Dining at Walt Disney World restaurants is something that requires planning and some knowledge. Here are our top 10 Disney Dining tips that will save you money, time, and make your meals at Walt Disney World more enjoyable. Whether you’re on the Disney Dining Plan or paying out of pocket, these tips should assist you!
Of course, dining isn’t the only aspect of your Walt Disney World vacation that you need to plan! If you’re new to the Walt Disney World vacation “scene,” make sure to check out our Disney Tips & Tricks page for a lot of helpful tips to outsmart the (foolish!) masses. Also check out our dining reviews to find the best restaurants and our trip planning posts to figure out what to pack, which tickets to buy, which discounts to look for, and all the other ins and outs of a trip to Walt Disney World!
For now, though, here are our top ten tips for dining at Walt Disney World!
10. Make Advance Dining Reservations – You can make Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs) to Walt Disney World restaurants 180 days before your trip. Take advantage of this, because popular restaurants like Le Cellier, Cinderella’s Royal Table, and Chef Mickey’s book up months in advance. The importance of ADRs for popular restaurants cannot be understated, and if you’re taking advantage of a Free Disney Dining Plan package, this is especially important, because there are other people also booking this same package, and restaurant reservations increase at these times of year. We’ve heard horror stories from guests who book Free Dining, then just show up, expecting to eat anywhere…and unable to find a table at even the most unpopular restaurants. Make your reservations as early as possible. When used the Disney Dining Plan in the past, we’ve been on the phone with Disney Dining right at 8 am 180 days in advance to make sure we got the reservations we wanted. Sometimes, we still didn’t get them.
Recent changes, including steps taken to reduce the number of double-bookings and the introduction of a $10 credit card hold at select restaurants for ADRs have increased the walk-up availability at many less-popular restaurants. We’ve been able to walk-up and obtain tables at Via Napoli, Sanaa, Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, and the Hollywood Brown Derby all with less than 30 minute waits. Of course, if you have a party of 10, this may be much more difficult. Regardless of your party size, don’t bank on this strategy working.
9. Eat at Less-Popular Restaurants – If you’re reading this page for the first time 10 days before your trip and you haven’t followed tip #10, this tip is for you. You may scoff at the idea of eating at bad restaurants, but luckily, “less-popular” is NOT synonymous with bad in this context. At Walt Disney World, there are a lot of restaurants that are less-popular due to their out-of-the-way locations. These restaurants, such as Sanaa, Trail’s End, Olivia’s Cafe, Captain’s Grille, Big River Grille, Turf Club Bar & Grill, are typically found at resort-hotels that aren’t on the monorail loop. Even The Wave, a restaurant within walking distance of the Magic Kingdom rarely is booked solid. You can get an idea of other unpopular restaurants by playing around with the online Walt Disney World dining reservations booking engine (pick a random date about a week away, don’t specify a specific location so that it returns all restaurants on property, and see what’s available–repeating this process for several random days should give you an idea of what restaurants might be unpopular).
8. Snacks – If your primary concern is saving money, bring your own snacks. High protein or fiber snacks, like beef jerky, energy bars, and fiber bars, are great for the parks. Bringing these into the parks can save you a lot of money over the course of your trip, as every snack at Walt Disney World will set you back around $3-6. That adds up over the course of the trip. If you drink water but cannot stand the taste of the drinking fountain water at Walt Disney World, head into a restaurant and request a (complimentary!) cup of ice water. Better yet, bring a Brita 24-Ounce Water Filter Bottle so you can filter your own water on the go! (For more snack-packing suggestions, check out our Disney Packing List.)
Alternatively, if you’re not worried about saving money, make sure that you don’t forget to snack! Walt Disney World has amazing snacks: cupcakes (here are our top cupcakes), Dole Whips, churros, and so many other amazing treats are available at Walt Disney World. There have been occasions that we’ve done so much snacking at Walt Disney World that we were too full for an actual meal!
