Planning for Spontaneity: Disney World Counter Service Meals

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By nature, our family tends to over-plan. On one vacation, we even set aside specific time to ‘be spontaneous – within our own limitations.’ But for some reason, our quick dining – while generally guided – wasn’t set in stone. On our first day in Epcot, we chose Sunshine Seasons, one of the jewels of counter service dining in the parks, according to all the checks we’d made. We began enjoying our Asian-infused lunch until our only adventurous eater started to look a little queasy. The sights and aromas had overcome our (somewhat) melodramatic child. Thankfully, she was only four. And we didn’t stick around for the clean-up.

A nice variety of food offered at Casey's Corner, but tough to locate an indoor seat.

A nice variety of food offered at Casey’s Corner, but tough to locate an indoor seat.

Since then, we have planned all of our meals. For many Walt Disney World vacationers, counter service fills up half – or more- of our theme park dining. Plenty of information exists for table service restaurants: menus, meal reviews, countdown to reservation times, and strategies for landing the elusive meal spot. Comparatively little exists for the compulsive planner when it comes to quick service. While outlining burgers and nachos may seem overly obsessive, building a plan – with a back-up, too – may save time, effort, and enable you to put more enjoyment into your vacation. If nothing else, you might slide a column into your managed spreadsheet for your ‘other’ meal.

Counter service restaurants participate uniquely with the Disney Dining plan. Almost all table service restaurants in Disney World parks are on the meal plan, but only some counter service restaurants are. Some will serve snacks only. The leg conundrum for me seems the strangest. Some places – like the pork shank legs at Min and Bill’s in Hollywood Studios-Covered. Gaston’s Tavern in Magic Kingdom-Not covered. You can use a snack credit there, just not on the shank.

Tangierine Cafe offers wonderful meals and less adventurous choices, too.

Tangierine Cafe offers wonderful meals and less adventurous choices, too. But outdoor dining may be difficult.

At some locations, selections may be deceptively narrow. At the smaller carts and walk up windows, that makes sense. I’m not expecting a ton of variety there. But at the large locations like Sunshine Seasons or Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe in Magic Kingdom – I am expecting diversity. They do deliver – but for an exceptionally picky eater – or a person with allergies – it might be more difficult. While the restaurants have many choices – each offers limited kids’ meals. None of which are the hamburger or hot dog, either.

Capacity may be small in some counter service restaurants. For example, Tangierine Cafe in Epcot has indoor seating – but nowhere near enough when that afternoon Florida rain shower rolled by. As we sat outside, huddling as best we could under the umbrella – the Cast Members were wonderfully attentive- but the rain draining down the sides of the umbrella put a damper on an otherwise outstanding meal.  Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn in Magic Kingdom seems huge – but I dare you to try and find a table in June during dinner. Just locating a place to sit could add ten minutes to your meal.

We love the food at Animal Kingdom, but ducks will invade your meal.

We love the food at Animal Kingdom, but ducks will invade your meal.

Table service restaurants are inside – and air conditioned. Counter service seating may be inside, outside, or both.  Seating may be entirely outside in the sun – or exposed to the wildlife. Animal Kingdom’s two most popular counter service locations, Flame Tree Barbecue and Yak & Yeti Local Food Cafes both seat entirely outdoors. Flame Tree is known for its delicious food, huge portions, beautiful settings, and lots and lots of ducks. On our first visit, our then two year old daughter was alternately quacking along with and then screaming in terror at the ducks walking by and under the table.

Counter service menus may change from meal to meal or vary seasonally. I’d love to stop into Magic Kingdom’s Columbia Harbour House to try their new Seafood Macaroni & Cheese, but that item is only offered at dinner and we already have Table Service Dining Reservations planned for those days. Additionally, some locations have hours that are different than the rest of the park. Les Halles Boulangerie & Pâtisserie opens with the park, while the rest of World Showcase doesn’t open until 11 am.  Starring Rolls Cafe in Hollywood Studios closes at 4 pm.  The Tomorrowland Terrace and Diamond Horseshoe in Magic Kingdom only operate during the busiest times of the year.

One of the biggest considerations of counter service dining is time spent waiting in line.  Ever tried eating in the Sunset Boulevard area at Hollywood Studios? There are four different counter service options clustered together there, and if everyone wants something different, you might be splitting up or waiting through multiple lines- just to get all of the food your family has requested. (Ed. – this is also a problem at Cosmic Ray’s.) Can you guess why I rarely call counter service ‘quick’ service?

