There’s a tall tale called The Death of Pecos Bill. It tells the story of an imitator who pretends to be something he’s not, which I suppose is as good of an allegory as any for Magic Kingdom’s once-best counter service restaurant and how it’s now a mere shadow of its former self. To set the scene, let’s start with the actual tall tale from American folklore:
Now, Pecos Bill didn’t live forever. Nope, not even Bill could figure out how to do that. Here’s how he died.
When Bill was gettin’ on in years, a Boston man came down to New Mexico for a visit. He fancied himself a bit of a cowboy. Got himself one of them mail-order suits, don’t ya know. The ones with the lizard skin boots, a shiny brass belt buckle, a new pair of blue jeans and a huge ten gallon hat with not a speck of dust on it. Well, when Pecos Bill saw him trying to swagger into a bar, he jest lay down on the sidewalk and laughed himself to death!
Before we dig into the downfall of Pecos Bill, I want to draw your attention to a handful of alternate titles for this post:
The Good, The Bad & Pecos Bill
The Pecos Bill Incident
No Country for Pecos Bill
How Pecos Bill was Lost
The Not-So-Magnificent Restaurant
Unforgiven: The Pecos Bill Story
The Outlaw Pecos Bill
The Assassination of Pecos Bill by the Coward Robert Chapek
I wanted to use that last title, but…let’s just say that cooler heads prevailed. Apparently, using the word “assassination” in family-friendly blog post title and attributing said murder to a former executive–and insulting him in the process–was just a bit much. That’s fair, it is. But it’s also obviously not a literal accusation or insult–it’s a nod to a classic western and folk song and entirely figurative.
Being from Northwest Indiana, I also have to think Chapek would give an appreciative chuckle–especially since he didn’t seem to mind being the villain with fans. While torn about using that objectively superior title, I found the Pecos Bill tall tale, which seems more fitting given the subject. (That story also could be read differently, and applied to Frontierland more broadly.) But I digress.
Before we dig into my list of grievances about Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe, I want to start by saying its actually a lovely not-so-little spot. We just went over this with a post appreciating Pinocchio Village Haus, and pretty much the same applies here.
Pecos Bill is another ‘old school’ Walt Disney World eatery, and it is similarly well-themed and brimming with detail. The restaurant nails atmosphere despite being such a large restaurant. Although most of the seating areas are large, at least they are split apart to make it feel less like a mess hall.
As with Pinocchio Village Haus, it also gets chaotic and crazy during the midday rush–but not nearly to the same degree. Right now, this whole area of the park tends to be quieter as work continues on the transformation of Splash Mountain into Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. Nevertheless, we strongly favor dining at Pecos Bill after the dinner rush. The beautiful lights give texture to the interior, and offer a nice moody atmosphere.
While it is possible that I put more time into brainstorming titles than anything else, this is very much a serious subject that needs to be addressed. The already weak counter service restaurant scene in Magic Kingdom has, against all odds, gotten worse in the last ~4 years.
Prior to the infamous March 2020 closure, Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe was in the conversation for the #1 counter service restaurant in Magic Kingdom. (At the time, we put it a bit behind Be Our Guest Restaurant, which really was its own thing and unlike the other food courts in the park.)
This was due entirely due to what we called the “Chipotlization” of Pecos Bill back in 2015, which is more or less what it sounds like. An initiative to make the Walt Disney World equivalent of Chipotle, an ‘elevated’ Mexican fast casual restaurant with addictively good and–this is key–customizable cuisine.
Disney accomplished this in part by introducing rice bowls, fajita platters, burritos, tacos, and other new items. The second half of the equation was a massive upgrade to the toppings bar. The variety and quality of options was unparalleled, and as a result, Pecos Bill became our personal favorite counter service restaurant and where we ate most in Magic Kingdom.
