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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!