My 15-year-old daughter was recently invited by a classmate’s family to a super swanky dinner event at a super-duper swanky restaurant in New York City.
When she was telling me about it the next day there was a lot of “who wore what” and “what was on the menu” discussion. And then she said this to me, “Thanks for taking us to Victoria & Albert’s. I knew what to expect at the dinner last night because we had been to V&A’s.”
After I got over the shock of such an overt expression of gratitude and politesse from a teenager, I allowed myself a brief moment of parental pride. My plan to use Disney restaurants as a manners training ground had worked!
Using Disney Restaurants as Manners Boot Camp
I understand that using Victoria & Albert’s as etiquette boot camp is a bit over-the-top, but the concept could be applied to any signature restaurant at Walt Disney World. Before I get going, let me say that while of course you can (and should) teach manners at restaurants in your home town and at your own dinner table, the Disney signature restaurants are an ideal learning environment for adult behavior.
The Disney signature restaurants have all the elements of posh and polite, PLUS all the elements of easy-going and family-friendly. The restaurants put you in a position to succeed, with no fear or threat of derision or embarrassment if you don’t. The Disney signature venues are the perfect stepping stone on the path to civilized behavior.
Here are some things your children can learn and practice at a signature venue:
It’s Nice to Look Nice
Casual dress has permeated many areas of our culture. You rarely see people in formal attire on airplanes or Broadway shows any more. But despite the generalized sartorial slacking, there are places where it matters what your wear.
The signature dining rooms in Disney World do have dress codes. Take the time to share the dress code information with your children.
Discuss why you think it’s important to neaten up for special occasions. Your kids may disagree with you, but at least you’ve gotten the concept of a dress code on their radar.
The Disney Difference
The benefit of being in a Disney restaurant is that while the dress codes do exist, the requirements are quite modest. Chances are extremely high that you’ve already got all the components of the code in your closet.
Click here to learn more about Disney Dress Codes.
Let your kids know in advance that proper behavior is expected in proper places. While it may be fine to slump in your seat or eat with your hands at the local pizzeria, these behaviors may not be acceptable at a finer establishment.
The list of basic table manners is virtually endless. To avoid mutiny, choose just one or two of the following to focus on during your meal:
- Proper posture
- Using your napkin
- Elbows off the table
- Please and thank you
- Chew with your mouth closed
- Butter your bread one bite a time
- Wait to eat until everyone has been served
- Ask to be excused if you need to leave the table
The Disney Difference
The Disney difference is that the restaurant staff has truly seen it all before.
Your child’s manners will not be scrutinized by your server; you’ll receive no stink-eye for a mouth wiped on a sleeve or a slurped soup.
Respect the Waitstaff
Signature restaurants are the perfect place to demonstrate that waiters and other staff deserve our respect. Show your kids how to look at your server when they are speaking, and listen to the menu specials or special instructions.
When they order, have them look the server in the eye and speak in a loud, clear voice. Demonstrate that please and thank you are non-negotiable phrases when speaking with any waitstaff.
What are all these forks for?
At home or family chain restaurants, your kids will likely only encounter the basic triumvirate of fork, knife, and spoon. At a signature restaurant, there may be multiples of all these items.
A pre-meal chat with your kids may be order to explain the order of operations: silverware is typically used from outside in and from smallest to tallest. Again, no one will look askance if junior is using his entree fork for his appetizer; that’s why this is a great place to practice.
Here’s a Tip
With a full table service laid out, it’s easy to forget which items are yours and which are your neighbor’s. Here’s an easy trick to help kids (and grownups) remember which bread plate and glass are theirs:
To remember which bread plate and which drink are yours, make the OK symbol with both hands. Your left hand will look like a lower-case B, that tells you your BREAD is on the left. Your right hand will look like a lower-case D, this tell you your DRINK is on the right.
You’ll never forget again! 😃
Deciphering the Menu
Most menus you’ll encounter will feature entrees of basic protein (beef, pork, lamb, poultry, fish), pasta, or vegetables. The fancier the restaurant, the more likely these basic items will be described using some confusing sounding words. The more your kids learn to decipher the lingo with you, the more comfortable they’ll feel with a sophisticated menu when they’re on their own.
A quick look at California Grill menu below shows several words that, depending on your home cooking habits, may be new to your kids: zinfandel, polenta, glaze, succotash, chutney, risotto. And that’s just the entrees!
If some of these words are new to you as well, enlist the assistance of your server (Editor’s Note: I always ask — who knows if there are some goodies buried underneath those big words that I’ll just love!). Even better, have your kids ask the waiter to describe the menu items they need help with.
The benefit of starting your kids on “fancy” food at Disney is that signature restaurants have the capability of modifying almost any dish to suit the diner’s needs. For example, on the California Grill menu above, if you want the pork tenderloin but don’t want polenta, you can ask that it be served with the mashed potatoes from the beef instead. The chefs at Disney likely won’t blink an eye at making a switch.
