Uh-Oh…Every Disney World Restaurant Is Booked!

by on November 11, 2011 26 Comments

Filed under: Dining

Your boss tells you that you’re attending a meeting in Orlando…next week. You read too many comments on Twitter about how fun Reunion 2011 will be, and book a last minute trip. You can’t think of any other anniversary presents, so you opt to surprise your spouse with an impromptu weekend trip to Walt Disney World (hint, hint Sarah). You’re sitting in class desperately trying to avoid learning anything, so you distract yourself by booking a trip. You just flat out forget to make Advance Dining Reservations until two weeks before your trip.

Whatever your circumstances, if you visit Walt Disney World frequently, chances are at some time or another, you’ll find yourself in this predicament. A trip to Walt Disney World quickly approaching, and you’re without any Table Service restaurant reservations. Now, you can do what I always do, and walk up to the podium pretending to be Lou Mongello, but if you’re tall or a female, this strategy may not work. Instead, rather than resolving yourself to dining-defeat, try these strategies.

1. Walk-Up – It seems like this one should be a no-brainer, right? However, years of the Disney Dining Plan have killed the spontaneity in dining (among other things) and  left many Walt Disney World regulars with the impression that the era of walk-up availability disappeared along with Dreamfinder in the 1990s. While that was the case for a while, it’s not true anymore. Recent changes, including steps taken to reduce the number of double-bookings and the introduction of a $10 credit card hold at select restaurants for ADRs have increased the walk-up availability at many restaurants. In recent months, we’ve been able to walk-up and obtain tables at Via Napoli, Sanaa, Le Cellier, Sci-Fi Diner, and the Hollywood Brown Derby all with less than 30 minute waits. The best times to try this strategy are right when the restaurant opens and right before it closes, although we’ve been successful during “normal” dinner hours, too. Of course, if you have a party of 10, this may be much more difficult.

2. Alter Your Expectations – If you are an obsessive planner who just wouldn’t feel comfortable ‘winging it’ with walk-up reservations, you can still book reservations in advance. Just don’t expect those meals to be at Chef Mickey’s and Cinderella’s Royal Table. Instead, aim for less popular restaurants, or make reservations for off-hours. As a test, I decided to see what restaurants I could book today (11/11) in Epcot for tomorrow (11/12) at lunch. Much to my surprise, 12 of 16 restaurants had availability. Sure, I can’t go to the over-rated Le Cellier (that’s right, over-rated–heresy, I know), but there are plenty of fabulous choices on that list. Now if you’re trying to do this on 12/30 for New Year’s Eve, you probably won’t have the same luck, but it’s always worth a shot. At the very least, making a reservation guarantees you a table somewhere. You can always use it as a safety net and try for a walk-up table at a different restaurant. If you must have Le Cellier, I recommend speaking Canadian to the host or hostess and saying, “Guess what?! I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cheddar cheese soup, pretzel bread, and mushroom filet mignon!”

3. Eat at No-Reservation Restaurants – Well, maybe restaurant (singular) is the more apt term. I’m talking about Beaches & Cream. If you’re in Epcot on a hot summer day, nothing is quite as nice as taking a stroll out of the International Gateway exit and heading over to Beaches & Cream for a delicious meal of ice cream. Beaches & Cream is a Table Service restaurant that does not even accept reservations. If you don’t consider ice cream as a nutritious meal in-itself (now that’s just ignorant!) you can also try one of the delicious burgers or sandwiches. You may say, “well, I can’t eat at Beaches & Cream everyday!” Uhh…have you seen the ice cream list? It’s veritable ice cream-art! Seriously, I’d rather hang it on my wall than some Pollock paint drippings. Other good restaurants, such as Trail’s End, Olivia’s Cafe, Captain’s Grille, Big River Grille, The Wave, and Turf Club Bar & Grill rarely have any waits, so try these options, too. In fact, many resort restaurants often have little to no waits.

