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Disney Food for Families: Ideas for Successful Table Time with Kids

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.

The hobby horse parade at the Whispering Canyon Cafe is a great way for kids to blow off some steam.

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?

  1. Everyone (children and adults) gets to eat at a comfortable pace,
  2. Everyone sits at the table when they’re supposed to,
  3. No whining or complaints, and
  4. 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.

The parade at 'Ohana also allows kids to get their groove on.

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.

Character greetings can prevent kids from getting bored at the table - unless they're afraid of getting smothered by bears :-)

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.

You may even get a character to work on a menu puzzle with you.

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.

The kids' menus include some quiet activities.

Table Toys

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.

Simple toys can keep kids occupied while they're waiting for their meal.

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:

Check out this Cool Snake Magnifying Glass!

Additionally, you may want to brush up on your pencil games such as hangman, dot to dot, and Words in Words.

Invisible Ink books are great for kids who are still developing small motor skills.

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.

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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9 Comments

  1. Marie says:

    Another great travel-size option for keeping kids occupied that’s not on your list is Mad Libs. These are silly word games perfect for the age group that’s just a little too old for the menus (say, 8-10). When I was a kid my sister and I loved these (we spend many an hour of our childhood in the car roadtripping) and now my nephew loves them too (he’s 9).

  2. Amy says:

    I was JUST saying how the “Erin posts” are especially helpful as I’ve been to Disney World several times, but our next trip will be our first with a preschooler. This, the Adventurous Eaters post, and the post on how the dining plan works with kids have all been invaluable as we set off into uncharted territory. I especially loved the list of diversions you provided. (Now that you mention it, I got my first Where’s Waldo? book on a flight to Disney World many years ago!)

  3. Sharyn says:

    Thank you for another wonderful post! I 100% agree with the suggestion of “Put yourself in a position to succeed.” For example – I know my kids – especially my toddler – do better when they eat an earlier dinner. So for now that’s the plan. I’d much rather have an early enjoyable dinner anywhere than any 8pm meal – even if its at Le Cellier!

  4. Erin says:

    Marie – Agreed. Mad Libs are a great activity for older kids.

    Amy – Thank you so much for the kind words. The first trip with a child is always daunting. It sounds like you’ve done your homework. I’m sure you and your little one with have great time together.

    Sharyn – You make an excellent point. Choosing the right dining time can make all the difference in the world. Look at your child’s regular bedtime. Subtract 1.5 to 2 hours and that’s the latest dining reservation you should accept. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. M'Shel says:

    Thanks so much for these wonderful tips! My best friend is taking her girls, ages 5 and 7, for the first time next week. I am trying to help her with tips and advice as we go every year. However, my kids are 14 and 11 now, so I’m a little rusty on how to keep “little” ones occupied. I am sending her your list of activities. I’m sure they will be a lifesaver!

  6. Nicole says:

    I have a fun suggestion that my family plays when we wait for our table to be ready. Whenever restaurants give us one of those pagers (the ones that light up to indicate that our table is ready), we pass it around to each other like a game of hot potato. It’s a good way to keep everyone occupied and to keep our minds off of how hungry we are by keeping our attention on where the pager is and who will end up being the winner when the pager goes off. It’s especially fun to play when you have a lot of people in your group to pass it around!

  7. Laura says:

    Excellent post! We also find that waiting before you are seated causes the kids to fidget more when we are at the table and of course, already be bored with the extra games we played while waiting for the table. So we like to eat before the lunch or dinner rush. In fact, we enjoy 4:30 pm seatings for dinner! Since we eat before the lunch rush (around 11 or 11:30 am), we get hungry by then anyway. Even at the busiest of restaurants we are usually sat very quickly. It also gives us time to digest and get a yummy snack for the evening fireworks or show.

    And of course if you do have to wait, ask for a menu and get everyone to choose. That way, when you sit, you can order right away and get your food that much quicker!

  8. Joe says:

    Just wondering, wouldn’t talking to your kids be something? I talk to mine all the time, we have great conversations, even at their young ages. They don’t need distractions. I just struggle with the idea that they need something to do to pass the time

  9. Rosalie says:

    I buy all of our souvenirs beforehand (on sale, of course!). My girls (3&5 the first time and 4&6 the second) love the Disney figurine sets from the movies, so each day that we had a table service meal we would tell our kids that we have a very special surprise for them when we get to the restaurant. (this also helped with the begging for toys as we just had to remind them that they were about to get something very special). Then at the table, I’d wait for their charming perfectness to wear off (about 15 minutes in once we are seated…), and then they get their new figurine set. This keeps them busy for the rest of dinner!

    However, my children didn’t even care about the new toys at Coral Reef, they were far more impressed with the turtles and sharks!

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