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Vote of the week: What's your favorite type of place to eat at a theme park?

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Published: September 16, 2010 at 9:14 PM

The talk this week about Epcot's two new Mexican restaurants has me wondering: What's your preferred style of restaurant to eat at when you visit a theme park?

Theme parks offer a variety of options at meal times, not just in cuisine and price points, but in ways to order and get your food.

Bratwurst at Disneyland
One theme park favorite: A bratwurst, from Disneyland

  • Snack carts: Eat on the street
  • Counter service restaurants: Order at the window, fast-food style
  • Tray service restaurants: Anywhere you pick up a tray and load it up with selections on your way to the cashier
  • Table service restaurants: For a full-service, "sit down and a waiter takes your order" meal

And if you're looking for a longer break (or a better deal), there's always the option of dining outside the park.

One of the new Mexican eateries at Epcot is table service and the other counter service. Tray service seems to be especially popular at the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks. And food carts are everywhere.

So, all other things being equal (as if that were possible), which is your go-to choice?


Tell us why you picked what you picked, in the comments. And, as always, thanks for reading Theme Park Insider.

Readers' Opinions

From Jacob Sundstrom on September 16, 2010 at 9:28 PM
I'm all about table-service. It's not even the higher quality of the food, which comes with the territory, I just like being able to savor my experience in a beautiful setting!
From Beth Schroeder on September 16, 2010 at 9:54 PM
I prefer a table service restaurant when I am going to have a "meal". If I eat in the park it will be the main meal of the day, and I want where I eat to be about atmosphere that I would never get if I was at home. Table service is where you go to rest, relax, cool off or warm up, and recharge.

I often try to make that "meal" be in the middle of the afternoon between typical lunch and dinner, or very late so I am not fighting the crowds. This only works if your party is all adults needless to say. They rest of the time we "snack" usually drinks and a munchie, breakfast in our room if we aren't on a time share. Creal and toast are easy.

One of the best things about Disney is their meal plan! We buy the largest plan everytime we go, and we have more than recouped the cost in 3 or 4 days. We always have more food than we can eat and bring back all kinds of drinks and muchies so we don't loose one bit of what we paid for. We eat at all of the top, expensive restaurants. Places we never would be able to eat at normally. We can have the top items on the menu like steak and seafood and not have to eat burgers and chicken like at home. \That is where the meal plan really pays off.

I sure wish the other parks would match Disney on meal plans. We are doing Universal this next visit and their plan just doesn't look like it will work for us or save us that much money.

From Becky Lee on September 17, 2010 at 12:11 AM
All depends on the food we're hungry for. Last time at Disney we ate at table services, counter services & had chocolate crepes from a snack cart. The counter services are nice when you have a group of people who want different food or you want to try a bunch of different foods at World Showcase. We found the perfect spot to watch Illuminations early in the evening so while my mom saved the spot I went & picked up food from La Cantina de San Angel, Lotus Blossom Cafe & Kringla Bakeri og Cafe. Made for a nice international dinner.
From Raymond Sydowski on September 17, 2010 at 3:45 AM
I prefer table service, as generally, they're better meals. Quality uber alles. That being said, I do like to hit the Confectionery for a Mickey rice crispy treat now and again.
From David Sutter on September 17, 2010 at 4:08 AM
I mush prefere tanle service. One of the reasons it cost about the same as "tray" or "grab and go". On the average about $3.00 bucks more a head. And a Tip.
From Michael Owen on September 17, 2010 at 4:59 AM
I think a table service restaurant is always the best option, especially at some of the major theme parks where they often offer unique experiences.

I love Sci-FI dine-in not because the food is the best around but because the setting is fantastic and lets you get out of the heat for an hour or so.

If I'm in the park early and want something to eat I'll often go for the tray service. It's normally good food but is also fast so you can get on with heading to attractions.

From Tim W on September 17, 2010 at 5:45 AM
Actually, my favorite are the buffets at theme parks. They give you a large variety of food to choose from and are usually extremely good!
From Derek Potter on September 17, 2010 at 6:28 AM
Depends on the time of day for me. I like breakfast to be a sit down or buffet, although I'm not above coffee and donuts or McDonalds breakfast before I get there. A lot of parks don't really offer breakfast options. Lunch is typically a counter service of some kind if anything. I try to eat light during the afternoon hours at a park. I would much prefer dinner (or supper...depending on your region of the country) to be a sit down affair. It's nice to wind down and relax at a table after a day at the park. Too bad I find myself outside the park for dinner most of the time though.

