Before reading too far into this post, I should first let you know that if you need details about many Disney World food establishments, you will not find that here. When doing research for the trip, one of the more universal tips from bloggers regarding saving money was to bring in your own food, snacks and drinks. Outside of glass containers and alcohol, everything else is fair game to bring. With the cost of eating out, especially for a family of five (including girls aged 7, 5 and 2 with seemingly adult appetites after walking all day in the park), anything to save a few dollars was going to be high on our list.
Before the trip, I tried to research some of the restaurants and food stands, as well as ask everyone what types of foods they would prefer. Of course, that's like asking someone what they want to wear a month from now. Most of the places to eat sounded great, especially when researching on an empty stomach. For the plan, we were limited to restaurants that had meals generally around $15 or less. Children were to order off the kids' menu when applicable. I identified 2-3 places in each park that would probably work each day, although that would obviously depend on where in the park we were when everyone was ready to eat.
If you check out Disney food blogs, most seem to focus on character experience meals. These meals occur at a few places in every park and are all buffet locations. This type of meal wasn't included in our plan, so we would have to pay separately for this experience. The kids seemed interested, but they didn't seem as interested in this as they were to ride rides and just meet the characters. The benefit of the character experience dining is to meet multiple characters at once, but it comes at a steep price - the cheapest buffet is $36 for adults and $22 for kids. The quick service meals were usually around $15 for adults and $8 for kids. Throw in tip for the buffets and sit-down restaurants, and it's roughly a $100 difference for two adults and two children.
We had the benefit of staying at my brother's house for a couple of days before heading to Disney, so we stopped at the grocery before going to the hotel on the first day. We bought milk, bread, bananas and muffins to go with some of the non-perishable items (peanut butter, crackers, fruit snacks, etc.) that we had packed in our luggage. With the Summer Quick Service Meal Offer, we were hopeful to eat breakfast at the hotel and bring lunch and snacks to the park, and that would suffice.
Amazingly enough, this plan worked every day, with a handful of minor modifications.
SUNDAY - HOTEL
Even though we didn't visit a park on our first hotel day, we were still entitled to a free meal. After taking a dip in one of Pop Century's pools, we decided to walk over to Art of Imagination and eat over there.
The dining area at the Landscape of Flavors reminded me of a college food court, which worked well for us. We checked out a few options, and my wife and I ultimately settled on the Surf and Surf Burger, with crab cake and fried popcorn shrimp. The kids chose macaroni and a burger. One perk with the food deal was that speciality drinks were included - whether smoothies or alcoholic beverages. We also had our choice of drinks - I had a beer, my wife had a smoothie and the kids had juice. The first meal wasn't our favorite, but it was certainly a good enough start.
MONDAY - EPCOT
The most difficult eating day was our first in the park. Just figuring out the FastPass stuff and getting used to the heat and walking around the park, we waited a little too long to eat at Epcot. Initially we settled on a place with Chinese food, but apparently the kids weren't happy with the selections (I'm not sure if they misunderstood beforehand or the menu had changed).
Everyone finally agreed on trying out the Japanese quick-service restaurant, Katsura Grill. The food was above-average Japanese. The kids love sushi, and since the prices were basically the same, that's what they ordered. I had noodles, and my wife had teriyaki. We also ordered a side of edamame because the kids like that (and the 2-year-old shared a little with everyone). I also had a fruity mixed drink that was pretty good.
One other note about Epcot - there's an attraction near the front of the park called Club Cool. This place contains Coca-Cola merchandise but also soda fountains with drinks from around the world. We stopped by here several times to try the various sodas - I think our favorites were Fanta Kolita from Costa Rica and Lift Apple from Mexico. This also enabled us to grab a little extra sugar instead of needing to purchase more food and/or drinks. Not that I would recommend this daily, but in 90-degree whether, we needed the calories!
TUESDAY - MAGIC KINGDOM
Magic Kingdom seemed as if it had the most quick-service choices of all. We chose Peco Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe for a couple of reasons. I checked out this place with my 2-year-old while the others were on Splash Mountain. I noticed on the Disney app that it had mobile ordering, which allowed us to ride a couple more rides before picking up the food (I actually completed the order while riding It's a Small World).
I had hoped to secure a table inside, but by the time we made it there (around 3pm), it was already full in the back. We may have been able to squeeze into a table, but everyone was content to eat outside in the shade, and it wasn't too bad. My wife and I had the fajitas, and the kids had a burger and a chicken rice bowl. There was no alcohol at this location, so we had strawberry lemonade slushies.
I was impressed with the fajitas. There was also a topping bar that had everything you could want for a fajita or burger. Our two youngest didn't eat as much as we had hoped, but I think it was partially due to heat and exhaustion. At least the slushies perked them up a bit.
WEDNESDAY - HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS
Being the smallest park, Hollywood Studios was more limited to food options. But we found a great place to eat called the ABC Commissary. We ate around 2:30, which also seemed to be perfect timing because it wasn't crowded, and we used mobile ordering for our order.
