Everything Walt Disney World

Parks, Food, Resorts and More

Category: Food–On Site (page 1 of 7)

Sneak Peek at Satu’li Canteen in Pandora: The World of Avatar

Disney keeps giving us hints of what to expect when Pandora opens in May.  Next up, the Satu’li Canteen, a fast-casual restaurant where the focus is on healthy proteins,  good grains, and vegetables, with an “on stage” grill as a focal point.  This isn’t your usual quick-service location. Instead, expect slightly more exotic fare. From the Disney Parks Blog:

Look for familiar dishes with a twist in the fast-casual restaurant, with bowls that allow diners to customize their lunch or dinner. Diners start with a base of quinoa and vegetable salad; red and sweet potato hash; mixed whole-grain and rice or romaine and kale salad. Next is either with wood-grilled chicken, slow-roasted beef, sustainable fish or chili-spiced fried tofu. And the bowl is finished with charred onion chimichurri, black bean vinaigrette or creamy herb dressing.

The menu also offers steamed “pods” – bao buns with either cheeseburger or vegetable curry and served with root vegetable chips and crunchy vegetable slaw.

For little ones, there’s an option of grilled chicken or beef, fish or tofu with greens or rice; a hot dog wrapped in Parker House dough; cheese quesadilla, or a steamed “pod” (cheeseburger bao bun).

Everything on Disney property has a story (even the shops!) and this restaurant is no exception:

The Satu’li Canteen was once the main mess hall of the Resources Development Administration (RDA) base located in the Valley of Mo’ara. Now the canteen is owned and operated by Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) tour company and has been redesigned into a beautiful museum-like dining room.

This is the first restaurant on property where you can use the “Mobile Order” option in your  MyDisneyExperience app. You’ll order and pay (right now, it’s credit cards only) and when you arrive at the restaurant, you’ll tap the “I’m here” button in the app and it will alert the restaurant to start preparing your meal. Easy peasy! I like it.

While  the entire menu has not been released yet,  Satu’li Canteen looks like a great option for adventurous eaters and those who want healthier options in the parks. I’ll be checking it out as soon as they let me in! Who’s with me?

Just a quick FYI: If you’re not using the “Mobile Order” option, you can use your quick-service dining plan credits. 

Technicolor Disney Treats.

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Craving a snack that’s bright and . . . well, bright, on your next vacation? Disney has you covered.  Next time you’re in the park, feast on these treats for which “colorful” is an understatement:

These Cookies.

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Disney loves white chocolate, but do you  know what they love even more? Food coloring. They’ll take white chocolate and food coloring and slater it on an old boot if they get a chance. While these cookies don’t exactly taste like an old boot covered in white chocolate, they come awfully close.

The Pinkest Cupcakes You Have Ever Seen.

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There’s a variation of these cupcakes just about everyone on property where desserts are sold and you know what? I like them.  There’s a good frosting to cake ratio, which is to say, you don’t have to wade through a mountain of frosting to get to the cake.  I even like the pink frosting. In fact, there probably should be more pink food in the world. There. I said it. Give me pink food. And yes, I am a grown up.

The $12 Mickey Head Apple.

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You can find these Mickey head apples in every Disney-fied incarnation, including Cinderella’s carriage:

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Incidentally, white chocolate in action . . .

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Mickey Head Cake Pops.

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Cake pops dipped in white chocolate (again!) and rolled in sugar? Of course you want one.

This Pink and Red Cake Cup.

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In the Magic Kingdom? Stop by the Cheshire Café and get a Queen of Heart’s Strawberry cake cup. Especially nice if you like frosting. A lot of it.

Mickey Macaroons.

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Disney jumped on the Macaroon craze with their own, delightfully neon, version.

Candy Covered Rice Krispy Treats.

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File this treat under “Stuff Kids Like.” A lot.

What’s your favorite bright colored Disney treat?

 

Breakfast at Be Our Guest

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Disney began serving breakfast at Be Our Guest this Spring as part of a pilot program currently scheduled to  run through this summer.  At around $20 per person,  including your drink, it’s pretty steep for a quick-service breakfast, but guests have been packing this popular Disney dining destination since it opened on March 20th.  As part of the program, you can make your reservations online but just be aware that those, like those for dinner and lunch, can be pretty scarce. But it is worth it?

I’ll get right to the meat and potatoes (excuse me) of this post:  It was delicious. Our group sampled every entree and there wasn’t a dud in the mix. While you’re going to be temped to order the fried  donut croissant with caramel, bananas, and pastry cream, skip it; you’ll get plenty of pastries at your table regardless of what you order, so you’ll definitely satisfy your sweet tooth.  These pastries are brought to your table and are essentially “all you can eat.  Think mini chocolate croissants and danishes.

