Disney Counter Service Renaissance?

I’ve long rallied against the notion that food at Walt Disney World and Disneyland consists of “only burgers, hot dogs, and other fast food” of that ilk. I shared some of my favorite unique counter service options in a “Beyond Burgers” article here this summer, and urged a non-Disney fan audience to reconsider preconceptions about Disney dining in a Huffington Post article that landed on the front page of AOL.com earlier this year. Much has been written on this topic by me and others around the web, and I think more and more people are realizing that there’s more to Disney dining than the tired stereotype suggests.

I won’t beat a dead horse with another article on there being more than meets the eye to Disney dining. However, an interesting related topic, I think, is the evolution of counter service menus at Walt Disney World and Disneyland in recent years to offer more variety and more sophisticated options. At a time when table service restaurants are, arguably, devolving or becoming homogenized, counter service options are more varied and interesting than ever. It’s almost to the point that you could take a vacation to Disney and have a great overall dining experience on trip without ever sitting down at a table service restaurant. Almost.

I believe this evolution started at Disneyland Resort, where Village Haus (read our post-refurbishment review) and Hungry Bear Restaurant (read our post-refurbishment review) each were refurbished in 2010 with complete overhauls to their menus. Those new menus garnered rave reviews from most, and since then, it seems that Disney has systematically gone through its counter service offerings and added signature items to each menu, and also has attempted to make the menus more varied and healthy overall. There has been speculation that this is a quiet, personal initiative of Tom Staggs, who took over as Disney Parks & Resorts Chairman shortly before this all started and is a purported health nut, which is a plausible explanation but is thus far unconfirmed. Some new menus, like the comfort food served at Flo’s V8 Cafe, buck the health trend, but overall there’s little denying that menus are trending upward in overall quality.

What, exactly, has changed on the counter service menus throughout the theme parks? In some cases the changes have been simple, like the switch from regular fries to sweet potato fries at a variety of locations (a change I do not endorse!). In other cases, a handful of more interesting or complex items are added to existing menus that are otherwise pretty generic (such as the addition of steak to the otherwise uninspired Liberty Inn) to give them a shot in the arm. In more rare cases, there have been wholesale changes from one menu to a totally different one, usually corresponding with a refurbishment or redo of an existing restaurant.

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If I had to pick a single park that has undergone the greatest transformation, it’s easily the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. The most heavily-attended theme park in the world once also had the worst counter service food of any U.S. Disney theme park, but over the last couple of years, there has been a gradual uptick. It still might occupy the last place slot for counter service dining options, but the Magic Kingdom has closed the gap, and is now arguably better than Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This improvement is no small feat, as up until early 2011, Sarah often endured Cosmic Ray’s so that I could enjoy Sonny Eclipse, or we left the Magic Kingdom to eat at one of the monorail resorts. The options were that underwhelming.

If memory serves me correctly, the first two restaurants to turn the corner were Columbia Harbour House and Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe. Columbia Harbour House added a few new items to its menu, previously consisting almost entirely of fried stuff from the sea, to include a surprisingly good Lobster Roll and Grilled Salmon. Not the types of things you’d expect from theme park counter service, and frankly, when these first appeared, we were a little apprehensive that “higher end” options could actually taste good at a counter service restaurant. But they did. Cosmic Ray’s early menu changes weren’t quite as successful (the infamous Pizza Burger immediately comes to mind), but I have to give them credit for trying, and for continuing to tinker with the menu, as it’s now fairly solid.

Disney hasn’t stopped there with the Magic Kingdom menus. Since, Sleepy Hollow has introduced some incredible waffle sandwiches, Sunshine Tree Terrace has received an expanded menu including the cult-favorite Citrus Swirl, Pinocchio Village Haus has received an new menu with a number of flatbreads, and the menu at the new Be Our Guest Restaurant looks like it will be another winner with many unique offerings. Even the typical theme park fare, burgers and hot dogs, have had some twists added to them, with new varieties of burgers at Cosmic Ray’s and Pecos Bill and interesting hot dog options (ever had a Philly Cheese Steak hot dog?!) at Lunching Pad and Casey’s Corner. All of these changes have caused a marked change in Magic Kingdom counter service dining, shifting it from “barely tolerable” to “downright enjoyable” depending upon what you order. What a difference two years makes.