Finally, there can be other unexpected advantages to dining in certain locations. While many of the menu offerings at Epcot’s Electric Umbrella underwhelm, it – along with Hollywood Studio’s Backlot Express – offers self-service beverages. For people wanting to refuel and rehydrate, the variety of drink options is more than just refreshing.  I wouldn’t say that they are ‘free refills’ places, but I haven’t seen guests turned away, either. (Ed. – you also get this at Sunshine Seasons and at Restaurantosaurus at Animal Kingdom. These locations are GREAT places to fill up a water bottle, much colder than filling from a water fountain.)

For many of us, counter service restaurants fill up at least half of our Disney dining time. And if you’ve followed this blog, and are planning table service options, you have your 180 day Advance Dining Reservations warning on your calendar. But during that lull between it and Fast Pass+ reservations at 60 days, take some time to review the counter service menus, too. Your time may well be worth it.

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Posted on July 30, 2014

12 Responses to “Planning for Spontaneity: Disney World Counter Service Meals”

  • I think planning counter service is really important. We generally eat off site for dinner so a bad lunch experience can really kill you. And food, seating and atmosphere are all equally important. We love the FTBBQ because of the wide open outdoor seating – especially the ones under some cover – they are a welcome refuge for the park. And while Ray’s Cosmic Cafe has reasonable food, the place is always a zoo, even when half full. And I can’t abide by any restaurant when I have to stand in as many as three lines in order to get my food (my family is split between chicken, burgers and pizza).

    The Columbia Harbour Cafe is one of my fav places, especially because a lot of people don’t seem to realize you can eat upstairs which is generally less full / I have always found a table there, although I was never there in peak season (except for Christmas this year – wish me luck).

    Seasons is also a no go for us. We didn’t like the food the one time we ate there. And it is always a zoo. We prefer fish and chips if the weather is fine or just snacking our way along if it is busy.

    • by Kevin Bastos on July 30, 2014, at 9:36 am EDT

      We also love Flame Tree – we missed it on our last visit in May. On our visit in 2013, we made certain to sit overlooking the water. Even in June, it was relatively cool, and not too crowded. While we have eaten at Columbia three times, we still have never made it upstairs. Good luck at Christmas! Strangely, though, the fish and chips we had at Yorkshire disappointed us. Not certain why, but I seem to have strange expectations sometimes! Plenty of other places to satisfy in Epcot, though!

  • For my fam, I chime in with what Michelle says re finding a quieter counter service spot. Although the food at Sunshine, Cosmic and Pecos is either very good or good enough, even during somewhat slower seasons they are crazytown for me.

    This year, we’re planning to have lunch in our room b4 rest time, or else at Picabu in Dolphin hotel, or Columbia Harbor House upstairs. We’ll probably end up having to stop at Pizzafari however, since that day’s schedule may cause the little guys to need refueling b4 we head back to hotel for rest.

    Kevin makes a very good point regarding planning counter service meals, which may to some folks sound like a contradiction. But probably the folks we see standing in long hot lunch lines at counters are the ones who didn’t think their counter service meals through.

  • I tend to hit counter service meals a lot, especially if I’m just dropping in because I happen to be in Orlando solo for business or my wife is enjoying a spa treatment. My only personal rule is to try for food not readily available back home. The only peeve I have is the folks who wait in line then get to the front and have no idea what to order, seriously, in the 15 minutes it took you to snake to the front of the line, you couldn’t look at the magical big pictures floating above you?

  • We are about 86% spontaneous. Its the way we like to tour the parks. On our last trip, just winging it, we had lunches at Mama Melrose and Rose & Crown among others. Mama Melrose, right next to Planet Pizza, for flat bread instead of their pizza. yummy! Just us, but we don’t like having to be someplace just to eat. On our upcoming trip however, I was able to snag an early dinner at BOG and late at Cali Grill during Halloween for the fireworks. But they will probably be the only ressies I make for 7 days.

  • Breakfast is easy. We raise chickens, so we bring hard-boiled eggs from home and have a Kuerig in our Owner’s Locker.