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Since you’re already going to be flirting with diabetes after all those pastries, try the creamy eggs Florentine, with just the right amount of spinach, served in a puff pastry square.  For something completely unexpected for American palates, try the cured meat and cheese platter, which ended up being the star of our table.

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Cheesy Croque Madame with bechemal sauce was another standout, though it was very heavy; I might skip it in really hot weather.   The only thing I would not order again was the open faced bacon, egg, lettuce and tomato on a baguette. Yes, it had brie cheese, one of my favorites, and it was good. But you need a chainsaw to get through the bread. You’re better off with more traditional breakfast fare.

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Kids can get bacon and eggs or even cereal, but you won’t find any Mickey waffles on the menu. You’ll also find French toast, crepes filled with yogurt and fruit, and oatmeal. Each kids meal is $11.99.

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Finally, adults who prefer a lighter meal can order scrambled egg whites, chicken sausage, roasted tomatoes and fruit.

Be Our Guest can be impossible to get into, so this is a nice opportunity for those who’ve been unable to get lunch or dinner reservations a chance to experience the gorgeous interior of the Beast’s Castle.   This delicious breakfast, while expensive, is a welcome addition in a park with few quick-service breakfast options. I loved trying this “higher-end,” French inspired breakfast. I’ll definitely be back.

Be Our Guest restaurant participates in the Disney Dining Plan. You’ll pay one quick-service credit for your meal. Tables in Wonderland cards are not accepted.

The Future of Free Dining at Disney World.

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You can’t predict a lot of things in life: I can’t tell you with any certainty if it will rain next week or who’s going to win the next presidential election. But since 2005, Disney fans could almost guarantee one thing: That Disney World would offer free dining in the fall.  And it wasn’t just travel agents who were looking at past dates and playing Nostradamus.  You could go to any Disney message board and see thread after thread about free dining rumors, speculation about dates, and what resorts it would cover.  The great thing was, they were almost always right. Sure they might be off by a day or two and maybe we would get a surprise about a certain resort being excluded, but you could plan your trip around it and budget accordingly.

For the last few years however, Disney has been saying they’re going to end free dining. It wasn’t just the occasional cast member you’d talk to while you were booking your room. No less than Tom Staggs, the COO of Walt Disney Resorts, said four years ago that Disney was going to do away with deep discounts and free dining in particular.  But then the next fall, it was back again and just as good as it had always been.

We didn’t see the first cracks until 2013. As a travel agent, if you’re lucky you book hundreds of rooms, but you quote ten times that number, if not more. And when you do a lot of quotes, you see patterns.  The thing we were seeing is that beyond outright exclusions of resorts like villas located on the monorail and the Little Mermaid rooms at Art of Animation, even some of the resorts that were offered lacked any real availability. This was particularly true with Port Orleans Riverside.  In 2013 I couldn’t get this resort for most of my clients, which puts families of five or more with nowhere to stay at the moderate level,  but when I made a reservation for a spur of the moment day trip thanksgiving week–literally the day I checked in–I had my choice of all room categories. I’ve seen this at the Little Mermaid rooms as well.  During free dining last year in December, the Little Mermaid section of Art of Animation was a ghost town.  Anecdotally, it appears to me that these rooms aren’t filled when they aren’t discounted. Obviously I don’t have access to Disney’s actual occupancy numbers, but it also seems that Disney is okay with it, at least to an extent.

Last year,  Disney offered free dining for the fall, much as it always had, save for the fact that they offered it for the entire fall period, which resulted in massive hold times on the phone and daily system outages for a week.  In addition to the usual resort exclusions, Port Orleans was basically off the table. Still, most people were able to get what they wanted if they were willing to switch resorts or play a little bit with their dates.

Free dining for fall 2015 has been an entirely different experience thus far.  Both the consumer and travel agent online systems were down and again, people spent hours and hours spent on hold waiting to talk to a Disney agent. But the worst of it was that there was simply no availability. While the usual resorts were excluded, and we expected that, the fact that I couldn’t get Pop Century, a resort I could usually book under a promotion right up until the day that promo closed, twelve hours after the discount was announced means they simply did not offer many rooms. Even at the value resorts, usually our go-to option for families.

And ultimately that’s fine. I mean, no one was promised a discount.  At least I don’t know any agents who did. And Disney certainly doesn’t.  But the problem with announcing a discount is that people’s expectations are, particularly given past experiences, pretty high. Instead, what guests found was a “black Friday” type of situation that none of them ever signed up for, where they camped out all night outside of their local Walmart, only to find that there were only three televisions available under the offer and those TVs were actually several times more expensive than the television they were actually going to buy. If that’s too oblique, what I mean is, the guest who booked a moderate room hoping for free dining could get free dining, if they moved their dates and upgraded to a concierge-level room at the Grand Floridian.

