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.
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.
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Roller coasters, shopping, fireworks, swimming, dancing, laughing. These are some of the things that teens love about Disney World. Notice the omission of the phrase “sit-down-dinner-ing?” True, Disney has some amazing restaurants, but a teenager would much prefer to be in the parks, riding rides, than scarfing down a fancy meal. Though there are some family-friendly restaurants, I don’t know of any that involve being thrown upside-down and pulling 5-Gs. Ever since Disney got into the thrill business, it’s been hard for calamari to compete.
Solution? I call it “snacking your way through the parks.” There are no restaurant meals on a snacking vacation. Instead, buy your food at eateries and from vendors. That way, you spend more time watching shows and experiencing rides than waiting for a dish to arrive. Forget your grandmother’s rules about walking and eating! Who says you can’t savor a soft pretzel while darting to the Jungle Cruise?
But if you’re like many Disney World guests, you might have a few concerns: 1) fast food isn’t remotely healthy, and 2) Disney World restaurants serve such fabulous food that you don’t want to miss out. Not to worry. I’m going to teach you to snack in a way that solves these problems, plus saves you a Goofy-sized bundle. So read on, Grasshopper (or rather, Jiminy Cricket).
First: healthiness. You may be worried that eating burgers and cheap pizza for a week will ruin your waistline. You ought to know that on an average day at Epcot, a guest walks over 12 miles, not to mention time standing upright in lines. I promise, you will burn calories. In fact, I usually lose a couple pounds in Disney. However, if you can’t stand food loaded with cholesterol and fat, or rather lacking good stuff like vitamins, below is a list of counter-service places at each park with options for the health-conscious diner. (Remember that Disney has been making an effort to provide healthier choices, so there can be a fruit side with almost any meal.)
Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe, Tomorrowland (soups and Kosher items)
Columbia Harbour House, Liberty Square (vegetarian chili and seafood)
Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn, Frontierland (vegetarian wraps)
Sunshine Seasons, The Land (fresh fruits and veggies, and good stuff for breakfast too)
Lotus Blossom Cafe, China Pavilion (vegetable dishes)
Liberty Inn, America Pavilion (come only if you’re desperate for a salad)
Backlot Express (vegetarian sandwiches and multiple salads)
ABC Commissary (curry and salads)
Flame Tree Barbeque, Discovery Island (salads)
Kusafiri Coffee Shop, Africa (light pastries for breakfast)
What about missing out on the world-class food at WDW? Some of the country’s top chefs have restaurants there; it seems a shame to skip. It’s true you won’t sample many culinary masterpieces in my “snacking through” strategy because it’s geared towards downing calories for energy. Then again, there are some counter-service versions of the high-end restaurants. Exhibit A: Wolfgang Puck Express at Downtown Disney. It’s more casual and faster, but the pizza is as much gourmet as that of Wolfgang Puck Cafe up the road. The Yak & Yeti Restaurant at Animal Kingdom has a cafeteria-style alternative. You get the picture.
I hope by now it’s clear that you hardly have to sacrifice anything to snack through Disney World. It gets better, too! Here’s the major upside: a family will save an average of $90 for every sit-down meal they forego! Another example: stock up on bagels and cereal from the Buena Vista Winn-Dixie to eat at the turnstiles to save a castle-load. (Get it? Castle sounds like cash. And it’s Disney-themed. Get it? Never mind.)
What are my awesomest money-saving tips for food? OK I’ll tell, but let’s hope my mom doesn’t find out that I shared the family silver! The drinks at Disney are huge, so splitting them saves you about $3 every time. That may not seem like much, but considering how hot Florida gets, staying hydrated is important; it adds up. The ultimate cheap(er) dining secret is: get kids’ meals for adults. Like I said, portions at WDW are huge. Kids’ meals are often big enough to satisfy an adult stomach, and are up to $7 less for the exact same food.
If you still cannot give up eating at a restaurant, you and the other adults can have a sit-down dinner. Meanwhile, the teens and preteens can continue touring, making all of you happier than Snow White singing to beavers. Just make sure the pubescents have a little cash and a cell-phone with them in case of an emergency.
I should mention one other major worry about snacking before I go: not experiencing a character breakfast. Luckily – with the notable exception of Cinderella – almost any character your munchkin would meet at a character breakfast can be found somewhere else in the theme parks, for free.
That’s all for now, though I may return to this topic later. If you have any questions about a Disney World vacation with teenagers, feel free to ask them in the Comments. I might just turn the answer into my next post. In the meantime, have a magical day!