse inside the Contemporary Tower is home to shops, restaurants, and the monorail station. It is also home to Chef Mickey's.

This place is huge, with several dining spaces scattered around the central buffet serving areas. As guests enter, they are photographed with a smallish statue of Chef Mickey himself before entering a waiting area containing strangely low-slung couches set up in a winding snake-like manner. Sitting here is an oddly satisfying experience. Levels of guest rooms loom above, sleek monorails glide in and out of the large glass walls of the Contemporary, and the omnipresent hum of people milling all create a one-of-a-kind atmosphere that is exciting and memorable.

Guests dining with Chef Mickey need to know that there are, in fact, several distinct dining areas. One is positioned near a long row of windows, offering views of the Grand Floridian Resort and the Magic Kingdom across the Seven Seas Lagoon. An added advantage to this area is the wide-open area above; there's a feeling of being in a canyon, indeed.

Another dining area is located along the glass wall that faces the waterway that connects Bay Lake to the Seven Seas Lagoon. Sadly, the views are obstructed by large wooden cutouts of various Disney characters designed in a very comic-book style. Still, the expanse of towering glass above is very appealing and the area is open and inviting.

The third location is set along the buffet table itself. There are rows and rows of tables and a very low ceiling, so the noise from the dining area and the nearby kitchens doors stays trapped here. The line for one of the buffet tables also forms here, so the area is much more congested than the other two locations. The convenience of sitting near the line, however, may outweigh this area's drawbacks for some.

An Original Disney Design

The design of the entire space is modern: lots of chrome, bold colors, sleek designs, and neon. It's a cross between the Goofy Candy Store at Downtown Disney and elements of the 1990 make-over of the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland. There a sense of whimsy throughout, which is appropriate for the characters who inhabit this space, but the overall feel is somewhat dated and haphazard. The place feels as if it evolved over time, and therefore, lacks the sense of visual continuity and integrity found in most Disney designs.

Still, it's fun, and with a little effort, a more cohesive sense of design, color, and tone could pull it all together. This is particularly true of the artwork and the large wooden character cutouts. Had a more consistent approach—say like the artwork that adorns the guest rooms and public places in Disney's Bay Lake Towers—a more aesthetically appealing space could be created.

Chef Mickey's is also very noisy. That's part of the charm, really. The feeling of being in the middle of it all is irresistible. Still, there's a little too much noise here at times. The quiet hum of the departing monorails is soothing as the hustle and bustle of character interactions, picture taking, and diners moving to and from the buffet causes a constant din.

At certain intervals throughout your meal, the characters and serving staff burst into a conga line, twirling their napkins and inviting guests to join in the fun. Above all this action and noise, the choice of background music adds to the cacophony; annoying covers of classic Disney songs by current Disney Channel "stars" plays incessantly throughout the dining experience. Is it really necessary to endure dance-club versions of "Beauty and the Beast," "The Tiki Room," or "Under the Sea" while dining with characters? Surely the use of contemporary instrumental covers of Disney classics, which are readily available from a plethora of sources, would enhance the dining experience more than the constant thumping of the music currently played.

The Food and Service

We enjoyed breakfast with the Fab Five at Chef Mickey's, and found the food to be very good. Considering the sheer quantity of food made here, the constant flow of people, and the variety of breakfast offerings, Chef Mickey's gets high marks for presentation, freshness, and quality. The fruit and cheese offerings were fresh and plentiful; the scrambled eggs hot, fresh, and (unlike most buffets) moist and tasty; the bacon was crisp; the breakfast potatoes especially good; the pancakes light and fluffy; the Mickey waffles warm and freshly made. A variety of cold breakfast cereals is also offered, along with tempting sweets and goodies.

Because it is a buffet, it's difficult to rate the service. Our waiter brought the initial round of juice and coffee quickly, but after that was nowhere to be seen. We could have used a few coffee refills now and then. The rest of the staff quickly and efficiently removed used plates. Overall, there was a mechanical feel to the guest service here, unlike most of the table service restaurants at Walt Disney World, which tend to be much more personal and attentive. Again, this might just be the nature of the beast that is Chef Mickey's; it is huge and very, very busy.

Characters and Photos

The real draw of Chef Mickey's, of course, is not the food or the location, but the presence of Disney characters. We found that the interactions with characters here was amazing. Despite the crowds, the characters took their time with each table, posing for numerous pictures, signing autograph books, striking poses particular to each group. For example, the family next to us had two high school-aged sons. Mickey crossed his arms, and each of the boys mimicked him. It was a great photo.

Donald was especially feisty, interacting with our kids and reacting to them in truly individual ways. Pluto, too, spent an extraordinary time with one of our boys who loves Pluto more than any other character. We saw Minnie interact with a very small girl in such a sweet, personable way that it brought tears to our eyes. Likewise, Goofy played with a little boy with special needs that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Disney "magic" is a real, tangible thing.

Another way to commemorate your meal at Chef Mickey's is with an official family photo package. We thought the photos were great, but the price from the package was especially high.

Final Thoughts

Speaking of high prices, the entire dining experience was very expensive. At $33.00 per adult and $18.00 per child, it's a pricey breakfast, to be sure. Add in tip, taxes, and that tempting group shot of the family, and no matter what your income range, it takes a big chunk out of the food budget for vacation. If the prices are too steep or the atmosphere not to your liking, there are many other less expensive, more intimate character dining opportunities across the Walt Disney World property that might suit your family's needs. Chef Mickey's, however, is a wonderful place. With just a little redecorating, toned down background music, and a friendlier price for the photo package, I would give this dining experience a 10/10, despite the price. With things as they are, I would rate it a 7/10 for character dining options.

That said, I'm very happy that we experienced it this year with our small children. They absolutely loved it, and I know that we will all remember our meal with Mickey Mouse and friends fondly for years to come.