Note to parks, especially the seasonal ones. I (and likely a lot of others) would eat more at the park, and be there longer, if a sit down breakfast or dinner option was available. As long as the price is fairly reasonable, the place has good atmosphere, and the food is of good quality, it would probably be full. I realize that there is a thin profit margin in the restaurant business, but parks lose customers for too much time during the day to lunch and dinner at some restaurant outside the property. Give them good food options and keep their butts inside the gate.

From Robert Niles on September 17, 2010 at 7:23 AM
I like great table service restaurants, too, but allow me to put in a plug for the tray service option. It's really the one you're least likely to use outside a theme park. (Okay, maybe food carts are pretty unlikely outside a park, too, if you don't live in a big city.) It's also the only option where you can see what you're getting, before you get it.

I think that the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks offer the most consistently excellent food among the top chains, and it uses tray service more than any other option, so it's definitely compatible with good food, too.

From 69.242.101.156 on September 17, 2010 at 8:54 AM
Sorry folks commenting above me, but the prices of food lately have been outrageously expensive. Unless you're chowing down on some kind of meal-deal (which will still run you sometimes over $50.00 after tax), you're gonna be paying for some food that isn't always the best quality. Additionally, having to fight over seating or waiting in lines just isn't all it's cracked up to be. You're on vacation. You're spending time with friends or family. Cut down on that hassle.

You already paid the parking fee which they don't charge you 2x in one day (Keep that Ticket/Receipt). I've been to very few parks that don't have outside food venues within 5 miles of the park entrance. Take a break from the screams of the crowd and noise of the park, go outside the park. You'll find that the food is better, the price better, and you'll feel more rested than you would have been inside the park. Most establishments outside of parks also provide free refills and better service for drinks, which you'll need to stay hydrated on those hot summer days. Take an early dinner / late lunch to avoid the heat of the day and beat the crowds. You won't regret it.

From Tiffany J. L. Alfonso on September 17, 2010 at 9:53 AM
Counter service - much quicker to grab a bite to eat! Oh, and it's cheaper too!
From Charles Reichley on September 17, 2010 at 11:26 AM
Lots to say. First, I voted "outside the park", although that's because our most common park visit is in at 10am, out by 2pm, eat on the way home. But my kids more and more push for eating at 1pm, and we usually sit down but still for pretty ordinary food in a lunch line with trays.

When eating in a park, I tend to prefer food I can eat while walking, because I'm there to ride rides, so I want to get into the next line. Maybe not an issue at parks where lines are so bad they have to institute fastpass and line-checkins to assuage those who already paid.

Can't really just leave for lunch at a park like Universal, where it can take a half hour just to get to and from your car from the ENTRANCE to the park. Easier at parks where parking is close to the entrance, and the parks aren't too deep (hard to get from the back of Cedar Point for example, or from Festhous in BGW).

On the other hand, when I'm at BGW, I WANT to eat their food (plus there isn't anything too close to the park).

BTW, I wouldn't want to eat anywhere in a park that I felt at all compelled to TIP at. I already paid to park, I paid an exhorbitant fee to get into the park to be served by the employees. I don't tip the guy who helps me get into my ride seat, why would I tip someone to serve me overpriced food that they pretty much force me to buy by not allowing me to bring my own food into the park?

So I ask -- is it expected to tip in restaurants in theme parks? I guess if you are going to a fancy sit-down restaurant, but for example have people been tipping at the Three Broomsticks in IOA?

From Mark Hollamon on September 17, 2010 at 11:49 AM
Allison and I prefer table service. If it is IOA, you already know Mythos is my choice above anything else! Read my article about how Chef Mark created a special anniversary luncheon for us!

Disney has a great new feature on their website where you can see what sit downs have availability and actually make priority seating instantly! Those of us that have android phones really think it is great because you make priority seating arrangements on the fly! Super cool!