Unfortunately, it’s taken big steps backwards in the last several of years. Like so many downgrades at Walt Disney World, this can all be traced back to the closure…
When Walt Disney World reopened, Pecos Bill returned with Magic Kingdom–but without the toppings bar. That was unsurprising, as there were still fear about transmission via surfaces or guests congregating in close proximity to one another while serving themselves from the toppings bar. These same fears resulted in buffets transforming into family style offerings. Fair enough–we had zero complaints at the time, understanding that compromises had to be made.
However, it long ago became clear that what was done under the guise of health safety has now become a budget cut. Walt Disney World is as crowded as ever and mitigation measures were dropped nearly 3 years ago, but the Pecos Bill toppings bar has yet to return. Well, that’s not totally true. It still exists.
Here’s what you can grab from the toppings bar at Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe now:
Look how they massacred my boy!
Some stations in the toppings bars are closed entirely, whereas others offer up condiments. Trust me, a rice bowl piled high with ketchup and mustard just doesn’t hit the same as one with fresh salsa and guacamole.
Walt Disney World’s “solution” to this problem is providing pre-portioned toppings on the side of each dish, which typically means smaller amounts of everything.
When I was handed the above portion of lettuce and tomatoes, I actually chuckled. I feel sorry for the poor Cast Member who, presumably, is using tweezers to portion out the diced tomatoes. Gotta be sure guests don’t get too many tomatoes–gotta keep those numbers looking good!
But it’s not just the laughably small portions. It’s also the quality of the toppings. No offense to the fine folks at PepsiCo, parent company of Tostitos, but their salsa is just not good. Same goes for the cheese and everything else in the above photo–it’s like the found the cheapest, lowest-quality supplier and went with that.
Truthfully, it’s probably not “like” that–it probably is exactly that.
You all probably remember a couple of years back when dearly-departed Disney CFO Christine McCarthy made the infamous “good for guest waistline” wisecrack. Well what you might’ve forgotten is that she was asked about cost-cutting on food in the face of inflation, to which she said this: “We can adjust suppliers. We can substitute products.”
Similar comments were repeated on other earnings call, and nowhere is this philosophy more apparent than at Pecos Bill. It’s not just the quality of the toppings–it goes for everything in the above photo. To some extent, we understood this a couple of years ago–but again, inflation is coming down and quality has improved at countless other restaurants around Walt Disney World. Pecos Bill is a laggard, continuing to get worse relative to even other Magic Kingdom counter service restaurants. (And that’s saying something!)
For those who didn’t live through the glory days of Pecos Bill, above is a look at one of my Pork Carnitas Rice Bowls piled high with toppings. Some of the choices are evident from the photo, but here’s a full list of what was on that: Monterey Jack cheese, banana peppers, onions, sour cream, roasted corn, tomatoes, Chipotle Ranch dressing, salsa verde, salsa, limes, Pico de Gallo, and Guacamole. You read that list correctly–and it included guacamole, which was available without upcharge.
The loss of the toppings bar is huge for the rice bowls and fajita platters. It previously offered fresh, decent-quality veggies and salsas and really elevated the dishes at Pecos Bill. Now in fairness, even at the time, the caliber of the chicken, pork carnitas, and beef wasn’t top shelf. It was only okay, but it didn’t really matter because those excellent toppings more than made up for it.
Now, there are no toppings to speak of and the meat is one step above the grade of the stuff they put in dog food. It’s a losing combination across the board. It’s also one that’s especially egregious given the price of the fajita platter, which is $2 more expensive than anything on the menu at Cosmic Ray’s or Pinocchio Village Haus, and on par with the Lobster Roll and New England Seafood Boil at Columbia Harbour House (it costs more than the Grilled Salmon there, which is infinitely superior).
Some defenders of Disney are going to claim that guests did this to themselves by abusing the toppings bar. And you know what, I will actually partially concede that point. It is true that some guests piled toppings way too high and essentially made little side salads to accompany their entrees.
