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Disney Has Other Theme Parks Absolutely Trounced in This One Area…

It is a good time to be Disney.

Despite some rocky seasons for attendance and media coverage, Disney is entering something of a banner season. They successfully launched Disney+, introduced a whole new transportation method to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the Skyliner, and after a bumpy summer for Galaxy’s Edge, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance has proved an attraction so successful that it keeps reaching capacity before the park even opens.

These successes aren’t to say that Disney doesn’t have some foibles to work through. One area where the company has come under strong scrutiny in recent years is dining. After the Eisner-era, quality waned at many Disney dining establishments, especially after the arrival of the Disney dining plan. Restaurants that once served world class food just didn’t seem to hold the same sparkle. Considering these disappointing shifts, it would be easy to say Disney no longer has a strong stake in the theme park dining game… until you take a moment and compare them with the competition.

For all of Disney’s ups and downs, they still have other US theme parks completely trounced in the area of dining.

During our recent exploration of World-Showcase-style dining at other US theme parks, we quickly realized that Disney truly is in a league of their own when it comes to food. Despite the best efforts of parks like Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, Knott’s Berry Farms, and Sea World, they all seem to fall into the same traps: inconsistency, lack of healthy options, and lack of variety. Indeed, most theme parks seem to settle for filling park menus with burgers, fries, American comfort food, and maybe a little family Italian for good measure. Universal Studios has made a laudable effort to break this pattern, but even their best in-park restaurant, Mythos at Islands of Adventure, suffers from consistency problems despite its excellent theming and sometimes-excellent food. The only area of dining other parks seem to have Disney soundly beat at is prices, but at what cost? Even with Disney’s own issues with consistency and occasionally messing with restaurants that should be left alone, they still come out on top.

What is it that sets Disney dining so far apart from the competition in the states? Here’s what we found that makes all the difference.

1. Variety

Most people get the same picture when we think of theme park food—burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, funnel cakes, spaghetti dinners, and maybe some BBQ. While Disney does a great deal to cater to demographics who prefer these options (especially kids), which is great, they don’t fall into the trap of American fare being the only type of food available. Indeed, there is so much variety for dining at Walt Disney World that if you don’t have a few meals there, you will definitely be missing out.

Even removing Disney’s outstanding dining options at resorts and Disney Springs from the equation, Disney’s parks alone burst with variety for dining. At Magic Kingdom alone, you can enjoy French fare at Be Our Guest, taste the tropics at the Jungle Navigation Co. Skipper Canteen, and enjoy family Italian at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant as a few examples. Disney’s Animal Kingdom has some of the best food in the entire resort, with a wide range of international options like an African buffet at Tusker House, South Asian quick fare at Yak and Yeti, tasty BBQ at Flame Tree, and fine dining at Tiffin’s. Epcot has World Showcase—enough said. Even Disney’s Hollywood Studios has finally improved their dining game with the addition of Docking Bay 7 and Ronto Roasters on top of their popular American food options.

In short, let it never be said that someone couldn’t find anything to eat at Walt Disney World. On a related note, Disney does a better job than just about any park we’ve seen with guests who have special diets or allergies, ensuring they have the best experience possible. Some of their recent additions for vegan diners are especially tasty! It is also much easier to eat healthy and still enjoy delicious food at Disney parks than any other theme park we’ve seen.

2. Theming

There really is only one other US park that comes close to Disney in the area of theme park dining—their top competition, Universal Studios. While both Mythos and Three Broomsticks are excellent examples of themed dining up to par with anything Disney offers, the House of Mouse still has other parks, including Universal, trounced in the area of themed dining.

Theming is one of the areas that set Disney parks apart from the very beginning. When amusement parks were known for being dirty and disjointed, Disney parks strived to be clean, charming, and coherent. Across Disney’s history, they’ve done an incredible job integrating dining in a manner that elevates the theming of its lands and parks. At Walt Disney World and Disneyland, the magic isn’t just something to experience in a ride or by taking a photograph—it should be tasted as well.

