Every year, visitors to Florida's Walt Disney World devour more than 7 million burgers, 5 million hot dogs, and 5 million pounds of french fries. But don't be fooled by those statistics. Six years ago, Disney launched an ambitious program to upgrade its food, and today's visitor finds a surprising range of dishes, from red snapper in a pumpkin-seed crust to veal stuffed with Dungeness crab. If your children are choosy eaters, however (and you can already see them cringing at the mere thought of snapper and goat cheese), rest assured: menus at most of Disney World's 250-plus restaurants still carry the traditional kid-friendly fare.
Here's my pick of the most entertaining, most fun, most nostalgic places to find the best food. These restaurants, in the theme parks and hotels around the property, have a variety of meals and settings to please everyone in the family.
Call it dinner theater: guests at the 15th-floor penthouse California Grill (Contemporary Resort; dinner for two adults $75, for two children $15) have a panoramic view of the Magic Kingdom and its nightly fireworks show, as well as the best seats in the house for the chefs at work in the open kitchen. The menu is based on California and Pacific Rim cuisines and whatever's fresh in the market; every day the Grill makes its own breads, pastas, pastries, and ice cream—even the pickled ginger for the sushi. It takes a whole morning just to prepare the creamy roasted-garlic and spinach soup. Best bets: Sonoma goat-cheese ravioli with shiitake mushrooms, sweet basil, and sun-dried tomatoes; California artichokes marinated in Chardonnay; grilled pork tenderloin; or a "taster plate" for the indecisive diner.
What you notice first about the Whispering Canyon Café (Wilderness Lodge; dinner for two adults $38, for two children $14) is the smoky scent (the menu emphasizes meat and seafood seasoned in the nearby Blazing Oaks Smokehouse) and the rustic view of slash pines outside. The high-ceiling log-beam architecture is a tribute to the grand old national park lodges. Good choices for lunch: Rancher Rick's Chix's, chicken marinated in apple juice, Juneberries, rosemary, cayenne pepper, and garlic; Miss MacGregor, a garlicky Caesar salad served with grilled chicken breast; and Worms in the Dirt, chocolate pudding embedded with Gummi Worms.
AROUND THE WORLD
Pyramid power is the theme at the Maya Grill (Coronado Springs Resort; dinner for two adults $60, for two children $12), where the accent is on Latin American cuisine. The centerpiece "sun temple," with its Mayan stone-carved sunburst, is offset by a "water temple" with a ceremonial pool and a "fire temple" with an open-flame grill. The pumpkin-seed-encrusted red snapper is an authentically seasoned, perfectly textured Mexican dish.
Kids can select their own toppings and plop them down on thin-crust Sicilian pizzas for chefs to bake at Spoodles (BoardWalk Resort; dinner for two adults $45, for two children $11), a Mediterranean restaurant. Other specialties include a range of tapas as well as Moroccan rotollo flat bread, which is wrapped around grilled vegetables, hummus, yogurt, and cucumber.
With the gritty look of a converted warehouse in Brooklyn, Mama Melrose's (Disney-MGM Studios; dinner for two adults $56, for two children $11.90) serves Italian-American favorites: brick-oven pizzas, pasta, and seafood carbonara. The Akershus at the Norway Pavilion (Epcot; dinner for two adults $37, for two children $15.90) has a buffet with herring and salmon, plus spaghetti and sandwiches for younger palates.
Clips of Donna Reed, Jackie Gleason, and Our Miss Brooks blare on vintage TV's at the 50's Prime Time Café (Disney-MGM Studios; dinner for two adults $55, for two children $9.50). Waiters and waitresses pretend to be members of your family as they slap down mammoth portions of comfort food: meat loaf, mashed potatoes with gravy, and milk shakes. "Brother" Leroy snidely requested I remove my elbows from the table, and barked at other "kids" to clean their plates. (Yes, the servers will drop the act if you find it annoying.) I was stuffed after having a giant, overdressed Caesar salad, a 12-inch slab of overly buttery Atlantic salmon, and a strawberry malt.
Carhops at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant (Disney-MGM Studios; dinner for two adults $32, for two children $14.50) hustle trays of burgers and fries over to "cars" where diners watch a movie screen playing not-too-scary film clips under twinkling, fiber-optic stars.
UNDER THE SEA
At the Living Seas Pavilion, diners in the Coral Reef (Epcot; dinner for two adults $52, for two children $14) sit only a few feet away from a triple-level aquarium tank 203 feet in diameter, holding 8,000 fish that represent 85 Caribbean reef species. You'll give high marks to the food's sassy flavor combinations: barbecued grouper paired with rattlesnake beans, vegetable strudel served over lentil stew, fennel-spiced alligator sausage in a mild tomato creole sauce. Finish with blackberries and strawberries cradled in a chocolate seashell.
