Adding Magical Experiences: Dinner Packages and More at Walt Disney World

Please note: Many indoor restaurants remain closed or with limited service. Please check the Walt Disney World website for the latest information.

We’ve already talked about Character Dining, but there are so many other special dining options at Walt Disney World resorts that include more than just eating. Some are complimentary upgrades, and others you pay a premium for.

There are few dinner experiences that are just so unique, they are noteworthy on their own.

Before we had our daughter my husband and I had an excellent meal at Restaurant Marrakesh in the Morocco Pavilion in EPCOT. This restaurant, besides serving excellent Mediterranean food, features bellydancers tableside. So cool! In addition, when we ate there we got priority seating for the Candlelight Processional, a special Christmastime show offering. No additional fee required.

I’ve noticed over the years that Disney World often offers dining packages with priority seating for in demand shows. Sometimes, like in this instance, it is offered for free by taking a less desirable dining time (late afternoon), other times it’s offered up as a premium package with desirable reservation times followed by the show.

The Biergarten Restaurant in EPCOT’s Germany Pavillion offers German fare like sausage and saurkraut along with a show. Oompa music, yodelling and more are showcased at this buffet. I’ve always wanted to do this, but the idea of eating heavy meat and potatoes when it’s hot outside is never appealing. Maybe next visit.

San Angel Inn Restaurante in EPCOT’s Mexico Pavilion offers a unique nighttime dining experience all day long. It appears you are the base of ruins under a night sky. Food here often offers a mixed rating, but the setting often makes up for it.

Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom has been a hot ticket since it opened. And Disney has noticed, making it a premium offering for dinner. The theming of this restaurant is unmatched and truly an experience. In the past, the restaurant was counter experience (read cheaper) for lunch, but that may have changed.

Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge not only offers excellent fine dining African cuisine, but you can also view the Lodge’s Sunset Savanna area which includes Giraffes, Zebras and more! This is included in your experience, no upgrade! We did this on last visit and had a delicious meal with top notch service.

Raglan Road in Disney Springs is a crowd favorite, not so much because of the food, but because of the live music and Irish step dancing. It’s not making any foodie’s list, but the entertainment is enjoyable. I haven’t been myself yet.

If you are looking for dining with a Magic Kingdom Fireworks view, California Grill at the Contemporary Resort is one of your best bet. This is a hot ticket though can and be difficult to get, as the Grill has a sterling, legendary reputation, and perfect views. Narcoosee’s at the Grand Floridian is also an excellent choice. Known for their seafood, they also have excellent steaks.

An inexpensive option is some take away food from Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian and watching the fireworks from a grassy area on the hotel property. We did this and had a wonderful, relaxing evening, complete with the famous Dole whip! The barbecue sandwiches were tasty too.

If you want the best views of EPCOT’s end of day spectacular HarmoniUS, Rose and Crown’s patio in EPCOT is where it’s at. You can purchase a dinner package for a premium and watch the show from your table, or take your chances with a regular dinner reservations. Other options without the premium “package” price tag include La Hacienda de San Angel in Mexico Pavilion and Spice Road Table offering a Mediterranean small plates menu in the Morocco Pavilion.

There are also dessert party packages for both Magic Kingdom and EPCOT shows. At last visit to the Magic Kingdom we did the dessert package, and although it was pricey, I thought it was worth it for a special treat. The desserts are all you can eat and excellent. After you finish eating you sit in a special roped off area in the grass directly in front of the castle. As someone who doesn’t like fighting crowds for anything, this allowed us to relax and spread out. It also saved us a lot of time as some can wait hours staking out the best spots for the fireworks.

I also sat in a premium seating area for EPCOT back when it was Illuminations. I don’t recall how I scored this spot, but it was on my trip with my husband. We were on the opposite side of the lagoon from World Showcase and it didn’t strike me as a particularly good spot. Watching the EPCOT show is not nearly at a premium as the fireworks in Magic Kingdom, so I would skip this.

