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Guest Review — Theme Park Throw Down: Counter Service

After long deliberation, Nick T. of Disney & Beyond has ranked the four Walt Disney World Theme Parks based on his interpretation of the quality of their counter service offerings! Every once in a while we like to stir things up on the Disney Food Blog, so we’d love to hear your opinion on the matter — did Nick get it right, or would you change some things around?  Take it away, Nick!

Backlot Express

Just over a month ago, a friend and I, both avid readers of The Disney Food Blog, got into a debate about the best overall counter service options in Walt Disney World’s parks. What started as a fun, simple discussion quickly turned heated, and I started to wonder what the reaction would be if I shared my opinions with the world. Thanks to AJ, now I can. I’d simply like to rank, in my humble opinion, the four Disney World theme parks based on counter service offerings.

For this list, I have taken into account both food and atmosphere. The food part is obvious, but I take atmosphere into account because I feel that is what makes the experience uniquely Disney, and it can actually add to the dining experience. But enough of this chit chat, yak yak, and flim flam. Just refrain from hibernating and enjoy the show. (Some Disney Fudge to whoever is the first to recognize that line.)

ABC Commissary

4. Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Yes, I rank the park formerly known as Disney-MGM Studios as the worst overall in park counter service. Why? Well, to me, both the food selection and the atmosphere of the counter service restaurants in the park are quite…boring. Don’t get me wrong, they all fit the theme well, it is just that they don’t have that lively kick that the other three parks have.

The ABC Commissary is my least favorite counter service area in all of Walt Disney World. The menu is so plain, and the place itself doesn’t look like anything special. Backlot Express has a somewhat more interesting menu than The Commissary, and the props around the place make it more interesting to look at; but it still does not give that same sense of exploration as other counter service areas. The collection of Sunset Ranch Market certainly pushes DHS up in the food department, but it is not strong enough to push it up the rankings, especially with the competition it faces.

Nick’s Personal Preference: Though Sunset Ranch Market is the place to be if you want the best food options (you might be lucky enough to catch a Citizen of Hollywood performance), I enjoy heading to Backlot Express when the Jedi Training Academy is about to have a show. Get a seat outside and enjoy the entertainment.

Cosmic Ray's Bacon Double Cheeseburger with Fries

3. Magic Kingdom

The Magic Kingdom has a lot of great options, which is what I like most about eating in this park. You can get a Hot Dog at Casey’s, Fish at the Columbia Harbor House, an Angus Burger at Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn, or an entire selection of grub at Cosmic Ray’s. On top of the options, all of these places have a fantastic atmosphere to go along with the food. You can explore Pecos Bill’s and find all of the hidden references to the legends of the American past, or you can enjoy a Sonny Eclipse show with your dinner at Cosmic Ray’s.

The reason that WDW’s castle park does not rank higher on the list is that none of the food really stands out. Yes, it is all good and edible (thankfully), but there is not one single dish at any of the restaurants that is truly memorable. That is why I cannot rank it within the top two.

Nick’s Personal Preference: For food, Pecos Bill’s has an excellent selection of burgers and wraps. But one of my all time favorite things to do at any WDW counter service area is to head to Pinocchio Village Haus, find a seat beside the windows that overlooks it’s a small world, and wave to all the passengers as they embark on the happiest cruise that ever sailed.

Flame Tree Barbecue Ribs with Beans and Barbecue Sauce

2. Animal Kingdom

This is where we start to get the memorable dishes. Though Animal Kingdom doesn’t have the biggest selection of counter service options, it does have some of the best.

Flame Tree Barbecue has to be considered not only the best counter service option in Animal Kingdom, but one of the absolute best in the entire resort. As the name suggests, the Barbeque options here are to die for and are not-to-be-missed. The design of Flame Tree, that of Predator vs. Prey, is intriguing to look at. Pizzafari also shares the animal design, and the murals that focus on animals in hiding are absolutely wonderful. Anandapur Local Cafe brings out the unique, international flavor of Asia; and this park’s burger joint, Restaurantosaurus, has more hidden gags than one can find in a single trip. The only thing that this park lacks in counter service is a true African flair.

Nick’s Personal Preference: No doubt, Flame Tree for both food and atmosphere. I always try to get a spot by the river. Nothing better than Barbeque on the Waterfront.

Sunshine Seasons Mongolian Beef with Noodles and Rice

1. Epcot

Oh, where do I begin with Epcot? I guess we’ll start in Future World with Sunshine Seasons, which certainly can be argued as the best counter service in all of Disney World. Honestly, I don’t eat here much (more on why later), but I know that this menu offers a wide variety of excellent dishes and it is a place I’ve wanted to try before. However, I can never bring myself to eat there. Why? Because no trip to Disney World is complete without having lunch and dinner in the World Showcase!

