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Dining among the tumbleweeds at Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch

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Published: April 21, 2009 at 3:43 PM

Tuesday Park Visit: Okay, the kids are threatening to kill us, but after Laurie and I dropped them off at school this morning, we drove down to Anaheim for lunch at the Celebration Roundup & Barbecue at Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch.

This new version of the old Big Thunder Barbecue's been open since April 2, and is already packing in... almost no one.

Seriously, it's as if Disney was trying to keep people away. Celebration Roundup & Barbecue is not listed among the Frontierland dining options in the Disneyland guide map. Nor is it listed on the show schedule, despite its character appearances and musical performers. (It is mentioned on the flap of the guidemap, along with other new and upcoming attractions and events, but that's not where folks look when deciding what to eat.)

Disney's hawking Celebration Roundup & Barbecue as part of a media day on Friday, so perhaps the promotions will begin after that. But for now, this is the best place at Disneyland to hog some characters all to yourself.

The barbecue is an all-you-can-eat meal, served family-style at the table (no buffet line!), with Jessie, Woody and Bullseye from "Toy Story" hosting. The price is $28.99 for adults and $12.99 for kids 9 and under, plus tax and an automatic 15% tip. But for some reason, Disney seems loathe to tell you any of this.

Hosts and hostesses out front will ask you if you understand how the menu works - that this is a "fixed-price meal, served family style at the table." Then they will ask you at the check-in desk. And when you are seated. When she was asked for the third time if she understood the menu, Laurie blurted out, "We pay you and you keep bringing us food, right?"

Perhaps the cast members are wired with shock collars that will send 10,000 volts through their bodies if they volunteer the phrase "all you can eat" or "character dinner." One wonders how badly Disney managers overestimated the popularity of a premium-priced character meal during the worst recession in Disneyland's existence, and wanted to keep expectations low and the tables turning. But given the sparse turn-out to date, I'm giving Disney two weeks before we see a giant banner out front of Big Thunder Ranch, proclaiming "An All-You-Can-Eat, Family-Style Barbecue! With Woody and Jessie!"

Jessie's there to greet you as you enter, with a Disney photographer there to capture the moment, like you were entering at a luau or boarding a cruise.

A cast member will come by your table later, with three prints of your photos in a commemorative cardboard frame, for an extra $29.99.

While we were waiting for our food, "Tex Tumbleweed" and "Miss Chris" worked the three occupied tables in the "crowd," with an admirable set of singing, strumming, soft shoe and whistling.

Then, the star of the show arrived, the spread.

Lunch included beans, cornbread, a bucket of barbecue chicken and ribs, corn on the cob (sliced into easy-to-handle rounds) and cole slaw. Drinks are included, and Laurie and I both went with the obvious choice and selected lemonade.

The barbecue was good, not great, tasting like baked meats well-simmered in sauce, rather than pit-cooked or smoked barbecue. The meat was moist and not at all tough, though it lacked the smoky tang that distinguishes "real" barbecue. Laurie and I loved the corn, though, if for no other reason that the unusual cut made this the easiest corn on the cob to actually eat.

While we ate, Woody and Bullseye came on stage to perform their short show...

...then Woody came down to wander the tables and pose for photos.

Finally, once we threw in the towel and ripped open the Wet Wipes on lunch, our server brought around dessert - two cupcakes in waffle cones, topped with whipped cream and presented on an ostentatious metal ribboned birthday box.

I ordered the strawberry shortcake, with a yellow cupcake and strawberries. Laurie went for the red velvet cupcake, with cream cheese frosting. A chocolate mousse with raspberries is also available, and I'd try that if I had another chance, rather than getting the rather dry strawberry option again.

Celebration Roundup & Barbecue is in an awkward place. If it remains unpopular, it's a great deal, with fawning service, attentive characters and unlimited good food. But if it were ever packed to the fences, I don't know that it would remain as good a deal. But I supposed that would have to happen before anyone could tell.

And given the state of the economy, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Readers' Opinions

From Joshua Counsil on April 21, 2009 at 6:12 PM
This looks like a great place to eat. How could all-you-can-gorge BBQ not do well in Orlando, America's seemingly fattest city?

I, personally, could do without the characters. There is something awkward about talking to an inanimate, unresponsive face.