This is just scratching the surface, there are plenty of other premium dining packages that incorporate show reservations, tours and other unique experiences that can tap into your special interest.

Adding Magical Experiences: Character Meals at Walt Disney World

Please note: That as of writing character meals are being offered in a limited capacity and are not running in a “normal” fashion. This post is created to help future visitors make informed planning decisions.

One of the best upgraded experiences you can have at Walt Disney World resorts are Character Meals, and no, they aren’t just for kids! Adults enjoy them too. Why would you want to have a character meal?

  1. Save time. Waiting in line for character meet and greets eats up valuable park time. With character dining, the characters come to you! They rotate around the room to each table while you dine. Talk about convenient!
  2. Certain characters can only be experienced via meals.
  3. Character meals are available outside the parks and even at select off property locations, making it a great activity on a non-park day.
  4. Character dining food is consistently good. Meals offered via character experiences are truly great, with some food only accessible via character meal. And who doesn’t like Mickey waffles?

I’m only going to highlight a few of my favorites here. For a great overview and the most up to date information about all Character Meals visit this comprehensive listing at the Disney Food Blog.

Breakfast

Breakfast has the most available options by far when it comes to character dining. We have done three breakfast options – ‘Ohana at the Polynesian Resort, the Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club, and Trattoria al Forno in the Boardwalk. Note that none of these places are inside the parks! That’s by design. Why waste precious morning park time eating, when you can get on most rides?

Each experience was entirely different and unique.

Ohana as the name suggests offers a Hawaiian experience with delicious exotic fruits. Characters you encounter include Lilo, Stitch, Mickey and Pluto. We chose this breakfast because we wanted an excuse to go to the Polynesian, and had heard of the fantastic food. This is a pricier restaurant and thus breakfast was a more reasonable option for us. Unfortunately, recent reports are that the service and especially food quality have slipped here. I hope they improve soon. The food here is served as much as you wish to your table.

The breakfast buffet available at the Cape May Cafe was much more classic in nature including the legendary Mickey waffles. Characters that join you there (complete with adorable beach gear) are the classic characters Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Daisy Duck and Donald Duck. We probably had the most character encounter time at this location with multiple visits by each one.

The Bon Voyage Breakfast at Trattoria al Forno was just starting to be offered at our last visit, and the quality of service and food was spotty. The food offerings which were more brunch in nature, were interesting and different from the norm. It was a prix fixe meal with a few options.The reason we chose this meal is because the characters present are Rapunzel and Flynn Ryder and Ariel and Eric. Flynn was an especially fun encounter. I’m not sure we would go running back, but I would definitely give it another chance considering they have a few years of experience now under their belt.

I would be remiss without mentioning the two most popular character breakfast options Chef Mickey’s at Disney’s Contemporary Resort featuring Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Pluto, and Cinderella’s Royal Table in the Magic Kingdom featuring Ariel, Belle, Princess Aurora, Jasmine, Snow White and of course Cinderella. Both offer more classic breakfast fare. I have not been to either but I hear Chef Mickey’s can be a bit loud.

Before the shutdown, Disney was beginning to offer some early morning breakfast package options that included early access to the parks or even a no wait access to certain rides. Depending on the price this could be a good value. If memory serves venues included Crystal Palace and Be Our Guest Restaurant in Magic Kingdom, Garden Grill and Akershus House in EPCOT, Tusker House in Animal Kingdom and Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood Studios. Tusker House especially has historically been a sort of “hack” to access Animal Kingdom early before opening. Same for Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom. Something to watch for when character meals fully return.

Lunch

For lunch we’ve done two character meals Akershus House and Tusker House.