The commissary actually had a meal that was more than $18 - barbecue ribs. I thought about ordering that but chose the shrimp, fish and chicken platter, and my wife chose the same. The kids had a burger and a chicken platter. While the food was fried, it was a lighter batter, and it was all really delicious. They also had an amazing mixed drink called the Happy Daze, with rum, banana liqueur and pineapple juice. The eating area was inside and spacious - it was a good place to rest a bit before heading back out to finish the rides that day.
THURSDAY - ANIMAL KINGDOM
By Thursday, we were dealing with a few issues with the kids - heat exhaustion and bathroom problems among them. Luckily our 2-year-old had finally emptied out before Wednesday's meal, but our 5-year-old wasn't feeling too well early in the day. Fortunately, we managed to check out a lot of rides and shows before stopping by Flame Tree Barbecue on Discovery Island. I had the ribs, chicken and pulled port sampler, which was $19 and delicious. My wife had the chicken, and the kids had chicken and a hot dog. We also ordered an onion ring basket, and this was enough food for us. The mixed drink was great as well - orange vodka lemonade.
This restaurant also had mobile ordering, but there apparently was a problem in receiving the order. On the previous two days, I would place the order, but there was a final button to press to let the restaurant know when you are there to pick up the order. Apparently I selected this well before we arrived. When we did arrive, they didn't have the order, but they did have a record of the order, so they made it again. We arrived around 3:15, so it wasn't busy, and there was only a delay of a couple of minutes. Seating was outside, but it was in a shaded area. As we were finishing eating, a show began just outside the eating area, so everyone watched. I was still at the table, by myself, enjoying the delicious meal!
FRIDAY - MAGIC KINGDOM
While researching the trip, I noticed that one of the character experience locations - Be Our Guest - actually did count as a quick-service restaurant. The catch, though, is that it counts only during lunch, and there were no characters.
Nevertheless, we reserved a spot for a late lunch (2:10pm) for our last day in the park. A few hours earlier, we experienced Enchanted Tales with Belle and met her anyway, so seeing characters in this case wasn't a big deal. Better yet, my 7-year-old was in the "story" as the Beast and danced with Belle, while I somehow played the part of a knight.
We placed our order ahead of time, but the ordering setup was not the same as other mobile ordering locations. Unfortunately, it didn't work, so we had to re-order once we arrived (and we were a couple of minutes late due to the girls visiting Ariel nearby). Luckily, since it was later into the lunch session, we had to wait only 10-15 minutes for our food. During that time, we had a few drink refills (since this was a sit-down restaurant, they had self-serve soda fountains).
We also ended up switching rooms for seating - the main hall was crowded when we arrived, so we sat in the "dark" room, where there was thunder and lightning and other props to check out. Our 2-year-old was too scared to eat, so we moved back to the main hall. By the time we were finished eating, it was nearly empty because they were preparing for the dinner crowd.
The food, like the other establishments, was really good. I had the French Dip; my wife had a turkey sandwich; and the kids had shrimp and macaroni (with an extra order of fries).
A couple of weeks before our trip, I realized that not all character dining experiences were in the parks. For example, the meals at 1900 Park Fare included a visit by many characters at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 6pm Saturday, which didn't allow us time to visit a park. We initially planned to hang out at the hotel and swim and perhaps check out Disney Springs. Instead, we made late breakfast reservations for a late breakfast for a Supercalifragilistic Breakfast!
The trip there was pretty easy - the regular bus from the hotel to the Magic Kingdom, then the monorail to the Grand Floridian. We made sure to allow plenty of time to get there, so we actually exited the monorail at the Polynesian Resort and walked over. We were still a bit early (they were running 15 minutes behind). By this time we were seated (12:30), everyone was extremely hungry since we ate only a small amount when we awoke.
The food did not disappoint. It's true that we were famished, but the buffet had so much amazingly good food that I will go on record saying it's the best breakfast buffet I had ever had. I think I tried everything except the make-your-own omelette (which certainly sounded good but, come on, I can make my own omelette at home, too!). My favorite item was the breakfast pizza, but it was all delicious, and everyone else seemed to enjoy it as well.
Additionally, we met five characters - Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter and Mary Poppins. My 2-year-old loves Winnie, and outside of the traditional characters (and maybe a couple of the princesses), this seemed like a good mix of characters to meet and greet. Each one spent a couple of minutes at our table, so that was fun. And to top it off, our server was excellent - he had refills ready for our Mickey Juice (passion fruit/orange juice) and just seemed like a really nice guy.
We were one of the last families in there and managed to grab a couple of Gummi Bears on our way out. Of course the price tag was high, but using this as a replacement for a full day at the park seemed like a no-brainer. We hung out at the hotel a little and rode the monorail/bus back to our hotel - maybe not as great as the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, but not a bad replacement.
Overall, the good was better than I expected. Sure, it could have been that the food was good because we were really hungry after being in the heat, but regardless of the reason, it worked. One Disney meal a day worked great for us - the only regret we had was that we didn't have dessert, especially ice cream, at any meal. But we had plenty of sugar with our drinks and other food, including snacks we brought. I would be interested in trying different restaurants the next time, but I think we would probably stick to the same plan if it were available.