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