Akershus House in Norway Pavilion in EPCOT offers Norwegian food for lunch (they also have a breakfast buffet with more standard fare). Because of this, it’s less popular for lunch, but my adventurous eater didn’t mind one bit. Lots of seafood offerings. This location features what I call Princess Palooza including Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, Princess Aurora, Ariel, Mary Poppins, and Jasmine. Eating in this unique location was a delight for my then four year old and she participated in a restaurant mini parade in her dress with the princesses. Really good memories. We chose a late lunch slot which worked for a great mid-day break in the air conditioning, and if memory serves lead right into a long toddler nap while we pushed her in the stroller around World Showcase. Win!

We’ve eaten at Tusker House in the Animal Kingdom twice, and I would eat there again. The first time we did, we were childless, but the food, along with priority Lion King seating, enticed us. We were not disappointed. It’s a buffet featuring amazing dishes from the African continent. The second time we went with our daughter and it was just as good as we remembered. That time we got River of Light show priority seating. Both times we were visited by Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, and Minnie Mouse in their safari gear.

The only other truly noteworthy lunch character experience is the Garden Grill in EPCOT featuring Chip and Dale, Mickey and Pluto. Chip and Dale I hear are especially a hoot. I also hear good things about the food which is served family style to your table. But the coolest thing about this location is that the restaurant itself rotates! You are on the move, slowly, and can enjoy different views of the Living with the Land attraction. It’s on my to do list for sure.

Dinner

We have never done character dinner for a few reasons namely cost, but also this leads into another prime park time, and thus not a great option. Much of what is offered for dinner is similar to what is offered for lunch, just more expensive. One notable exception is the Happily Ever After Dinner at 1900 Park Fare which is supposed to be amazing. Excellent buffet offering featuring Cinderella, Prince Charming, Lady Tremaine (the Wicked Stepmother), Anastasia and Drizella (Cinderella’s Stepsisters). The villain component is what is most appealing here and makes for a great experience. It’s on my bucket list.

Another unique character offering for dinner is Storybook Dining at Artist Point with Snow White at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Dopey, Grumpy and the Evil Queen also make an appearance.

As you can see, no matter what character or cuisine you like, there is something for everyone in character dining. I’d recommend at least one character dining experience each visit. Enjoy!

Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

On October 2, 2021 the Magic Kingdom celebrated 50 years of operation. Walt Disney World Resorts are incorporating special offerings, events and attractions as part of the celebration. Some seem to be regular updates that just coincided with the anniversary, and others seem anniversary specific. In any event, these special offerings will be available on a rolling basis throughout the celebration slated to last 18 months. I will update this post on new offerings and related developments.

50th Anniversary Glow Ups

The iconic symbols of each park – the castle in the Magic Kingdom, the ball in EPCOT, the Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios, and the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom – all are getting a 50th Anniversary overlay including light projections Disney is calling Beacons of Magic. In some instances, the transformation was more dramatic like with the castle which got a new color paint, and ribbons added to the spires. The ball in EPCOT is especially beautiful with an enhanced LED light display. I call it a win.

There is also a smattering of decoration here and there throughout the parks like retro posters in the tunnels at Magic Kingdom.

New Shows

The Magic Kingdom and EPCOT both launched brand new end of day shows with music, pyrotechnics and light projections. Magic Kingdom’s is entitled Enchantment and features original music. The castle serves as the centerpiece for projections. In EPCOT it’s HarmoniUS which uses a barge system to display LEDs and fountains. Images portray an international vibe with signature Disney branding and original music.

Animal Kingdom launched KiteTails, a new daytime offering in the lagoon. However, this show at writing has been plagued with errors to an almost comical proportions and may be short lived.

Outside the parks in Disney Springs, Cirque Du Soleil’s new show, Drawn to Life, will make it’s debut in November 2021. I saw the last show there, and am looking forward to seeing this new one.

New Rides

The much anticipated Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure in EPCOT’s France Pavilion opened as part of the 50th celebration on October 2, 2021. Because it is an in demand experience, Disney World is currently operating it with a virtual queue. In it riders occupy a vehicle that looks like a mouse and experience the world from a mouse’s point of view.