And don’t forget that there are safety net kids’ menus at every signature restaurant at Walt Disney World (with the exception of Victoria & Albert’s). There’s no shame in mac n’ cheese at Walt Disney World (in fact, many of the signature restaurants are serving macaroni and cheese on the adult menu!)
Pacing your food consumption
During other meals at Disney parks, you may be in a hurry to leave and get to the attractions; but at a signature meal, the food is the attraction.
Discuss the art of enjoying a fine meal at a leisurely pace. Ask your children to watch the other people at the table to make sure that they’re not eating faster or slower than everyone else. Remind them to enjoy and savor their food, not just bolt it down.
Small talk is a big deal
A signature meal, with its multiple courses and relaxed pace, offers plenty of time for family bonding. Rather than just watch each other eat, discuss the fine art of polite conversation with your children.
Some of the highlights you might want to emphasize are:
- Don’t interrupt the person speaking
- Bathroom humor is inappropriate for the dinner table
- Indoor voices, please
- Don’t monopolize the conversation
- Ask the other person polite questions to start a conversation topic
- If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all
- Respond to questions in more than monosyllables
Tips on Tipping
Tipping is an important part of restaurant culture in the U.S. When you get your bill, take a few moments to discuss tip calculation with your children. If they’re old enough to figure percentages, perhaps ask them to work out what the tip should be. See our Tipping in Disney Restaurants page for more info.
So Disney Foodies, have you taken your kiddos to signature restaurants? What were they able to learn from the experience? Let us know in the comments below.
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Heidi Bilotti says
I totally agree and thought I was the only one who does this. I have a 7 and 8 year old and it is never too early to start teaching manners. I especially like no games, or phones at the table. It seems when I look around a restaurant too many kids are playing on electronic games. A great place to teach children is also on Disney Cruise Lines for all the reasons that you mentioned, especially dressing for dinner. Great Job! Thanks
Thank you so much for writing this post. We don’t have children AND I was raised by a god-mother who was quite intent on proper outside-home etiquette (btw: I’m 47). I am often appalled at the behavior of children (and frequently their parents) when eating at signature restaurants at WDW (so much so, that I rarely eat at these establishments anymore). Good manners are always appreciated and teaching your children good “public” behavior is definitely appreciated by the others around you. So again, Thank you!
Sherri Erwin says
Fabulous post, so glad to see it here. All good suggestions. Well done!
Mark D. says
Great post! Besides the tips to use with my kids, I learned 2 things. That I am only supposed to butter my bread one bite at a time (who knew) and that teens are capable of gratitude. Good news for the parent of a 12 year old.
Ashley W says
As a soon-to-be mother, this was a very reassuring post. We have always thought that our children should start learning about proper dining etiquette at an early age. We LOVE WDW signature dining, and now I feel even more comfortable taking younger kids as a learning experience as well as a dining experience.
Niki M says
I’ve never heard of buttering bread one bite at a time either. Now I need to research this…lol
This is such a great post! Thanks for covering this topic, Erin. I thought your pointers were excellent!
Excellent Post. We have a 3 yr old- and will be dining with the Princesses. We have already started working with her at home letting her know what is and is not appropriate when we are at the Castle. Hopefully some day we can take her to V&A, as we LOVE fancy food!
Great post, Erin! We have definitely done this with our boys. The first time was at Steakhouse 55 in Disneyland a couple of years ago. I made them wear collared shirts (oh, the horror!), and explained that this was a nice restaurant where people were paying a lot of money to enjoy a meal, so even though we’re at Disney (and even though my kids are generally well-behaved), my expectations for their behavior were higher.
We talked about a lot of the things you mentioned, such as making sure your napkin is in your lap (my boys’ napkins have a funny way of always ending up on the floor!), actually using your napkin to wipe your mouth, buttering your bread one bite at a time, which silverware to use, and using “inside” voices. As I recall, one of my kids wanted to make a substitution, so he requested that from our server who, of course, was able to accommodate. I was very proud of how they behaved, and I think it was a good learning experience for them.
Since then, we’ve been to California Grill and Yachtsman Steakhouse with them, and they have behaved admirably (ok, well, my 8 yo fell asleep at the table at California Grill, but it’s hard to begrduge the little guy anything — it was after a 10pm showing of Wishes — and at least he didn’t snore! 😀 ). Even though all of these things are things we encourage/reinforce at home, something about being at Disney makes them more apt to listen.
Sam – Thanks!
Heidi – Great tip about the Cruise Line. We had lots of fun choosing our dinner outfits when we went on the cruise.
Nora – Disney is a great place to learn while taking those baby steps towards good manners.
Sherri – Thanks!
