October 2011: It’s a love-hate relationship with eating in the theme parks. For many visitors, it’s fuel to keep going, and it makes little difference whether it’s a burger, hot dog, or piece of fried chicken. Many people snack their way through the day to avoid wasting time, gulping down a soda and gnawing on a turkey leg (Disney reportedly sells 1.5 million per year) while standing in line.
In general, Orlando fast food inside theme parks is good but not great, expensive but not over the top. (Strange exception: The food inside Universal’s Islands of Adventure is better than the food inside Universal Studios.) Most parks have decent sit-down restaurants too, and they raise the price if it’s character dining, meaning one or more cartoon characters walk around the restaurant and spend a few minutes with you.
Consider the following:
• Read Dining within Walt Disney World for practical tips on selecting a Disney restaurant inside or outside a park.
• Study the theme park restaurants. A general how-to guide to dining inside the parks – Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, and Sea World – provides an overview of each company’s system. A separate restaurant listing – one for each major theme park – gives you a thumbnail breakdown of all restaurants by name, type of service, and cost. It also lists a sampling of food to help picky eaters opt for the one that caters to their needs. To study restaurants, go to: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, or Sea World.
• Make a reservation. It’s not worth pre-planning fast food dining. Most people pick a nearby restaurant when they notice hunger pangs. But if you don’t make a reservation for sit-down meals, you’ll probably miss out. Some restaurants – notably Cinderella’s Royal Table inside the Magic Kingdom’s castle – sell out early. At the least, the top dinner times fill up fast even in the slow season, and if you wait until arrival, you could end up dining at 4 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. Disney guests can make a reservation 180 days before arrival by calling (407) WDW-DINE or (407) 939-3463. (Note: 20 restaurants charge a $10 per guest fee for reservations not cancelled with 24 hours.) Call Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure at (407) 224-4012. Reserve at Sea World on the day you arrive.
• Pick a park for fine dining. Many people plan on one or two top-of-the-line dinners. If that’s you, make one at Epcot. It’s the only park where dining goes hand-in-hand with the experience.
• Character dining is not fine dining. Kids love it when characters stop by, and the food is generally a cut above fast food. But this event is more for kids than adults, even if it’s expensive. (The stuffed characters don’t talk, so even the conversation can be dull.)
• Eat outside the park. Every park, with the exception of Sea World, offers access to upscale hotel restaurants and a wider selection of fast food within easy walking distance. In many cases, such as the Magic Kingdom, transportation could be by monorail or boat. Weigh the extra time it takes to get to the restaurant against the joy of thinner crowds, and consider it an option. All parks allow guests to exit and return on the same day. If visiting during the busy season, this also gives you a chance to catch a short nap in a lobby chair while the kids spend time in the playground.
• Eat a late lunch. Lunch generally costs less, albeit with a smaller selection of food, and most restaurants serve lunch until mid-afternoon. If you eat breakfast at the hotel, consider a lunch around 3 p.m. and heavy snacking for the rest of the day. Since park attendance peaks in the afternoon, a late lunch reservation allows you to enjoy more rides in the early morning or at night.
• Don’t forget parades and shows. If a parade starts at 9 p.m., an 8 p.m. dinner reservation probably won’t get you out in time. Plan accordingly.