Signature Song

The 50th Anniversary has a signature theme song which is featured prominently throughout the parks including in shows and cavalcades.

Statues

There are 50 golden character statues that have been placed among all four parks. These statues are rumored to have an interactive, augmented reality sort of element to them that work with premium MagicBands and apps. This interactive component has not launched yet.

Food

Of course there’s a food element. Throughout Magic Kingdom some classic dishes from 1971 have been brought back for an encore. There also are some signature cocktails honoring rides past. Mostly, however, the 50th Anniversary theming has been added to desserts in decoration. There are more than 150 different new food offerings in all.

Merchandise

There has been a ton of new merchandise launched for the 50th Anniversary including pins, ornaments, apparel, toys and sippers. At the moment, these items are the hottest ticket in town. However, I anticipate after a few months go by these items will be readily available.

Characters

Mickey and Minnie and the gang of course have special outfits on for the occasion. You can meet Mickey in his new digs at Hollywood Studios.

Beyond Rides: Walt Disney World Entertainment Offerings Part 2

Yesterday I discussed how devastating the pandemic was for Walt Disney World park entertainment. Massive layoffs, and safety requirements have resulted in an uneven and stilted park experience. I touched on each park’s signature events as well as character experiences. Today I want to talk about the rest of the park offerings – parades and other shows.

Parades

Parades have become another victim of the pandemic in the world of Disney and in this case, I believe its more of a business decision, than a safety one. As I noted above, some of the evening shows have returned, but the parades haven’t. Why? Probably because parades require a lot of entertainment staff to run.

Magic Kingdom

In Magic Kingdom there were a few regular parades. The first was Festival of Fantasy which was a spectacular, puppet based parade with dancing and was an absolute fan favorite. I continue to hear grumblings from guests wondering when it will return. I agree, it would be a shame to see this parade be a victim of the pandemic or budget cuts. It was amazing with excellent costumes and choreography. Will it return? Time will tell.

The second most famous parade at Magic Kingdom was a nighttime light show parade. Originally it was the Main Street Electrical Parade, and then later with updated equipment SpectroMagic! It was a stellar and dazzling show which last ran in 2016, and I’m glad I got to see it. There is a lot of speculation about a return to a nighttime parade at Magic Kingdom, but taking a purely business view there is no argument for it since the park is already packed for the end of day fireworks display. I think this may be a case of it being lost to Disney history.

The last genre of parades at Magic Kingdom generally fall into what I would call a generic character parade. Basically the main goal being that guests see as many characters as possible, with some not even offering meet and greets in the parks. I would bet my house this type of parade returns. How TBD, but there are a few ideas. In the past, one format was a dance party format where the characters actually stopped and guests could dance with them. We did this with my daughter and it was an absolute delight. This is a simple endeavor and likely a less expensive option. The second is along the lines of Celebrate a Dream Come True, which was a float based character parade with a uniting theme. This did incorporate more fanfare and dancers than the simple dance party parade, so it may be a delayed endeavor. The existence of these parades seems directly coupled with minor classic character based shows that pop up in front of the castle throughout the day in Magic Kingdom, as I think they use the same cast members to run. My best guess is they will both return in Spring of 2022 likely with a 50th Anniversary theme.

One more add to parades in Magic Kingdom are the seasonal offering parades which are part of their after hour special events. These parades are Halloween and Christmas themed respectively, and are returning this year for their events.

EPCOT

EPCOT has not had a parade for many years, and I don’t anticipate one returning. EPCOT is currently undergoing a several year make over however, so I suppose anything is possible.

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom has not had a parade since 2014 when it retired Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade. This parade was a festive one that was based around puppets and percussion. It was enjoyable. However, the park is very narrow and basically shut down traffic for the whole park during the parade. I don’t foresee any sort of parade element returning to this park.