The food options in World Showcase alone blow away anything that any other park can offer. Not only is the food selection fantastic, most of it is unique to Epcot. You can’t find UK’s Fish and Chips or Japan’s Sushi, or Germany’s Brats, or China’s Egg Rolls, or Mexico’s tacos anywhere else, and all of them are fantastic.

Sommerfest Bratwurst with Sauerkraut

If you want just a traditional burger, you could head to my favorite burger place in all of WDW, Liberty Inn. This is all before even mentioning that the beautiful and realistic atmosphere of the countries makes eating the local grub so much more enjoyable. All of this together is why I think Epcot runs away with the counter service title.

Nick’s Personal Preference: No trip to Walt Disney World is complete without having some Fish and Chips while listening to British Invasion. I also love to take in a Brat while soaking in the wonderful old time feel of Germany.

So that’s my take on Walt Disney World’s counter service options. Agree or disagree? Leave a comment and let me know!

Thanks, Nick! I appreciate your taking the time to share these opinions with us here at The Disney Food Blog! I’m looking forward to a lively discussion!

Feel free to contact Nick @DisneyandBeyond on Twitter.

Note: Check out our readers’ picks for best Counter Service restaurants in the WDW Theme Parks here!

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36 Comments

  1. Heather says:

    Great Post!I really enjoyed reading your CS thoughts! I just got back from WDW and couldn’t believe that you left my absolute favorite WS CS off of the list! Tangerine Cafe has some of the best quick service food at Disney. Its unique, authentic and one of the best values if you have a dining plan! I do agree that Sunshine Seasons is fabulous, but I’m not sure if I would agree that many of the WS CS options are fabulous. Most of them have very limited menus (Sommerfest, Yorkshire) or are available in higher quality versions at home (Lotus Blossom and Yakitori House).

    Some of the best menu hidden gems in my opinion: The Lighthouse Sandwich at CHH and The Grilled Veggie Sandwich at the Backlot Express!

  2. Nick says:

    Great review. I have to agree on most of your selections.

    …and I believe the quote is from Country Bear Jamboree in Magic Kingdom!

  3. Kelly says:

    I agree for the most part, I’d definitely have Hollywood Studios on the bottom of my list and Epcot on the top. But I think I’d flip the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. There’s so much to offer at the Magic Kingdom in comparison to the Animal Kingdom. At AK, the ribs are OK at Flame Tree, I don’t go out of my way for them. And the Yak & Yeti Counter Service is good, but all the seating is outdoors and we all know how HOT the Animal Kingdom can get. The Magic Kingdom to me is a little more friendly…I can’t think of a Counter Service who’s seating is entirely outside (besides Tomorrowland Noodle Station, but then you’re covered. Also, with Cosmic Rays, you can make one stop to please everyone in your group. Just my 2 cents :)

  4. Evan says:

    My ordering matches yours. Nice article.

  5. Missy says:

    Oh, ABC Commissary, how you’ve broken my heart. I used to tolerate the 6-months-outdated TV promo reel just to get that Cuban sandwich. And now that Cuban sandwich is gone.

    I think I’d also swap MK and AK, but otherwise, same top and bottom.

  6. Dale says:

    Love all the blogs on this site!

    I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on this particulary. We don’t eat at DHS, typically stick to chicken fingers at MK, enjoy some waterfront BBQ at DAK and eat around the world at World Showcase. I would love to try the land’s options too, but there is just too much to enjoy around World Showcase. If you are travelling with friends you can even make your own mini-F&W festival by splitting entree’s from all the CS locations. Now they just need to add a CS option to Canada that serves breadsticks, cheddar cheese soup and that chicken sausage!

  7. Allison says:

    Completely agree – Flame Tree BBQ is a hands-down favorite of mine each time I go, and I know I’m going to have my best meals at Epcot. However, Columbia Harbor House at MK is creeping up there; if anything, the quiet, cool atmosphere is a nice break from the Fantasyland shuffle.