4. Eat at Non-Disney Restaurants On or Off-Property – This might be even greater heresy than my Le Cellier comments above (for what it’s worth, I like Le Cellier, I just think it doesn’t live up to the hype), but try some of the non-Disney restaurants around Walt Disney World. If you’re eating in the World Showcase or Downtown Disney, there’s a good chance that you’re eating at a non-Disney restaurant, anyway, but take it a little further. Delicious restaurants can be found in the Swan & Dolphin Hotels, just outside Downtown Disney, and a couple of minutes off property. Since none of these allow the same 180-day ADR window, you’re much more likely to get a table at one of these restaurants when you want it. The added upside is that many of these restaurants offer delicious cuisine (particularly the Swan & Dolphin restaurants) and don’t charge the same “Disney” premium.

5. Eat Upper-Echelon Counter Service Food – Failing all of the above, eat at nicer Counter Service restaurants. Instead of your normal burger at Cosmic Ray’s or Electric Umbrella, try one of the new lobster rolls at Columbia Harbour House (it’s delicious!) or the salmon at Sunshine Seasons. Explore the restaurants in the World Showcase. Never eaten at the Tangierine Cafe? Finally do it! Try the delicious ribs at Flame Tree Barbeque. In Disney’s Hollywood Studios, try…uh…try heading over to the World Showcase! Being a little more adventurous and spending a little more on Counter Service meals isn’t a total substitute for eating at sit-down restaurants, but it’s a decent replacement in a pinch.

In the end, advance-planning is always best, and those who do their due diligence are typically rewarded with more satisfying vacations (regardless of the destination) than those who just show up and expect to stumble into fun. That said, a lot of advance-planning isn’t always possible, and in those cases when it’s not possible, make lemonade out of lemons. Heck, you might even find that the added element of spontaneity resulting from not planning every aspect of your trip 6 months in advance is actually a bit relieving!

Do you have experience snagging a table at a Walt Disney World restaurant at the last minute or without reservations? Have any other expert tips to share with our readers? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Posted on November 11, 2011

26 Responses to “Uh-Oh…Every Disney World Restaurant Is Booked!”

  • 1) Shame on you for the Le Cellier comments! 😉 I don’t think it’s over-rated (I found everything to be as good as expected), but I do think it’s over-priced,even for Disney. While the Filet is very very good, it’s not twice as good as the one I can get at any number of steakhouses just minutes outside the gates.

    2) Swan-Dolphin is a great alternative. Though I do think Shula’s is even more over-priced than Le Cellier. But Blue Zoo is one of my 5 favorites within WDW boundaries, rarely has a wait, and is a very short trip from Epcot or DHS.

    • Glad someone responded to my Le Cellier “bait” (tough to elaborate in the post itself as it was entirely tangential.

      In my review of Le Cellier, I gave it 8.5/10. That’s a pretty good score. HOWEVER, the popular sentiment seems to be that Le Cellier is an “11/10” and a top 5 restaurant at Walt Disney World, which I think simply is not the case.

      Le Cellier is very good, but the tables are close together, and it’s over-priced. It has an exquisite beer list (for Disney) and the steaks are great. But they’re not exponentially better than other restaurants. It’s certainly over-hyped online.

      Shula’s is expensive, but that’s easily remedied with a Restaurant.com gift certificate. That really makes all of those restaurants much more affordable!

  • I am almost always able to get last-minute ADRs at Biergarten. Plus there is so much good CS to be had at Epcot. A quick boat trip over to WL for lunch at WCC is a great break from MK when it gets crowded around 1 or 2, and there is rarely a wait there. A little time exploring the resort, hanging out in the lobby and relaxing after lunch, and you’ve saved a trip back to your (cheaper) resort and then it’s back to MK for the evening! But HS? You’re so right. Why don’t they do something about the food situation there?

    • A mid-day break from the Magic Kingdom for one of the monorail loop (plus WL) restaurants is always a great idea. Especially around Christmas when the decorations are up!