But you know what? I vividly recall doing that when we were broke college students in 2007-2009 at both Cosmic Ray’s and Pecos Bill. I also know we weren’t the first or only ones–I remember reading that “advice” on a forum beforehand. So this practice had existed for at least a decade before Walt Disney World opted to expand and improve the toppings bar at Pecos Bill in 2015. In other words, it was a known practice and was not deemed a problem at that time.
The fact that it didn’t change (for the worse) until the closure in 2020 tells me everything I need to know. It was not guest behavior that motivated this. It was health safety at first. Then, once Walt Disney World got a taste of the cost-savings by not having a toppings bar, they developed an appetite for it. Management decided it made their numbers look too good to give up, so they didn’t. That’s it.
Nevertheless, I can appreciate Walt Disney World’s newfound position in wanting to reduce costs, guest abuse of the toppings bar, or whatever. But there’s gotta be a middle ground compromise. As it stands, Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe is completely out of play for us because the value and quality proposition is entirely out of whack.
The dishes we’d order are expensive and low-quality, and without a proper toppings bar, there’s nothing to elevate the flavor. Personally, I am all for a compromise. Heck, we’d pay a couple of dollars more per dish if it meant access to a toppings bar. We’d also be perfectly fine with the toppings bar to be staffed instead of self-service, or whatever other measure Walt Disney World wanted to introduce to reduce abuse. (Honestly, I’m guessing it was never that bad in the first place or they would’ve done that years ago.)
But the status quo is a worst of all worlds scenario where the entrees are underwhelming, expensive, and there are no good toppings to redeem them. If this is going to continue being the case and a return of the toppings bar is a total nonstarter, just overhaul the entire menu again and start from square one. The “Chipotlization” of Pecos Bill only works if there are toppings like Chipotle!
Ultimately, we’re just ready to see something change–anything change–at Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe. We’ve been holding off on writing this article for a while, because this is almost exactly how we felt about French Market at Disneyland…and then that was transformed into Tiana’s Palace Restaurant. (In case you haven’t read our review, that’s now the #1 counter service restaurant Disneyland, featuring an ambitious and envelope-pushing menu. A marked improvement over what it replaced.)
For a while, it really felt like Walt Disney World was setting up a similar scenario–make Pecos Bill so bad that when the inevitable announcement came of it being reimagined into Tiana’s Palace Restaurant, no one would care. There wouldn’t be the normal complaints from diehards–or at least, there’d be far fewer of them.
With rumors swirling late last year and early this year that Pecos Bill would be reimagined, it seemed our article would be obsolete within days of hitting publish. After waiting and waiting…it now seems increasingly unlikely that Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe will be reimagined into Tiana’s Palace Restaurant.
It still makes complete sense–and should happen–but with current rumors pointing to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure opening ahead of schedule, there’s not much time left for such a transformation. We cannot fathom this high-capacity restaurant being closed once the attraction debuts, so that leaves only about 6 months for a reimagining of Pecos Bill. Unless it’s the least-ambitious overhaul ever, that’s too tight of a timeline. In order to become Tiana’s Palace, much more work would need to be done here than happened at Disneyland.
Tiana’s Palace Restaurant seems like something that would’ve been announced a few months ago at Destination D23. It wasn’t, so at this point, we’re guessing Pecos Bill limps along for at least another few years like this. (Not to get too far off-topic, but if Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge really is revived, that could explain why Tiana’s Palace isn’t coming to Magic Kingdom.)
Regardless, it’s really a shame that something isn’t being done with Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe–whether that be bringing back the toppings bar or a new concept entirely. Both the new nearby attraction and guests deserve better. But maybe profit margins on the current lackluster menu are too appetizing for Disney to give up.
Have you eaten at Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe since they eliminated the toppings bar? What are your thoughts on cuisine quality with the pre-portion toppings? Is Pecos Bill still worthwhile, or is it off your list of places to dine in Magic Kingdom? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!