7. Order Only What You Want – A great way to experience the neat ambiance of some Walt Disney World table service restaurants is to visit the restaurant just for dessert or for an appetizer and dessert. We’ve done this at the Hollywood Brown Derby, for example, to try their famed Cobb Salad and Grapefruit Cake. After just the salad and dessert, I was beyond full, and it only cost a bit more than an average counter service meal before tip. Speaking of tips, if you do this, make sure to consider the fact that you’re occupying a table when leaving your tip. For this reason, we often order our dessert/appetizer-only meals at the restaurant bars, which usually offer just as great of ambiance as the tables in the restaurant.
Similarly, at most counter service restaurants, the menu lists a combo price that includes an entree and fries, apple slices, or a salad. However, you can usually purchase the entree by itself to save a few bucks. Personally, I can’t imagine giving up my delicious french fries, but if you don’t want them, why pay the $2-3 extra for them? Make sure to inquire about this with the cashier before ordering, as you don’t want to forfeit a side without a corresponding savings!
6. Do Table Service Lunch – …If you’re paying out of pocket. If you’re on the Disney Dining Plan, don’t worry about prices (or maximize your value by eating at expensive restaurants, if you’re so inclined.) At Walt Disney World, table service breakfasts are often overpriced for what they offer, and table service dinner is often the same cuisine as lunch, except more expensive. Lunch is the best value, and is often the least crowded meal. Plus, eating during the hottest and most crowded time of day can give you a an air-conditioned reprieve from heat and crowds!
5. Share Meals – This tip is really a two-for-one tip. The first being that you can order items that are large enough for two people to share. For years, our go-to meal to share has been the 1/2 Chicken & Barbecued Rib Combo at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe. It’s $15 (or $7.50 each, which is relatively cheap considering what you get), but it’s easily enough food to feed two people, and it tastes pretty good. We used to order a double cheeseburger at Cosmic Ray’s, then order an extra bun for $.75 and make two burgers (which always worked well with the toppings bar), but the price of an extra bun increased substantially in 2008, making this option less appealing.
Even though I’ve reviewed both poorly, the pizza options at Pizzafari and Pizza Planet also qualify as reasonably priced “split” options. Same goes with the Oak-Grilled Rotisserie Chicken at Sunshine Seasons or just about any entree at Tangierine Cafe. You might also be able to split the 1/2 Slab of St. Louis Ribs at Flame Tree BBQ given the sides, but these ribs are so delicious that I can’t in good conscience recommend ever sharing them. If someone tried to eat any of my Flame Tree BBQ ribs, I’d likely bite their finger. Other sharing options abound at Counter Service restaurants, and are even easier to accomplish at Table Service restaurants (just ask your server about portion sizes).
The second part of this two-for-one tip is to order different foods than those you’re with, so you can sample a broader selection of dining options to sample. Chances are that you’ll never be able to eat every dish at every Disney restaurant in your lifetime, and so many are delicious, so this is a great way to try as many as possible. This is easy for Sarah and I as it’s just the two of us (we rarely order the same foods), but might be more difficult if you have a party of 18. I’m not suggesting that each and every person order a different meal in a party of 18 and split them all. Use your discretion.
4. Eat Early – I’ve read several Disney guidebooks that recommend eating at “off hours.” In general, I think this advice is only partially wise. There are a couple reasons you should always eat early rather than eating late (the other option in the “off hours” advice). First, because this is when elderly people eat, and they’re really pleasant (okay, not a real reason…but true!). Second, because restaurants are less crowded when they first open. Finally, because you catch servers at the beginning of their shifts, when they are most “fresh” and attentive, and more inclined to give you wonderful service. I’m not saying that Disney servers will ever be anything less than delightful, but if you go at the end of the night, you’re more likely to encounter restaurant staff who are burned out after a long day of work.
The one exception to this is if you’re going to be dining at a restaurant that has a view of something. At Walt Disney World, this means any of the restaurants at Magic Kingdom resorts that offer a view of Wishes (California Grill, Narcoossee’s, or ‘Ohana), any restaurants with an Illuminations view (Monsieur Paul, Rose & Crown, La Hacienda de San Angel, or Tokyo Dining). If you’re having dinner at one of these restaurants, make a late reservation that will have dessert coincide with the fireworks, arrive early, and request a window table that will offer a view of the fireworks.
