Join us in welcoming guest author Kevin Carpenter with a dinner review of ‘Ohana. This Polynesian Resort restaurant at Walt Disney World is popular for its all-you-care-to-eat fare served family-style. Aloha!
Dining at ‘Ohana is not an experience entered into without expectation. The restaurant regularly claims a spot among the best table-service venues on Disney property and it enjoys word of mouth that is nothing short of exemplary. As such, reservations go quickly.
After years of close calls and near misses, I finally secured a dinner reservation – for a party of nineteen, no less – and my hopes were sky high for my first visit to ‘Ohana.
As we arrived at Disney’s Polynesian Resort, a large crowd already milled about outside ‘Ohana’s entrance. Seeing this, I feared our large group would be in for quite a wait. After all, our party – extended family members enjoying a Disney vacation together for the first time in many years – was well used to lengthy waits for tables. And this night looked to be no different.
We checked in and, much to my surprise, were immediately whisked to our table. I should have known that there is very little the Cast Members of Walt Disney World are not prepared to handle.
From my very first steps past the Tiki idols guarding the entranceway, I was impressed by ‘Ohana’s ambiance. In true Disney style, the interior theming strikes a fine balance between subtlety and traditional Hawaiian decor.
As we reached our long table, one thing became abundantly clear – we had made the perfect choice for our trip’s centerpiece meal. The word ‘Ohana, meaning family, would prove to be more than simply the name of the restaurant. Everything – from the unending salads and appetizers to the main course and dessert – would be served family style. Even the servers are considered honorary “cousins”. What place could be better for a large family meal?!
While we had many cousins gathered around our table, it was our server, “Cousin” Candy, who stood out the most. She may have been a member of the family for just this one evening, but she fit right in with remarkable warmth and attentiveness.
We had scarcely taken our seats before the table was filled with the incredibly tasty Welcome Bread and bowls of salad with passion fruit dressing. I could have been quite content to savor the bread’s rich tones of pineapple and coconut all night, but the few ‘Ohana veterans among us had warned not to fill up on the bread.
Next came plates of honey-coriander chicken wings and pork dumplings. These were labeled appetizers, but they could have sufficed as meals unto themselves. Especially as everything was all-you-can-eat!
Tangy and delicious, the trays of wings and dumplings demanded refilling several times. Thankfully, my seat at the end of the table afforded an excellent view of the grilling area, where skewers upon skewers of meat and shrimp delivered a firm reminder that the best was yet to come.
Several of us requested drinks from the bar, including one who chose to fully immerse himself in the evening’s Hawaiian spirit by ordering the Lapu Lapu. This blend of rum and fruit juices comes in extravagant style – served inside a hollowed-out pineapple.
Much to the chagrin of the one who ordered it, the Lapu Lapu made its way around the table as everyone wanted a taste. It received high marks from all who sampled it. And, honestly, our meal just felt that much more traditionally Hawaiian for having the Lapu Lapu on the table!
One important consideration to note is that it was not only the size of our party that posed a challenge, but that we were a motley crew of adventurous and picky eaters, with a dietary restriction thrown into the mix as well. One family member suffers from gluten intolerance and required special dietary accommodation. The chef came out to speak with her before any food arrived on the table, and he promised to keep her well-stocked with an assortment of gluten-free alternatives (including gluten-free bread, noodles, and dessert).
The ‘Ohana chefs worked hard to ensure that she did not miss out on any aspect of the meal and she could not have been happier with the results.
“Cousin” Candy soon delivered bowls of noodles and grilled vegetables that were both cooked skillfully – no heavy sauces or spices weighed down the natural flavors.
Finally, the skewers arrived. The grilled chicken came first and exceeded my highest expectations. Mere words seem incapable of describing just how flavorful and juicy the chicken was. More than one member of the group ranked it as the best grilled chicken ever.
The pork loin followed and, although pork is not normally one of my favorites, I am very glad that I decided to give it a try. This pork achieved that rare combination of both sweet and tender that just lights up your mouth.
If pork always tasted as wonderfully as it did at ‘Ohana, I would be a much bigger fan of the “other white meat”.
Yet it was the sirloin steak that I most anticipated … and it did not disappoint. Cooked to approximately medium-well, the steak seemed to melt in my mouth. A few of the ‘Ohana experts among us ate sparingly of the chicken and pork just to save up for the sirloin – it was that delicious!
Not being a seafood lover, I bowed out when the shrimp came around – a good decision because I needed a moment to catch my breath and loosen my belt a bit!
The shrimp was proclaimed to be outstanding, although a few wished it had been de-shelled before serving. (I mention this only because it was literally the only less-than-glowing comment made all night.) However, considering the amount of shrimp eaten at our table, it was a big hit with our group.
In any dining experience where large quantities of meat and vegetables are being quickly grilled, the tenderness and taste of the food can vary from night to night. But, at least on the night of our visit, the ‘Ohana chefs were firing on all cylinders.
Incredibly enough, ‘Ohana saves the best for last. Before dessert arrived, I honestly did not know whether or not I could continue eating. But just one glance at the bread pudding a la mode (with accompanying banana-caramel sauce) put a quick end to that debate.
It was the perfect end to the perfect meal. The bread pudding was rich and moist, causing a few voices to pipe up with regret that we could not return another day just to have more dessert.
As some finished the meal with coffee (and a few more bites of the bread pudding), I took the chance to sit back and take a good look around the restaurant. Ours may have been a large group of adults (in age, at least, if not maturity), but it was easy to see that the charm and allure of ‘Ohana has no bounds. Children paraded and danced, couples at small tables huddled together to share the romantic Florida sunset, and a bride and groom were toasted by family at a neighboring table. And we were living proof that a large group would be handled deftly.
Reflecting back on ‘Ohana, the most important takeaway was that sharing a meal there transcends the food – as delicious as that was. I kept coming back to ‘Ohana meaning family and how that is no small statement. It instead reflects an all-encompassing welcoming spirit, an emphasis on family that drives the entire dining experience. ‘Ohana is an absolute delight, one of those truly ineffable experiences that makes a vacation in Walt Disney World so magical.
Kevin first visited Walt Disney World in 1989 and has been studying the life and career of Walt ever since. When not writing, he works in professional soccer from his home in Ohio. You may also find him on twitter at @kejca.
Is ‘Ohana one of your family’s favorite dining locations at Walt Disney World? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!