Family Dining During Disney Vacations

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer

Food, glorious food! The Disney Parks offer so many tasty choices. Keeping our children well fed helps with behavior issues, too, because nothing makes a kid cranky like a hungry stomach. This week we asked our Parenting Panel: Dining during Disney theme park vacations: Do you take time for table service meals? Do you stick with counter service restaurants? Do you graze on snacks? How do you plan your meals or do you use different strategies for different days?

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:

I have to admit. I am a foodie. I am the kind of person that does not go out to eat often, but, when I do, I try to do something a bit different. And what better place to try something different than while on a Disney vacation? After all, dining can be viewed as a necessity, or it can be viewed as an opportunity. It somewhat depends on your dining style and preferences.

For our family, dining needs and wants have changed over the years. At first, we would make sure we would get a table service meal at least once a day to enjoy something special and new. At times, these included character meals, but we really were looking to try new dishes. We were impressed by restaurants around the Walt Disney World Resort, such as Le Cellier at Epcot, Cape May Café at Disney's Beach Club Resort, and Chef Mickey’s at Disney's Contemporary Resort. They continue to be some of our favorite places, but after a while, we noticed a couple of things.

First, we did not want to miss out on other great dining establishments. After all, where else can you be near so many offerings within walking distance? Second, table service dining does take up quite a bit of time. A good rule of thumb is that a nice table service meal can cut out anywhere between 60 and 90 minutes of your day. This, on top of what you need to do to plan around and actually acquire Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) for the meal itself. Of course, you have to plan your park visit around the ADRs and you also have to consider transportation time to the location itself. As you can see, table service dining has somewhat become a commitment. Because of this, we started to limit our ADRs to a few choice eateries during our visits. This gives us a chance to try something new and enjoy a nice meal without having to plan each and every day around dining.

Along the same lines, our default dining choices generally come from different counter service places around the property. Keep in mind that does not mean that we just wander around trying to figure out what we should eat. As odd as it may seem, we plan out these meals, as well. This might be due to the fact that we not only have our favorite places to eat, but we also make it a goal to try something new as often as possible.

We consider what time and where we think we are going to start our day, and what our specific plan of attack might be and then look at possible dining options. In other words, we try not to find ourselves at one end of the park during lunch when our location of choice is on the other side. To some, this might seem like a bit more planning than necessary, but we find that the planning and research helps us set some expectations with our kids. That helps keeps everyone in tune and helps prevent surprises.

There are days, however, where we do more snacking than anything else. This might be due to a late breakfast or early dinner plans when a meal just does not seem right. Some of our snacking might be getting a counter service meal and splitting it. It might mean getting a few different things, like popcorn or a pretzel, and sharing them. It might lso mean we enjoy some light snacks that we brought into the parks from our hotel. The key is that snacking is something to be expected. Let’s face it – it’s hard to resist a ice cream treat on a hot summer day.

No matter what you do or how you dine, I personally think a bit of planning and research will help you balance the great dining experiences that Disney offers with the desires of your family. No two families are alike, so feel free to experiment.

Mary Kraemer, is an avid Disney fan and travel consultant with CruisingCo/MouseEarVacations who loves to travel with her husband and children to Disney destinations as often as possible. Mary, writes:

Even though my family has always had a "commando" approach to our time in the parks, we also like a little down time to recharge and refresh…and a table-service meal is a perfect time for it!

Our usual strategy is to have breakfast in our room, so we can get into the parks right away and get started, without having to think about our tummies. Lunch is usually a quick-service grab-and-go type of meal for us, and we have favorites in most of the theme parks for lunch. (We especially like Bengal BBQ in Adventureland or Pizza Port in Tomorrowland at Disneyland Park; the Pacific Wharf area at Disney California Adventure, because of the numerous options that are available; Cosmic Ray’s at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World (WDW) (or, if we can get in, Be Our Guest), Yak & Yeti’s Local Food Cafes in Animal Kingdom, Starring Roles or ABC Commissary at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and wherever we happen to be in Epcot!

Table-service dining, particularly at WDW, is an experience in itself, and to my family, as much a part of the vacation as having fun in the parks. On family trips, we love to take the boat from the Magic Kingdom to Disney's Wilderness Lodge and enjoy the boisterous fun at Whispering Canyon Café. At Disney's Hollywood Studios, no trip would be complete without the sassy servers at the '50s Prime Time Café. Our strategy to see Illuminations in Epcot involves making dining reservations at the Rose & Crown Pub so that we have a waterfront table for the show. One of the places we never, ever miss is Sanaa, at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kidani Village, because the food and service (and views!) are so incredible.