      The Hollywood Brown Derby is the one redeeming restaurant at DHS. Sci-Fi and 50s Primetime have great ambiance, but the food at both (and at every single other restaurant there) leaves something to be desired. Very disappointing that basically the entire park fails at dining.

    • I would agree with the DHS food situation. Brown Derby is fantastic (mmmm…grapefruit cake) and there are some good treats (like the Carrot Cake Cookie at Sweet Spells), but overall the food is just fair. The ABC Commissary is awful counter service food and Mama Melrose, while I like the atmosphere, has a limited menu of tasty items. I’ve yet to try Sci-Fi, but wasn’t thrilled with 50s either. Overall, we will snack and eat dessert at DHS (if I don’t want to shell out big bucks at the Derby) and then head to the Epcot resorts to eat real food. DHS is definitely a park that needs food help.

  • LOL about your counter service comment about DHS. That’s when I usually head to Beaches & Cream!

    We just had a spectacular dinner at Captain’s Grille this week. I eat breakfast there when staying at Beach Club Villas, so I can have the buffet without the characters, but it’s been years since we had dinner. Let me tell you – dinner was amazing! I had the Rosemary Brined Pork Chop. Very moist, and the roasted corn pudding was delicious. I think Captain’s Grille will be on our table service rotation in the future!

  • I agree with your promotion of Swan and Dolphin restaurants. We ate at Il Mulino on Monday – it was fantastic and the wait was minimal (even with a conference in town). Then we got late reservations to Kona Café last night and weren’t disappointed there either.

    Anyway, you are right. WDW spontaneity can be fun…and delicious.

    Great article, Tom!

  • I have had success walking up for meals at Yachtsman Steakhouse at Y&BC, Mama Melrose at DHS, and Sci-Fi Dine In Theater at DHS (though the latter didn’t work last time I tried it) in the past couple of years. It is always worth a try!

    Beaches and Cream can be hit or miss, though – depending on time of year, the line for lunch can get quite long! But if that happens, you can always walk over to the Captain’s Grille, which is not bad at all, and get a seat.

    Totally agree about Le Cellier. The one time we went, it was very loud, and the steak, though tasty, was over-salted. My husband and I had a better meal at Yachtsman that same week, where we were actually able to hear ourselves think!

    One other suggestion: eat at the bar! The food at the Tune-In Lounge at DHS is pretty much the same as at 50’s Prime Time; the food at the bar at the California Grill is the same as at the restaurant. It can be a good option if you’re dining without kids.

    • Sci-Fi Dine-In leaves a certain type of tables (can’t remember which type) open solely for walk-up patrons. I can’t remember which type, but the hostess once showed me a diagram. She said that was always the case, but I wouldn’t be surprised if on busier days, “walk-ups” include people who make ADRs in the park that morning.

      Eating at the bar is an EXCELLENT tip. From my experience, the food is exactly the same. We have had slow service doing this at Tune-In Lounge, but otherwise it has worked great!

    • Oh, and over-salting is a very common complaint about Le Cellier. Never had it happen to us, but I’ve heard about it plenty from people whose opinion I trust.

    • The lines at Beaches & Cream can be crazy for both lunch and most of the evening (going off-hours there makes a lot sense, but that’s also a time you’re most likely to get a walk-up at a place that takes ADRs), but I don’t think the food is hit-or-miss: it’s standard fare, and I’ve always found it to be what I expected. It’s fun to sit at the bar and watch the wait staff make my sundae.

  • FYI – I have heard that you can get the soup and pretzel sticks to go at Le Cellier just by visiting the hostess stand and placing an order. That’s all I really want from there anyway! Got my soup fix during F&W!

    • I’ve heard this as well! Never tried it myself, but I might have to this Christmas. I’ve also heard that sometimes you can talk your way into a “to-go” cup for your Unibroue!

      • Nice tip to know about Unibroue! Is that after your table service or could you maybe get that from the hostess stand, too?

