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The good, and very bad, food at Walt Disney World

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Published: August 17, 2010 at 8:51 AM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida - What's going on with food at the Walt Disney World resort?

During my trip to Epcot this weekend, I enjoyed one of the better meals I've had in a theme park - a great corvina en mole verde at the Mexico pavilion's San Angel Inn. Yet at lunch in The Land pavilion's Sunshine Seasons food court, my wife and I were served two disappointing chicken dishes.

My wife ordered a chicken Caesar salad ($8.99),

Chicken salad

while I chose the cashew chicken ($9.99).

Cashew chicken

I was disappointed to find, when I got to my seat, that the cashew chicken was all dark meat, and not the white breast meat that I usually find when I order this dish at Chinese restaurants. Had this been high-quality dark meat, I could have made do, though for ten bucks, this really should have been all-white meat. But this tasted like the cheapest, factory-farmed, chemical-laden chicken that you'd find marked down to bargain price in your grocery freezer case.

My wife and I choose free-range, vegetarian-fed chicken at the store because we like our chicken to taste like, well, chicken. But I expect to find cheap chicken when I eat out in fast-food or counter-service restaurants. Most places cover the bland taste with heavy spices or flavorings, but the weak sauce on the Sunshine Seasons chicken couldn't overcome the plastic flavor of this dark meat. I ended up picking out the cashews, and eating them with the accompanying rice and broccoli. The chicken stayed on the plate, until it went into the trash.

Laurie reported, however, that the white meat on her salad was every worse. With a stale flavor that she described as "chemical" and a "slimy" texture, the chicken remained on her plate, too. Ugh.

But that wasn't the worst experience we had at a Disney restaurant over the weekend. Earlier, at the Whispering Canyon Cafe in the Wilderness Lodge, my daughter was served a chicken kids' meal with... two long black hairs in it. (My daughter, for the record, has light brown hair that she had tied back in a ponytail.)

Hey, it happens. It shouldn't, but it does. But instead of whisking away the plate immediately, the server seemed confused when we told her of the problem. And the offending plate remained in front of my daughter for over five minutes (I timed it), until a manager appeared to ask what the problem was. He then removed the plate and brought another (four minutes later), but by that time, my daughter was so grossed out that she couldn't take a bite.

Disney didn't remove the kids' meal from the bill, either.

(I understand that the schtick of the Whispering Canyon Cafe is the "bad" service. But at some point, you need to be able to break character and actually take care of your customers.)

In contrast to the more reasonable portions at Universal Orlando, the kids' meals at Disney World's table-service restaurants tended to be huge, more than any child with a reasonable appetite possibly could finish in one sitting. The only kids' meal my children liked (and finished) was, ironically, at the Sunshine Season food court, where they each had a reasonably-sized sub sandwich, along with pre-packaged pudding and carrot sticks.

It's not like Disney can't do a great meal - my wife ordered the chicken salad at Epcot in part because the one she'd had the previous week at the Port Orleans food court was so good, with freshly prepared chicken that tasted like, well, chicken.

And the food we order at the Disneyland Resort in California is, consistently, excellent. Writing this piece reminds me how much I want to get a curried tofu with rice at California Adventure when I get home.

Ordering food shouldn't be a gamble. Disney can deliver high-quality food, and it should, for every guest. But it doesn't.

My first thought is to blame the Disney Dining Program. By locking so many of its guests into a pre-paid meal plan, Disney increases the volume of food that it sells. But it also eliminates the need to "sell" that food to its visitors. They've paid for it, so they're going to order it - whether it's good or not. And, at the same time, since visitors have paid for their food, there's less incentive for Disney to offer something spectacular in an effort to entice visitors to open their wallets and pay for that meal, as opposed to getting by on snacks or eating later off-property.

No matter what the reason, Walt Disney World's food wasn't good enough for us, on a consistent basis, for us to plan many in-park meals on our next visit. Unless we hear of some changes in food management at Disney World, next time we visit the parks, we'll try to stick to those restaurants run by outside vendors (such as many in Epcot's World Showcase), where the odds of getting a great meal remain much better.

If you've visited Walt Disney World recently, what's been your experience with Disney's food? How does it compare with the past at Disney, or with the present at other theme park resorts?

