Disneyland 101 – Dining Strategies

| April 29, 2013 | 6 Replies

Food, glorious food!  In this segment of our Disneyland 101 series, we cover some of the many dining options around the Disneyland Resort.  There are a wide variety of dining choices, and that’s a good thing because almost everyone has a different way of approaching food and dining at the parks.  But I don’t want to cover specific restaurant reviews, or go over the menus of each location.  Instead, I want to cover information not only for the annual passport veterans (who know every restaurant and snack kiosk), but also to those travelers who have never been to Disneyland or don’t go that often and especially to those who frequent Walt Disney World where dining almost requires a whole plan in itself.

You can also listen to the full “Disneyland 101 – Dining Strategies” segment on our recent episode of the DIS Unplugged Podcast: Disneyland Edition.

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There are a few basic strategies for planning your dining at the Disneyland Resort.  You can:

  • Plan every detail throughout the day.
  • Plan only one thing a day and “wing it” the rest of the time.
  • Not plan anything at all and take dining as it comes up.

It really depends on how you tour the parks and how involved you wish to be in dining planning.  Believe it or not, all those basic strategies will work.

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The friendly staff at the River Belle Terrace.

There are about 82 separate food establishments between Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, Downtown Disney, and the Disneyland Resort Hotels (not counting carts and walk-around vendors).  That’s a lot of choices!  So don’t worry about finding somewhere to dine, you just have to decide which ones!

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Lucky Fortune Cookery

Dining reservations at the Disneyland Resort are made by contacting Disney Dining.  Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance.  You can make Disneyland Dining reservations by:

  • Going online to the Disneyland web site (http://disneyland.disney.go.com/dining/)
  • Call 714-781-DINE (3463)
  • Send an email request to dine@disneyland.com.  Be sure to include:
    o Name of restaurant
    o Reservation date
    o Time or meal period (breakfast, lunch or dinner)
    o Total number of Guests in your party
    o Your name and contact phone number
    o Please do not provide any additional information, such as payment information

PLEASE NOTE:  Most folks agree that you really don’t have to make dining reservations at all at the Disneyland Resort except for a few key locations (Blue Bayou, Carthay Circle, Goofy’s Kitchen, Steakhouse 55).  Disneyland isn’t like Disney World and at most dining locations you can just walk up and be seated fairly quickly.  You will have a bit of a wait at Cafe Orleans and Big Thunder Ranch BBQ (depending on the time of day and day of the week), but in general most folks get along quite well without ever making an actual reservation.

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Carthay Circle reservation check-in

Disneyland does offer the Disney Dining Plan for packages booked at the Disneyland Resort Hotels.  Instead of paying for meals, you get vouchers for dining.  There are even Character Dining options.  Go online or check with your travel agent for the Disney Dining Plan.

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Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta

Dining locations are categorized by how you order and the seating arrangements.

Table Service” dining is traditional restaurant style sit down service.  Examples are:

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Blue Bayou

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Cafe Orleans

Counter Service” dining is casual dining where you order your meal at a register, pick up your order at the window, and then select your own table.  Examples are:

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Hungry Bear

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Flo’s V8 Cafe

Quick Service” dining is similar to fast food service.  You place your order, pay and pick up your items at the same counter, and then select your own table.  Examples are:

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Tomorrowland Terrace

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Award Wieners

Character Dining” is available at the following table service locations:

  • Disneyland – Plaza Inn
  • Disney California Adventure – Ariel’s Grotto
  • Disneyland Resort Hotels – Goofy’s Kitchen, Storytellers, PCH Grill

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Ariel’s Grotto

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Plaza Inn birthday party

As with most regular dining locations, the time of day is a consideration for crowd size.  Traditional lunch and dinner times will be much more crowded at all the dining locations, resulting in longer lines and less available tables.  If you have the option, consider having your meals at slightly off hours.  For example, if you have a late lunch (2pm – 4pm), service is much faster with more available seating.  The dining “rush hours” for breakfast are before 10am, lunch between 11am and 2pm, and dinner from 5pm to 7pm.

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Dining at The Golden Horseshoe with Billy Hill and the Hillbillies

Also, after 9pm, dining options become limited especially inside the parks.  Most table service locations will close and many counter service locations also close early.  If you are planning to watch the Disneyland fireworks, Fantasmic, or World of Color, be sure to plan when you will have your dinner as after these shows you may only find snacks and some quick service.  Downtown Disney and the Resort Hotels will have some restaurants open later.

