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Disney Food for Families: Tips for Disney Dining with Young Children

In my mind, a vacation isn’t a vacation if you’re doing the same old chores you do at home, but at a different locale. I spend enough time packing lunches and cooking dinners all year long; I want a break from this when travel. That means I want to eat in restaurants when I’m on the road.

Tigger Meets a New Friend at Crystal Palace

This mindset was one of the factors that made Walt Disney World such a wonderful destination for my family when my daughters were small. There are dozens upon dozens of restaurants to choose from and they’re ALL kid friendly (with the one tiny exception of Victoria & Albert’s).

When I figured out that I could have gourmet food and wine while my toddlers were gleefully welcomed with high chairs, plain pasta, and coloring pages, I was hooked.

But while there are abundant dining options at Disney World, there are some types venues that work slightly better than others for families with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. There are also some tips and tricks that can make dining with small fries even happier in this happiest of places.

Preparation Is Everything

Before you arrive at Walt Disney World, there are several steps you can take to make your on-site dining run more smoothly:

Alooooooha, Mickey!

  • Make dining reservations, make them as soon as possible, and make them for approximately your child’s normal dining time. Having a Disney dining reservation means that you won’t be wandering around aimlessly while your child gets progressively more hungry and cranky. The closer to the 180-days-in-advance mark you arrange your dining, the more likely you’ll be to get a coveted 6:00 p.m. dinner slot.
  • Be honest with yourself about your child’s eating habits. Is your child in an I-only-eat-beige-colored-food phase? Does pasta have to be on the menu? Will your child eat absolutely anything, but only if it’s dipped in plastic cheese?Make sure that your restaurant selections can accommodate your child’s needs. Disney Restaurant Menus are readily available; a quick glance at these will tell you if you’re pointed in the right direction.
  • Avoid snacks on the go.. This is a tough one, I know. Walt Disney World is the epicenter of snacking delight. But if you’ve given a 30 pound toddler a 350 calorie Mickey Premium Bar half an hour before dinner, then the chance that she’ll be entertained by her chicken and broccoli is minimal. Stick to small snacks and try to time them at least two hours before a sit-down meal.
  • Bring Toddler-Sized Utensils if needed. Disney does have ample high chairs and booster seats on hand. They do not, however, have toddler-sized utensils. If you need small size tableware, bring your own. The same goes for sippy cups and bottles.Paper cups with lids and straws are available everywhere at Walt Disney World except the Animal Kingdom and Animal Kingdom Lodge (animals can choke on these). My family had more than one spill there due to the lack of covered beverage options.
  • Crayons and coloring pages are available at almost every table service restaurant at Walt Disney World. However, if you’ll be at Walt Disney World for an extended period of time and doing lots of table service dining, those coloring pages can get pretty old. Be prepared with a few other table-sized distractions (your smart phone, a little sticker book, a small puzzle, etc.) I’ll go into this in more detail in a future post.

Character Meals

Disney World Character meals are a rite of passage among Disney guests. Many folks think that you haven’t reeeeally eaten at Walt Disney World unless you’ve eaten with Mickey. ;-)

But if you’ve got a toddler or preschooler, take a step back and think about whether your child wants Mickey as his dinner companion. A small, but significant, percentage of young children are terrified by costumed characters. It should go without saying, but if your child falls into this category, don’t bring them to a character meal. At other park locations it’s completely possible to avoid character interaction — not so at a character meal.

It's OK to be goofy at character meals. Little kids can blow off some steam.

How do you know if a character meal is right for your child? Test it out. Visit a restaurant at home with themed characters and see how they do. If one is not available, book your character meals for late in your vacation. That way, if your child has an adverse reaction to the characters in the parks, you’ll have time to call an audible and make alternate reservations.

To make it a little easier to determine which Disney Character Meal is right for your family, I’ve identified a number of Value Criteria that might come into play when choosing a character meal (many of these could be applied to other meal decisions as well). You can click on each link to see a special graph that will help you determine which character meal will be best for you based on each criteria:

meeting a particular character
minimizing cost
minimizing travel time
maximizing the number of food choices
maximizing food quality
minimizing noise level
sleeping late, or eating at a particular time

Buffets

There are pros and cons to buffet dining, whether they’re character meals (e.g. Chef Mickey’s) or not (e.g. Boma).

Buffet Pros
On one hand, there are plenty of options to choose from and your child can actually see the food before it ends up on their plate. At buffets, you won’t run into the situation where you order mac & cheese, it gets to the table and egads, it’s white instead of orange, or it has parsley sprinkled on it, or the noodles are straight instead of bendy, and the subsequent tears derail the meal. At a buffet, what you see is what you get.

At little mess is to be expected at the Disney restaurants.