Readers' Opinions

From 76.111.240.187 on August 17, 2010 at 9:04 AM
I think the problem is trying to compare "Sit down dining" and "quick service" i work at Rainforest(AK) and i would never expect food from the Electric Umbrella to be as quality as ours..but i can understand being upset with a $10 plate of crap

Come to the Rainforest Animal Kingdom and ask for Big Ben...i got you :)

From M. Ryan Traylor on August 17, 2010 at 9:14 AM
The last time I dined at DisneyWorld was back in 2007. My wife and I did not encounter any bad meals and she is a vegetarian. We were on the dining plan. Occasionally, the entree selections were all meat and they would make adjustment to fulfill her dietary needs.

When dining at The Coral Reef, she and my mom ordered the mushroom soup as an appetizer. The soup was served cold. Upon questioning, the bowls were removed, and replaced with hot soup.

The only downer meal was breakfast at the Caribbean Beach Resort food court. It seemed like they cooked the food the night before and left it under heat lamps.

I do find it odd that there is a dish (chicken caeser salad) can be inconsistent from one restaurant to the next. One would think there is a SOP for a lot of dishes.

From Hermione Potter on August 17, 2010 at 9:16 AM
The last 2 years or so that I've been visiting I definitely noticed the lack of quality food in the quick restaurants. I eventually took to ordering kid's meals because I can't afford to eat at the expensive places and the kid's meals are 2/3 pre-packaged (entree, packet of carrots or grapes, bottle of water or milk).
Even that hasn't worked lately because of the volume of people there so I've resorted to eating a snack instead (coughilovemickeybarscoughcough).
The few times I've eaten at the nicer places though, they have been wonderful...just super expensive.

PS: For anybody wondering how I've been so many times - I live in Orlando and half my friends are College Program.

From 66.134.101.43 on August 17, 2010 at 9:22 AM
We were at the world for 9 days in July starting on the 3rd. We had the counter service meal plan and I would say that out of the 18 or so meals I had (Lunch and Dinner) I felt that all but about 4 of them were very good. Some were better then others but most rather good. I got an asian dish at that same location in the land as you did and also found that dish to be much less then great. We went to locations that we heard great things about so that may have helped us as well, to not run into the poor locations. I do feel pricing is to high but that is the case with almost everything at Disney. We love the place so we just go ahead and pay it but for many they are pricing themselves so guest can not make the trip.
From 129.171.150.71 on August 17, 2010 at 10:03 AM
I would say that over the last five years or so, Walt Disney World's food outlets, especially the quick service outlets have become consistently inconsistent. Buffets, too, are inconsistent lately and I really dislike the homogenization of the different buffets. In fact, many menus have become homogenized to the point where you don't know if you're eating at the Crystal Palace or Akershus anymore (used to be a BIG difference).

We have had some good meals at table service restaurants (the ones you can still get into) and in fact I find Raglan Road is now one of my favorite standbys. Usually a short wait, great food, great beer and entertainment to boot.

From Tracy Bates on August 17, 2010 at 10:16 AM
It's been a year now, but I was very dissatisfied with my meal at the Coral Reef Restaurant in EPCOT. The ambiance was great, the staff was friendly and well trained, and the food was just crap. It tasted awfulm, the portion size was ridiculously small, and was super expensive to boot.

I won't go there again.

