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Summer Vacation Eats: Disney World

Food critic Jason DeRusha finds the best dining spots during his theme park vacation


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Photos by Jason DeRusha

I just got back from five days at Walt Disney World in Orlando, and one day at Universal Studios. Yes, six days in a row of theme parks—which doesn’t quite feel like a vacation.

For those planning their summer vacation to the popular destination, know that eating at Disney can be a challenge: you can easily end up at a concession stand with a bland burger or awful chicken sandwich (I’m talking about you, ABC Commissary at Hollywood Studios). I highly recommend taking the time to make a reservation and sit down to eat. Every park has reservation spots that you can book online here.

Have your own recommendations? Leave them in the comments!
 

Magic Kingdom

It’s huge, it’s sprawling, and you’ll want to sit down and take a break. Thankfully, there are many great choices throughout the park.

Counter service:

Columbia Harbour House (Liberty Square): This is a nice change of pace—there’s a ton of seafood, including a nice battered fish platter for $10. I liked the hummus and vegetable sandwich for $10. There’s also a decent fried shrimp platter for $11.50, and a great broccoli peppercorn salad.

Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café (Tomorrowland): There’s nothing fancy about this spot, but there’s a ton of indoor seating. That’s huge if you’re going with a big group (we had 18 of us together!). The 1/2 rotisserie chicken for $14.50 is a great way to go. Pair that with the chicken Greek salad ($12) and you’re set.

Columbia Horbour House

Table service:

Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen (Adventureland): This isn't a killer restaurant, but it’s pretty good and fairly reasonably priced for a sit-down spot. We liked the house-made Arepas ($9.50)—you assemble them with slow-roasted beef and fried plantains. The $25 grilled lamb chops were pretty good too (3 small chops served with a North African Berber spice blend and a green lentil stew I could have eaten a bucket of). I would avoid Skip’s Mac & Cheese, the spiced ground beef in the mac would have been much more pleasant as chunks of beef or shredded beef.


Epcot

At Epcot, the food action is in the World Showcase. Drinking around the world is a legendary way for adults to experience Epcot, but I like to eat around the world. Pick up a great frankfurter at the German Biergarten, some curry-spiced potato chips in Great Britain, edamame and sushi in Japan’s Katsura Grill, and a French pastry for dessert at Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie. (France and Italy offer great wine, but you probably could have guessed that on your own.

Counter service:

Sunshine Seasons (The Land Pavilion): Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is right by the tour of The Land and the new Soarin’ Around the World. This is a cafeteria-style set-up: get the power salad with chicken, quinoa, and honey vinaigrette; or the tuna and Asian vegetable noodle salad ($12). The spicy fish tacos are good, as is the pressed Cuban sandwich.

Table service:

Restaurant Marrakesh (Morocco): A gorgeous view of the lagoon in the World Showcase, we liked everything here: The appetizer combo for two with Moroccan Jasmina Salad, Beef Brewat Rolls (a pastry stuffed with seasoned beef), and a similar pastry with chicken. The couscous dishes (beef, lamb, chicken, veggie) are also excellent. You can get a Taste of Morocco in feast format for $28—a sampler of great eats.


Hollywood studios

Hollywood Studios has some of the weakest food in the Disney universe. It’s a lot of plain-jane diner-type food. I haven’t experienced a great counter-service place here, but there is a wonderful table-service spot.

Table service:

The Hollywood Brown Derby: This is a fine-dining spot, and it’s lovely. Get the cobb salad ($11), the togarashi pumpkin seed crusted Ahi Tuna ($15) to start. Your entrees run the gamut from an Andouille-crusted chicken breast for $19, to a $74 premium American Kobe Beef dish! Consider sharing the pork three ways (chop, rillettes and belly), or the Faroe Island salmon served with blood orange gastrique—both are $37 for lunch. Kids meals are cool here: you can get grilled black grouper or whole-grain penne pasta for $12-15.


Animal Kingdom

Eating in air conditioning is hard to come by in Animal Kingdom as most of the counter-service dining spots are outdoor. There are ceiling fans at Flame Tree Barbeque, and the food is very good.

Table service:

Tiffins: A brand new, absolutely beautiful restaurant. We loved the grilled octopus served on a saffron aioli with lemon-caper olive oil, the black-eyed pea fritters with a peppadew (pepper) puree, and the flash-fried blue mussels. Those mussels were awesome: served on a tomato confit with Persian cucumber. The entrees are expensive—even for lunch it’s between $30-40 dollars. But we did a bunch of small appetizers, shared them, and it was a good value. I liked the night monkey cocktail—a rub drink with guava puree and a coffee syrup to cut the sweetness. They also have kids meals, and the $14 braised short ribs was incredible. Get it with couscous or veggies.

Yak & Yeti: This spot is also great. Lots of shareables: Ahi tuna nachos for two ($15), dim sum basket for two ($14). You can get a seared miso salmon for lunch for $25 or wok-fried Korean beef for $20. The kids menu here is more basic with cheeseburgers and chicken tenders, but you can also get a pork egg roll or a teriyaki chicken breast.


BONUS: Universal Studios

As my kids get older, we’re spending more time at Universal Orlando and there are some great spots there in the parks and in the Universal CityWalk.

Casual dining:

Leaky Cauldron (Universal Studios): This is in Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter Wizarding World, and we loved it. You wait in line to register, as if it’s a ride. It took 20 minutes, but it was well-worth it, because you order, get a number, and they seat your group together instead of fighting to get a table, or hovering waiting for someone to finish. The food was great too! We ordered a ploughman’s platter for two which featured a scotch egg, some huge chunks of cheese, and some salads. The various pot pies are also excellent.

Table service:

Confisco Grille (Islands of Adventure): Highly recommended by a good friend who works at Universal: this spot has food with Italian, Mexican, Asian, and Greek options. Something for everyone.

Mythos Restaurant (Islands of Adventure): This restaurant is often referenced as one of the best theme park spots in the world, no doubt due to its incredible theming. Towering rock formations, cool waterfalls, and a great view onto the grotto of The Lost Continent. There's a nice hummus and baba ganoush mezze platter ($9), and a  solid artichoke and bacon flat bread ($9) for starters. The entrees are all reasonably priced too, with pad thai for $17 and a solid gnocchi Bolognese for $14. Get a half pound burger with feta-olive aioli for $16 too.

City Walk:

Vivo Italian: We had incredible service from a great bartender, and some really nice Italian food here. The stuffed flatbread with prosciutto and arugula was solid ($7), as was the squid ink seafood pasta ($19) and the bucatini amatriciana with pancetta and pecorino ($15). Don’t miss the cannoli dessert: this thing was about a foot long and delicious.

Red Oven Pizza Bakery: It’s no Punch Pizza, but it’s a decent Neopolitan-style pie. It’s quick, it’s good, it’s perfect after a long day at the park with the kids. Get the fennel sausage white pizza and the funghi mushroom red sauce pizza ($13).

 

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