Whether you’re wandering through countries in World Showcase or taking in the ethereal sites of Fantasyland, you can be certain that Disney will have integrated a means to enjoy theming through dining. Whether you’re looking to taste the whimsical at Gaston’s Tavern, the nostalgic at the Sci Fi Dine in Theater, or international flavors at Teppan Edo, Tutto Italia, or the Rose and Crown, you can be sure that dining at Disney remains an experience for the imagination as much as the taste buds.

3. Creativity

Speaking of theming, you have to give it to Disney in a related area—they are absurdly creative in their dining concepts. I mean, think of being the guy who sat in a meeting and said, “We’re going to make a REAL Star Wars cantina, and Rex from Star Tours will be the DJ!”. The creativity level for Disney restaurants is positively bonkers.

Across Walt Disney World alone, guests can eat at an old-school drive in theater, share quips over fried lionfish with Jungle Cruise skippers, taste space noodles on Pandora, or enjoy African and Indian delights while watching giraffes and ostriches graze on a savannah. Just when we think we’ve seen everything Disney can do in dining, they come up with something new and more immersive, from bubbling galactic brews clouded with mist to somehow convincing us that Ronto meat is surprisingly delicious. Just like Walt, it seems Disney creative teams are never satisfied with just-good-enough—they’re always looking for new ways to blow guest minds with creative dining concepts.

4. Character dining

Dining with theme park characters can either be a charming or mortifying experience… It takes a careful tightrope act between playfulness and reading guest personalities to keep character meals from becoming an awkward experience. Fortunately, Disney has character dining down to a science that is basically unheard of in other parks.

It would be just fine if Disney had a few halfway decent character dining experiences for families with kids to enjoy—Chef Mickeys, the Garden Grill, and Crystal Palace all come to mind. They’re great character experiences, but the food isn’t exactly memorable. Many kids are picky eaters, so why bother with anything more complicated?

Not good enough for the mouse.

A number of Disney’s character dining experiences can actually be rated among the top restaurants in Walt Disney World. Animal Kingdom’s Tusker House is a great example of this. The food is so excellent that I often recommend it to people who would normally never try a character dining experience. Artist Point at Wilderness Lodge is another great choice—while we have mixed feelings about this restaurant’s transformation from classy steakhouse into a Snow White character dining experience, guests can’t seem to rave enough about the food. The variety of character meals Disney offers is insane too—some of these restaurants couldn’t be more different, like Ohana’s playful Hawaiian skewered-meat-feast to a genteel Victorian breakfast with Mary Poppins at 1900 Park Fare. The variety is excellent.

5. Quality

Many guests have rightfully pointed out that Disney restaurants suffered quality loss the last ten years or so. We don’t pull many punches here at Theme Park Tourist when we spot this happening. However, despite some ups and downs, Disney still has the competition pretty soundly beat in the area of quality.

This ties to variety, but at any Disney park, you can find food that is legitimately delicious. Every restaurant may not meet this standard, but every park has a few standouts that remain consistently quality. I often tell visitors to try to stretch themselves and try something new when visiting Disney—you’re paying extra either way, so you may as well get something you can only get at Walt Disney World or Disneyland. The truth is, despite some issues, Disney is way more consistent with quality than many other theme parks. Even at usually reliable mainstays like Mythos or Finnegan’s at Universal Studios or Das Festhaus at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, it sometimes feels like you never know what you’re going to get. Perhaps it’s just due to the sheer volume of restaurants Disney offers, but they seem to do a better job with quality control, at least from a broad perspective.

Does Disney need to improve quality at some restaurants? Absolutely. Do they majorly goof up sometimes? Yes. However, we will say that across the board, we have more good experiences than bad ones with Disney, and that in and of itself is a positive mark in their favor.  