  8. Cody says:

    As a picky eater (i.e not very Adventurous in the avenue of food), I would have to say that my list would be:
    4- Disney’s Animal Kingdom (as I only eat at Pizzafari, and sometimes Restaurantosaurs), 3- Epcot (as there really only are TWO QSs in the park that I’d eat at, Electric Umbrella and Liberty Inn, both are on opposite ends of the park basically, and you have to hike to either way, though if you count the French Bakery as a QS option, I do like eating there..haha).
    2- Disney’s Hollywood Studios (I do only eat at Backlot Express as I really do like the themeing and atmosphere, though there arent that many locations in the park, but Starring Rolls is a good one)
    1- Magic Kingdom (I place MK in my top as I do like Columbia Harbor House as its kind of secluded, and nice atmosphere, it also has Pinocchio’s Village Haus that I also like)

    That’s my list from my Picky Perspective! :-)

  9. Glenn says:

    Cosmic Ray’s will always be a special place for me. A must-stop restaurant on every trip.

  10. melissa sue says:

    Country Bear Jamboree!!

    But I think I may be too late for the fudge …

    Now I will commence actually reading this …

  11. I’ve been on the deluxe dining plan the last 2 trips, but this fall will be on the plus, so I look forward to picking out some good counter service eats. The only counter service I’ve eaten on the last 2 trips was Earl of Sandwich. (;

  12. Kim says:

    DHS does have the least amount of choices for counter service meals, but I do have to say that Starring Rolls has the best turkey sandwich in all of WDW. It is SO good!
    My absolute favorite place to get counter service would have to be the Columbia Harbor House. The Anchors Aweigh tuna sandwich is just amazing! I order it every time! And the atmosphere is great. I love to sit by the windows that overlook the walkway from Peter Pan’s flight to Liberty Square.

  13. Jeff W. says:

    Nick was mostly correct.

    I’d rank the CS options thusly:

    1) Epcot – a no-brainer, of course (I would seriously doubt the taste of anyone who’d not rank this park number one for dining options)

    2) Magic Kingdom – has a lot of options, and all of them surprisingly tasty

    3) Disney’s Animal Kingdom – this park would still be ranked second if they hadn’t changed the park’s best counter service option into a pale imitation of a vastly superior hotel buffet; also, I’ve never been all that impressed with Flame Tree, and the less said about the “pizza” on offer at Pizzafari the better

    4) Disney’s Hollywood Studios – aside from some tasty sweets options, this park just *ain’t* got much goin’ on in the way of CS options

  14. Shayne says:

    Great review! Like the others, I might flip MK and AK in the order, but I see your point that there’s not much unique or memorable about CS meals in MK.

  15. Heather I. says:

    I’m partial to the Backlot Express at Hollywood Studios mainly because I’m in love with their turkey sandwich. I just can’t get enough of it for some reason. Also, Backlot seems to have the best selection of fountain drinks, with free refills!
    I’d love to hear your picks for best counter service at the hotels :)

  16. Galloping Gourmand says:

    I agree, although I might consider swapping Studios and MK. I’ve always thought MK has a horrible sameness about it. I thought you chose the perfect word when you called MK “edible.” Even though each place has a special menu item (something I really appreciate Disney doing) I usually stand in line and I think to myself “oh, I guess I’ll have a burger” because the special foods are often quite bland. That BBQ Chicken at Cosmic Ray’s might as well be covered with catchup, and the pizza’s at Pinocchio’s suffer from what I like to call “Disney Pizza Syndrome.”

    Columbia Harbor House is the only place that stands out in my mind. The menu is diverse and decent. if you get there for lunch at opening or around 2 you can get a great window seat on the second floor. From there you can see the people on the walkways between Fantasyland and Liberty Square or the Rivers of America. I love to sit on the bridge and look out over Liberty Square.

  17. Jessica says:

    I have to agree about Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we often leave the park early in the afternoon because we just can’t bring ourselves to eat a counter service meal there. The selections & quality really don’t compare to the other parks & with EPCOT’s “World Showcase” being just a boat ride away, there’s really no reason to stay at DHS for lunch.

  18. Griffin says:

    Very good review! I have to agree about DHS. There just isn’t anything edible there for us at a counter service…I’d suggest to anyone to try 50s Primetime or Sci Fi instead.

  19. Pudge the Fish says:

    I agree with the most of the assessments. With DHS we routinely return to our resort for lunch after a morning in that park, or visit the park after lunch and have dinner at Prime Time. I’ve been confounded a few times to find Backlot Express closed after 5pm even when the park was open until 8pm. I don’t understand that logic. I’m not quite sure why they can’t borrow the Sunshine Seasons concept and plop it into the Commissary.

    However, I find AK and DHS neck and neck for 3rd and 4th. I’m not a bbq fan but I realize that Flame Tree has a very loyal following. I was always more of a pre-character dining Tusker House chicken meal person. Like DHS, we usually return our resort for lunch after a morning in that park.