At the Disneyland Resort, our favorite go-to place is Carthay Circle, which has great food and the added benefit of preferred viewing FastPasses for World of Color.

But I haven’t even mentioned character dining! I am a huge fan of character meals, because I love the concept of having characters come see me in a restaurant (rather than standing in line to see them). It’s also a perfect way for kids who are timid about characters to gradually warm up to them without being overwhelmed or intimidated.

Disney has fine-tuned the options for character meals particularly well at WDW, where princesses rule at certain locations such as Cinderella’s Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom or Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Norway at Epcot, and other characters appear at Chef Mickey’s at Disney's Contemporary Resort, Ohana at Disney's Polynesian Resort, Garden Grill at Epcot, and several other restaurants.
There are also character meal options at Disneyland, with princesses holding court at Ariel’s Grotto at Disney California Adventure, and other characters at Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel or (my personal favorite) Breakfast with Minnie & Friends at the Plaza Inn in Disneyland Park.

One strategy that I suggest to clients about character meals, especially if they are only available at breakfast, is to book your character meal at the latest available seating. Then, grab a light breakfast to start your morning, spend a few hours at the park, and then enjoy your character time without feeling like you’ve missed out on the light crowds of the morning.

Sheena, also known as Mermaid, teaches first grade in Arizona where she lives with her husband and two children, Matthew (3) and Katie (2). She visits Disneyland as often as she can and has passed on her love of the parks to her little Mouseketeers. Sheena writes:

When dining in Disney theme parks, we find ourselves eating mostly counter service meals. We have three things we look for:

Seating: This is probably our No. 1 criteria for theme park dining. Is there a lot of open seating or will we be circling while balancing trays and wrangling kids? I feel like Disney has improved in this area in recent years. Our favorite spots, based on seating alone, would include Red Rockett’s Pizza Port in Tomorrowland and the newer Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta/ Paradise Garden Grill area in the back of the Paradise Pier area.

Speed: With two preschoolers, we often choose our dining based on the length of the line. We love Pacific Wharf Café, AKA “the bread place,” but rarely eat there because we always catch it when the line is out the door. So, when dining in this area of Disney California Adventure, we usually end up at Cocina Cucamonga.

Variety: Finally—the food! Theme parks (Disney ones included) get a bad rap for offering only hamburgers and pizza. Now, our favorite counter service options do offer pizza, but also offer other menu choices besides standard theme park fare. I love the Chicken Fusilli at Pizza Port and I also really enjoy the Mediterranean skewers offered at Paradise Garden Grill while my husband and the kids can get pasta or pizza at the nearby Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta. We find we can get a variety of foods just eating counter service with the added bonus of knowing there will be something kid friendly on the menu as well.

We do try to eat at one table service restaurant each trip. We like the choices in Downtown Disney better than most in park offerings. My husband tries to work a visit to ESPN Zone into every trip to Anaheim. I try to stick with restaurants that are a little louder, so we blend in better while working on restaurant manners. We have also started making rounds with character meals. We often do these on the first or last day of our vacations. This is usually a hotel or half day in the park and we have found them to be a nice way to start or end our vacation.

As you can tell, so far, our Disney vacations have been limited to the West Coast. I feel like table service dining is a huge part of a WDW vacation and look forward to experiencing those with my children in a few years. For now though, we are content with the quick, comfortable and tasty counter service options!

Elizabeth, who posts on our MousePad message board as eabaldwin, has been a Disneyland Annual Passholder since 2010. She and her husband have two daughters, Katie (4) and Josie (2). Elizabeth writes:

We use different dining options when we go to the Disneyland Resort. We do try to bring a few snacks from home with us, but we tend to not bring much food with us and we eat our meals in the parks.

Breakfast for us is usually at home or on our drive up to Disneyland. If we are staying in a hotel, we will grab something to eat at a counter service restaurant, so that we can get into the parks more quickly. We do enjoy a character breakfast when we can, if we are staying nearby in a hotel. We tend to plan out our overnight trips more than our day trips, and we definitely have a reservation for a character breakfast. Also, we try to plan our character breakfast on a day when we are not going into the parks, so it doesn’t take away from our time there.

