When people return from Walt Disney World dissatisfied with their vacation, they usually express two complaints: lines were too long and they got sick of only eating burgers and hot dogs. I’ve heard these complaints from a lot of friends and colleagues, and they make my blood boil. It’s easy to avoid the crowds at Walt Disney World, and it’s even easier to have a good meal.
How this complaint persists despite the numerous varied menu options at Walt Disney World actually astonishes me. The complaints about crowds I understand, because avoiding crowds can require a good plan of attack and visiting Walt Disney World at the right times (of the day and of the year). But food complaints make no sense…there are unique dining options literally everywhere. Good counter service dining at Walt Disney World is about as difficult to find as that Castle at the end of Main Street. My best guess is that most guests are grabbing food from food carts that serve turkey legs, hot dogs, and churros or are only going to the big restaurants and are only looking at the burgers on those menus.
Whatever the reason, some guests have difficulty “discovering” some of the other counter service foods beyond burgers. To combat this, here are our tips for exploring counter service dining at Walt Disney World, including specific dishes that we highly recommend. Even if you’re well-versed in Disney Dining, these tips should provide you with ideas for what to order on your next trip!
1. Look at the Map – If you’re completely unfamiliar with Disney Dining and want to find a good restaurant with something more than burgers and hot dogs, the map is a great place to start. Between these two descriptions, which is more likely to have unique options: Restaurant A, serving “Burgers, sandwiches, salads” or Restaurant B, serving “Seasonally inspired soups, salads, sandwiches, wood-fired specialties and desserts”? Reading the descriptions of restaurants will guide you away from the uninspired “burger joints” like Electric Umbrella and towards the unique restaurants like Sunshine Seasons.
The map won’t tell you what’s on the menu, specifically, but it will provide a good jumping off point if you don’t have knowledge of the restaurants in the park, or if you don’t have a smart phone to look up menus online. If you’re able, we highly recommend browsing TouringPlans’ Walt Disney World dining menus from your phone. That’s what we do!
2. Check out More Intimate Locations – Many of the unique food items at Walt Disney World require special attention to produce. Because of this, the busiest counter service restaurants, that often mass-produce food due to demand, have a difficult time serving them. In order to find these unique items, a lot of times you’ll need to check out the more intimate restaurants or bakeries to find a lot of these interesting options. If you’re on the Disney Dining Plan, you might want to eat at these little places, anyway, so that you can get better desserts with your meals!
In our experience, most Walt Disney World bakeries have wonderful deli sandwiches that are freshly made. You may be thinking, “deli sandwiches, what’s so special about those?!” They actually are quite good and often quite unique. The sandwiches usually contain nice helpings of meat, gourmet bread, and delicious dressing. Some of the sandwiches are far from ordinary, presenting such interesting foods such as ham & apple, and salmon & egg, which might make you think that Cheech & Chong created the menus. (Nope, it was the Norwegians!)
Make sure to stop at locations like the Starring Rolls Cafe, Kringla Bakeri og Kafe, Boulangerie Patisserie, Sleepy Hollow Refreshments, Min & Bill’s Dockside Diner, and Beastly Bazaar, just to give some examples.
3. Dig Deeper on the Menu – The two most popular restaurants in the Magic Kingdom, Pecos Bill and Cosmic Ray’s, are well-known for their burgers and toppings bars, and many guests probably never look past the burgers listed prominently on each of these menus. However, each menu does have many items that aren’t burgers (in the case of Cosmic Ray’s, there are multiple Bays of food that aren’t burgers). Burgers are the most popular menu items at each of these restaurants, but they are far from the only things worth ordering at these restaurants.
The Turkey Sandwich at Cosmic Ray’s is a healthy change of pace from the burgers, and the 1/2 Chicken & Barbecued Rib Combo is a delicious option that two people can split, and is great for value-maximization on the Disney Dining Plan. At Pecos Bill, the Chilled Chicken Wrap is another healthier option, with the Steak & Pork Platter being a delicious alternative to the burgers.
Other notoriously “burger-centric” restaurants also have more interesting dining choices (even the Electric Umbrella has the intriguing Southwest Black Bean Flatbread!), so make sure to fully read the menu before simply ordering “Combo #1” or the item with the largest picture on the menu board.
4. Visit “Interesting” Restaurants – By interesting, I mean restaurants that are known for serving less typical fare. These restaurants have specialty dishes or a certain style of food that isn’t something you’d find at normal theme park restaurants. Some of these restaurants are so interesting that they are like attractions in themselves!
