In the early days of my family’s Disney travel, we routinely went to at least one character meal every day, sometimes two. On my twins’ sixth birthday, we even ate at three character meals in one day. My waistline is still trying to recover!
But now that my girls are older, the character meals hold somewhat less appeal for them. My daughter Charlie, now 14, even went through a phase where she was (Yikes!) “too cool” for characters. My challenge has become, “How do you keep the magic of Disney Dining alive without relying on the classic character meal?” In other words: How do you make Disney Dining fun for teens?
Idea #1: Make the vacation about the food.
I have been to Walt Disney World twice with just Charlie during the Epcot Food & Wine Festival. We spent a couple of days working our way around the World Showcase booths, trying to sample at least one or two things from each represented country. This sparked some interesting discussions about food taste, texture, and preparation styles. We had bonding moments over our mutual favorite: the beef with chimichurri sauce from Argentina stand. More please. And we shared belly laughs when a duck dipped her beak into our cup of cheddar cheese soup. We decided that she couldn’t get a reservation at Le Cellier either.
Idea #2: Focus on the non-traditional Disney magic.
Several of the restaurants at Walt Disney World have incredible themeing or cast member interaction, but without the little-kid vibe of the character meals. These include the Whispering Canyon Cafe, Sci-Fi Dine-In, Teppan Edo, and the 50s Prime Time Diner. These playful, but not pandering, environments give older kids permission to be silly without embarrassment.
Idea #3: Treat older kids like grown-ups.
Disney’s signature restaurants are a great place for kids to practice their manners without fear of reprisal. As soon as my girls were past their singular devotion to nuggets and fries, we started taking them with us to all of Walt Disney World’s fine dining establishments. They can practice using the right fork, speaking clearly to the waiter, trying unfamiliar dishes, and generally being an adult situation, but without the dirty looks you might get at a non-Disney venue. I’ve even taken my girls several times to tea at the Grand Floridian and to dinner the super swanky Victoria & Albert’s, both with great success.
Idea #4: Let them be lazy.
Two words: Room service. While we’re normally an up-at-the-crack-of-dawn-for-rope-drop family, there’s definitely something to be said for letting teens sleep in on vacation. They will love you forever if you surprise them with room service juice and Mickey waffles so they can be fancy in their jammies.
Idea #5: Let them dine on their own.
You have to gauge maturity level and comfort, but many teens are ready to be on their own in the parks for at least some of the day. Give them some cash, or allow them charging privileges on their room key, and let them handle a few meals on their own – from making reservations to calculating the tip. This can be a great way to build confidence or to have overscheduled siblings reconnect without parental interference.
Idea #6: Involve them in the process.
This is not ground-breaking news, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that this is the kids’ vacation too. What would indulge or relax them during their break? Be sure to work some of their priorities into your plan.
Idea #7: Try something new.
Families who have been Disney-goers since their children were young inevitably develop family favorites. While it’s great to revisit those time-honored spots, sometimes teens might associate them with feeling of being babyish. We try visiting at least one or two new restaurants each trip. My girls have very different impressions of restaurants they “discovered” when they were older than those they have known their whole lives.
Idea #8: Have an activity with your meal.
A unique experience will certainly make a memorable meal for your teen. A sports fan will love watching the big game while dining at the Boardwalk resort’s ESPN Club. A budding musician will have a great time at the House of Blues Gospel Brunch. An artist will be heaven getting tips during a Dine with an Imagineer experience at the Flying Fish. Dancers can get in step with the entertainment at Raglan Road or Restaurant Marrakesh.
Idea #9: Break a few rules.
Sure you eat encourage healthy eating habits and balanced choices, but every rule needs an exception. Skip lunch and indulge in a feast of funnel cake instead. Or go to Beaches & Cream and order nothing but the Kitchen Sink for dinner. They may not tell you, but in their heads you’ll be the coolest Mom or Dad in town.
Idea #10: Take them to a character meal anyway.
Even though my girls now “understand” the characters, there’s something about the Crystal Palace that makes them forget what they know, if only for a little while. They may “too cool” to go to a character breakfast, but once we’re there, they’ll still give Tigger a big old hug.