  • I always use #1, but you have to use common sense. Dont expect to walk up at 8PM and get a table but it almost always works.

    • So you’re suggesting that maybe I should NOT show up at California Grill at 8 pm on the 4th of July with my party of 16 and demand a window table?! You have some nerve! 😉

  • We usually walk-up at lunch time. It’s much easier to get-in if you get there when they open, and lunch is a little less expensive. My favorite for this is HS 50’s cafe.

  • We recently spent the day at Blizzard Beach and were heading over to Epcot for the evening. I decided to take a quick look to see if anything was available at a sit down restaurant and was able to reserve Rose and Crown Pub at exactly the time I wanted. We ended up with a sought after patio table and it was the definatly the best meal we had on our WDW trip! The hostess said we were very lucky as the patio tables are hard to get!

  • My friend and I made early ADRs at Jiko and Kona and were not disappointed by either. But on a morning at Epcot, we decided to see what kind of wait Via Napoli would have right when it opened at 11. We were seated right away with the rest of the people waiting at opening, and our pizza was fantastic! So my tip is try places right when they open.

  • Just last week we walked up to WCC at WL at 5:30. I was told there were no available reservations and wait was 60 – 75 minutes. I decided to wait in the lobby while DH took the kids up to the room. My buzzer went off 15 minutes later.

  • I make it a point to eat a nice dinner on property once every few weeks, and I rarely make an ADR since it’s usually spur of the moment as to where I want to eat. Holidays and busy weeks exempt, of course, walking up just before (or when) the restaurant opens *almost* always guarantees you a table after a minimal wait (with great service, since the restaurant is nearly empty). Yes, sometimes this means eating dinner at 5:30, but the food is still the same, and after a long day of touring it gives a nice pick-me-up before heading out for evening plans.

    Eating at the bar/lounge also gives you basically the same experience, similar service levels, and the same food (be sure to ask the bartender if they carry the full menu – most do, some do not).

    My best luck recently has been at:
    -The Wave: Always a great choice for walk-ups for any meal, period, and the atmosphere at their bar is great
    -Artist Point: Seriously, who can resist the soup and cobbler, and being able to see the geyser go off from your table while it’s still light out is pretty cool. Almost never turned away from here, even at 8pm on a Saturday night.
    -Jiko: Especially on Sundays, as a lot of people seem to give up reservations here then (which is probably a trend across property, but I just tend to eat here more on Sundays LOL!).
    -Cali Grill: The lounge definitely gets busy, so this is one to hit right at 5 when they open. If you want to see the fireworks, just bring your receipt later that night and head up to the observation deck.
    -Flying Fish & Yachtsman Steakhouse: The abundance of dining options on the Boardwalk/neighboring resorts/World Showcase seems to help here, as it’s been pretty easy to hit up either of these two, even during big convention weekends. I’ve had less luck with Kouzzina in this respect, but that’s another story 😉

    Just remember, it never hurts to ask, even if you see a giant crowd outside the check-in stand. All of those people could be waiting for four-tops (or even larger tables), and if you only have 1-2 in your party, you may just be in luck!

  • My husband and I have been successful in getting a walk up table at Teppan Edo, Yak and Yeti, Sci-Fi, Chefs de France, and Via Napoli. We do typically travel to WDW during the slow season of September so I am sure that plays a part in our success. We have never tried Beaches and Cream but based solely on your ice cream menu description – I’m sold. We will have to give it a try during our next trip.

  • Great article as always Tom! We got a walk-up to ‘Ohana (other-wise known as the Nate Parrish method) on our trip in July. We also easily changed our Crystal Palace ADR from lunch to the next day at breakfast. Looking forward to more.

  • Was in WDW last week on a dining plan. I had everything booked from home except for the last night. I wanted it to be something special, and couldn’t find anything special that still was taking reservations.

    The day before our last day I checked again on the internet and found out that some reservations were open again for Ohana at 9:15 PM. We took them, and we enjoyed it a lot!