This trend is not unique to Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom. Every other U.S. Disney theme park has also been impacted. Disney California Adventure has never been a culinary slouch thanks to its numerous restaurants, but Disney stepped up its game a bit further in 2011, when it opened Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta, and then in 2012 when the highly praised restaurants of Cars Land and Buena Vista Street opened.

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Similarly, Animal Kingdom has long been regarded as offering some of the best counter service options in Walt Disney World, and even they have enhanced their menus. Animal Kingdom has added signature salads and a variety of other intriguing options at Pizzafari, Flame Tree BBQ, and Restaurantosaurus. Disney’s Hollywood Studios has also received some new menu items at its various counter service restaurants, and although it’s a good start, there’s a lot more work to be done. Once Be Our Guest Restaurant opens to the general public in the Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios should fall into last place among the parks. Epcot is about the only park that hasn’t received big changes, which is fairly understandable given its high quality, and even it has received new items like the aforementioned steak at Liberty Inn. Electric Umbrella could still use some serious help, but otherwise Epcot is in great shape.

In researching this post (although I remembered most of these changes off the top of my head, we don’t visit Walt Disney World quite that often so some research was necessary!), every change I found that has been made to counter service menus at Walt Disney World and Disneyland in the last two years with the exception of two changes (the aforementioned Pizza Burger and the entirety of the menu at the sub-par Tortuga Tavern) was a change that I would deem to be one for the better. Granted, in some cases the changes have resulted in some price increases, but let’s be honest: it’s Disney, price increases are inevitable. If anything, I would say that the prices have not increased as much as food quality has increased.

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The improvements at counter service restaurants are even more impressive when compared to changes at table service restaurants. While I haven’t done any type of comprehensive research on table service restaurants, we eat a fair number of meals at table service restaurants, and I’d say that while some have improved (Sci Fi Dine In Theater is notable on that list), many have been pretty stagnant or have gone downhill a bit. California Grill is one restaurant that I think fits the bill in this regard (we’ll see if the big refurbishment restores its glory), as is Narcoossee’s, and even Le Cellier, which recently had its “status” raised to Signature but still seems less impressive than it was a few years ago. Mind you, I’m not as critical of table service dining at Walt Disney World as many out there–I think the food is exceptional at the restaurants we normally visit and I realize that you pay a premium for the location in Walt Disney World as compared to similar restaurants in the “real” world–but I can’t help but wonder whether the “free” Disney Dining Plan has dumbed down menus to a degree while also causing prices to become artificially inflated to create the impression of value amongst Disney Dining Plan patrons. A thorough examination of the trends in table service dining is another post for another day, but I think it’s fair to say, based simply upon a broad anecdotal glance at restaurants, that counter service restaurants are almost universally improving whereas what is happening across the board at table service restaurants generally cannot be construed as an improvement.

Given all of this, the answer to the question posed by the title of this post is clearly and unequivocally “yes,” at least in my opinion. That said, where does counter service go from here? Is the best yet to come? I certainly hope that restaurants continue to improve as I think they can continue to get better, but I think we’re close to reaching the high water mark in Disney dining. Counter service dining in the Disney theme parks is already leagues ahead of what you’ll find at most other amusement and theme parks, and I really wonder how popular the more ‘refined’ options are amongst Disney guests. It would not surprise me at all if the more adventurous items are not popular with average Disney guests, causing Disney to nix these from menus in the future in favor of “safer” options.

I certainly hope that doesn’t happen (I’m doing my part by buying about 30 waffle sandwiches from Sleepy Hollow each trip!), but it wouldn’t surprise me if it does. One thing I think we can count on, however, is Disney continuing to head down the “health food” path, or at least paying lip service to the notion of healthier eating. As someone who really doesn’t have much interest in eating healthy on vacation, I’m not too excited at the prospect of exchanging fries for apple slices, but I’m glad to see the options out there for parents who want to encourage healthy eating.

Have you noticed improvements in Disney counter service dining? What do you think of the changes? Share your thoughts in the comments!

3 Responses to “Disney Counter Service Renaissance?”
  1. GrumpyFan October 26, 2012
  2. Matt Hochberg October 24, 2012
    • Tom Bricker October 24, 2012

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