Buffet Cons
The con side of buffets is that they’re what my friend Eva calls “an aerobic dinner.” Instead of sitting down and enjoying your meal, you’re constantly getting up to get more food, or to look at the dessert options, or whatever.

If you have multiple small children, you and your adult companion might never actually be at the table at the same time. If you’re a single parent, especially one outnumbered by babies or toddlers, things are even worse. You can’t leave the kiddos alone at the table. You can’t carry a baby and more than one plate of food simultaneously. Oy.

Of course, the flip side of this is that if you have an antsy toddler, no one will care if you get up and walk around for a bit, since everyone else in the restaurant will be walking around too.

Family-style Service

Family-style service is, in my mind, one of the best options for folks with toddlers or preschoolers. These are generally all-you-care-to-eat situations. You server will bring you as much of any item served as you desire. This means that if your child becomes fixated on the Mickey waffles at ‘Ohana, she can have as many as she wants.

'Ohana Breakfast Platter

There are also usually multiple entree items to choose from on the family’s platter. For example, at the Garden Grill, you’ll be served beef, turkey, and fish on the adult platter (which the kids may also eat) as well as chicken and mac ‘n’ cheese on the kids’ platter. The odds are high that your little one will eat something served here.

The big upside of family-style is that you’re presented with several food choices, but your server will bring you more of whatever you want. There’s no getting up to fetch your own food, so the entire clan will be eating together. This is the best of both worlds in my book.

Family-style service can be found at ‘Ohana, Garden Grill, Whispering Canyon Cafe (menu options also available), Liberty Tree Tavern (dinner only), Akershus breakfast, and the Hoop Dee Doo Revue and Spirit of Aloha dinner shows.

The Noise Factor

The ambient noise of a restaurant can be friend or foe when you’re dining with a toddler. On one hand, a bit of background noise is welcome. When the atmosphere is bustling, your child’s dropped fork clatter or occasional raised voice will simply blend in with everything else. But when the noise level gets too loud, a sensitive child may become overwhelmed and break down into tears.

On a sliding scale, signature restaurants tend to be more quiet. Non-signature, non-character meals are in the middle, and buffets or restaurants with entertainment or characters tend to be the noisiest.

Entertainment

Many of the Disney restaurants offer entertainment, from belly dancing to German polkas. If you’re planning to dine at one of these restaurants, assess in advance how your child might react.

Entertainment at Biergarten Restaurant in Epcot's Germany

Some toddlers and preschoolers will be enthralled by the activity, allowing you to savor dessert. Others will be too distracted by the performance to eat. While still others will be afraid of some entertainment elements.

Again, a little practice at home can pave the way to a good experience at the parks. Find a nearby restaurant with live music or something similar. If your toddler is OK there, then chances are you’ll be find at Walt Disney World.

Signature Dining

Children of all ages are welcome at Disney’s signature (gourmet) restaurants. I started bringing my daughters to Disney’s signature venues when they were less than a year old.

Special desserts are on the menu for preschoolers dining at signature restaurants.

Along with high falutin’ food and wine, the signature restaurants have special menus for the kiddos. But never fear if the kids’ menu doesn’t appeal at a signature spot. You should be aware that the signature restaurants have the most leeway to customize a dish to a guest’s liking. For example, if there’s a chicken with sauce on the menu, the chefs could make a piece of plain grilled chicken for your toddler. If there’s anything even somewhat close to what your child eats on the menu, chances are that the chefs can tinker to make it work for you.

While your baby or toddler will be welcome at the signature spots, you’ll want to be especially respectful here of other guests who are out on their date night or other adult pursuit. This may mean asking for a table near the door so that if a case of the crankies arises, you can easily step outside with the baby for a moment.

Also, keep an eye on junior’s temperament and adjust your dining accordingly. If a meltdown seems on the horizon, skip dessert or ask for it to be packed up to go.

Sometimes you have to know when to call it quits.

That’s just a few of our favorite tips — from years of experience — about dining with young kids and toddlers in Disney’s theme parks. We’d love to hear yours!

So big kids, what have your experiences been dining with youngsters at the Disney parks? Do you have any favorite dining spots or tips and tricks you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!

Erin Foster is the Disney Food for Families columnist and a behind-the-scenes guru here at Disney Food Blog! Check out more of her posts here.

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13 Comments

  1. yensidfan says:

    Some children will stay put during a meal and then…there is my two yr old daughter. We took her to a character breakfast and she didn’t do too bad except she keep leaning over the booth yelling to the characters out of excitement when they were at other tables visiting other families. Luckily in Disney World I know that every other table has kids doing almost the same thing so a lot of the stress is lifted.
    For her 3rd birthday we are taking her to Cinderella’s restaurant because she is so smitten with the Fairy Godmother and just the mention of her name will make my daughter sit in her seat because she knows that she has “magical powers”. I’m hoping that it will be a successful dining experience. :)

  2. tom says:

    How does Biergarten in Epcot go over with picky eaters? It looks like the menu lacks a true kids option unless some of the sausages are closer to hot dogs? I have one extermly picky 9 year old, who I am not sure will eat anything, but the rest of the family I think would love this place (especially dad).