A brief word about how all of this works is probably called for. Free dining, just like any discount, is based in part on both actual and projected bookings. Think of each resort as a separate entity. That resort provides Disney’s bean counters with what they think their occupancy is going to look like for a certain time period. These bean counters weigh that information against a number of other less concrete factors, like the economy and consumer confidence, along with school holidays and last year’s projected numbers.   This is why free dining dates vary slightly from year to year and why certain resorts may be excluded. For example, villas at Bay Lake Tower. Disney knows, or at least hopes, that they can fill them at full price. Why offer a discount?

So did Disney offer considerably fewer rooms because bookings are up? I don’t think so.  I think Disney is willing to take a hit on occupancy this year. If that hit becomes too dramatic, I think they’ll offer another discount, sometime during the summer. I also think that Disney is moving toward “Stay Play & Dine” type of offers, which are almost as good as free dining, depending on where you stay and the configuration of your group.  Perhaps more interestingly, I think we will also see offers which don’t cost Disney actual money.

Offers that don’t cost Disney any money are brilliant.  Yes, the guest is still getting something tangible, but think about the park hopper that you had to add to get free dining this year:  a lot of guests don’t bother with the hopper, because at 70 per ticket, it’s just too much money on top of everything else.   When Disney gives a guest free dining, Disney is still shelling out money for food and services.  But when I require that same average family to purchase a park hopper just to get free dining, I just recouped almost $300. And I didn’t give them anything. In fact, just sent them to another park, extending their day, which equals more money for the Mouse. If you think that Fastpass+ is just a nice way for guests to organize their day, well that’s a lovely way to live. But it’s also an effective way to keep you in the parks. So is park hopping.

There’s a definite possibility that without free dining, guests wont’ stay on property or will cancel their vacations. And when guests don’t fill up rooms, they do more than just leave resort rooms unoccupied. They find out that there’s really good, cheap food off property. They head over to the outlet malls and shop there. And think about this: each person’s vacation time is finite. I’ve only got so many hours of the day that I can spend in a Disney park. But if I’m “commuting” back and forth from a hotel on 192, some of that precious vacation time–and the money I would otherwise spend–is being spent in a car.  Finally, if restaurants aren’t at capacity, what happens to Disney’s well-trained staff? Sure, Chef Mickey’s is always going to be full, but what about restaurants like the Wave or San Angel Inn, restaurants that already seem to struggle?  Does Disney shutter them during the traditionally slower fall months or reduce cast member hours?  It’s all interconnected and the effects are property-wide, not just at the resorts.

It’s far too bold to say that free dining is dead and in fact, I don’t think it is.  What I do think is that this is probably the start of some major changes made with regard to this particular discount. Going forward, I think any guest traveling in the fall with the expectation of free dining is not being entirely realistic.  Free dining is great, but the happiest clients I had on Monday night were the ones who viewed free dining as an nice bonus, not a given.  And I would suggest that for anyone reading here as well.

What are your thoughts? Did this latest promotion change how you felt about fall travel? I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on the Facebook page.

Let’s Talk about Free Dining for September.

This time of year, you can’t read a Disney message board without seeing rumors about free dining being released for September. There are even “free dining prognosticators” who are minor celebrities on these boards, people who seem to know when it’s coming out long before anyone else. Whether they have an inside edge or they’re just good at utilizing past data and making predictions, these posters are great at whipping their fellow posters into a frenzy. And you know what? Some of them get it right.  Right now, the vibes, as it were, are really good for free dining. Of course there’s been no real indication from Disney yet. Here’s why I think the rumors are true.

1. September is a slow month. Even adding an extra week to Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival won’t bring in enough guests to counter that. 

2.  Historically, Disney has offered free dining in September for the last decade.

3.  In the last two years, Disney has added two new resorts, Art of Animation and the Disney Vacation Club Villas at the Grand Floridian. This translates to roughly 11,000 pillows that need heads on them every night without also bringing a corresponding number of guests from off property to hotels to on property.  In fact, the number of guests traveling to Orlando each year remains fairly static.  The real goal is to get those off site guests on property–and Disney does that pretty well with promotions like free dining.

4.  Free dining keeps lesser known Disney restaurants running during slow times, ensuring that the staff stays trained and gainfully employed–which includes making tips. 