I always enjoy your Tuesday trip reports. You and Laurie make a great couple to follow.

From Robert Niles on April 21, 2009 at 6:38 PM
If this were in Orlando, I think it's be a certain hit, though that might depend how it were priced within the meal plan. The BBQ ain't as good as Sonny's, but any character meal in Orlando seems to be a slam-dunk.

LA's different, though, with no meal plan and mostly locals in attendance. The lack of a crowd is probably the worst thing hurting it now - it just seems too unpopular, not special enough, to merit the special occasion price.

From Ryan Sanford on April 21, 2009 at 7:48 PM
Nice Pictures!
From Anthony Murphy on April 21, 2009 at 8:03 PM
I thought the main reason for this was to celebrate things like birthdays. It looked like a good deal, but I am going by how it would do in WDW which I think would be a hit!


I think its awesome that you guys went without kids! Good for you!

From James Rao on April 21, 2009 at 8:09 PM
Interestingly enough, Disney has already tweaked the prices on this meal as the kid's price used to be $18.99. So they must already realize there's trouble brewing back on the ranch.

Even with the adjustment though, the prices do still seem to be a bit high, but then, Disney is not known for being inexpensive. Honestly, though, is it better to serve three families at the current prices, or 100 families at half the price? I am not sure where the Laffer Curve is on this type of deal, but my guess is that more people means more profit.

Anyway, love the pictures and the report. Thanks!

From Robert Niles on April 21, 2009 at 9:04 PM
Well, if Disney's using a Laffer curve to plan this, no wonder it's not working. (Econ joke, folks, pardon us.)

When you consider that kids' meals at counter service places run $7, for an extra $6 here you get all-you-can-eat, plus the characters, so I think the current price is a good deal for them.

The adult price is still cheaper than the Blue Bayou, making this the number-two choice for a special occasion meal at Disneyland, in my book. It's still $15 cheaper than the Mickey's BBQ at WDW's Fort Wilderness and about the same as the Play 'n' Dine character lunch at DHS.

If Disney wants to shave a couple bucks off the adult price by going with a cheaper dessert, I'd be all over that. The "cowboy cones" were okay, but looked better than they tasted. Personally, I'd vote to cut the adult price by $5 at lunch and skip dessert. Then leave the price where it is now for dinner, but bring back the fire pit and do s'mores for dessert at that meal.

Mostly, though, Disney just needs to put up my sign and start promoting this place.

From M. Ryan Traylor on April 21, 2009 at 10:33 PM
I was at DL on Sunday, and noticed that this the BBQ had just opened. I was there a month ago while it was under construction. I was excited to see it open. My fiancee and I are fans of BBQ, however my fiancee is a vegetarian and was displeased that there was no substitute meat for baked potato option.

Especially in LA and with Disney trying to provide more healthy food options, this would be a great place to up the veggies!!

Of course, even with our AP 10% off food, we don't eat inside the park (or at Downtown Disney) except for Dole Whip.

From Rob P on April 22, 2009 at 12:20 AM
I think it's because it was one of the first diners we ate at when visiting Disneyland the Big Thunder Ranch will always have a special place in our hearts.

If memory serves me well ( which it doesn't always do lately ) it wasn't particularly well advertised even back then ( c 1995 ). I'll have to dig out the park map from that visit and let you know.

Anyway..........it had a great atmosphere and there's always something pleasant about proper al fresco dining. I don't mean having the odd table or two outside the diner. I mean getting that outdoor in the open kind of eating.

I'm really pleased to see the Ranch BBQ back in harness.

Great photos by the way Robert.

From Joshua Counsil on April 22, 2009 at 3:29 AM
Whoops. Wasn't thinking when I wrote that comment.

Also, Laffer curves FTW.

From James Rao on April 22, 2009 at 4:03 AM
Sadly, I think Disney plans everything on a Laffer curve - speaking more on the idea of diminishing returns rather than supply-side economics, of course! ("This is very controversial. Does anyone know what Vice President Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something-d-o-o economics. Voodoo economics. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?") Or, it could just be a case of where a little bit of knowledge makes me... well... look like I have a little bit of knowledge!

Back to the topic at hand, you make a good point about the dessert being a separate (added price) and most of the "less hungry" folks saving a buck or two. I hear that is the approach Disney will take if more folks don't come.

