A day at Magic Kingdom can be fast-paced and tiring. That’s putting it mildly, and probably goes without saying to Walt Disney World vacation planners reading a resource about avoiding crowds, racing around at rope drop, extended hours, Genie+ and Lightning Lanes. This is especially true at Christmas, when there’s almost nowhere to go to escape the sea of holiday-time humanity.
While we stress the importance of savvy strategy, that’s largely to enable you to minimize time wasted waiting in line so you can slow down and enjoy the overlooked details, elaborate design, and beauty of the varied lands. Sure, the rides are great, but those alone don’t make a theme park.
One of the keys to savoring a day at Walt Disney World is taking the time to slow down and decompress. Literally and figuratively digest things, as our favorite relaxing respite from the crowds at Magic Kingdom is actually tucked away in a counter service restaurant encountered while leaving Fantasyland that offers a perfect antidote to that frenetic land…
Columbia Harbour House is something special. It’s one of the largest counter service restaurants in Magic Kingdom, on par with Cosmic Ray’s and Pecos Bill. Yet, it never feels that way. Even the main entrance is tucked away around the corner from Haunted Mansion, and there are several doors that allow for Columbia Harbour House to be discovered by guests from other approaches in the two lands it straddles.
Inside, Columbia Harbour House is nothing like the cacophonous Cosmic Ray’s. Whereas that’s an expansive food court essentially consisting of one uninterrupted space with Sonny Eclipse as the (rightful) focal point, Columbia Harbour House is cleverly broken up and has the sense of being several separate rooms.
The menu is also unlike Cosmic Ray’s, with Columbia Harbour House serving up items from the sea–plus a few from land. There are combo platters, comforting fried favorites, healthy-ish grilled seafood, and even solid vegetarian options.
Our favorites from the Columbia Harbour House menu are the Lobster Roll and Grilled Salmon. Both are far higher quality than you’d expect from a counter service restaurant in Magic Kingdom, and are consistently good in our experience. (Although I’ve gotten unlikely with the mayo to lobster ratio a couple times.)
I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the New England Shrimp Boil, which contains Shrimp, Potatoes, Corn, and Andouille Sausage cooked in a Spiced Broth served with warm Parker House Rolls.
The corn has never been good, but perhaps that’s the Midwesterner in me. (I’m not a food ‘snob’ about much, but corn is one of those things. And is it really possible to be snobbish about corn?!) The shrimp have been shockingly good and sizable, and the whole dish is usually good. My success in getting Parker House Rolls that are actually warm has been about 50/50.
One of my bigger guilty pleasures at Walt Disney World is the Hushpuppies at Columbia Harbour House.
I feel like this one is going to get me into trouble, and might be akin to someone praising Red Lobster. I’ll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about hushpuppies, and have only had them a few times outside of Magic Kingdom. So take my opinion here with a grain of salt. These could be middling at best, and I just lack experience with truly good hushpuppies!
I’m also a sucker for the Trio Platter, which is another fun indulgence.
Sarah likes the Lighthouse Sandwich (above), although that doesn’t appear to be on the menu right now–it’s been (temporarily?) replaced by the awful Doom Burger (below).
But this is not a restaurant review, and covering the cuisine at Columbia Harbour House is not the point of this post. It’s just been a while since we’ve done that, so I figured it might be worth including a food update.
I also wanted to throw a bone to those of you who like no-nonsense planning posts, and might otherwise walk away from this wondering “what was the point” of the rambling that follows. Now I haven’t (totally) wasted your time. 😉
The ordering area at Columbia Harbour House feels no less chaotic during the lunch and dinner rush, but its quirks are evident immediately, and disarming. An antique brass diver helmet in one corner, a banjo in another. Several female figureheads, carved bald eagles, silver steins, and dishware on display. Columbia Harbour House reminds me a bit of my grandparents’ house–if they owned a publick house in New England.
As soon as you step away and head towards a seating area, the ‘volume’ decreases dramatically. It’s when you head upstairs to the second-level seating that’s enormous–but easily overlooked by guests scrambling to quickly grab the nearest and first available table–where Columbia Harbour House truly shines.
The restaurant’s interior is imbued with the same colonial sensibilities as the rest of Liberty Square, but feels like heightened version of that. And a more eclectic one. The core design is one of a New England publick house, and it’s styled as one that serves as a seaside refuge for old timey sailors.
The decor at Columbia Harbour House is unmistakably nautical, with efforts made to actually mimic or evoke a ship. There are wooden steering wheels, knotted ropes, and dozens of paintings of ships and Cape Cod scenery (but zero of Duffy & Friends, for those keeping score at home). There’s an abundance of rich mahoganies, floral curtains, lanterns, and knickknacks decorating every single shelf.
If Columbia Harbour House were opening today and its design were critiqued online, the words “overdone” and “visually busy” might be used. Yet Columbia Harbour House manages to skirt scrutiny thanks to its status as a Walt Disney World Historic Landmark, and we all know anything from that first decade is above reproach.
The “grandparents house” line above is (sort of) a joke, but the style of Columbia Harbour House is part colonial, part American interior design of the 1970s. That’s not a knock, just an admission that even though it’s themed to a certain era, it was built during another, and features the aesthetic sensibilities of each.
