Let’s face it. When you’re in Disney World or Disneyland, eating out for nearly every meal, eventually there’s going to be some waiting around — waiting for your table, waiting for your food, waiting for the check.
In an ideal world, you’d pass the time by making polite conversation with your family. But in reality, that may be a tall order after several days of togetherness, forced sibling cooperation, and minding of manners. And for a younger child, patience and conversation making are simply developmental milestones that have not yet been reached.
Given all these challenges, how do you get through a Disney meal with happy, content, occupied kids? And how do you make sure of the following?
- Everyone (children and adults) gets to eat at a comfortable pace,
- Everyone sits at the table when they’re supposed to,
- No whining or complaints, and
- No one bothers guests at other tables.
It’s possible! First, we’ve got some things to consider when making your Disney Dining Reservations.
Then scroll down for ideas of how to keep the kids occupied and entertained at the table!
The First Step: Choose the Right Restaurants
Before making your dining reservations, take an honest look at your family. If your children are patently incapable of sitting still for a meal at your local diner, then you may want to save extended signature dining for another visit.
If your kids are generally OK at restaurants at home, but sometimes get a little squirmy, you may want to focus your dining on restaurants where noise and movement are the norm. These include buffets, character meals, and meals with entertainment.
No one will notice if Junior needs to get up and stretch if everyone else in the restaurant is jumping up to hula with Goofy. Similarly, if your child’s patience is still developing, then buffet-style meals, where there’s no waiting for the food to be cooked, are a sure thing for quicker dining.
Be OK with Changing the Play
Despite your hours of research and pre-dawn wake-ups to get all your dining reservations just right, you may find that when you’re actually at Walt Disney World, things aren’t going the way you planned.
Has Little Sis suddenly become afraid of Mickey? Or has Brother become overwhelmed by all the auditory stimulation at meal time? Rather than making the family miserable by slogging through a meal they’re emotionally unprepared for, go ahead and change or cancel your reservations. The table service restaurants are wonderful, but you may want to consider whether you’ll have better vacation memories if you enjoy each other’s company eating hot dogs at Casey’s rather than fighting and scolding at a table service venue.
Put Yourself in a Position to Succeed
Remember that you can exert a bit of control over the success of a meal. Are brother and sister on each other’s last nerve? Don’t sit them next to each other at the table. Does little sis only sit still when she’s actually eating? Make sure that she’s hungry when she gets to the table. Does Dad get irritable when his blood sugar’s low? Make sure he has a snack a little while before mealtime. Does cousin Sue sit happily anywhere, but only if there’s pasta on the menu? Don’t make reservations for a sushi restaurant. Is the baby fine if she has her favorite sippy cup, but not if she has to drink from a straw? Make sure you don’t leave the cup back in the hotel room.
These common sense things can make a big difference in the enjoyment of your meal, but they can be easy to forget when you’re out of your element.
Direct When the Food Arrives
Some servers will automatically bring the children’s food out before the adults’. The rationale behind this is that kids can’t sit still to wait for their meal, and getting started eating takes the edge off.
This works well for many families. However, when my kids were younger, I found this early food delivery to be problematic. In my experience, if my kids got their food first, they were completely done before mom and dad even got their entrees. They were begging to leave before grown-ups got started.
Obviously, I prefer to have the kids’ food brought out at the same time as the adults’, but this is clearly a matter of personal preference. If you have your own preference, be sure to let your server know what works best for your needs. Don’t leave it up to chance.
What Disney Provides
Disney does give you some tools to keep the kiddos entertained. The vast majority of table service restaurants have crayons on hand, as well as children’s menus with some quiet activities on them such as mazes, word scrambles, connect the dots, or tic tac toe grids.
The sweet spot of utility of these menus is about ages 6 to 8. Younger children may enjoy coloring on the menus, but may not yet have the reading skills or physical dexterity for some of the puzzles. Older children may find the activities too easy or boring. Also, be aware that most of the menu activities are quite similar. They may be amusing on day one or two of your vacation, or they may be tiresome on day six or seven of your vacation.
As noted above, many of the restaurants also have some sort of activity or entertainment that is part of the meal. This may be a character greeting opportunity or a participatory parade of sorts, like the hobby horse “ride” through the dining room at the Whispering Canyon Cafe. Again, when making your reservations, consider whether your child will find this a welcome distraction or simply overwhelming.