And here’s the big one:

5.  Competition from Universal Orlando. In the last few years, theme park fans have been the beneficiaries of the competition between Disney and Universal: Universal opens up Harry Potter, Disney opens up the Fantasyland Expansion. And back and forth with minor attractions since then. Disney, of course, is set to debut the much-anticipated (you don’t know the half of it) Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride in just a few weeks (perhaps even days), but Universal is opening up an entirely new section of  Harry Potter.

Now, for me, Universal will never beat Disney. The theming isn’t the same and the resorts aren’t as nice (and they’re all pretty uniformly expensive). Really, it just misses that certain something that Disney delivers time and time again. But I’m a diehard Disney fan so I’m quite biased. However, even I can see the allure of heading over to Universal. This new Harry Potter addition is going to be quite impressive.

Given that more theme park dollars are going to be lured over the Universal, Disney is going to have to make staying on property more attraction. And they’re going to do that by offering free dining.

Let me just say this: No one really knows if free dining is coming out for September. That’s my nice way of adding the caveat “please don’t come yelling at me if it’s not offered!”  But I would be really surprised if it didn’t happen, so get ready!  If you’re one of the many who are waiting for free dining, my suggestion is that  you jump on it the first day it’s offered. Last year, the pickings were awfully slim, especially for resorts like Port Orleans, although this was a bigger issue for the October thru December time frame than December.

Good luck!

Want a quote when free dining comes out? I’m only doing holds for free dining this time since the first day is so busy and rooms go quickly. A hold doesn’t commit you to anything, it just ensures that you get your room. For a hold I need the following information:

Everyone’s names plus the kids’ ages
Your travel dates
Resort choice(s)
Type of tickets

We can change everything later as we work out the details, but this at least gets you started with a guaranteed spot. Feel free to contact me prior to the release so I can have all your paperwork ready to go, then I’ll just email you the confirmation on the day of.  Just use the quote request form on the right or email me at ChrisW@PixieVacations.com or call 919-889-5281. As always, most clients qualify for a Disney tote and gift card.


Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival: What I Ate.

It might sound funny to highlight a post about Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival by mentioning food, but trust me, the new food booths are the best thing to hit Flower and Garden since, well, since flowers.  Disney started small last year, with just a few food booths, but they’ve added more this year. Now almost every pavilion has something to offer. Here are a few items you’ll find.

Frushi from Japan.

Frushi, basically fruit sushi, was a big surprise, a delightfully refreshing option with a subtle taste.  A homemade fruit roll takes the place of seaweed, with coconut infused, lightly-sweetened rice and chunks of cool fruit making up the filling. It’s served with a side of whipped cream, but it really doesn’t need it. I have been craving this ever since.

The Piggylicious Cupcake.

You’ll find this cupcake at the Smokehouse Barbeque and Brew kiosk at the American pavilion. This is the one pavilion where we wanted to try everything, and it mostly came through for us.  As for the cupcake, despite the praise I’d seen elsewhere, it didn’t live up to the hype.  A yellow cupcake flavored with bacon and topped with maple icing and crushed pretzels.  A good idea, right? Unfortunately its more smoke than bacon. Everyone in our group agreed it was a “must not do.”

Pork Slider and the Turkey “Rib.”

The pork slider, also at the Smokehouse, was a big surprise. It’s a meaty barbequed pork sandwich with cole slaw on a big bun. It’s a regular size sandwich, not a tiny serving like some of the items you’ll find at these booths, so bring your appetite. I live in North Carolina so I know my barbeque and this definitely passed the test.

The same cannot be said for the turkey “rib,” which is essentially a small turkey leg. Really, the taste is fine, it’s more the idea behind it that doesn’t really work. Well, it might work if you eschew pork and have a hankering for a rib experience. However, you’re probably better off sticking with tofu and passing on this.

Shrimp and Grits.

This was my favorite item both this year and last, making the Florida booth a must-do on everyone’s list. It’s pan-seared shrimp, chorizo, and grits, a traditional shrimper’s breakfast from the Carolinas.  As I said above, I live in North Carolina and if you know Southern food, you’ve probably heard of Bil Neal and Crook’s Corner, which is just a few miles from my house and considered the birthplace of new Southern cooking.  Crook’s Corner is famous for its shrimp and grits but this little tiny food booth blows their recipe out of the water any day of the week! If you’ve never had this dish, give it a try. It’s a real treat that might spoil you for an other rendition of this dish.

Watermelon Salad.

Also from the Florida booth, this watermelon salad was huge surprise. It’s served with greens, goat cheese, and a balsamic reduction. Everything about this dish was perfect, with each ingredient adding to the dish as a whole. The goat cheese was so mild it was like butter! The balsamic reduction was tangy and contrasted nicely with the sweet melon.  Looking back, you could make a delicious meal at the Florida booth–in fact, I think I will next time.