Frankly, I rather like that about Columbia Harbour House. It evokes the same calming visceral response as I have to my grandparents house. There’s a certain warmth and decompressing quality you don’t find in Walt Disney World spaces today, which are all too commonly sterile. Even the eclectic ‘repurposed warehouse’ look that Imagineering loves these days doesn’t have the same personable quality as Disney’s spaces from the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Columbia Harbour House’s very existence also feels like an anomaly, a vestige of the Vacation Kingdom, and one that persists because it has been forgotten by modern management. In a sense, the upstairs of Columbia Harbour House is the quick service equivalent of the Electrical Water Pageant, maintained entirely by a dude named Earl who hauls the floats around behind his 1970 Sears fishing boat every night. (Maybe Earl’s office is upstairs at Columbia Harbour House?!)
The idea that so much valuable real estate in Magic Kingdom could be forgotten borders on absurd, but perhaps the upstairs of Columbia Harbour House is one of those “hiding in plain sight” sort of deals. It’s sandwiched between Haunted Mansion, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Hall of Presidents, with overlooking major thoroughfares in Fantasyland and Liberty Square.
There is also no better people-watching location in all of Magic Kingdom than one of the tables with views of the walkway leading to Haunted Mansion in front of the Rivers of America.
This is our favorite section of Columbia Harbour House. You can see the tables themselves pictured in the two photos above, the view of the the window (apologies for the random creeper in the shot) from the ground pictured below, and the view out the window in the photo below that.
There are three times of day when the scene is especially serene in the upstairs of Columbia Harbour House.
First, when most of the photos for this post were taken, which was almost 11 am on the dot, right after Columbia Harbour House opened for the day. At this hour, guests are still bursting with energy and excitement, racing from attraction to attraction trying to beat the crowds.
Second, in the late afternoon between the lunch and dinner rushes, when you can practically have this upstairs to yourself (again). The actual time varies, but it’s when the sun has dipped low enough in the sky to shine through the windows. This bathes the restaurant in a golden light, casting long shadows, giving an added glow and texture to the woods and decor.
This is when all of the design quirks are, quite literally, illuminated. The asymmetry of the rooms, sizing of the windows, and some seemingly peculiar room arrangements and grading–until it dawns on you that Columbia Harbour House occupies space in Fantasyland and Liberty Square, and its exterior must transition to meet the theme of each. Then, appreciation of this idiosyncratic interior only grows.
Words cannot do justice to the look and atmosphere of the Columbia Harbour House upstairs in late afternoon. There’s a certain energy, spirituality–whatever you want to call it–that the space takes on. Even if you’re the only guest up there, the space feels alive. Perhaps it’s being haunted by the ghost of a (magnanimous) mariner. Maybe Captain Culpepper Clyne escaped from the Haunted Mansion?
Finally, in the evening after the dinner rush, as the last guests are clearing out of Columbia Harbour House. Of my three favorite times, this ranks last–but it’s the one we’ve done the most over the years. This is when you’ve lost all energy, and need a place to rest and recharge. (Or need the same for your phone–the upstairs of Columbia Harbour House has power outlets.)
During all of these hours, you’re washed over by a sense of calm. The background music provides soothing seaside sounds (I might be particularly biased towards this, as it’s the same loop that plays in Tokyo DisneySea’s Cape Cod, which I adore) that could ease you to sleep. The happy guests racing around outside give you a sort of secondhand hype, for lack of a better term. The aforementioned interior design is disarming and decompressing. All of this is like being swaddled in sentimentality–right in the heart of the busiest theme park in the world.
As is probably obvious from the foregoing, I love the upstairs of Columbia Harbour House. It’s one of my favorite places in all of Walt Disney World, and is truly something special. Yet, it’s not because this upstairs is the pinnacle of themed design or because I have any childhood nostalgia (my first memory up here is ~2008).
To the contrary, it’s a space I’ve slowly come to appreciate over the years, and largely enjoy for its humility, quirkiness, and tranquility. It doesn’t wow like a lot of Imagineering’s best work, but slowly wins you over and becomes a source of fond memories along the way.
That’s sort of the story with the upstairs at Columbia Harbour House and us. I can still vividly recall our meals here from October 1, 2011 (Walt Disney World’s 40th Anniversary) and before several Halloween and Christmas parties. Fittingly, it’s also our go-to restaurant on stormy days, with another standout meal a few years ago in the week before Christmas when a veritable monsoon cleared the park of crowds.
Of course, these are my memories and nostalgia for the upstairs of Columbia Harbour House, and are probably meaningless to you. However, I’m certain that if you give it a few quiet mid-mornings, early afternoons or evenings, you’ll form your own fond memories in the upstairs of Columbia Harbour House. In the end, that’s what Walt Disney World is all about, and why so many of us keep coming back.
Have you enjoyed a relaxing respite from the Magic Kingdom crowds in the upstairs of Columbia Harbour House? Or, have you never ventured to the serene second-level? Is it somewhere you’ll make a point of checking out next time you’re in Magic Kingdom? If you’ve dined up here before, do you likewise share sentimentality and nostalgia for this quiet corner of Walt Disney World? Alternatively, do you think it’s dated and dreary, and our fondness for it is misplaced? 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!