    We are always satisfied with the selections at MK. I view the park and the dining at MK as “classic” and I am very content with that. Classic burgers, chicken and ribs, bakery, etc.

    Of course EPCOT wins hand down (although DTD is not a “park”, I would actually rank it 2nd to EPCOT for quick service options.) However, I can count on one hand how many people that I know who even admit to eating at Electric Umbrella. I think if there was a vote for worse food court, that location would win by a landslide.

  20. Jeff C. says:

    I’m with Jeff W. on the rank and order. We usually leave HS for lunch because the options for counter service stink (unless we decide to hit up Mama Melrose or Sci Fi for table service instead).

    But if you were to say “Jeff, you can only go to ONE counter service place in all of Disney”, it would be Cosmic Rays. Not so much for stellar food as for atmosphere and it’s just my all-time must-go-to first lunch place in all of Disney.

  21. Queila says:

    During our last trip we had lunch at Starring Rolls at DHS. It was surprisingly good and kind of a healthy choice compared to many others CS’s around WDW. I highly recommend it for someone “stuck” at DHS for a quick bite.

  22. DisneyandBeyond says:

    Thanks for all the responses guys! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Now I’m going to try and pull an AJ to respond to all of your comments.

    Heather- The Tangerine Cafe is all the more reason to put EPCOT on the top! Even with the limited menus, you have more than enough places to go and find you favorite in EPCOT.

    Nick- Great job! Now the next time we are in Disney World at the same time, I’ll buy you a fudge. If it ever happens :P

    Kelly- I can see how if you don’t enjoy Flame Tree then you’d rank Animal Kingdom lower. I actually flip-flopped a lot on the MK vs. AK question, but my love for the Flame Tree won me over.

    Evan- Thanks!

    Missy- It always cracks me up how outdated those TV Promos are. I think they still had the LOST Season 3 catch-up on when Season 5 was starting.

    Dale- I love sharing food at EPCOT so that I can get a taste of everything! I have a hard time sharing my Fish and Chips and Brats though.

    Cody- I used to be a picky eater, and absolutely that changes the entire list. I agree that Magic Kingdom is a great picky eater choice.

    Glenn- Cosmic Rays is certainly a great option, and it is a load of fun with Sonny Eclipse around!

    Melissa Sue- Sorry, You’ll have to get in line. You still got it correct though! :)

    Southern Web Girl- You have to try out some of the park options! I hope this article helps point out some of my favorites. Earl of Sandwich is awesome, though.

    Kim- I didn’t realize Starring Rolls had sandwiches. I’ll have to try those sometime. I do enjoy the Harbor House as well. It is nice and quiet in there if you go for a bit of a later lunch.

    Jeff W.- As I said, I flipped a lot between MK and AK while writing this article. Both parks do have winners.

    Shayne- Thanks for the compliment!

    Heather I- There are certainly a lot of great Hotel Counter Service options! Maybe I’ll do it in the future.

    GG- That’s why I have those two parks ranked in the bottom two. As I was considering Atmosphere as well as Food, I gave MK the edge, and almost pushed it to number 2. I felt that nothing at DHS got me excited to eat, but MK certainly does, sometimes about the food, but always about the atmosphere.

    Jessica- Well I’ll never leave a park before I’m ready or I have to, I agree that there is nothing really to get excited about at DHS. Sometimes I’ll just have a Corndog in place of a full lunch.

    Griffin- DHS does have some excellent Table Service options. Ohh! I smell a sequel! AJ, Make it happen! :)

    Pudge- I’ve never eaten at the Electric Umbrella for the same reason I’ve never eaten at the Sunshine Seasons. Too much good food at the World Showcase. I usually only eat lunch at the resort if I have a table service reservation or it is the first day or last day of a trip when I’m not in a park. Just too much to do!

    Jeff C.- Cosmic Rays is certainly awesome, but I would admit that it wouldn’t be my first choice if I had only one place to go.

    Queila- I’ll take a look at the Starring Rolls menu next time I’m in WDW.

  23. Nick says:

    Nick, will be there September 21-25. LOL

  24. Re lynn says:

    Loved reading about dining quick service options. We will be there in October for the food and wine festival on quick service dining plan. Still can’t get a real answer to the question of dessert for the children in the group, as to what is included. Grandchild loves dessert… Any information?

  25. Re lynn says:

    Thanks, Excited about October

  26. AJ says:

    Re lynn — Thanks for your comment! Dessert is included on the Quick Service dining plan for adults and kids. You can read more here: Disney World Quick Service Dining Plan!