Hollywood Studios

Hollywood Studios has never really been known for its parades. There have been a few show lived ones over the years to highlight the popular thing at the time like Frozen or Star Wars. The longest lived most recent parade was Stars and Motor Cars, a character focused parade that was revamped a few times for anniversary celebrations. I don’t anticipate any new parades for this park unless again it’s a marketing focused highlight.

Other shows

My last category here are other shows in the parks. Some are fan favorites, and are do not miss. Others are more focused on your specific tastes and age.

Magic Kingdom

Mickey’s Philharmagic is a 3D interactive movie. And it’s here to stay as it just underwent a recent update that included music from the movie Coco. There are a few other “shows” that consist of animatronic characters and to my knowledge all are open including the classic Tiki Room, Country Bear Jamboree and the Hall of Presidents with the recent inclusion of President Joe Biden.

I mentioned earlier about short daytime character based shows in front of the castle. These are still suspended as far as I can tell, but I would expect them to return.

Enchanted Tales with Belle is an audience interactive show that is a must for any Belle fan. It is currently shut down, and because of the nature of the show I don’t anticipate it opening until Spring 2022 at the earliest.

Lastly, The Dapper Dans, a barbershop quartet can be seen wandering Main Street USA. They are a Disney fan favorite.

EPCOT

The entertainment charm of EPCOT for me is the various cultural shows in World Showcase including bellydancers, drummers and acrobats. At writing, some are performing and others have yet to return. The Music of Mexico, Matsuriza (Japanese drumming) are currently available as well as the excellent Voices of Liberty in the American Pavilion. I have heard rumors that much of the international performers and cast members have not been able to come to or remain in the United States due to the pandemic. For me, as an epic EPCOT fan, this is a huge highlight of any trip and a true loss. I hope this is resolved and these cast members return soon.

Finally, American Experience is another one of those animatronic shows, as is The Carousel of Progress. Both are operating. Neither is a must, but both provide a good place to take a break in air conditioning.

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom has several shows, some of which are open. A Celebration of Festival of the Lion King has re-opened and is a must see. Sadly, I watched the premier and many of the original elements that required specialized talents are missing including the acrobatic monkeys and the flying element of the birds. I suspect budget cuts, but I hope this is a temporary change. Still an excellent show to watch.

Finding Nemo The Musical an excellent production with puppets and original score remains closed. I was sad to learn that it will not be returning. However, my mood brightened when I learned they intend to revamp it. My best guess? Much of the cast was original from when it premiered and they will be replaced, instead opting for a whole new cast and show that incorporates elements from Finding Dory. Premier date TBD.

Feathered Friends in Flight! is an educational and entertaining bird show. Many skip this but it’s something, in its older iterations, that my family has always enjoyed. It runs a few times during the day and is open.

I already mentioned the new kite show called Disney KiteTails! that is open but experiencing multiple issues at the moment. It’s a brief 10 minutes and may make for a good mid-day break, though I don’t recall much shade there and it could be very hot.

Lastly the Tam Tam Drummers of Harambe are always great. I don’t see evidence of them on the Disney website, so at writing they don’t seem to present. I hope they return.

Hollywood Studios

Beauty and the Beast Live! on Stage is a fan favorite and recently returned to Hollywood Studios. As has the comical and entertaining For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-a-long Celebration. I would recommend seeing both unless you aren’t a princess fan.

For those with little ones, Disney Junior show is occurring multiple times a day with an emphasis on dancing with characters.

Voyage of the Little Mermaid was a puppet based and live action experience. It has its fans, but has become quite dated over the years and I don’t anticipate it opening again.

Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular is just as described, and a lot of fun, but currently remains closed. It has been reported that the cast has been called back and there is an anticipated opening in late 2021.

TL/DR

In all, although more is opening, there is still a lot missing from the Walt Disney World Parks in the entertainment category including two end of day shows and most character experiences. For me, it’s enough to hold out visiting until things return to “normal” and hope that the parks don’t permanently close some of my favorites.