I tried a few other items but the only one that really stands out is the Taco al Pastor in Mexico. This has spicy pork and a pineapple salsa on a corn tortilla. I absolutely loved it. I’d have taken a picture, but I had a small disaster right after I bought it which involved breaking my phone. However, the taco was good! Maybe not worth dropping my phone over though.

As if Flower and Garden wasn’t an enjoyable enough experience, the addition of food booths really puts it over the top, feeding all your senses. Now you can go and enjoy a few noshes and drinks while you get inspiration for your own gardens back home. 

Newly Refurbished Main Street Bakery Opens As a Starbucks.

I had the good fortune to visit the newly refurbished Main Street Bakery on opening day last Tuesday.  After a bit of fanfare, it was business as usual with two queues and lots of registers to ring up guests and feed their coffee and pastry addictions.  Things went smoothly on this surprisingly slow opening day, but Disney will probably need to rethink the very busy pick-up area once things really get going as guests tend to congregate there making for serious congestion.

Make no bones about it: The Main Street Bakery is now a Starbucks. Disney purists will cringe at this news, but can take heart in the fact that it still essentially looks like the old Main Street Bakery, minus the seating area.  The same colors and theming are still present, albeit with the Starbucks logo. Cast members even wear the same uniforms as before.

Perhaps the biggest change can be seen in the food case. Almost none of the former pastries and desserts exist. Instead, you’ll get the same treats that are available at Starbucks locations everywhere with a few of the old Main Street Bakery items thrown in for good measure.  Coffee drinkers might say this is a fair trade given how bad the coffee in Walt Disney World was prior to the arrival of Starbucks.

The complete lack of seating is a disappointment, but not surprising given how small the space is. In its former incarnation, the Main Street Bakery was a nice cool spot to relax and enjoy a quick snack. There wasn’t a lot of seating and it was downright cozy, to put it nicely, but you could usually find a place to sit as turnover (excuse the unintentional bakery reference) was fast. By expanding the actual retail space and adding an additional queue, Disney did away with this seating area leaving nothing more than a small counter where you maybe five people can stand. Everyone else will have to walk and snack or head over to the picnic tables across from Casey’s or The Plaza.
Overall, I think the changes to the Main Street Bakery will satisfy most guests. Being able to get a decent cup of coffee in a Disney park has proven very popular in Disney California Adventure, where there’s been a Starbucks now since last year.  While some Disney diehards will lament the presence of a non-Disney corporate entity in the park (forgetting of course that this isn’t the first time this has happened), the branding is subtle and blends in well with the theming.  I think this will prove to be a well-loved spot in the Magic Kingdom.

Breakfast at Kouzzina

Kouzzina is on  Disney’s beautiful Boardwalk.

Sometimes I like to cut to the chase in these food reviews so I can spare you the ten minutes or so it might take to read (although I appreciate it if you do), so I’ll just be blunt here:  Kouzzina, at least for breakfast, is terrible.I thought the service was fine, but you expect nothing less from Disney restaurants; servers are usually well-trained and friendly.  Same too for the decor. It was “nice.”  But the food? Good lord almighty.

Now, I’m just going to come right out and say I have a strong bias toward Cat Cora. I think she’s delightful and usually, her recipes are fantastic. For this reason, it pains me to give her restaurant such a bad review, but in fairness to everyone who reads this, the truth needs to be told. Here’s a restaurant that occupies prime real estate on  Disney’s Boardwalk, surrounded by no less than five resorts, all of which have people who, presumably, are going to need to eat breakfast. Sadly, rather than serve that demographic well, Kouzzina suffers from unskilled hands in the kitchen and an unappealing menu,

Kids Mickey waffles and fruit cup.

We stayed at Boardwalk last weekend and decided that eating breakfast before we went to the parks would be easier on the kids.  Kouzzina was right there and I’d been wanting to try it so we walked in at around 9:00. The restaurant was empty and service was quick.  My twins ordered the Mickey pancakes which were heavy and slightly greasy. These were doused with syrup and eaten with few complaints, as you might expect from little kids who haven’t quite blossomed into food critics. At least at $6.99, you’re not spending much more than you would at a quick-service restaurant.  My older son had the Mickey waffles. These were actually quite good, fluffy and a little sweet.  I would definitely recommend skipping the pancakes in favor of these.

Spinach, eggs, tomatoes and feta. And more feta.

