During the busy holiday season, Walt Disney World accommodates famished guests with unique dining experiences. Guest reviewer @MealTrip, takes us to Tortuga Tavern’s Island Dinner Buffet in the Magic Kingdom! Book your meal online or at 407-WDW-DINE.
During the holiday season, through January 4th, the dining area that is normally utilized for Tortuga Tavern counter service dining is trying out something new. From 5pm until 9pm they’re hosting a dining event called the “Island Dinner Buffet.”
Tortuga Tavern is normally a walk-up, counter service Mexican food location, just across the street from the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. I was curious as to how they would frame out the rather open, free-seating area so passers by would not inadvertently sit down and join the buffet. The solution… planted palm trees.
Many, many planted palm trees tucked into every nook and cranny, between every garbage can and bench, which all added to the Island theme quite nicely — and surprisingly, did provide separation from the main walk way.
The entrance to the event is over by what is usually the walk-up counter. Because this is not the normal configuration of the space, payment for your meal happens at one of the restaurant’s normal registers before you are seated. This is a bit different for a Disney restaurant, but not unusual for a buffet.
There appears to be seating for around 350 guests at any given time, and before we get into the food, I picked up a great tip from one of the managers. There are at least 50 seats that are kept out of the booking system every day… until 24 hours before the next day’s meal. This is because some of the seating can be considered “not covered.” If they’re expecting inclement weather (i.e. rain or cold), they will not release those seats to the booking system.
So if you would like to go to the Island Dinner Buffet, and it looks like it’s completely booked up… fear not… unless it’s raining or exceptionally cold out, they may just have a bunch of extra seats that won’t hit the booking system until the day before you want to go. Because that’s pretty short notice in Disney-Speak, that may also mean there’s a chance that you can score a seat without any reservations at all.
This is great news for Disney Dining Plan guests with one table service dining credit and no advance dining reservation. During the holidays, it’s quite possible there are more dining credits out there than there are seats available, and this “Island Dinner Buffet” is a creative solution for those that didn’t reserve seats 180 days ago.
There are two main “indoor” spaces that belong to Tortuga, while the rest of the area is considered covered. They have plenty of air conditioning (or heat) wafting around the open area.
One of the main rooms is large and had both a buffet line (which was already closed in the photo below) and quite a number of tables as well.
The other main indoor space is a bit smaller, and was being used for buffet food items only (no extra seating).
At peak times, both buffet rooms will be in full swing, but as far as food goes, they both have all the same items available.
Environment-Wise… it is Tortuga Tavern’s normal seating area and as such, the tables all seem to be permanently set into the concrete floor, so they’re not movable or replaceable. Fortunately, they’re all still in pretty good shape. It might have been nice to see some Island inspired table coverings and/or on-table light center pieces just to spruce the place up a bit from it’s normal walk-up-seating persona.
On to the food. For starters there was a little tossed salad station with vinaigrette, Black Pearl balsamic, and ranch dressings available, along with a Gulf Grilled Vegetable Pasta Salad (which is a cold pasta salad with grilled red peppers and very seafoody overtones, but no identifiable bits of seafood) and a tomato, mozzarella and basil salad.
The Ocean Harvest chowder station (with prepackaged chowder crackers available) stood in another corner and I have to say, was quite yummy. It is a more robust chowder with chunks of potato, shrimp, and scallops.
Because of it’s color, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a tomato or two and some bacon reduction in there as well (although I can’t confirm that, just going by what I was tasting).
My next plate consisted of the Banana leaf baked mahi with Gold Coast mango chutney, which was a huge winner for me.
The white fish was perfectly cooked and seasoned slightly peppery, which paired well with the cooling sweet, yet zippy mango chutney that topped the fish.
The sea salted green beans contained a few red peppers for color, and the Caribbean spiced sweet potato wedges were another one of those pleasant surprises.
Sweet potato “fries” can get dry fast on a buffet line, but thanks in part to the larger size of the wedges they stayed quite soft inside and crisp on the outside. Now, I’m used to honey and pepper on my sweet potato fries, but these seemed to have a savory kick to them rather than sweet. It’s hard to say for sure, but I’m guessing the spice blend may have included garlic, ginger, allspice, pepper, and a small chili hit as well.