Usually, we eat at a counter service restaurant for lunch. We try to enjoy our lunch as quickly as possible so that we can get out there and enjoy more attractions.

We almost always have a reservation for dinner at a table service restaurant. If we are just going up for the day, we may just make the reservation while on our drive up, or while standing in line for an attraction early in the day. We learned early on in our trips as a family that if we wanted to sit down for a meal, we needed a reservation. It is too difficult for our children to wait for a table, then sit and wait some more at the table for their food. Also, if we wait too long for a table, then we have less time to enjoy the parks, so a reservation is good on many levels. Having a reservation does require a bit more planning and less spontaneity, but it allows us to sit and enjoy a meal as a family. Disney restaurants are good about having crayons and menus to color, and we also try to bring our own distractions to help keep our children occupied while waiting for food. We talk about what we did throughout the day and plan out the rest of our evening.

While we do try to bring some snacks from home, we also purchase a variety of snacks while visiting Disneyland. The fruit stands are great for a healthy snack. We have been known to enjoy a treat sometimes after dinner and we love things covered in chocolate from the candy store. If you ask our girls, the churros are quite tasty at Disneyland.

We used a very similar strategy when we visited the Walt Disney World Resort last spring. We grabbed a quick breakfast and lunch, and we had dining reservations each evening for dinner. We really enjoyed our time and it worked out really well for us.

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!



  1. By DisneyGator

    The one thing I miss during my Disneyland trips is the food of Disney WORLD. We usually get the Dining Plan in FL whether it's free or not. We love not worrying about what to get, what's cheap, what can the kids share. We just ask them what they want and they get it. And at WDW, we're there for 8 or 9 days, so having a good sit down meal is a big must for us as 8 days of burgers will make your stomach turn (Honeymoon). We'll do at least 3 character meals (Princess, Mickey&Pals, and 1900 Park Fair or Crystal Palace), and then pick some yummy places to eat as well like Tony's, Liberty Tree Tavern, Teppen Edo, or Mama's Melrose. When it comes to dining, WDW definitely has it going on.

    As for DL, what they lack in great Character Dining or Sit Down meals, they make up for in counter service places. That's not to say that Blue Bayou isn't really cool (at a price) or that the best Disney sit down meal I've ever had was at Big Thunder Ranch. But the choices are limited...unless you look at the quick service. There's so much variety between DL and DCA that you really don't need a lot of Table Service places. The sausage on pretzel bun at Village Haus shocked me with how good it was. And Flo's V-8 has some great BBQ pork. Throw in a few Mexican places, Italian stops, clam chowder bread bowls, and a Dole Whip (which counts as a meal!), and there's a lot of great options. One place I'm looking forward to trying next time is the Mint Julep stand and grabbing some Mickey-shaped begniets. That sounds like a good pastry to munch on while I'm waiting for the Christmas parade or the fireworks.

    All in all, I miss the food at WDW. But DL still has enough to keep me entertained for the 4 days I'm usually there.

  2. By josephfive

    I've found in DCA that it's quite easy for people to get what they want from counter service and then meet up together to eat.

  3. By Jimbo996

    I highly recommend the Disney Dining Plan since you get one of each, snack, counter service, and table service. However, you do need to stay on-site to get the benefit. When used in conjunction with FastPass+, you can schedule around your meals to get the most out of your day.

  4. By jmorgan

    My kids are pretty picky eaters (pizza, pasta, plain hamburgers) and the friends we go with children are also pretty simple and picky eaters. I found that as DL as increased its food quality to cater to more adult taste, it is harder to please our kids. I do a lot of research on menus before we go so where ever we are at the resort I can suggest possible food choices. Overall we eat breakfast at the hotel (we always stay at the Candy Cane), quick lunch in the parks and usually dinner off site (the kids love Subway). We will have at least one sit down dinner in the resort. I always bring snacks to get me and the kids from breakfast to lunch and lunch to dinner. I realized one of the first years visiting that I was spending over $40 a day on snacks. I do not mind spending money on lunch and dinner, but the snack thing was too much. I only bring snacks I know the kids will eat (cookies and crackers they really like). I know this probably not the best for them, however they do not get this regularly at home and we are on vacation after all.

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