WHAT A CHARACTER
Mickey's better half steals the show at Ohana's Minnie Menehune breakfast (Polynesian Resort; breakfast for two adults $29.90, for two children $17.90), one of the many character-themed meals around Disney World. The surroundings are straight out of the South Pacific, and the view is of the Seven Seas Lagoon. The offerings are what you'd expect, complete with "Mickey waffles" shaped like you-know-who.
Snow White, Belle, and Cinderella drop by Cinderella's Royal Table at Cinderella Castle (Magic Kingdom; breakfast for two adults $29.90, for two children $16.90) during the "once upon a time breakfast," which features gooey cream cheese French toast (similar to a cheese danish) and a potato casserole with bacon and cheddar cheese.
Chef Mickey's (Contemporary Resort; breakfast for two adults $29.90, two children $16.90) sits below the monorail line that zips right through this modernistic resort's soaring glass atrium. Minnie, Goofy, and Pluto greet guests at the 50-item buffet table, which is shaped like mouse ears. It's worth going if your kids have been clamoring to meet the characters, and especially if you're staying at the Contemporary. Choose from among pancakes, pizza, sundaes, and more.
Hula and fire dancers perform nightly at the Luau Cove's Polynesian Luau (Polynesian Resort; dinner for two adults $76, for two children $39), a dinner show in an open-air pavilion. Feast on salad with Thai peanut sauce, tropical fruit, barbecued chicken, and baked mahimahi marinated in garlic and wine. Mickey and friends join an earlier version for young children called Mickey's Tropical Luau (dinner for two adults $66, for two children $32).
Some visitors rave about the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue (Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground; dinner for two adults $66, for two children $32), which serves up barbecued ribs, fried chicken, and strawberry shortcake, along with singin' and dancin'.
Epcot is bakery-rich. The France Pavilion's hole-in-the-wall Boulangerie Pâtisserie is jam-packed with succulent chocolate custard éclairs and napoleons. Kringla bakery at the Norway Pavilion offers a cheese-and-grape platter, potato bread, and pastries. At Innoventions Plaza, the Fountain View Espresso Café is a great place to relax over a cappuccino and superlative chocolate or fruit pastries.
For an afternoon snack on a grander scale, consider high tea at the Gardenview Lounge (Grand Floridian Resort; tea for two adults $30, for two children $13.90), an elegant mini-meal of finger sandwiches, scones, and jam tarts. For kids, there's peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with chocolate milk.
PARENT'S NIGHT OUT
The eclectic cuisine at Disney's jewel in the crown, Victoria & Albert's (Grand Floridian Resort; dinner for two $160-$200), includes such signature dishes as suprême of California squab over root-vegetable ragoût, and mushroom-stuffed Dover sole over risotto with truffle beurre blanc. Sit at the V&A's Chef's Table (dinner for two $230; reservations are needed months ahead), nestled in a kitchen alcove, and get a four-hour running commentary during the preparation of your seven-course feast.
The House of Blues (Downtown Disney West Side; dinner for two $50) offers live music and Cajun fare such as jambalaya and gumbo.
The way things seem to be heading, America's most famous playground might want to consider adding another realm to its kingdom: Culinaryland.
To make reservations at any Disney restaurant, call 407/939-3463. Otherwise you could be in for a long wait, depending on the place and the season.
Don't expect haute cuisine at every full-service restaurant in Disney World, even though prices might lead you to hope for it. My two main pieces of advice: Make your dinner reservations at least a day in advance, and save money by signing up for a meal plan, either when you book your room (at a Disney resort) or when you check in. The Dining Disney Style plan can reduce your food costs by about 10 percent.
Kosher, vegan, sugar-free, and other special meals are available at most restaurants with 24 hours' notice. Many places can accommodate off-the-menu requests for kids; just ask.
Prices given for children are for those ages 11 and under ordering from a children's menu. Lunch prices for adults are 20 to 30 percent less than dinner prices; items on children's menus generally cost the same at lunch and dinner. Prices do not include beverages, tax, or tip.
Walt Disney World is in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, near Orlando. For information, call 407/824-4321. You can also get news about the theme parks and make resort reservations on the Internet at www.disneyworld.com.
Annette Kornblum has written for the New York Times, Better Homes & Gardens, and the Washington Post.