Best is a loaded word. And when you take the near innumerable dining options available at Orlando's Disney World complex it is a Herculean task, but we’ll take it on. For some, the Disney experience is about its classic characters and iconic imagery. If that's so, you can't do better than Cinderella’s Royal Table. You can’t argue with breakfast, lunch or dinner in a castle. For buffet fans, Boma, set in the resplendent digs of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, not only offers up all the traditional fare a plain-jane foodie would love, it allows for a safari of the palate amid a host of offerings culled from more than 50 African nations. And also the option to see real African animals out back. Kitsch – along with Mom’s meatloaf – is in abundance on the menu at 50’s Prime Time Café, where TV tables bring diners back to the era of ducktails and drive-ins and at Raglan Road you can slake your sun-baked thirst with a pint of Guinness or a flight of selections from the Emerald Isle while filling your belly with fare that’s food-critic stars better than you might have expected at a casual Downtown Disney Irish pub. The pinnacle of gourmand experiences is reserved for the prix fixe elegance of the Grand Floridian’s Victoria & Albert’s, a dining event if ever there was.
50's Prime Time Cafe
Pull up a vinyl chair and get ready for blue-plate special fare (and possibly some sassy backtalk from your waitress), the 50's Prime Time Cafe hearkens back to the era of ducktails, poodle skirts and TV dinners – and if you get a TV table, you can actually enjoy clips from the black-and-white classics of early broadcasting circa 1955. Chow down on mom-style pot roast, meatloaf and other comfort fare and pop into the Tune-In Lounge next door for a host of kitschy selections from "Dad's Liquor Cabinet." And the dessert menu? Best perused via an old-school viewfinder toy. Pass the time waiting for ice cream trying to explain to your kids why these are cooler than their Nintendo DS. ((407) 939-3463)
Flying Fish Cafe
Fun house mirrors, Ferris wheel parts and an exhibition kitchen distinguish this Disney restaurant, which serves ocean-fresh seafood in a lively atmosphere. A variety of appetizers and entrees depend on fish and shellfish, the most notable being the Idaho potato-wrapped red snapper, which is the house specialty. Other memorable dishes include oak-grilled swordfish or salmon. The latter is a sustainable offering. Those more into the surf than the turf will find options a'plenty. Desserts include creamy creme brulee, sinful chocolate creations and more. Added bonus, you can walk off a multiple-course gorge fest on the quarter-mile Disney BoardWalk just outside. (407-939-2359)
Visitors to EPCOT expect, rightfully, to get authentic cuisine in the various international pavilions around the park. Located in "Italy," Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria delivers the sauce for certain, but its thin-crust pizza, which bakes in record time in the gaping maws of ovens so hot they're named for the nation's most famous volcanoes – Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli – is a crispy, chewy, gooey delight for the taste buds. In fact, they take the art so seriously, Via Napoli brings in water sourced from a domestic spring similar to Italy's Campania region. With the crust well covered, diners are welcome to source the toppings themselves for an array of meats, cheese and vegetables. Not in the mood for pizza? It's the house specialty, but fear not: an array of other Italian dishes await. ((407) 939-3463)
There are a number of AYCE options in the Disney realm (that stands for "all you can eat," by the way), many of which are worth a visit, but Boma – Flavors of Africa is a cut above. Why? While there are a plethora of menu items that fall well within the comfort zones of the less adventurous diner, the rotating roster of dishes inspired by those of more than 50 African countries. Fare is notably fresh, served amid the lovely Afrocentric décor of Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. Buffet prices here are a tad higher than several other Disney buffets, but the selection – and massive South African wine list if you happen to be attending for dinner – along with the resident animals you may spot while on site at the Lodge, make this one worth it for most who give it a try. (407-938-4722)
Cinderella's Royal Table
