If you’re looking for a unique restaurant at Disney’s Hollywood Studios with a quasi “show” component, there’s a good chance you’re considering Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant or 50’s Prime Time Cafe. These are two of Walt Disney World’s most fun and popular table service restaurants. However, since most people only spend a single day at DHS, there’s only time for one of them. Enter this dining comparison.
This is the first in our new ‘restaurant versus’ series, a test run of sorts after so many of you have loved our hotel comparison series. As the first installment, we’re still in the test & adjust phase, and are open to feedback on how we might tweak these categories to improve the comparisons. (Just please don’t suggest ‘service.’ It’s so hit or miss that it’s impossible to judge at most WDW restaurants.)
Spoiler alert: there’s no winner here. Perhaps it was a bad idea to start with a comparison that I knew would yield an ‘it depends’ outcome, but I think this is probably the best way to start. These two restaurants are very evenly matched and similar, but each has strengths and weaknesses that could be deal-breakers for some guests. Illuminating those to help you choose ADRs is hopefully more helpful, at least in this particular case, than crowning a king of the hill.
With that said, let’s dive into this Walt Disney World table service restaurant comparison…
Theme: Both are thematic powerhouses, topping the list of our Top 10 Themed Restaurants at Walt Disney World. at 50’s Prime Time Cafe, you’re instantly transported to a 1950s living room when you walk in the door. Once seated, you step into mom’s kitchen and dining rooms, that are accurate right down to the black & white televisions, laminate paneling, and gaudy knick-knacks. It’s a celebration of American kitsch, and even if you weren’t alive for the 1950s, you probably have an older relative whose home perfectly-preserves this look.
Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant is themed as a 60s-era drive-in movie theater that screens B science fiction pulp movies. Classic cars comprise the tables, and there’s even a concession stand in the back that connects to the kitchen. Keen eyes will realize the theme here is actuallya film set, and the drive-in is actually on a soundstage, complete with California labor notices on its backside and other details you’d find on a real production. (This angle is clever, but the illusion of an outdoor drive-in works well enough on its own that this added layer is superfluous–most guests probably won’t even notice it.)
As the #1 restaurant on our aforementioned top 10 list, Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater is our pick when we’re narrowly discussing themed design, and not the overall ambiance (more on that next). It’s really something special to step out of the midday Florida sun and go inside, only to go outside to nighttime at a California drive-in while having a meal in a classic car.
Atmosphere: 50’s Prime Time Cafe is like the Jungle Cruise mixed with Monsters Laugh Floor, except with every guest getting picked on. The quality of the experience is very much dependent upon the server who is your Cast Member; thankfully, most servers are excellent here, so it’s not hit or miss (but a ‘miss’ is still possible).
The question is whether your party is primarily introverts or extroverts. If you have a bunch of introverts, or people who simply want to decompress and be left alone while eating, 50’s Prime Time Cafe is a bad idea. The ‘relatives’ serving you won’t break character if your party isn’t into it, either. They still pick on you and insist you clean your plate (etc.), and we’ve witnessed some awkward encounters at adjacent tables that inexplicably didn’t ‘get’ the concept through their entire meal.
Extroverts and older guests who were children of the 1950s through around the 1970s tend to love 50’s Prime Time Cafe. It’s a situation where you get out of it what you put into it, and the interactions can be a hoot if you roll with them and engage in a bit of banter with the servers. Both of my parents (children during the aforementioned era) who have very different personalities, absolutely love 50’s Prime Time Cafe for these reasons.
By contrast, Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater is the ultimate restaurant for introverts or decompressing. Not only is the entertainment entirely passive (and the service low-key as Cast Members stay ‘out of the way’ of the movies), but you are seated in rows of a car, meaning you pretty much only have to interact with one person for the duration of the meal. For extroverts or families with kids, this seating arrangement can be a definite downside–it’s the most common complaints we receive about Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater.