From 84.57.122.119 on September 17, 2010 at 12:36 PM
This hot dog thing with sauerkraut is not a bratwurst )-:. Gosh, hope the foreign food we eat in Bavaria isnt such a bad fake as this "bratwurst".
From Dave Hart on September 17, 2010 at 12:37 PM
I voted for dining out of the park also. Reason being is that our trips to WDW are typically 7+days. After a few days we look forward to a reasonably quiet sit down meal. And I find those out of the park in the Orlando area. That said, if we were only staying 3 days per visit my vote would have been for the table service in the parks.
From 72.201.39.42 on September 17, 2010 at 1:51 PM
I can eat anywhere, anytime... at a theme park I want to experience the attractions, so the faster I can eat the better. Give me that hamburger to gulp down and I'm on my way to the next ride. Stacy
From rick stevens on September 17, 2010 at 3:28 PM
I went for tray service, but it really depends on who I am with and why I am at the park. Sit down, tray, snack cart, I do them all.
From Anthony Murphy on September 17, 2010 at 10:36 PM
Table Service for me because it usually is the best the park has to offer.

Then again, it depends on which theme park. EPCOT is, of course, going to be top on my Table Service places vs Animal Kingdom which is more a counter service place!

From 76.114.111.95 on September 18, 2010 at 6:21 AM
I prefer table service, but anyplace that offers something unique catches my attention.

You can get burgers and fries practically anywhere, but add an extensive toppings bar (Pecos Bill's, Magic Kingdom) and now we're talking. Buffets are everywhere, but how about an Indian/African fusion buffet (Tusker House, Animal Kingdom)? My wife's all-time favorite is San Angel Inn at the Epcot Mexico pavilion (back when it was better). Again, Mexican restaurants are a dime a dozen around here, but where else can you have an intimate meal at the bottom of an Aztec temple with an erupting volcano in the distance?

Yes, I'll admit I have a preference for Disney, and I feel this is one area where their "plussing" is very evident. Take something mundane like meatloaf, add a 1950's decor and a server who plays the role of your smarmy Aunt and you have something special (Prime Time 50's Cafe).

From 173.189.8.163 on September 18, 2010 at 10:22 AM
This is one of those things that the themepark in question will definately sway my vote. Epcot, is one of the few where I would want to stay in side the park and eat all my meals. Most other parks I would want to leave and come back, but since it's such a hassle to leave, I would probably just tough it out with whatever you can buy at the stands and quick spots until I get out and eat somewhere that's food is better or more reasonably priced for what it is.
From Joshua Counsil on September 18, 2010 at 12:19 PM
Depends on the park. If there is a renowned restaurant in the park, e.g., Mythos, then I eat table service in the park. Otherwise, I eat table service outside of the park.
From David Sutter on September 19, 2010 at 5:15 AM
To respond to the question of tippping at table service inside the park. Yes it is, Sorry. But you tend to get a better level of service from the Wait Staff. On a recent trip to Walt Siney Studios, We ate our dinner at Momma Melrose. Then meal was 4 Chicken Parm over Paste (which by the way was excellent) And four drinks. Served with Italian Bread Rols and Butter. Total bill 75.oo and change. Our Waitress was polite, always at the ready with refiles, And well deserving of a generious Tip. And just to fellow up they are paid about the same as waiters and waitresses out side the park and the same tax formula. in other words the have to pay a percentage of the check total to taxies. Which is deducted from the base pay check.
From Tyler Stover on September 19, 2010 at 10:37 PM
I find tray service (I've heard them mostly referred to as "buffeteria" style) to be the best compromise between table service quality and counter service speed and price. At Disneyland, not counting drinks you'll spend $7-$9 on a burger and fries type meal from a counter service location, vs about $12 for a full meal from a tray service location. The last time we went, my wife and I each got a beef or chicken fajita burrito from Disneyland's Rancho del Zocalo restaurant, which was more food than we could finish (and we have no problem putting away full Chipotle burritos) plus rice and beans for under $10 before drinks, and that's a tray service restaurant. Win.
From 65.25.34.152 on September 20, 2010 at 4:52 AM
Hi there! I prefer the table service option for dining because you can sit and review the days adventures, up to that point, with your companions and plan you next moves through the park in a seated and much more relaxing atmosphere! Footnote...(no pun intended) If your dogs are barking and you need to get off your feet..this multitasking move of relief and review just makes more sense! :)

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