The real problem, however, was with my and my husband’s breakfast.  I won’t mince words here: They were both awful. My husband ordered the scrambled eggs with spinach, tomatoes and feta.  This actually sounds like a great combination, but if you know feta, you know that a little goes a long way. The cook, apparently, wasn’t aware of this old chestnut or perhaps he just had an extra block of it laying around and felt like bestowing upon us a rather large chunk of cheese. Whatever the case, it completely overwhelmed what was potentially a nice dish. To the chef’s credit, the eggs weren’t overcooked and the potatoes were edible. The sausages were the same breakfast links you see all over property, only this time they were made of chicken rather than pork. Good but not remarkable.

Stacked Kouzzina Breakfast.
I had the stacked Kouzzina breakfast, which is two poached eggs covered in an artichoke spread served atop a sweet potato hash. It comes with a side of bacon or chicken sausage and kalamata olive toast.  I ordered this mainly because I love sweet potatoes but also because I thought it was an interesting nod to both Cat Cora’s Greek heritage and her southern roots and I wondered how this would come together. I think you might know where this is going, right? Taken alone, the elements of the dish were fine. The hash, while bland, was good comfort food. The eggs were perfectly poached. Even the kalamata toast was nice. But thrown together in one dish? It was laughably bad!  I have rarely met an artichoke I didn’t like, but the mess that was served on top of the eggs was a salty disaster. If there was any artichoke in there you couldn’t prove it by me.
The one plus Kouzzina has going for it at breakfast is the crowds: There are none. You can literally waltz right in and be seated right away most days, and maybe that’s the problem. With everyone rushing to the parks or to character breakfasts at other resorts, there’s really no need to tinker with the menu. This is a shame because there are very few places to eat a sit down, non-character breakfast in the Epcot resort area.
I’m willing to bet that if you stick with the “American” style breakfast on the menu–that is, a simple platter of bacon, egg, toast and biscuits–you’ll be a lot happier. I’m also curious to try Kouzzina now for dinner, as I’ve actually heard good things about it. Will it be just as bad?  I don’t know if I’m willing to chance it. With so many good restaurants just a fifteen minute walk away in Epcot, it’s going to be really hard to get me back in there. I may have to just keep wondering.

Hard to Get: What’s the Most Popular Dining Reservation on Property?

Dessert selection at Be Our Guest.

What’s the most difficult to get reservation on Disney property? It changes all the time and I think what we’re seeing now is an interesting reflection of some changes Disney has made in the last year. Old favorites now have availability, whereas new restaurants or just restaurants that are perceived as a better deal, are packed.

It used to be that Le Cellier, the steakhouse located in Epcot’s Canada Pavilion, was the most highly coveted dining reservation there was in Walt Disney World. You could almost guarantee that every seat would be taken by noon at the 180-day mark, which is the first day you can make your advanced dining reservations (ADRs). Since there was no policy in place to penalize guests who made reservations and didn’t show up, those reservations rarely opened once they were filled. You could try for a walk up, but it was still pretty much impossible to get in without a good six months of prior planning. That changed when Le Cellier went from one table-service credit to two and, to a lesser extent, when Disney added a penalty for no-shows.

The no-show penalty has been great for both guests and Disney.  In the past, Disney restaurants experienced up to 30% now shows on any given day. This is really hard on the kitchen and servers.  Guests would either make multiple reservations for each meal because they didn’t  know where they would be each day or they would simply not show up because they were tired or otherwise occupied.  Now, most restaurants impose a one-day cancellation penalty or you’ll incur a $10 charge per person.  As someone who makes dining reservations several days a week, I can’t tell you how much this has improved availability

Try the Grey Stuff. It’s  . . well, it’s just okay.

Another shift we’ve seen is the huge gain in popularity of Ohana for dinner. It’s always been a top 10 restaurant, but when Le Cellier went to two credits for lunch and dinner, you could immediately feel the shift as families chose the better deal, just one table-service credit as opposed to two.  It’s getting harder and harder to book Ohana because of this.

Finally, Be Our Guest, Disney’s newest table-service restaurant in the Magic Kingdom’s recent Fantasyland expansion, has proven to be a huge success. It’s impossible to book, even 180-days out plus 10 days (which is the added booking window Disney gives on-site guests).  But it’s not just the popularity. A lot of Disney restaurants serve two or even three daily meals. That’s a lot of guests served over the course of a day.  Be Our Guest only has one table-service meal, which is dinner. So even though the restaurant holds a lot of guests, you’re still limited by having just one table-service seating.

So, what are the most difficult to get restaurants?  Here’s my top five;

5.  Cinderella’s Royal  Table
4.  Chef Mickey’s
3.  Le Cellier
2.  Ohana
1.  Be Our Guest

Le Cellier is still hugely popular, but you no longer need to book it the moment dining opens at 180 days.  Same with Cinderella’s Royal Table and to a lesser extent, Chef Mickey’s. I would suggest booking close to, if not on, the 180 day mark, but you’ll likely find openings for all of these three for the first week of availability even if you don’t get your ideal time. The real source of stress here is Ohana and Be Our Guest. You’re going to need to make your dining reservations when it opens up at 180 days–that 7:00 a.m. eastern!  These will go fast.