6. Buffets

Theme park buffets usually aren’t anything to write home about.  While a few US theme parks have some standout options, the vast majority of theme park buffets bring to mind high school cafeteria lunches and Golden Corral far more than they do any worthwhile themed dining experience.

Disney’s buffets are surprisingly good. Epcot’s Biergarten is one great example of a buffet done right, with laudably authentic German fare paired with a charming show. Boma at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is another great choice that frequently tops lists for the best theme park restaurants in the country, offering a wide variety of mouth-watering African dishes. Cape May Café offers an outstanding seafood spread to make any shellfish fan cheer. We already mentioned Tusker House, as well as Ohana, both excellent buffets in their own right. Even Disney’s more traditional buffets like the Crystal Palace and Chef’s Mickey are going to be better than the average chain restaurant, which says a lot. When it comes to value, you can’t go wrong with most of Disney’s buffets.

7. Guest service

If there’s any area we enjoy being proven wrong, it’s when a theme park restaurant we previously had a bad experience at makes a turnaround. It’s proof of one of Disney’s strongest areas: guest service. While they may miss the mark sometimes, Disney guest service teams do seem to go out of their way to make sure guests leave satisfied, and it seems that often, they’re willing to make course corrections if guests seem consistently unhappy over a long period of time.

We experienced a great example of this recently at Restaurant Marrakesh. I’ve actually mentioned Marrakesh in several articles as one of the World Showcase restaurants to skip due to declined quality over the years. Indeed, the last time we visited, the service was somewhat surly, and the food was so bland that we decided we’d never go back—a real disappointment as it was one of my favorite Epcot restaurants as a kid. After striking out trying to get a boarding pass for Rise of the Resistance on opening day, we decided to hop over to Epcot and give Restaurant Marrakesh another chance. I am happy to say it was a completely pleasant experience. The service was wonderfully kind and attentive, and our food was flavorful and tasty (the chicken bastilla remains particularly good). Our entrees could have been a little warmer, and the couscous could still use a little flavor boost, but we would absolutely eat there again. Something changed over the years, and it seems Disney heard guest complaints.

Sometimes it may seem that Disney is completely ignores guests in the area of dining—there are definitely still some areas they need to improve and haven’t yet. However, their long term track record shows that, more often than not, if Disney receives repeated complaints about an issue, they prefer to address it and keep your business.

Just look at the flip-flopping that took place at Galaxy’s Edge. On one hand, you had confused guests who couldn’t make heads-or-tails of the “fantasy” names of the food at Docking Bay 7, even with attached descriptions. Disney changed the names to sound more familiar. This upset Star Wars fans who loved the immersion of the in-world names like Felucian Garden Spreads and Endorian Yip-Tip Salads. Disney eventually met both groups halfway by including both the fantasy and familiar names on the menu. Everyone wins. They listened.

While Universal is getting in gear improving their dining game (for example with the reimagining of the previously-loathed Jurassic Café at Universal Studios Hollywood into a highly-rated Costa Rican dining experience), many other parks just seem set in their ways. If something isn’t meeting guest satisfaction, change course.

8. Expansions

Whereas most theme park dining stays pretty stagnant (again, Universal is the only park we’ve seen bucking this trend), Disney doesn’t appear to have any intention of slowing down their dining game any time soon.

We know a number of Star Wars-related dining experiences are on the way with the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser resort experience, as well as circulating rumors that a sit down restaurant might still be integrated into Galaxy’s Edge. We also know Epcot will be adding Space 220, a sort of space “observation tower” restaurant near Spaceship Earth, as well as a new creperie to the French pavilion, and the Regal Eagle Smokehouse at Epcot’s American Adventure (as a Texan, I can’t describe how happy this makes me). The Grand Floridian is also getting a Beauty and The Beast themed lounge. These are just the projects we know about. In short, guests can rest assured that new dining experiences will continue to be a part of the Disney adventure for years to come.

What else do you think Disney does better than other parks at dining? What do they need to improve on?