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 families, the Disney experience is about its classic characters, so we’ve included a few where – depending on when you visit – interaction is either a given or at least a possibility, with Cinderella’s Royal Table leading the charge. You can’t argue with dinner in a castle. For diners interested in the best buffet options, we’ve got you covered because 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. 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 hearty fare that’s likely better than you ever expected at a casual Downtown Disney Irish pub. The pinnacle of dining experiences – the only place we’d suggest you absolutely leave your tiniest diners in the capable hands of a suitable sitter – is reserved for the prix fixe elegance of the Grand Floridian’s Victoria & Albert’s, a dining event if ever there was. Notable: California Grill was closed for enhancements at press time but likely would be been included. Keep an eye out for its reopening – its views are unmatched!
10 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)
9 Artist Point
Yes, you're dining at the Disney Wilderness Lodge but while the ambiance at Artist Point is inspired by the Pacific Northwest, if you're going to throw the word "rustic" around, be sure you clarify it with "elegance." Its resplendent views and soaring ceiling are notable, so be sure you put it in all-caps. Artist Point is a relatively lesser known fine-dining venue at Disney, nestled amid its Wilderness Lodge, and the restaurant's proponents probably like it that way. Signature dishes like cedar plank-roasted salmon and the slow-roasted buffalo strip steak also call to mind the region by which the venue is inspired. (407-824-1081, 407-824-3200)
8 Flying Fish Cafe
Roller coaster memorabilia 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 potato-wrapped red snapper, which is the house specialty. Other memorable dishes are the crab cake appetizers and oak-grilled scallops, which come with corn and bacon risotto. If you make it to dessert, the best option is the lava cake, which oozes liquid chocolate and is enough to make you swoon. Added bonus, you can walk off a multiple-course gorge fest on the quarter-mile Disney BoardWalk just outside. (407-939-2359)
7 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? An undeniable dream 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 menu (note: 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)
6 Raglan Road Irish Pub
Cold pints and 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. (4079380300)
5 La Hacienda de San Angel
The culture of Mexico, like its weather, is warm and welcoming and a good deal of it -- thanks to our nation's proximity thereto -- has seeped over the border like so much sweet agave nectar. And if you like said nectar, you might want to sample some tequila at EPCOT's lovely, lakeside La Hacienda de San Angel. And by the way, the food's not bad either. For about $50 an entree, two can easily share one of the mixed grill platters, loaded down with an array of meat and/or seafood and generous sides. Large windows and a beautiful deck make this place prime territory for taking it the park's nightly fireworks. ((407) 827-2253)
4 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, a newer addition to the V&A roster, 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)
Aloha! An island ambiance pervades 'Ohana, which means "family" in Hawaiian. Apt here at Disney as so many diners (though not all) have kids in tow. Dinner festivities here offer a wealth of activity and entertainment including group singing, coconut races and hula hoop competitions. A blazing fire pit provides a focal point and also turns out what seems like a never-ending stream of meat skewers -- seafood, chicken and beef. All dishes are served family style, so folks can choose the foods and portions they like best. Steak and seafood take priority on the menu, but you'll also find stir-fried vegetables, noodles and salads, along with semi-addictive Hawaiian bread. The meal is a production in itself and a lively, festive homage to Polynesia, Disney-style. (407-824-1334, 407-824-2000)
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)
1 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 plenty for the veg-heads, as well; the "Bunny Chow"encompasses flavorful curried vegetables with delicious fresh naan and a chick-pea cake. Jiko's artisanal cheese selection makes for an excellent appetizer or dessert selection. (407-939-3463)
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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