Beyond Rides: Walt Disney World Entertainment Part 1

One of the most difficult things during the pandemic park re-opening is the lack of entertainment offerings. Some of it is practical, for safety measures. Others seem to be offline indefinitely due to business decisions. There were massive layoffs during the park shutdown and they have not brought back many of the cast members. For this reason, I would caution against a park visit at this time until at least more of these offerings have returned. Here are some of my favorite entertainment highlights and their current or predicted status in each park.

Character Experiences

Character meet and greets as well as character dining have been suspended. This to me is one of the most heartbreaking park casualties of the pandemic. Character experiences are some my most treasured memories and I honestly can’t imagine a trip without them. From my daughter comparing her wings to Tink’s, to a restaurant wide Princess parade these are some of my most magical park moments.

What Disney has offered instead is a sort of socially distanced wave scenario from balconies as well as character cavalcades, basically a small parade where characters walk down the street. They are brief with little fanfare. Good in a pinch, but not exactly an adequate replacement.

It’s not a matter of if, but when these experiences will return. At writing, the virus has mercifully begun to wain and I am optimistic for a return of character interaction in the Spring of 2022.

Signature Shows

Each park has and end of day nighttime spectacular to cap off your visit. Each is unique from display to medium, making each one a must see.

Magic Kingdom

In Magic Kingdom there is the fireworks at the castle. On October 1, 2021 Walt Disney World premiered their new 50th Anniversary Celebration fireworks show called Disney Enchantment. Using a number of projections on the castle and surrounding spires, as well as Main Street USA buildings, the show combines music, pyrotechnics and images to dazzle crowds. Die hard Disney fans have given the new show a mixed review, with many citing that a historical celebration should give a nod to Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – neither of whom appear in the show – but I think most guests will enjoy the display. This show will presumably be in place for 18 months during the 50th Anniversary Celebration which places it all the way through 2023.

EPCOT

In EPCOT, they launched a soft opening of a new nighttime spectacular called HarmoniUS that takes place in the World Showcase Lagoon. Reception to this show has been universally warm, and having watched the live stream myself it is indeed, impressive. The show uses large floating barges with LED screens and fountains, along with pyrotechnics and music to celebrate all the cultures and continents in the World Showcase. In my humble opinion, it is a worthy replacement to the much beloved IllumiNations show.

Animal Kingdom

In Animal Kingdom, Rivers of Light is a nighttime show also on water using a series of boats, and fountains that are utilized as screens. Combining lights and music it’s truly a spectacular display that I saw myself and loved it. This show has not returned since re-opening however, and it was recently announced it is being discontinued. My best guess is there is a new show in development, unless Disney has entirely given up on their nighttime experiment at Animal Kingdom that seemed to have never really taken off. In the meantime, they are offering guests a short ten minute daytime kite based show in the same venue called Disney KiteTails for the 50th Anniversary Celebration. Unfortunately, the show is off to a rocky start with kite entanglements and wave runner accidents. Watch this space. At writing there is no evening show at Animal Kingdom.

Hollywood Studios

Which brings me to the final park, Hollywood Studios. On our last visit Hollywood Studios was offering not just one, but two separate nighttime shows. The first is Fantasmic, which was really Walt Disney World’s first attempt of combining water and storytelling. It’s a Disney classic and remained in high demand ever since its premiere in 1998. This makes it the most dated of all the nighttime shows. Since it is not expected to return until 2022 at the earliest, I think it’s safe to say it will return with some updates, if it returns at all. Seems logical after this prolonged, multi-year shutdown to re-imagine the show into something else that better reflects the direction that the park is now going, which was entirely different in 1998.

The second show was a pyrotechnic spectacular with projections on the Chinese Theater that was Star Wars themed. This was always intended to be a short lived show, but I’m glad I got to see it. The new pyrotechnic show is entitled Wonderful World of Animation which premiered in 2019 and returned in August 2021. It combines animation from both Disney and Pixar with music and pyrotechnics.

Tomorrow I will continue this discussion including parades and other shows.