  27. chris says:

    Yes, DHS is terrible, especially if you are a vegetarian (although I’m not and will gladly eat a turkey leg in front of one, hehe). I can’t stand Pecos Bills. My husband is the most laid back person I know but if I even suggest going there, he puts his foot down. It’s bad.

  28. Liz says:

    I have to agree with DHS being the worst of the bunch. We rarely ever stay long enough to eat there and would rather head over to Epcot to grab food. I don’t agree with AK being better than MK though. The food at the barbecue place has gone down hill the past few years and I don’t find it to be as enjoyable. Out of all the Disney spots, I’d say that Downtown Disney has the best quick service meals around. Between the Earl of Sandwich and Wolfgang Puck Express you can get some yummy filling meals without breaking the bank.

  29. Jason says:

    Have to agree with the list though ultimately I think Disney should be ashamed at its general lack of creativity across many of the theme parks with counter service choices. With such high theming, it’s like the imagination went down the drain when it came to food options. I think America is savvy enough to go for something more than burgers, turkey legs, hot dogs and fries. Maybe it’s because i’m from an ethnically-diverse area (NJ suburbs of NY), but I just wish they’d get more creative at AK, MK and DHS. Use the Epcot thinking and apply it those parks. And no i don’t mean taking chicken and putting BBQ sauce on it or naming a burger after a Hollywood star. You don’t even have to get elaborate or expensive with the food options….but darn these parks need some meal diversity. This is part of the reason why I’m willing to pay more money to stay at an Epcot resort this year….it will allow us to eat more meals there.

  30. Dana says:

    I think Heather (the first comment above) crawled into my head and wrote what I was thinking—-2 of my favorite QS items are the Lighthouse sandwich at Columbia Harbor House and the Grilled Veggie Sandwich at Backlot. This past week I had the Lighthouse sandwich once and the Grilled Veggie Sandwich twice—all were excellent!
    I’m surprised Yak and Yeti wasn’t mentioned—very good and very different for theme park fare. Eating in AK is a tough choice—do you go Flame Tree route or Yak and Yeti route?
    I agree with Hollywood Studios and MK having very little on the decent end. When in the MK, we usually break for lunch or dinner at Captain Cooks at the Poly—they have delicious food there—flatbreads, asian noodles, a Hawaiian Pork sandwich, etc, plus you get the bonus of a relaxing walk along the beach when you are done! We ate here twice last week!

  31. tgsmithsr says:

    You must never have been to Puck’s counter service in DTD if you think you can argue that Sunshine Seasons might be the best counter service in WDW. Puck’s is, hands down, the best counter service in the World. It’s like getting Puck’s sit down menu, which has some of the better restaurant food, at a counter service restaurant. Try the barbecued chicken quesadilla the first time you go. It’s really good. Then, on subsequent visits, try the designer pizzas. I think you’ll agree it’s better than anything at Epcot. I do agree, however, that overall Epcot has the best restaurants.

  32. CanadiansloveWDW says:

    i would agree with the order but … Flame tree (which was closed when i was there which really sucked) almost is enough to put AK in first…but I have One more ? where would you rate Down Town Disney???? i would put it # 3… we ate at earl of sandwich and wolfgang express( the most expensive meal on a quick service.) and they were both excellent….

  33. frank says:

    right on with most of your picks. However…a couple of differences. harbor house at mk has to be be #1. (especially if you can grab a table upstairs overlooking the walkway between fantasy land and frontier land). epcot picks were good except the uk fish and chips have really gotten bad of late. starring rolls at hollywood studios (next to brown derby) was a very pleasant surprise. very good picks at animal kingdom. LET’S EAT!

  34. Tracy says:

    this is a fantastic post. it has convinced me to try counter service restaurants in parks other than epcot. that’s a huge deal! i’m now rethinking all of our dining plans for our upcoming may trip. thanks! (making me re-think is a good thing in my book!)

  35. Margie A says:

    Our family, nephews, nieces, sister etc. visit Disneyland in November for the Christmas decorations and of course have dinner at The Blue Bayou. The Filet is my favorite and the chicken is also tasty. I did have to send my salad back as it was swimming in dressing. So they brought me a fresh salad with the dressing on the side. All in all one of our favorite stops and the atmosphere is wonderful.

  36. Ericka F. says:

    As for Disney’s restaurants, I have been going to Disney every year for 25 years and the restaurants have been declining in quality and the prices have gotten out of control. I much prefer to give my money to restaurants outside the park. Stay far away from House of Blues.

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