Speaking of which, and making this a bit of a two-fer, the best restaurants with fireworks views, in our opinion, are California Grill for a view of Wishes and Tokyo Dining for a view of Illuminations. The caveat with BOTH is that the best view will not come from your table. It will come from going outside during or after your meal (the restaurants don’t mind) and watching the shows. The photo above is the view from the second floor balcony at Tokyo Dining. Pretty nice view, right?!
3. Speak Up – Disney is famous for its world class service, and this world class service extends to restaurants. All guests will (or at least should!) receive great service by default, but there are some things that you can’t receive if you don’t ask. If you’re celebrating something at your meal, make a note of this on the reservation. If you have a food allergy or can’t eat a particular type of food, let your server know. If a particular side that’s served with an entree that otherwise looks delicious to you doesn’t sound so appealing, ask for a substitution. If you have a 8:30 pm reservation for California Grill, ask the hostess if it would be possible to wait for a window table.
This is just a partial list of the many things you can request when dining in Walt Disney World. If something comes to mind that you think might be possible for the restaurant to do to make your experience better, ASK! The worst thing that can happen is you’re told that they cannot accommodate your request. What’s much more likely, though, is that your request will be accommodated and you’ll have a much more enjoyable experience. You’re paying a lot of money for your Disney vacation, don’t be afraid to speak up when there’s something that could make your Disney dining experience a little better. Just make sure to be reasonable and polite. Servers deal with a lot of disgruntled guests who have an “I’m on vacation, everyone should cater to my every demand because this cost me a lot of money, damnit!” attitude. Always remember your grandmother’s adage: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
2. Read Reviews – Some restaurants at Walt Disney World have good reputations, some have bad reputations. Read reviews to determine which restaurants to avoid, and which to add to your “must visit” list. Read a variety of reviews, as one person’s opinion may differ dramatically from the norm, or their experience at a restaurant might be an outlier. While I am a big fan of my own opinions, you shouldn’t just read my Walt Disney World dining reviews. Once or twice in my life, I have been “wrong.” (I can HEAR Sarah roll her eyes as she reads this!) I don’t necessarily think it’s possible to be “wrong” with a dining review, but since they’re largely subjective, it’s good to get a few opinions. You should read a large cross section of reviews on various websites (even single sites that offer aggregate scores of many guests can skew one way or the other based upon the tone of the site) to determine where you want to eat. Many Disney sites offer restaurant reviews, make sure to read reviews on other sites you visit!
If that still doesn’t satisfy you, consider reading the reviews for comments on aspects of restaurants that are more static: ambiance, type of menu, and theme. For example, “T-REX Café is a loud restaurant serving American cuisine in a pre-historic environment that will likely appeal to the dinosaur lovers in your family.” This description is objective, and two guests, going on different days in different months, are likely to both experience this. By contrast, “T-REX Cafe sucks because our food was cold when we ate there and our server was slow and constantly coughing” is completely subjective. Different people will experience different things (often vastly different) during their meal. The same person could go to the same restaurant ten different times and give it a different score out of 10 each time.
Likewise, don’t be scared away from a restaurant that sounds interesting to you just because of some negative reviews. If I had done that, we would’ve never eaten at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theatre, which is now one of my favorite Walt Disney World restaurants!
1. Discounts – Disney Dining is expensive. Luckily, there are ways to save money. If you’re heading to Walt Disney World, determine whether the Disney Dining Plan will save you money. If so, book it. If not, determine whether you qualify for the Tables in Wonderland card and if so, determine whether it will save you money. I could go on for paragraphs and paragraphs about these two options, and why you should consider them. If you’re interesting in reading about them in more depth, read our thorough Tables in Wonderland page and our Disney Dining Plan page.
If neither of these discount-options are for you, consider eating at bluezoo, Il Mulino, Kimono’s, or Shula’s at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resorts; restaurants.com often offers $25 certificates for $10 to these restaurants. Some restaurants also offer an Annual Passholder discount. Determine whether the savings you’ll receive from the 10-20% Annual Passholder dining discounts justifies one person in your party purchasing an Annual Pass.
What are your top Walt Disney World dining tips? Share them or any questions you have about these tips in the comments!