The best example of this is Flame Tree BBQ, which is one of (if not the) best counter service restaurants in Walt Disney World. Flame Tree focuses on…you guessed it…BBQ! Delicious BBQ. Another great example of this is Tangierine Cafe, which serves traditional Moroccan foods. In fact, most restaurants in World Showcase (besides America’s, which serves garbage) have authentic cuisine that’s a substantial departure from normal theme park cuisine. It’s usually slightly Americanized so as to not alienate standard American palates, but it’s still much different than burgers, hot dogs, and fries!
5. Eat This, Not That – Finally, there are some specific food items that you should consider in each park if you can’t otherwise decide on a counter service restaurant or what you might want to eat.
At Columbia Harbour House in the Magic Kingdom, get the Lobster Roll instead of the “fried stuff” options. Fried stuff is delicious, but the Lobster Roll is a better quality sandwich with hearty portions of lobster.
At Pinocchio Village Haus, get the Caprese Flatbread (or any flatbread) instead of the Chicken Breast Nuggets or the Meatball Sub. The new flatbread menu elevates this restaurant from “must avoid” to “must do” status!
At Roaring Fork, get the Roast Beef and Blue Cheese Sandwich instead of the 1/3 lb Angus Bacon Cheeseburger. The Blue Cheese dressing on this sandwich combines two amazing things, cheese and blue, to make some of the most amazing dressing ever. This sandwich, which is one of many unique items at Roaring Fork, is one of the best sandwiches at Walt Disney World.
At Kringla Bakeri og Kafe get the Norwegian Club Sandwich in addition to your School Bread. Eat here instead of eating at Liberty Inn. The fact that American Adventure’s restaurant only serves crumby fast food is acutely accurate, yet distinctly unpatriotic.
At Contempo Cafe, get the Cajun Seared Mahi Sandwich or Herb-marinated Chicken Sandwich instead of the Angus Cheeseburger.
At Flame Tree BBQ, get the 1/2 Slab of St. Louis Ribs instead of the Fruit Plate. Not because the Fruit Plate is exceedingly typical theme park food, but because ordering a Fruit Plate when there are delicious ribs on the menu makes you a disgrace to America. You might be a communist, nay, you are a communist, if you don’t absolutely love these ribs (I’m looking at you, vegetarians and vegans…and Sarah!).
At Captain Cook’s, get the Adult Grilled Cheese Sandwich instead of the 1/3 lb Angus Bacon Cheeseburger. I first ordered the Adult Grilled Cheese Sandwich because I figured it was alcoholic (I was so sick of non-alcoholic grilled cheese!), but it turned out to be a slightly “sophisticated” take on normal grilled cheese. Captain Cook’s has plenty of unique menu items beyond the Adult Grilled Cheese Sandwich, too.
At La Cantina de San Angel, get the Tacos de Pollo or Tacos de Carne instead of the Nachos. Even though it’s all a bit Americanized, Nachos are about as uninteresting as it gets when ordering Mexican cuisine.
At Electric Umbrella, get the heck out of there and head to Sunshine Seasons instead. Seriously. We’ve never had a good meal at Electric Umbrella, although the new flatbread does look intriguing.
At Pizzafari, get the Hot Italian-style Sandwich instead of the various greasy pizzas. This sandwich is also a bit greasy, but it’s really, really good. Not quite as much value for money as the pizzas, but it tastes great.
At Backlot Express, get the Grilled Vegetable Sandwich instead of the stereotypical fast food fare. This is one restaurant where a vegetable-based offering reigns supreme on the ‘unique’ scale. In other words, skip Backlot Express.
At Studio Catering Co., get the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich or the Pressed Tuscan Deli Sandwich instead of the Greek Salad. Not because the salad is bad, but because these sandwiches are surprisingly good…and when in doubt, always assume that salad is the first item on any menu. The dressing on the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich makes that sandwich, and I think they have somehow magically ‘pressed’ some great flavor into the Tuscan Deli Sandwich. Studio Catering Co. is our favorite counter service restaurant at the Studios, and you really can’t go wrong with anything there.
For more specific recommendations from these Walt Disney World restaurants (and other restaurants at Walt Disney World), make sure to read our individual restaurant reviews.
Which unique restaurants and menu items do you enjoy at Walt Disney World? Share your tips and top picks in the comments!