Cuisine: Both restaurants serve comfort food with some good and some bad. Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater has a deeper menu with slightly more variety, with their strength being specialty burgers. 50’s Prime Time Cafe serves iconic 1950s dinners (think meatloaf, chicken pot pie, etc.), but also has a couple of fish dishes that are surprisingly good and healthy.
If you are looking for a fine dining locale with nuanced dishes, both are absolutely the wrong choices. The best case scenario at each is having a hearty meal of crowd-pleasing fare. The worst case scenario, at least in terms of cuisine, is a meal just a step above fast food. Both restaurants are definitely about the overall experience, but the meal itself.
Value: It’s a challenge to definitively call either a good or poor value. If you’re viewing the menu in isolation, they’re both arguably poor values. If you factor in location, theme, and the fact that each offer a quasi dinner show, the case can be made that both are potentially good values. (That’s exactly the case I’d make–viewing a menu in isolation is a totally nonsensical approach, and a recipe for disaster, at Walt Disney World.)
Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant’s menu has greater range. There are more options on the cheaper end, with some entrees being just above counter service meal prices. There’s also a more expensive New York Strip Steak (I’m comfortable mentioning that by name, since it’s been on the menu for over a decade) that makes it a good choice for those on the Disney Dining Plan. Whether you’re looking for a cheap meal or a pricey one (to maximize value on the Disney Dining Plan), Sci-Fi is the better choice in this regard.
With that said, 50’s Prime Time Cafe has a variety of better “smart” choices. There are entrees in the $20 range that are substantial and filling, and are within a dollar or two of Sci-Fi’s most expensive premium burgers. As fun as those burgers might be, they are overpriced and not as good as the pot roast or meatloaf at 50’s. At both restaurants, appetizers and desserts tend to be overpriced and underwhelming. This is excepting, of course, the iconic PB&J Milkshake at 50’s, which is totally worth the money.
Hassle: Neither 50’s Prime Time Cafe nor Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater is a particularly challenging ADR to score. They do book up during busier times, but neither are ‘set your alarm’ kind of places. Reservations often can be made within a week. We almost always make same-day ADRs when we dine at either, since we rarely know how much time we’re going to want to spend in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. I’d say about half the time, we’re able to book one or both same-day.
Despite the relative ease of dining at these restaurants, both can be a hassle. In our experience (and we’ve dined at each many times), they both tend to have times when they get backed up, causing substantial delays in being seated, and guests waiting to be seated spilling out from the lobby (or bar, in the case of 50’s) and outside.
This can be really unpleasant, and there’s really no way to predict it. This does not always occur during peak meal hours. On our most recent visit to 50’s, we had a 2 p.m. ADR, and it took us over 30 minutes to be seated and the Tune-In Lounge was so full we had to wait outside. When we left just before 4 p.m., there was no wait. About the only times you can guarantee yourself that you won’t experience a wait is right at the start of lunch or dinner, or towards the very end of the night.
Overall, both restaurants are must-dos in our estimation. While there are elements of each (the seating at Sci-Fi, the servers at 50’s) that are going to be disqualifying for some guests, we absolutely love 50’s Prime Time Cafe and Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant. We think most guests will have a good time at either restaurant, so which you choose if you only have time for one will really come down to which sounds more appealing. If I had to choose one, I’d pick Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant (as would Sarah, despite her preferring the food at 50’s).
No matter which you choose, don’t expect a wow-inducing culinary experience. Like many Walt Disney World restaurants, you’re paying for the Imagineered environment and show, with food taking a backseat to plenty of real-world restaurants. This is particularly true at both of these, as they serve American comfort food that’s easily accessible no matter where you live. Despite this, both are absolutely worth doing for some of the best fun you can have at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Do you agree or disagree with our comparison of 50’s Prime Time Cafe and Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant? Which restaurant would you give the edge in terms of theme and ambiance? In terms of cuisine? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!