From David Hurst on August 17, 2010 at 10:27 AM
I totally agree with Robert when it comes to many of the "counter service" locations throughout the property. Most are hit and miss when it comes to product and service, consistency is really missing the mark.
The DDP has really taken a toll on all dining, in my opinion, and again agree with the captive audience mentality of Disney.
On the upside, more and more food venues on Disney property are changing hands to outside operators. This is a good thing, as Disney was never in the restaurant business, they have never been able to "do food right". They have occasional hits, and certainly have won bragging rights with them, but for the average family trying to find affordable *laugh* and consistent meals without seeking out a signature dining experience, it's a gamble.
Here are some recommendations from my most recent trips to WDW: Kouzzina-Dinners (3 visits) have been excellent, I recomment the lamb shank (although the staff HATES the new management and SOP.) Kona Cafe-(4 visits)The strip steak is delicious as is the famous "tonga toast"..(Save a bundle and get the same breakfast at Captain Cook's!) The Wave of American Flavors-Excellent tenderloin and the daily fish entree is also right up there. The food at the Spirit of Aloha show is usually pretty good, but the venue is a bit "zooish". Raglan Road (4 visits) Delicious, and the service is awesome. Steak was great as was the fish and chips. Le Cellier, service outstanding, food is decent, but not worth going to "signature dining" status. Brown Derby, adequate, overpriced, overrated, but lunch is a deal on the dining plan.
Counter Service: You're going to laugh, but...Pizza planet was great, I love the Flametree Barbeque (make it at home all the time), sandwiches at Sunshine Seasons, I eat NOTHING in the MK, Pizzafari good, ABC Commisary so so (Asian Salad ++). In general I skip the counters offering burgers, chicken strips and the like, there are better offerings.
I pack my own coffee and breakfast bars, hit lunches after 1-2PM (usually find a resort) as well as late dinners at either World Showcase or a resort. Hope this was of some interest. As an Executive Chef, WDW is ALL about the food for me! :)
From Thomas Caselli on August 17, 2010 at 11:03 AM
I have been to Walt Disney World 19 times, the most recent time being June 2009. I have been to Whispering Canyon Cafe at least 4 times. I don't ever remember having a bad meal at Walt Disney World. If you have had a bad experience at any given restaurant ONE time, why not try it again it may surprise you. What does it mean that "Disney was never in the restaurant business"? I have had consistently good food at Disney parks. Most other places, for the most part, the food doesn't impress me.
From Derek Morse on August 17, 2010 at 11:07 AM
My wife and I always eat at the same place when we visit Magic Kingdom, that being the Columbia Harbour House at Liberty Square. We really enjoy the Lighthouse Sandwich, and I have had there fried fish platter in the past too and I had no problem with it. We love the sandwiches and the atmosphere there. Knowing how hit or miss Disney food can be, we generally eat there every time we go, not wanting to risk getting a miss somewhere else.

At EPCOT, we really enjoyed the large restaurant in China when we visited last Christmas. Not a huge menu, but what we got was delicious.

From 72.233.136.135 on August 17, 2010 at 12:50 PM
I'm so very glad that you had a good meal at San Angel Inn! My husband and I have lunch reservations there in a few weeks and I've been looking forward to the meal, but have also read MANY bad reviews of the restaurant. Thanks for easing my mind!
From Joshua Counsil on August 17, 2010 at 1:36 PM
I don't eat their counter service food. We get a DVC with a kitchen and cook a big breakfast in the room, come back in the late afternoon for a snack and cocktails, then splurge on a nice, late-night dinner.

On my last trip (one year ago):

On our first night, we were supposed to eat at Teppan Edo. Although not adventurous, we experienced the restaurant in 2003 and the food quality was good, reasonably portioned and priced, and the experience was a lot of fun. However, I booked the reservation using Disney's online reservation system, which was new at the time, and encountered problems once we arrived. They phoned our room and told us the system had experienced an error and overbooked the restaurant. They neglected to tell us this until the day of our Epcot visit despite that I made the reservation three months prior. What they should have done is given us a comp at another available restaurant. What they did was... nothing. No other Epcot restaurants were available that evening, which screwed up our trip as we had planned to experience the fireworks followed by dinner, then Extra Magic Hours. Instead, we had to eat outside of the park and experience the fireworks another night. That is some weak food service.

That night, we ended up eating at Raglan Road. My full report is here, but the gist of the review is that the food is very good, the beer is even better, and the entertainment takes the cake. Excellent service, too. We had a gorgeous waitress that had a taste for good food and beer. My kinda girl. For my money, the best place to eat and/or drink in Downtown Disney, and the quality has remained consistent over my two visits.

We experienced the Spirit of Aloha show the following night. My full review is here. The food was surprisingly good (though the chicken was dry), the show was decent, and the service was excellent. We more than made up for the steep $60/person charge in food and drinks. Overall, a very worthwhile experience if you're with a rowdy group, though I'd only do it once.

We tried lunch at the 50's Prime Time Café in Disney's Hollywood Studios. This place is really hit-or-miss. The food was passable on two separate visits, our server was fun and excellent on our second trip but bland and inattentive on our first, and the milkshakes were excellent on both occasions. I'd rather eat at the Prime Time, Brown Derby, or elsewhere.

On a side note, did Disney screw up their grammar on this one? I do believe it should be '50s Prime Time, not 50's Prime Time. Robert - can you help me on this one?