    Other than that, we only rigidly plan one meal a day. In the warmer months, we reserve a table service restaurant for a later lunch to make sure we are out of the sun and in the A/C sometime between 2 and 4pm. For cooler months, we reserve a late dinner. For the other meal we have “vicinity” plans. By vicinity plans, I mean, for example, “Let’s plan to be in the vicinity of Columbia Harbor House (or Flame Tree Barbeque) when we want to eat lunch.”

    One of more fun things to do for a later lunch or light dinner is take advantage of the walk-up venues for snacks and drinks–Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge at the Studios, and at Epcot, Cava del Tequila, Tutto Gusto Wine Cellar, or Spice Road Table. It’s a bit out of the box, but if you’re into hanging out and just enjoying the fact that you’re at Disney World, it’s a fine choice and often a spontaneous one!

  • I think that it is imperative that people are made aware of the counter service lunch option at Be Our Guest in the Magic Kingdom. It is truly a model of what quick service offerings should be. The capacity is huge! The ambiance is amazing. Service is fantastic (only place I know of where you place your order in advance and the food magically arrives at your table). The food quality is the absolute best of any counter service option that I’ve experienced in Disney. And it’s such a tremendous value with the Disney Dining option – 1 quick service meal will get you something like a seared tune (sushi quality) nicoise salad, french pastry, and bottomless drink (normal cost is about $22+tax); 1 snack will get you a bowl of fantastic soup (normal cost is $5.50+tax), making it the best possible value for a snack option.

    And what better place to plan for spontaneity? There is “snow” falling outside the window, talking suits of armor, a haunted West Wing complete with a “storm” at the glass-cased rose, etc.

    • by Kevin Bastos on July 30, 2014, at 11:51 am EDT

      Absolutely! Be Our Guest was one of our favorite meals. The food was excellent – and the drinks are only available like that during the lunch meal, too. We were fans of the lunch selections. Croque Monsieur was our table favorite (but we didn’t order the tuna – a problem of splitting with less adventurous children). Their cast members were excellent. We even stopped to commend a ‘counter service’ person who had more patience with the party just in front of us than I had ever encountered before. In addition, the third dining room was available with plenty of open seating. In my opinion, a much more pleasant dining experience than the main hall (but less fun that the West Wing). Finally, our food was delivered essentially as we sat down with rose in hand. We plan to return for lunch – but do not plan to return for dinner in the near future. One last thing – the line that extends sometimes well over the bridge does move quickly. Unlike some restaurants, that wait is well worth it.

      • I had reservations at BOG for a table-service dinner when it first opened. When we arrived for dinner, my then 4-year old saw the Beast on the way in, then we were seated in a very dark room which commenced thundering sounds. Before they even brought the menus, he was scared to death and we had to leave (Ray’s was a fine backup). Needless to say, we’ve never been back, even for the counter service lunch. I’d really like to try it, based on all the positive reviews, so please tell me more about the atmosphere… is it similar to the main dining, any Beasts nearby? Thanks!

        • by Kevin Bastos on July 30, 2014, at 3:09 pm EDT

          No Beast at lunch. A bummer for us – but for you, could be a benefit. Sounds like you were in the West Wing – and your four-year-old had a miserable experience. At lunch, you are permitted to choose a table – and the West Wing usually fills fast. I’d suggest the Rose Room. To my knowledge, open only for lunch. Not at all crowded, and didn’t have the poor acoustics of the main dining area. Quaint – and very pretty. Not really inspired by any part of the film, but easily negotiable. The lunch doesn’t have the standard nuggets and burger fair, which could be a detriment to some (like the older couple ahead of us at our lunch), but the sandwiches are excellent. I’d suggest going back.

  • We also had a wonderful experience at BOG for lunch. We had a fp for expedited arrival. The entire process was flawless. I hope this is a model that will be used at other counter service spots around the World. Until then, no Pecos Bill or Fairfax Fare for us. We were in and out of Liberty Tree and Sci-Fi (respectively) quicker than either of those places last time and only spent about $10 more.

    The lack of kids’ meal variety is a bummer for us. We do not have “nugget & fries” kids. So that adds to the challenge. However, our favorite grab & go item is the kids’ power pack. Tons of good stuff in those.

  • Sunshine Seasons is fantastic for those with food allergies (and Cosmic Rays is a fairly good option as well).