One more question from someone who has not set foot in California for over a decade: aren't there flies and gnats around? I loathe picnics here in God's Country, just cause of the bugs, but maybe Disney uses Pixie dust to keep them away?

From W McDougal on April 22, 2009 at 4:53 AM
Disney does have a veggie option, and a good one at that, skewered tofu and veggies slathered in BBQ sauce.
From Anthony Murphy on April 22, 2009 at 7:56 AM
They should just bring the Hoop De Doo here! However, CA doesn't look like a place for that!

Also, did you have to eat at set times (like a dinner show) or open seating. I am wondering due to the show!

From Charles Reichley on April 22, 2009 at 7:58 AM
Sounds like fun, but $28.99 per person for one meal? Even an all-you-can-eat meal? (Frankly, I'm severely overweight, but still find I can rarely eat all I get in a regular meal, nor do I think I want to stuff myself to the gills at a theme park).

I've never been to Disney, if the disney-goers are suggesting that this is actually a good price there, I guess it shows that I've never been there because the price shocked me.

I did eat at Grandma's in Dollywood, I felt like that was a very pricy meal but it was very good -- and it was only $17 dollars. Otherwise, I like to keep our family meals under $10 per person.

We aren't at the park to stuff ourselves, so even if we don't fill up on a meal, we can always hit a McDonalds at the end of the day, or just lose a little weight, which we all can use.

I always found Busch Gardens Williamsburg was my favorite eating park, you could get decent food for around 5-6 bucks. When you could get the sausage on a roll for $2.50 at the Festhous, that's about all I ate (that and slices of pizza for under $5 there).

From Derek Potter on April 22, 2009 at 10:23 AM
$30 per adult, $13 per kid. Call me a common midwesterner if you will. I'm sorry but I couldn't in good conscience pay that much for food that is common at the several BBQ's and get-togethers that I attend each year. First of all, nobody in my party would eat much more than a plate of food, so the all-you-can-eat allure can be thrown out the window. That means I've payed $30 bucks for 1 plate of food that I can probably cook better than Disney can. For a family of 5 (with small kids), that's a cool hundred bill for a meal that shouldn't cost nearly that much. If you have older kids, than it goes up. Yeah there's a show and two characters, but it still doesn't justify the cost. By contrast, the Rivertown Junction Grill at Kings Island has the same food with a buffet style offering in a large, good looking air conditioned restaurant...for half the price. If you want characters and a show, then walk out, turn right and go 50 yards to Nick Universe.

This is an example of why I tend to think of Disney as overrated. They simply charge too much money for a lot of things. It may be considered a deal by those in California, but charging somebody from the midwest $30 for a plate of BBQ is like the Olive Garden charging Italians $30 for a plate of spaghetti.

Going to the park without kids...priceless

From 70.190.98.191 on April 22, 2009 at 4:48 PM
Sounds Awesome. I hope it will still be open next time I go. The are so few good eating place in Disneyland. I do like the Blue Bayou Restaurant. The food is really good and one of the few table service resturants. I remember going to the All u can eat place in Disneyworld in Fort Wilderness. It was really good.
From Anthony Murphy on April 22, 2009 at 4:55 PM
The food at Disney has actually been pretty good and much better than most of the stuff I have had at Universal (save IOA's top two places) and Six Flags (everything). $30 is not too bad and I am a midwesterner! If its all you can eat and the food it good, then its worth it!

Hoop de doo and the Luau at Disney World are like $60.

I know, I know, my Disney Bias is showing! For the most part, it seemed that Robert enjoyed his experience for the most part, but mentions that the guests at Disneyland are not the same as the guests at Disney World.

I fully believe that this would be a cash cow at WDW

From Ted Heumann on April 23, 2009 at 4:48 PM
I am a local to Disneyland and go at least once a month and
I have to agree with most everyone that this is overpriced.
I don't understand why DL didn't make this an ala carte restaurant. That makes more sense to me. I REALLY enjoyed the ranch BBQ from back in the day. It always had the best food in DL.
I do have to mention that DL's food is MUCH, MUCH better than it used to be. They actually have some pretty good food, although it is a little expensive. Back in the 80s and 90s the food was HORRIBLE (except for the BBQ).
From Rob P on April 24, 2009 at 12:18 AM
Agree entirely Ted.

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