The “Treasures of mac and cheese“… well… the creaminess that I’ve been missing from the mac and cheeses around “the worlds” in general was here… so the texture and consistency that I’m looking for in a great mac and cheese was perfect. The taste, here again, it just wasn’t cheesy enough for me. Sadly, that seems to be a trend in Mac and Cheese at the moment.
Next up, I tried some of the rosemary-garlic pork steamship which was being carved-to-order, with some apple chutney.
No, no, that’s not a scene from Ratatouille, that’s actually carving-master James, who was doing a fine job of thinly slicing a very tender pork shank. The term “steamship” basically means it’s a mostly skinless leg, trimmed of exterior fat, with an exposed shank and you just keep carving down the sides. It really was quite delicious and paired well with the apple chutney.
I rounded out my protein parade with a “Captain Jack’s chicken breast with lemon and parsley” which was the only real food related disappointment of the night. The taste was very nice, but buffet chicken can get dried out very quickly. This kind of struck me as being a frozen chicken product to begin with, which was losing moisture with every passing moment in the keep-warm tray.
A lone meatball was peering out of the “cannonball meatballs with marinara and parmesan” tray so I decided separate it from the herd. Much to my surprise, there where quite a few other meatballs simmering under a sea of marinara.
While the “meat” part of the meatball wasn’t the extra lean 96/4 ground beef that I would use when cooking at home, it wasn’t the poorest meatball I’ve had in the Magic Kingdom. (Nuff said.) The marinara and parmesan sauce was the real superstar here though… the chunky marinara tasted great and had a really nice thickness about it.
Finally, the “Barbosa’s braised beef with julienne carrots, celery and pearl onions” was a really, really nice pot-roast entree.
While there was a bit of fat on the end, (which is needed in the cooking process), it was easy to remove (or eat, quite a few people like those bits), and the rest of the braised beef was lean and savory.
There were also hot dog nuggets available, which I did not try.
Moving on to desserts, (and the several cups of coffee my very attentive waiter brought) the “no sugar added lemon cookies”… really needed more sugar. But that’s probably just me. There was also a mixed, cut fruit bowl which had various melon, pineapple and strawberries pieces…
…and these impossibly cute rice crispy bon-bons all decked out in their finest chocolate holiday tops!
There were assorted mini cupcakes, which consisted of vanilla, chocolate, and red velvet; and mini cheesecake rounds, in plain and berry varieties. But the Mickey Ear Hat Brownies were crazy cool.
Shaped like little Mickey ear hats and usually found at the Main Street Confectionery, these were great little chocolate brownies, with chocolate medallion ears, all covered in milk chocolate, then drizzled with white chocolate.
At first I thought these might be “mini” versions of the real deal, but stopping by the Confectionery on my way out, they might just have been the very same size. I ate two of them, and I wish I could have had several more, but the level of chocolate-ness was just too much. 😉
This brings us to the question of “value.” The Island Dinner Buffet is only happening in a time-frame that’s known to Disney restaurants as “holiday pricing. “To give a comparison, the Crystal Palace is charging (at minimum) $40.99 per adult (plus, tax and tip) during this period. While you don’t get any character meet and greets table-side, Tortuga Tavern’s Island Dinner Buffet’s $35.99 per adult price point (plus tax and mandatory 18% tip), seems about in line for the quality of the food being offered. That being said… I don’t think it would survive at that price point outside of the “holiday pricing” window.
If you have a table service dining credit, though… it’s definitely a great value. I have heard stories in the past about folks, in busy periods, having to use their Table Service credits at Counter Service locations, just because there were no more seats left at the fully booked restaurants. Hopefully this will help reduce those numbers.
Either way, after a great meal and a few Mickey Ear Hat Brownies, you definitely won’t be looking for a midnight snack!
Would you use a table service credit or pay out-of-pocket for Tortuga’s holiday dinner buffet? Share your comments!