If you’ve got children older or younger than the menu-puzzle target, you may want to provide some quiet diversions to entertain them at the table if things are running slowly.
The criteria for these table toys are that they need to be small/light (you have to carry them around), not noisy (you don’t want to distract other diners), not messy (it’s poor form to make unnecessary clean-up work for your server), and quick to set up or put away.
It can be helpful to have a variety of small toys hidden away in your hotel room, with just a few brought out each day. The novelty factor plays a big role in keeping kids entertained.
Here are some suggestions, make your choices based on the ages/interests/abilities of your children:
- Sticker books. Dover makes inexpensive pocket-sized sticker books in a variety of themes. Throughout my children’s preschool and elementary years, I typically carried half a dozen of these with me at all times.
- Silly putty. Beware if you think your kids may get it in their hair, but otherwise this is a great option for fidgeters. There are even fun new varieties like glow-in-the-dark and color-changing silly putty. Teach them the old trick about the transferring a newspaper image to the putty.
- Mad Libs. Great for older kids who have outgrown the menu mazes.
- Etch-A-Sketch, MagnaDoodle, or Wooly Willy. There’s no logical reason why drawing on a gizmo is more fun than drawing on paper, but it is. And these all now come in convenient travel sizes.
- A small magnifying glass.
- Disney Post cards. Great for decorating. Then save them as a souvenir or send them to grandma.
- Travel-sized Boggle.
- Magnetic checkers.
- A ten color pen.
- Rush Hour or Rush Hour Jr.
- Paper dolls. They even have magnetic paper dolls these days.
- A packet of craft stems (pipe cleaners) for making into animals/flowers.
- Cat’s Cradle string.
- A box of colorful paperclips. Great for making a necklace or charm bracelet.
- Origami paper. (Pick some up at the Japan pavilion at Epcot.)
- Rubiks Cube.
- A 15 Puzzle.
- A pocket kaleidoscope.
- Brain Quest.
- Magnetic playsets.
- Magic picture books.
- Invisible Ink books.
- Where’s Waldo.
Additionally, you may want to brush up on your pencil games such as hangman, dot to dot, and Words in Words.
Auto games can also be adapted to table time; many of the same activities that work well as long-car-ride diversions also work as table-time diversions. For example, “I Spy” and “20 Questions” can be played almost anywhere.
Also think about memory or quiz games that can be played at the table. For example, have a child close her eyes. Then remove one item from the table (salt shaker, dad’s fork, etc.). See if she can figure out what’s gone. With a small child, try Three Card Monte as a concentration builder. Hide a sugar packet under one of three opaque coffee mugs. Shuffle the mugs and see if the child can track the sugar.
Have Some Conversation Starters at the Ready
The difference between behaved and cranky might just be having something interesting to talk about or think about.
There are pre-made card packs of things to talk about at dinner, but creating your own topics is easy enough.
Some ideas to get you started are:
- If you could trade places with any Disney character, who would it be and why?
- How would you improve upon one of the rides you experienced today?
- If you were designing Epcot, which countries would you include? Why?
- If you could have any job at WDW, what would it be?
- How many different kinds of jobs do you think there are at WDW?
- If you could dress Mickey/Minnie is a new outfit, what would it be?
- Of course, non-Disney topics work too. But when in Rome …
The key to this is thinking of some topics in advance. It’s difficult to be creative when you’re tired and hungry.
The Electronic Device Controversy
And when all else fails, you may want to break out your trusty iPhone.
There’s quite a bit of controversy about the acceptability of electronic devices at the dinner table. Naysayers argue that when a child is immersed in an electronic device, he’s not learning conversational skills or manners or patience, and is certainly not present in the moment. On the other hand, there are times when you just need to make it through the meal without a tantrum. In those cases, a Cars video or a few levels of Angry Birds can mean the difference between an OK meal and a disaster.
Well, that and a glass of wine for mommy.
Be sure to load up whatever electronic devices you plan to carry in the parks with some age appropriate apps and other media. Just in case. And don’t forget the headphones; no one wants to hear the low volume chatter of a movie they’re not watching.
So tell me, what are your meal time coping strategies? What tricks do you have up your sleeve? Is there a particular age/stage that was most difficult for you? Let us know in the comments below.