A Perfect Birthday Dinner at California Grillby Donna Fesel, contributing writer
I celebrated my fiftieth birthday last fall. When the big day was coming, I knew for certain I wanted to spend it with my husband and son at Walt Disney World. WDW makes me happier than almost any other place in the universe, and I knew my fiftieth would be perfect there. I began my planning by thinking about what to do on my birthday itself. I decided that I wanted to have my perfect WDW day.
Fall at WDW is wonderful time to visit; the Food & Wine Festival is going on at Epcot, and Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party is going on at Magic Kingdom, plus the weather is my idea of perfection. Days are warm enough for swimming and water rides, and mornings and evenings brisk enough for a light sweater—plus there is so much less rain than we experience when we normally visit WDW in the middle of summer.
My perfect WDW day starts with rope drop at Magic Kingdom. I haven't been since the opening ceremony moved down to the area in front of Cinderella Castle, so rope drop last fall meant making the ceremony at Main Street Station. I was (as usual) up at the crack of dawn to hustle my family through the turnstiles and bag check to get a photo in front of Main Street Station while waiting for the welcome show. Next, the Mayor of Magic Kingdom and a troupe of singers and dancers warmed us up for the main attraction, a WDW railroad full of Disney characters waving like crazy and greeting us. Everyone around me was excited; kids were on their parents' shoulders, clapping. Although I've seen the show a dozen times, when the Magic Kingdom family of the day opens the park with Mickey and the Mayor accompanied by confetti, my eyes still tear up.
Next, we rode my favorite Magic Kingdom attractions, Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain, and my new favorite Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. We sat down to a great lunch at another new Magic Kingdom favorite, Jungle Navigation Company Limited Skipper Canteen, in Adventureland. The cast members at Skipper Canteen also work the Jungle Cruise attraction and are full of personality plus. The food is just my family's speed, interesting and on the lighter side.
After that, I took the monorail to the Grand Floridian Resort. I got a massage at Senses (the wonderful Grand Floridian spa), and a hair cut and blowout (with a birthday discount, thank you), at Ivy and Trellis, the Grand Floridian's salon. I followed all that pampering up with a mini spree at Basin White, my very favorite store on WDW property. My son and I are gaga over the bath bombs and salts (the perfect antidote for the chilly Northeast winters).
I cabbed it back to our hotel (Disney's Boardwalk Villas), and did a quick change for dinner. I wanted to eat at someplace terrific that would leave my family plenty of time to enjoy Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party (MNSSHP) at Magic Kingdom that night. For those of you have had the pleasure of attending MNSSHP, you know that it is a blast and there is free trick or treat candy. The event begins at 7 p.m., so I wanted to be able to visit an old favorite for dinner, but one where we could make our MNSSHP start time. I decided I would celebrate with dinner at California Grill at Disney's Contemporary Resort. It has great food, and is conveniently across the street from Magic Kingdom.
Disney nerds will know that Disney's Contemporary Resort is one of the two original resorts at WDW. Opened in 1971, the A-frame hotel features a monorail track right through the lobby. Between 1971 and 1993, California Grill was called Top of the World and featured dining, as well as entertainment, comedy, and dancing, including casts from top Broadway shows, and performers like Connie Stevens and Phyllis Diller. Jackets were required for the stylish men, and appropriate dinner attire for the time for the ladies, all of whom danced the night away in front of the location's signature panoramic glass windows. Even then, the Magic Kingdom fireworks visible through those windows was a draw.
Top of the World was reimagined as California Grill in 1993. The live music and dancing were gone, but in their place was a Disney Signature restaurant highlighting West Coast cuisine, and featuring some of the finest fresh food and sushi on WDW property. California Grill closed for a seven month refresh in 2013, and re-opened with décor that is full of brushed chrome, light wood, and the reds, yellows, and oranges of a California sunset. The panoramic windows are still there, as are the outdoor areas to fully enjoy the beauty of a panoramic WDW view with the Magic Kingdom in close proximity.
We checked in on the second floor of the Contemporary and were, as always, escorted by a cast member to California Grill on the fifteenth floor. We were led to our table which was decorated for my special occasion with lots of Mickey sparkle on top. We would be gone long before the Magic Kingdom fireworks on my birthday to MNSSHP, but got a wonderful table near the windows with a glorious view of Magic Kingdom and the environs. We ordered some of California Grill's signature sushi right away, had a birthday toast, and then my son and I headed out onto the terrace to enjoy the breathtaking view.
If you can time your dinner visit to California Grill to the Magic Kingdom fireworks, you should. Indoors, the lights are dimmed, and the accompanying music is piped in everywhere. We love to cuddle up outside and enjoy the show. If you dine at other times during the day and return with your receipt near fireworks time, cast members will still permit you to watch the fireworks in the lounge area or out on the terrace. It is a beautiful way to enjoy the spectacle without the crush of business at Magic Kingdom.
My son and I went back inside just as our sushi arrived. We got a beautiful California Combination Roll (crab, avocado, and shrimp tempura) and a Dragon Roll (tuna, shrimp, avocado, and dragon sauce). It was spectacular as always. We are also fans of the flatbreads and homemade charcuterie at California Grill. My husband and I each ordered a glass of wine from the extensively West Coast wine list (over 50 by the glass). I had a very celebratory sparkling wine from California that I love.
Next, we enjoyed some tremendous entrees. I had the wagyu beef with a potato mille feuille (a gratin-style stack of potatoes), chanterelles, and a port wine sauce, that was wonderful. Wagyu is a treat for me, and I loved every mouth-melting morsel. My son had the oak-fired filet with a risotto and salsa verde, and proclaimed it amazing; my husband enjoyed a special seared tuna with bok choy, which also garnered rave reviews.
We finished our entrees and were lingering a bit. The manager brought over a complimentary apricot sparkling wine. He returned with a hat box with the Amorette's Patisserie logo. Amorette's is the spectacular French bakery in the Marketplace area of Disney Springs. He opened the box with a flourish and there were four of the most stunning little cakes I have ever seen. My husband who knows me so well—and knows I am so particular about cake—made a pilgrimage to Amorette's to purchase the four "petit cakes" and drove them to California Grill before we arrived.
The cakes were each multilayered and themed to match their flavors. One had the fondant cover painted to look like a tree trunk and tasted like fall with nuts and fall fruit flavors. Another with a lavender fondant cover with flowers had chocolate and raspberry flavors. The third was white with gum paste flowers, and featured divine fruit curds. The last one featured all kinds of chocolate tastes. We each had a slice of each of the cakes, and packed the rest back up in the hatbox to enjoy on the remainder of our trip.
My son changed into his Halloween costume (from V for Vendetta), and I slapped on my birthday Mickey Mouse ears. We made it to MNSSHP with time to spare, we trick or treated like crazy, watched the Boo to You parade, and closed our night with the Hallowishes fireworks.
It was the most perfect birthday I could have imagined.
California Grill serves brunch and dinner. As a Signature restaurant, Disney asks that you don't wear tank tops, swim suits, cover ups, cut offs, or torn clothing; it is modified business casual. It is two sit down meal credits on the Disney Dining Plan. Tables in Wonderland (Disney's discount dining program) members get 20% off (including alcoholic drinks). Annual Passholders get 10% off (not inclusive of alcoholic beverages).
California Grill remains one of the most enduringly lovely restaurants at WDW, perfect for a celebration. What's better than wonderful food capped off by an evening of Magic Kingdom fireworks? Have you been to California Grill to celebrate? Have you maybe been to the new brunch? Were you open of the lucky folks to visit it when it was Top of the World? Let me know.