Today, my friends, we’re headed to Disney World’s Polynesian Resort to visit one of my favorite places — and yours — ‘Ohana. Those of you versed in Lilo and Stitch, or those of you who have been lucky enough to visit the beautiful islands of Hawai’i, know that “‘Ohana” means “Family,” and at this restaurant, they drive the point home.
Food is served family style, everyone in the restaurant — including you — are “cousins,” and the Hawaiian entertainment is aimed at bringing everyone together to participate in common activities. It’s a restaurant like none other in the Disney realm, and its high points are what keeps ‘Ohana a tough reservation to get.
You’re greeted at ‘Ohana by “cousins” at the podium who take your name, give you a buzzer, and send you out into the Polynesian Resort to explore. Trust me, this is one of those rare restaurants where you hope you have 15-20 minutes to wait until you’re seated — there’s so much to do! Here are my favorite diversions while waiting for my buzzer to go off at ‘Ohana:
- Have a Drink: Grab yourself a giant wicker chair in the Tambu Lounge just past the ‘Ohana podium. Knowledgeable bartenders and friendly servers will cater to your whims as you relax and wait for your table. (One of my favorites is the Lapu Lapu…a drink served IN a pineapple!)
- Listen to the Islands: ‘Ohana often provides a very talented Hawaiian musician to play and sing live music in the waiting area outside of the restaurant. There’s no better way to relax into the island feeling than letting the sounds wash over you after a long day in the parks.
- Go Shopping!: Your buzzer will work throughout the second floor of the Polynesian Resort’s main building, so head over to the shops opposite ‘Ohana for a gander at the merch you don’t have time to see when you’re in the parks.
OK, now that you’re relaxed and have a drink or a shopping bag (whatever your pleasure), your buzzer is buzzing and you’re headed into the restaurant.
‘Ohana is a large room wrapped around a massive fire pit, which is the origin of your food for the evening. The room is edged with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Polynesian Resort grounds, Seven Seas Lagoon, and Magic Kingdom icons like Cinderella Castle and Big Thunder Mountain.
‘Ohana Tip: Consider booking a reservation for an hour before the Magic Kingdom Fireworks are scheduled. Request a window table, and prepare for an amazing show! ‘Ohana will pipe the music right into the restaurant!
Your “cousin” host will take you on a tiny tour of the restaurant, passing by the open kitchen and an array of “sample drinks,” then by the open fire pit where Cast Members are grilling long skewers of meat and shrimp, and then on to your table.
Once you’re seated in the large, cushy chairs, you’ll be greeted by your server for the evening. This is the person who will be taking care of drinks and other specifics. He’ll be joined by a second serving “assistant,” who will likely be bringing most of your food.
Another cast member you’ll be acquainted with by the end of the evening is the Hawaiian cultural ambassador and “entertainment director.” This individual is in charge of passing out leis, teaching hula lessons, serenading honeymoon and anniversary couples through a romantic slow dance, leading the restaurant in Hawaiian renditions of “Happy Birthday,” and emceeing coconut races and hula hoop contests for the kids. As you’d imagine, she’s very busy, but you’re sure to have as interactive — or as relaxed — an evening as you wish.
‘Ohana Tip: Personally, I love making reservations for 5pm, when the restaurant opens. I request a window table, order a Hawaiian drink, and watch the sky over the Magic Kingdom change from blue to pink to orange to red as the sun sets behind the Grand Floridian. There’s nothing more relaxing, as far as I’m concerned.
Now, even though you’re seated and have met your servers, there actually won’t be much ordering; ‘Ohana offers a set menu. For those who have dietary restrictions, likes, or dislikes, however, be sure to bring these up to your server. ‘Ohana is famously good with ensuring everyone at the table has food that fits their needs.
The meal at ‘Ohana includes plates and bowls full of Polynesian-inspired dishes. It begins with a delicious freshly-baked pineapple bread, dubbed “‘Ohana Welcome Bread,” which is brought to your table by the “cousin” who seats you. Be sure not to fill up on this, though — there’s MUCH to come!
Next up, one of your cousins will bring you Mixed Greens with honey-lime dressing. Many speak of this dressing with sheer reverence, and it’s an oft-requested Disney recipe!
Just as you’ve dug into your salad, large plates of lo mein noodles with vegetables and teriyaki sauce, stir-fried vegetables (usually mostly broccoli), pork dumplings drizzled with a sweet and sour sauce, and honey-coriander chicken wings show up on your table. These are some of the best chicken wings on Disney property (true…there aren’t many chicken wings on Disney property, but these are still pretty good).
Finally, your cousins come by with the main event — grilled meats stacked high on skewers. This is a show in and of itself! One meat will come to your table at a time: mesquite grilled turkey, asian BBQ pork loin, marinated sirloin steak, and spicy peel n eat shrimp. (Note: these are on the menu at “press time;” Disney switches these up often.) The meats are accompanied by three sauces: peanut, spicy mustard, and sweet n sour. Your server will recommend which sauce to try with which meat.
And lastly, but, in my opinion, most importantly, the dessert. If you don’t save room for this, you haven’t gotten even half of your money’s worth at ‘Ohana: ‘Ohana bread pudding a la mode with bananas foster sauce.
As much as I love this restaurant, this post could be subtitled: “Why We Love ‘Ohana Dinner, Even Though the Food Isn’t All That Good.” Sad, but true, ‘Ohana’s food quality — NOT including dessert, of course — has been going downhill in my opinion. There are two reasons behind this:
- What’s Being Served: ‘Ohana hit a high point for me when it was serving pork sausage from the skewers, and scalloped potatoes as a side dish. These two options were flavorful — truly delicious — and have unfortunately been taken off the menu in recent years. ‘Ohana has a history of changing its menu, however, so I can always hope… . (Note: I also take umbrage with forgoing the snap peas veggie mix for the broccoli, but I understand that I need to pick my battles.)
- How It’s Being Served: Perhaps you’ve had a different experience, but for the past several visits, the ‘Ohana meats seem as though they’ve been sitting on the fire a bit too long. The meat has been exceedingly dry and much too well-done. I understand the concern about undercooked meat, but there’s a happy medium that many other Disney restaurants have found. And, of course, I’d chalk this up to a fluke if this had been my experience only once, but I’ve now had several visits where this has been the case.While I keep going back to ‘Ohana for the drinks and the dessert, I regret to say that the meal itself has lost much of what made it desirable.
What do YOU think?