Opting for something a little quieter, we tried this year's winner of TPI's Best Theme Park Restaurant award, Bistro de Paris. The pricing was what you'd expect at a Disney table service restaurant, which is surprising considering the quality this place offers. In terms of food, I actually enjoyed my meal at downstairs' Les Chefs de France better. However, the atmosphere is much more serene at Bistro, which is a nice respite after a day of sensational overloading. You won't find strollers or wife-beaters here. The service at both restaurants is professional, friendly, and attentive. Plus, the chef slipped our table some free samples of his latest dish. Nice touch.

We ended our trip at Biergarten, which has been a hit on three separate occasions, even with a vegan. I've never been too impressed with the food, which is somewhat bland, but the beer selection and entertainment are excellent. The price is right, too.

From Tim W on August 17, 2010 at 4:21 PM
The food was sooo much better when it was the Sunshine Season Food Fair. It was actually my favorite quick service restaurant. The pasta area was excellent! I can only remember how good their chicken parm was. However, when it changed in 2004, it went drastically downhill and become one of my least favorite fast dining restaurants.
From James Koehl on August 17, 2010 at 6:38 PM
Robert, just out of curiosity, has anyone in a restaurant ever asked you why you take pictures of your food? If so, what do you tell them? I'm sure you tell them the truth, but wouldn't it be fun to tell them that, in case you get food poisoning you want proof that you actually ate the food at that restaurant ;+)
From Amanda Jenkins on August 17, 2010 at 7:57 PM
Of the two areas of Epcot, I find that the quick service meals in Future World are not nearly as good as the ones in World Showcase. Now that the Electric Umbrella no longer has its once fabulous toppings bar, one might as well just grab a burger over at the American Pavillion. Having also had many miss meals at the Sunshine Seasons, we try not to plan any major meals over in FW on our day or two at Epcot. We leave for Disney World in thirty days (another surprise trip from my husband!!!) and luckily got dinner reservations for Le Cellier on our second night. We have never been but have always tried to get in there. Finally, we will be able to taste the cheese soup and have a hopefully fantastic steak. I can't wait!
From Anthony Murphy on August 17, 2010 at 11:04 PM
I usually have a fine time with the food, but I have been there enough to go to the places I know.

I am suprised in the Sunshine Food Fair due to me liking it immensely, but it was for breakfast.

DLR needs to have better food, less food options and chances. They have also had 55 years to iron out the wrinkles. :)

From 96.56.250.138 on August 18, 2010 at 9:54 AM
My wife and I really enjoy Sunshine Seasons. We eat there every trip. However this year she got the Caesar salad and it was not good. Her chicken was undercooked and basically give the same description as Robs wife. . I always get the Seared Tuna salad and this has always been great. The fish has always been fresh and nice a raw in the middle. You would think it is easier to mess up fish as opposed to chicken.
From Ron A on August 18, 2010 at 3:37 PM
Robert, you should send a message to Customer Service regarding your experience. Not that it will change anything, but it might.
From 199.123.115.142 on August 20, 2010 at 7:20 AM
Having meals outside the park depends on whether or not you have a car, or access to one. If you fly in and take the Magical Express, you kind of stuck eating at the world, so pick your eating establshments carefully. Try perusing the reviews on allears.net to get some idea of what's good and what's not. With almost 1000 DVC points and more soon to be purchased, we do like the commenter above says and eat breakfast in the villa, then split a cheap counter service lunch at noon, and then have a nice, early eventing meal to 1) hold costs down and 2) hold down the calorie intake. We rarely use DDP (only if there's a special package and we're out of DVC points), using the DDE (or whatever they call it now) to help hold costs down. I'd like to second the commenter who recommended Kona. It's the biggest sleeper restaurant at the world - consistently good food at reasonable (for WDW) prices. Also, if you like the Bananas Foster bread pudding at Ohana, they'll run over and get you a portion of it for dessert if you ask them nicely.
From Kristin Archibald on August 20, 2010 at 8:16 AM
We go to WDW quite a bit and I really prefer the quality of the sit-down restaurant foods, but who can do that for every meal? Breakfast is something I try to eat in the room - fruit, oatmeal, something quick. Lunch is something more of quick service, but I found that everything consistently is bland and tastes the same no matter where you get it. I hate eating at their quick service restaurants - but I will say I love Casey's.

If you've had a bad experience like the hair in the food, I would definitely write a letter about it - these are things that, like you said, they happen but shouldn't. Disney should be way more careful about that and accomodating when they make the error (and take it off the bill at least!).

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