Mark – it is a bit shocking when teens express gratitude, but it does happen 🙂
Ashley – We started taking our kids to signature restaurants when they were preschoolers. Gotta get ‘me while they’re young.
Niki- well, that’s what I was always taught, maybe there are other schools of thought too.
Brooke – I appreciate the kind words.
Should be mentioned – I didn’t see it anywhere – that Victoria & Albert’s would be the ultimate etiquette bootcamp for teens and tweens, but that particular restaurant does not allow entry to children under 10 years old.
What a fantastic idea for a post! I am also thrilled to discover that my habit of buttering my bread one bite at a time is actually good manners, not just a way for me to eat more delicious butter!
I completely agree Disney is the best place to learn how to act appropriately in a restaurant, I wish Disney would enforce their dress policies a little bit more firmly even! Last year my family dined at Narcoosees for my brothers 8th birthday it was a perfect time to teach him how to dress and act in a nice resteraunt. As we checked in at the podium the people in front of us were wearing cut off t shirts swimming, suits and jeans! This was a little disappointing because we were trying to show my brother what dining in a signature restaurant was like, he was confused at why he had to dress up and no one else was? However once we were seated the diners at the tables around us were much different ( dressed and acting the way they were supposed to) and California Grill the next evening was even better! Overall I couldn’t agree more that Disney is the perfect place to learn dining manners 🙂
such an awesome post.. I’m going to save it to my favorites!!! I have a one year old son and definitely want to be able to take him to some nicer restaurants as he grows up! thanks again!
We have been taking our daughter to nice restaurants since she was a baby and dont blink an eye at taking her to signature restaurants in WDW. She has been to Artist Point, Flying Fish, Narccoosee’s Yachtsmans, and California Grill. She has also been on two disney cruises, she loves dressing for dinner and has her table manners. She is 4 years old and she knows we expect her to have good manners.
What gorgeous girls you have!
This is such a great post – I love the fact that Disney restaurants give you a really special experience without too much pressure. One of our closest friends manages a Michelin-starred restaurant, and we’re visiting for my 30th birthday in a few weeks. It’s quite old-school, so I’m a little nervous of dressing right, tipping right, pronouncing things right – all the rest. With Disney, you feel like all the wait staff are 100% on your side!
Great timing! We are leaving for WDW in 2 days. From Seattle so only second time and have a 10 and 13 year old with us. Have half heartedly tried to teach my grandkids table manners. Great separately – horror together! I am going to have them read this article with me tonight so they know what is coming from Grandma when we go to WDW. You are right – WDW is a perfect place. Good dinning setups but no pressure due to the family atmosphere. Also 10 year old can practice when with Mom at the Grand Floridian Afternoon Tea. Thanks for writing!
Fantastic! I was brought up the same way: learning etiquette at every turn. I love the bread & drink trick. And buttering only one bite of bread! I thought I was the only crazy who knew that!
Really, knowing proper etiquette is such a great life skill. You’ll never offend anyone by practicing it!
Karissa – I’m sure your princess will be a star at the Castle.
Shayne – Great stories. I agree that sometimes when kids think that “Mickey is watching” they can really bring their A game to the table.
Catherine – Yes. Of course you are correct. When I brought my daughters to V&A, they were all 10 years old or older. That was mentioned in the previous post, but bears another mention here.
Carrie – Well, I’m up for any excuse to eat more butter 🙂
Chuckie – I have sometimes encountered lax dress code enforcement too. I think that’s part of Disney’s welcoming attitude. You can also use others’ dress as a teachable moment for your kids.
Marcellina – Thanks. I’m sure your son will be a champ when the time comes.
Kirsty – I’m sure your daughter is a pleasure to dine with.
Becca – You’re very sweet. Thank you. I bet you’ll have a great time at your special dinner.
Lorraine – I agree that sometimes kids are better on their own than together. Maybe try a seating arrangement where they’re separated by adults. Good luck!
Kelly – Exactly! Thanks for the feedback.
[email protected] of Heaven says
Awesome article, Erin! I LOVE the tip about the “b” and “d”!!!!
Thank you Erin for this article. It is a pleasure to know that what I have done with my daughter’s upbringing for the past 7 years also works for others. My daughter has gone through Disney Etiquette boot camp since she was 12 months old with 10 trips. Because of the high expectations my husband and I have for her behavior, we never worry too much about where we take her even with the strange looks. Because of her experiences through out the WDW Resort, from California Grille, Brown Derby, Jiko, Afternoon Tea, etc, she experienced Morimotos in Philladelphia (ordering her own green tea noodles) and most of the nicer places in Pittsburgh. I would also like to point out the variety Disney offers and the encouragement to try new and unusual foods is a big plus. Just recently we tried Ethiopian cuisine for the first time and my daughter loved it so much, the owner/chef came out to praise her for her adventurism and good behavior. Thanks again!