  3. Pam says:

    Great article! Timing your reservations are so important to prevent meltdowns in small children. Keep in mind Florida may not be in the same time zone as where you are coming from. Plan accordingly : )

  4. EEFoster says:

    yensid – The best part of dining at Disney is that the servers are so used to dealing with small kids. I’m sure the Fairy Godmother will love to meet your daughter. Have a great time.

    Tom – One of my daughters is a very picky eater. When we’ve gone to the Biergarten, she does eat some of the sausages because they’re very much like hot dogs. The buffet also includes mac ‘n cheese, spaetzel (which is like plain pasta), bread and fruit. She’s never gone hungry. I say give it a shot!

    Pam – Good point about the time zone changes. A big difference can have an impact on mom and dad as well as the kiddos.

  5. MUGger says:

    Tom – Biergarten also has chicken schnitzel, which is very similar to chicken fingers (basically, its breaded and fried chicken). That option made my picky five year old (at the time) very, very happy. He also really enjoyed the entertainment that came with the meal. And for the parents, the beer served is some of the best in WDW!

  6. Beth says:

    I will never forget the first time I took my daughter to a character meal. We were with my brother and his kids who are a couple years older than my daughter. His kids were fine with the characters, mine was freaking out! I had to take her outside of the restaurant to calm her down. My husband hurried up and ate and came out so I could go back in and finish. I couldn’t agree more about finding out in advance if your child will be afraid of characters. Sometimes it is just the costumed character that will freighten your child. If it is a Princess or Peter Pan they are not afraid as was the case with my child. So you may be able to experience character dining, but you should see which characters are at the different locations.

  7. Jym says:

    This was a great article. Great tip about bringing your own child size utensils and sippy cups. I have to disagree, however, with the food quality chart. I like UG but they can’t rate a restaurant to save their lives. Tusker House has great food, one of the best buffets on property.

  8. Becca says:

    Thank you so much for this! I read so many things saying “eat in your room!”, but nope, I don’t feel like I’m on vacation if I have to wash up!

    The hardest thing I’m finding is trying to anticipate what our now-9-month-old son will be like in September. Will he be picky? Will he be afraid of characters? I still remember my brother shrieking in terror the first time he met Mickey.

    Our trip came with free dining, so planning ahead seems to be essential, but trying to plan with a person who changes from day to day is tricky! All I can think to do is feed him food with random different textures and flavours along the way, and get as much restaurant training in as possible. I actually managed to eat a whole dish of moules mariniere with him on the lap the other day, so I feel it’s going well!

  9. EEFoster says:

    Muger – Thanks for the extra tips for fussy eaters.

    Beth – You’re right that sometimes the “face” characters are easier for small kids than the fully costumed “fur” characters.

    Jym – I’m a Tusker House fan too.

    Becca – Sounds like you have a really good strategy! Let us know how your visit goes!

  10. ErwinM says:

    The biggest bit of advance preparation you can do is to make sure your child does well in restaurants in general. We practiced with our daughter since she was a tiny infant, and in 3 Disney trips so far, she has done great. We’ll see how she does in May as an opinionated and strong-willed 2-year-old, but I think she’ll do just as well.

  11. Jen says:

    We have visited disney world in 2011 and 2012 with small children. I have found lunch character dining works best. My daughter was so excited to see the princesses that she didn’t want to eat the first time we visited in 2011. This ment 40 minutes after lunch she was hungry again. So the second time we went we leanred that the princess dining in Norway is about the princesses not the food for my duaghter and so we made a 2pm reservation. She had plenty of time with all the princesses. She already had a lunch at 11 and was just looking for a snack really. Insteasd of telling her over and over again to eat she just got to enjoy her time as really for us it was paying for her to meet the princesses without us standing in line.

    This time we go we will do less character dining. Food choices are better else where in the park. I will say that compared to the times my daughter was in costume to the time she was not she seemed to get more attention in costume.

  12. Marc says:

    For character meals we do best with breakfast as it sets the tone for the day and the chances of having to wake them up from a nap is significantly lessened. It is a lot easier to wake up a kid in the morning versus a nap especially if you went “do you want to see mickey?”

    Some restaurants also tend to hold kids attention better than others while you are waiting for a table. Tony’s has Lady and the Tramp going while Mama Melrose has nothing. Even Narcoose’s has a good area by the water which the kids can enjoy and you can point out various attractions.

  13. Eve says:

    Bring your own bendable straws. I assumed if Chick Fil a had them, a place that caters to children would have them. Nope. Bring your own, or bring scissors to cut the straws down for small children.

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