The Disney experience isn't complete without at least one special character interaction. Clearly that could come from a photo-op in Ariel's Secret Grotto or an impromptu encounter with Goofy somewhere in Frontierland, but the pinnacle would have to be a meal inside on of the most pervasive Disney icons of all time: Cinderella's Castle. It's the centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom and the delight of children of all ages. And to dine inside it? A Disney wish upon a star come true. Cinderella's Royal Table is open for breakfast, lunch or dinner – guests receive a complimentary photo with the glass-slippered princess herself – and a bevy of other famous Disney femmes meander about, greeting guests, signing autographs and posing for photos as families enjoy a set , fixed-price menu (you'll leave full, fear not). The setting – soaring ceilings, stained glass, majestic flags – are just what your family's tiny royals would have expected. Now if you could just turn that pumpkin into a coach.... (407-939-3463)
Victoria & Albert's
While exemplary fine dining can be found throughout the Disney compound, none surpass the level of service delivered during a Victoria & Albert's prix fixe, seven-course meal that can only be described as a top-of-the-line culinary experience. Meals here are an event, whether served in the elegant dining room or, if intimacy and knowledge of the kitchen's inner-workings are more your game: the Chef's Table. Here, six guests will dine in the kitchen alongside the chef, learning the ins and outs of running a AAA Five-Diamond restaurant. The Queen Victoria Room holds just four tables. Diners here enjoy traditional gueridon service where waiters prepare much of the meal from tableside trolleys. Unless you're a regular on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," Victoria & Albert's is an eatery probably best reserved for very special occasions, but meals here – and the service that comes with – are guaranteed to become memories that will last a lifetime. (407-824-2591, 407-939-3463)
Jiko - The Cooking Place
With a vault of South African wines unmatched outside the country and an array of African natives in the form of zebra, kudu, gazelle and more roaming on the grounds of its home in the Disney Animal Kingdom Lodge Resort, Jiko – The Cooking Place offers one of the most unique dining experiences on park property. Its menu melds African, Indian and Mediterranean cuisines and offers dishes to delight the ardent carnivore (braised short ribs, oak-grilled filet mignon) and options for the veg-heads, as well. Jiko's artisanal cheese selection makes for an excellent appetizer or dessert selection. This restaurant also offers South African wine tastings. Check the Disney site for details. (407-939-3463)
Exceptional Pacific coast cuisine awaits guests as they are whisked by private elevator to the 15th floor of Disney's Contemporary Resort. Cocktails and wine, fine charcuterie and fresh sushi--try the Dragon Roll! --kick things off while entrees like the oak-fired filet of beef (a long time favorite) and flaky Pacific halibut lead diners into the home stretch. Save room for dessert if you can. Floor-to-ceiling windows afford guests sweeping views of the Walt Disney World kingdom below – and the nightly fireworks if you time your meal accordingly. Many choose to enjoy the latter on the observation deck instead. (407-824-1576, 407-939-6244)
Raglan Road Irish Pub
Cold pints and a warm, convivial vibe are always on tap at Raglan Road, which isn't lying when it calls itself a genuine Irish pub. In fact, the whole place was built in Ireland and then shipped to Orlando where it was lovingly reassembled to the delight of locals and visitors alike. Think of it as Disney magic with a little help from the leprechauns. On the menu: a selection of hearty fare with some modern spins on Irish classics like shepherd's pie, fish and chips and a mixed grill featuring a lamb chop, steak, a Guiness banger, black pudding and bacon. Beer flights let you sample what the Irish are brewing along with a host of other fine draughts and even an impressive selection of craft cocktails. (4079380300)
Walt Disney World's big, beautiful Boathouse venue can accommodate up to 600 seafood and steak lovers amid its nautically themed confines. Views of Lake Buena Vista beckon from throughout; in fact, you can drink and dine al fresco here, as well. Wine, craft beer and cocktails pair well with market-fresh catch and even caviar while diners watch the classic-car-themed amphicars sail past. A beautiful place for special-occasion lunches or dinners, the restaurant's three distinct dining spaces set a lovely tone; private rooms are available for functions, as well. Come hungry. You won't want to miss the wild-caught shrimp or decadent desserts. (407-939-2628)
About A.D. Thompson
A.D. Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and roughly 15 as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.
A roller coaster enthusiast, A.D. readily admits there is fun to be had amid the madness of the theme parks, but has found there is magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey’s long shadow. She is delighted to share with you the spoils of her adopted city.
Visit her colorful compendium at www.amydrewthompson.com.
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