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Plaza Inn

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Popcorn cart

Besides regular meals, there is a plethora of snacks and faster foods available at various locations all around the parks.  Here is a partial list of some of the snacks you can find:

  • Bakery items (pastries and muffins, cookies, brownies, caramel apples, fudge, candies, chocolate covered pretzels/cookies/nut clusters, fruit tarts, cake slices)
  • Ice cream – parlor served (Gibson Girl, Ghirardelli) and snack carts (Mickey Bar, Toll House cookie)
  • Popcorn, churros, cotton candy
  • Hot Dogs / Corn Dogs (Little Red Wagon, Pluto’s House, Refreshment Corner, Corn Dog Castle)
  • Skewers (Bengal BBQ)
  • Pizza (Redd Rocket’s, Daisy’s Diner)
  • Cozy Cone Motel (many cone-concoctions and treats)
  • Turkey leg, chimichanga, corn on the cob
  • Healthy: Fairfax Market, Filmore’s, Tropical Imports (Adventureland), Fruit stand (Main Street, Critter Country)
  • Mickey beignets (Mint Julep Bar)
  • Smoothies (DCA- Schmoozies)
  • Funnel cakes (Stage Door Cafe)
  • Mad T Party “adult snacks” – Croque-tini, Mad Hat-ito, Jabberwocky Juice, Cheshire Twist
  • Dole Whip (Tiki Juice Bar)

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Trolley Treats

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Tropical Imports

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Cozy Cone Motel

Another consideration in determining where you’d like to dine is your touring plan and how dining fits into that.  Are you after the “experience” of dining at a special location (almost like an attraction itself), or do you prefer to “grab and go” meals on the run between other activities?  Both are fun and have their own advantages.

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Big Thunder Ranch BBQ

Meals can also be planned based on your entry time to the Resort.  The early entry folks may prefer to have breakfast in the park, while late arrivers may grab breakfast outside the park and save a major meal for later in the day.  Of course if you’re a “commando” (stay from opening until closing and hit as much as possible), you may find a mix of dining options to get you through the day.

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“Mickey” bread cart near Pacific Warf Cafe

So which dining strategy is best for you?  Well, here are a few recommendations that you may find helpful.

“Typical theme park day”

  • Quick breakfast (muffin, fruit at cart, “bring your own”), or
  • Nice breakfast – River Belle (Mickey pancakes), La Brea Bakery, Fiddler, Fifer & Practical Cafe
  • Lunch – counter service.  Rest your feet, don’t spend too much time (but get good food).
  • Dinner on the go – quick service.

“Who has time for food?”

  • Everything quick, meals are an afterthought.
  • Snack carts, fruit stands, fast, fast food.
  • Eat in car on the way in or before you leave your hotel, and after you leave the parks.

“Dining as the day”

  • Every meal is an experience.
  • Character dining, table service, afternoon cocktails at Downtown Disney or the Disneyland Resort Hotels.
  • No emphasis on attractions.  Good for night time fun (“Disney after dark”).
  • Romantic day.  No stress.  Walk and spend time with each other.  Talk and people watch.

“Wayne’s Way”

  • Easy entry (10am – 11am).  Light breakfast (muffin or similar).
  • Big lunch – table service, or sit down counter (Cafe Orleans, Big Thunder, Flo’s).
  • Light dinner or snack (Little Red Wagon).


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Beverage and pastry cart near Paradise Pier

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Fried Chicken at Plaza Inn

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Mickey Ice Cream Bar (and other treats)

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Little Red Wagon corn dogs

Well, as we have seen, there are dozens of dining choices around the Disneyland Resort and just as many ways to experience all those wonderful places.  And whether you are a “rush and go” or a “sit and relax” diner, I promise that you will have a great experience and will never go hungry.  That’ll do it for this Disneyland 101 segment, and now if you’ll pardon me, I think it’s time for a Dole Whip!

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The famous Dole Whip

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Category: Dining, Disneyland, Disneyland Dining, Photos, Photos / Video

  • http://www.facebook.com/cmwade77 Chris Wade

    Nice article; however, it should be noted that most of the time a reservation is not required for Carthay Circle or Steakhouse 55 (again, there may be a bit of a wait though, depending on time of day and day of the week)

    • http://www.facebook.com/wayne.toigo Wayne Toigo

      Thanks Chris. Reservations are certainly not required (as you point out), however as summer crowds increase, and since Carthay Circle is still pretty popular, if you have a favorite time you may want to consider making a reservation.

      One note about Steakhouse 55. The Disneyland Hotel often hosts conventions and large group meetings. Steakhouse 55 is often a favorite destination for those attending the events at the Hotel. If you’ve got a favorite day or time you may want to make a reservation to be sure you’re able to get in at a reasonable time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1174592428 Kathie Dreifus

    Lots of good info, but you should note that the Birthday Party Celebration is no longer in effect it was cancelled earlier this year.

    • http://www.facebook.com/wayne.toigo Wayne Toigo

      Thanks Kathie, you are right! The picture was taken in February this year and Plaza Inn stopped doing the My Disneyland Birthday celebration on March 17. (Yikes!) Plaza Inn still does the “Minnie & Friends – Breakfast in the Park” character breakfast.

      The folks at Disney Dining told me that although they no longer do any specialized birthday parties like this one, most of them will do a little birthday presentation for dessert if you ask.

  • Kristen MacWilliams

    Wish you’d posted this the week BEFORE our trip out there! Awww, just kidding – we actually handled each day using these strategies as natural parts of our day. Great advice and we ate at some new, and new-to-us places.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daneenm Daneen Matts

    Nice article, Wayne. If you are a family who hates to wait (like mine) reservations can be made for Cafe Orleans and most of the DTD restaurants too! Likely not required, but it does mean you are almost always seated right away. We are usually 11:30 lunch (counter service) and 5:30 dinner (table service) folks and, despite it being at the start of the busy windows, we find we are usually in pretty empty restaurants when we eat.