Rose-shaped napkin at Be our Guest.

I guess it’s only fair to tell you what, in my experience, are the easiest restaurants to book. The thing about these restaurants is that they’re often better experiences than the top five choices I listed above and I think part of that reason is that they’re not as busy. For example, you’d do better at Akershus in Epcot, both in regard to food and character interaction, than at Cinderella’s Royal Table. A lot of Disney World vets know this already, but newbies are more likely to head over to CRT because they want to meet the princesses and eat in the castle, but the experience at Akershus is very similar for half the price.  Actually, I think it’s better.  Same with Tusker House. You’ll meet the same characters as you would at Chef Mickey’s, but the food is lightyears better and I’ve always found the character interaction less rushed. Finally, you’ll notice that none of the more “grown up” signature restaurants are on hard-to-get list. They’re some of the best dining choices in Disney World, but people shy away because of the cost.  Next time you’re making ADRs, think about adding a two-credit meal. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

When it comes right down to it, those guests who make their ADRs at the 180 mark are ahead of the game, but don’t despair if you don’t plan your trips that far out in advance. Instead, look for alternatives and if your heart is set on one of those impossible to get ADRs, wait until the day before you want to dine. The new system is forcing people to cancel reservations rather than simply forgetting about them. This means that your dream restaurant might just open up at the last minute.

The Year in Disney Food: How Did 2012 Stack Up?

Asian-inspired wings and dumplings at Ohana.

If you read here, follow me on Facebook, or listen to the podcast, you know that I consider food an integral part of the Disney experience, whether it’s at the parks, hotels, or on the ships. Fortunately, most Disney food is good and some of it, dare I say it, is great. We’re lucky as Disney fans that the food one finds in Disney parks is better than most food you’d find at similar venues, but that doesn’t mean we don’t hit the occasional bump. This got me thinking: What’s been going on with food this year? What was good, what’s changed, and what’ just plain overrated? Here are a few thoughts:


Most Improved:

Ohana in the Polynesian Resort.  For the longest time I’ve thought Ohana delivered fun over substance as each successive experience has yielded questionable service and just so-so food. A trip in March only confirmed this feeling, but two visits since then have completely changed my way of thinking.  When the service is good, and by that I mean when you are actually being served what’s on the menu instead of just one or two meat offerings and a lot of salad, it’s a great deal. Add to that an atmosphere that’s always festive and you have a real winner, especially for one table-service credit on the dining plan. Make sure you make reservations far in advance as this restaurant is one of the most popular on property.

Pepperoni pizza at Via Napoli.

Biggest Decline:

Via Napoli in Epcot’s Italy Pavilion:  I eat at Via Napoli every time I go to Disney World and I’ve been one of their biggest fans. Sadly, it’s gotten increasingly worse each visit this year:  Watery pizzas, burnt crust, spotty service. While I understand that a certain amout of charring on a wood-fired pizza crust is to be expected, even desired, being served a pizza which is entirely charred on the underside is inexcusable. Likewise, fresh mozzarella has a high water content, but you shouldn’t have pools of water on top of your pizza.  Finally, while the servers at Via Napoli have always been charming, compliments and witty banter don’t make up for the fact that the service has been extremely slow lately.  This restaurant started out really strong and kept it going for several years, but they’ve clearly hit a slump.  On a positive note, I had lunch there last week and it was fantastic–let’s hope this is a good sign for 2013.

Dessert cart at Be Our Guest.

Best Quick-Service Lunch:

Be Our Guest Restaurant in the new Fantasyland Expansion.  Hands down, the best lunch on property. Nice selections, great service, a beautiful setting, and decent prices all make up for what this restaurant lacks at dinner. 

Worst Quick Service Lunch:

Pinocchio Village Haus. Walk, don’t run, from this travesty of a quick-service location located in the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland. The only thing this place has going for it is a large window that overlooks It’s a Small World. That’s right. That’s all I could come up with.

Wolfgang Puck Express in Downtown Disney.

 
 Best Quick-Service Dinner:

Wolfgang Puck Express in Downtown  Disney. This is one of my favorite places to eat at Walt Disney World, with fresh food and an atmosphere that doesn’t feel like “fast food.” One caveat:  It’s very expensive if you’re not on the dining plan with prices approaching or exceeding the average cost of a sit-down restaurant in the parks. Skip it if you’re on a budget.

Best Table-Service Meal, Non-Signature:

Rose and Crown Pub in Epcot. This is a tough one because a lot of people, especially parents, are going to be put off by the word “pub” in the name, but Rose and Crown is only a pub in the Disney sense of the word. Go for the fish and chips, although those who avoid seafood will find plenty on the menu to enjoy, including the delicious sticky toffee pudding.  In nice weather, get an outside table if you can and enjoy a leisurely meal. This restaurant is super kid-friendly but lively enough after 8;30 or so that 20-somethings can go in and get a little loud. 

Honorable mention: While I’ve had mixed experiences, Ohana is still going strong as the most popular restaurant on property.

Steak at Be Our Guest at dinner.

Most Overrated Table-Service Dinner, Non-Signature:

Be Our Guest Restaurant in the new Fantasyland expansion.  Here’s the thing: It’s still the best table-service restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, but they could do so much more with it. I’ve been hearing good things about BOG lately and I’m hoping this continues. I’ll definitely give it a second (and a third) chance this year.

Dessert at Yachtsman Steakhouse.

Best Signature Restaurant:

I’m going to cheat here and not pick one because I think most Disney signature restaurants are good.  Want a great meal in a beautiful setting in what’s otherwise a pretty barren landscape when it comes to food? Try the Brown Derby in Hollywood Studios.  Looking for a “big night” kind of place? California Grill (currently scheduled for refurbishment the first six months of 2013) fits the bill perfectly with a gorgeous view of the Magic Kingdom at night.  And if fine dining is more your style, don’t miss Citricos in the Grand Floridian, one of the best restaurants in the area.  I wish more guests would try Disney’s signatures–it really is an entirely different dining experience.

Best Character Meal:

Breakfast at Tusker House in Animal Kingdom.  The best character meal is in a park you might not visit on your next trip: Animal Kingdom.  Often overlooked as a “half-day park” or as “just another zoo,” Animal Kingdom benefits from fewer guests and so will you.  It’s pretty hard to mess up breakfast, but Donald’s Safari Breakfast in Tusker House manages to take your typical breakfast buffet to another level, offering a wide variety of fresh food. The excellent character interaction is almost second to the food, but fortunately, it’s some of the best on property. Next time you want to mingle with Donald, Mickey, Daisy, Minnie, and Goofy, give Tusker House a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Akershus in Epcot’s Norway Pavilion.

Best Princess Character Meal.

Akershus Royal Banquet Hall.  You’ll meet most of the same princesses here as you would at Cinderella’s Royal Table for about half the price (or, if you’re on the dining plan, one table-service credit instead of two). The food is your standard Disney buffet food with a few Scandinavian specialties thrown in for good measure (Read: Fish), but it’s always fresh and there’s plenty of it.  The princesses change all the time, but you’ll usually see four or five and they’re very good about giving each table plenty of opportunities for pictures. A photograph with one of the princesses is included in the price of your meal, making this a great bargain.

Most  Overrated Character Meal:

Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary Resort.  Go for breakfast if you really want to meet the  Fab Five at the Contemporary; dinner at this location is a letdown. Sure, you’re going here for the character interaction, which is good, but you want a good meal too, right?

Best Snack:

The Citrus Swirl. Combining both tart and sweet, the citrus swirl gives you the best of both worlds. Watch out, Dole Whip.

Kids’ Runner-up: Mickey Bar.

Disneyland: We bow to your churro greatness.

Battle of the Churros:

In the battle of the churros, Disneyland is the clear winner: Crispy, sweet with a touch of cinnamon, these churros make Disney World’s seem like poor cousins. 

Delicious fish entree from Club 33.

Best Personal Dining Experience of 2013.

Disneyland’s Club 33:  I was fortunate to be able to eat here in August. While there were hits and misses with the service, the food was spectacular and the setting was incredible. It’s every Disney fan’s dream to eat here–thanks to my boss for always looking out for Mouse Chat and making it happen.

Ribeye at Le Cellier.

Worst Personal  Dining Experience of 2013:

Le Cellier in Epcot’s Canada Pavilion:  Don’t call yourself a signature restaurant and then serve food that isn’t any better than an Outback–and that’s being generous. This is definitely one over-hyped reservation I won’t be fighting for in the future.

The Big Dining Question for 2013:

Will the dining plan still be worth it and have we seen the end of free dining?  As a travel agent, I’d like you to buy the dining plan. As a consumer, I’d like you to think twice about it, especially as prices continue to climb.  We didn’t see free dining offered for the January to March time period, making all of us wondering if it will be offered in the fall. I think it will be, but that remains to be seen.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion and is not meant to offend. I hope you have a great 2013 filled with lots of happiness and wonderful Disney food.

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