During the past month, I’ve been recounting my experiences from my family’s Disney World trip over Martin Luther King weekend. We’ve reached the final article in this series, which offers a brief look at the counter-service restaurants we visited. Technically, Be Our Guest also fits this category, but I wrote about that meal in a separate post. Earlier this week, I also reviewed our excellent breakfast at Boma. There were quite a few snack breaks along the way (especially at EPCOT), but I’m sticking with the meals for these reviews.
This vacation included a four-night stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge plus three days in the parks. We spent two days at the Magic Kingdom with a day at EPCOT right in the middle. Traveling with two picky kids limited our ability to try more adventurous options. Even so, we still tried to vary the dishes and avoid just having fast food. However, the tricky part was recognizing what places do well and when it’s wise to just stick with the basics.
The Mara (Animal Kingdom Lodge)
A definite consideration in choosing a Disney resort is the quality of the dining options. We only booked a standard room, so a good breakfast eatery was essential. Thankfully, the Animal Kingdom Lodge has a top-notch counter-service choice in The Mara. We ate breakfast there on each of our park days and even had dinner there several times. Unlike a giant food court like at the Pop Century, The Mara doesn’t feel like a big cafeteria. It has fairly limited seating, but we never had a problem grabbing a spot. The ease in picking up meals also helped with saving time. On several mornings, I just picked up breakfast while the girls were getting ready in the room.
The Mara might require a hike depending on the location of your room. That was another reason that I decided to use the carry-out option. There was no point in wearing out the girls before they even set foot in the parks. It’s situated on the first floor down the path from Boma and near the Uzima Pool. If you enter through the lobby and go past Boma and Jiko, it’s just a short outdoor stroll to the entrance. During the warmer months, the close proximity to the pool would definitely help on resort days. There is both indoor seating plus outdoor tables under large umbrellas.
What surprised me about The Mara was the quality of the food, which was much better than quick service in the parks. On our arrival day dinner, the Oak-smoked Rotisserie Chicken was a real surprise. Supported by mashed potatoes and green beans, it was fresh and a great value. I wasn’t as impressed by the Hand-carved Turkey Sandwich, though. It just felt more generic and needed an extra kick to overcome the dryness. On the other hand, the Caesar Salad with Chicken was a real surprise and much fresher than I expected. The Pepperoni Flatbread was a great option for the girls and better than the usual Disney pizza.
The breakfast options are quite diverse and include several traditional African choices along with the expected selections. I mostly stuck with oatmeal to avoid getting too full before hitting the parks. The girls predictably were fans of the Mickey Waffles, which were served with bacon, grapes, and milk. I found the choice of sides with the kids’ meals to be a very good value. The Mara also offers desserts and alcoholic choices, including the wonderful Zebra Domes. It’s very convenient for grabbing a bottle of wine and just relaxing on the balcony after a busy day. I can’t recommend The Mara highly enough, and it was a great help throughout our trip.
Sunshine Seasons (Epcot)
Epcot is known for its diverse food options, but it’s a bit challenging with picky young eaters. The exception is definitely Sunshine Seasons, which offers something for everyone. Its convenient location in the downstairs of The Land pavilion is also important. Many guests are still in Future World by lunchtime and don’t want to eat at The Electric Umbrella. Our day at Epcot timed perfectly with Sunshine Seasons and set up a ride on Living with the Land afterwards. With Soarin’ closed, it was a little less hectic than usual.
One of my biggest dilemmas at Sunshine Seasons is choosing from the many interesting choices. There are various open stations organized in a food-court style near the cash registers. I picked the Mongolian Beef with Vegetable Fried Rice from the Asian Grill station. This solid dish offered plenty of food without being overwhelming. My wife had the Caesar Salad with Oak-fired Chicken, which wasn’t on par with my similar salad at The Mara. It was not a bad meal but did lack more distinctiveness. The girls had the Macaroni & Cheese and the Pizza Panini, which was a nice change of pace for my older daughter.
Sunshine Seasons is an easy choice for any Epcot day, especially given the limited Future World dining options. Even so, I do think the quality may have dropped a bit. The seating area is also quite hectic, and finding a table can be a challenge. I’d still recommend Sunshine Seasons as the top choice for dining in Future World, however. There are enough different options for most families, and it shouldn’t take up too much of your time in the park.
Columbia Harbour House (Magic Kingdom)
My other easy recommendation at The Magic Kingdom is Columbia Harbour House, which never felt as crowded as Pecos Bill or Cosmic Ray’s in the past. The upstairs offered a rare quiet spot to escape the crowds. The music and décor created a feeling similar to the park’s earlier days. I’ve noticed a change during our past few visits, however. The crowds are getting larger, and the upstairs is no longer a peaceful haven. Instead, it feels just as crazy as the rest of the park. The secret is definitely out on the Columbia Harbour House.
During our last day at The Magic Kingdom, picking my favorite eatery in that park for lunch was a no brainer. We arrived just before 1 p.m., and I figured it was late enough to avoid the rush. Unfortunately, the crowds remained and made me wonder what it was like during the peak time. The issue with Columbia Harbour House is its small size, which doesn’t handle crowds well. That intimate space is refreshing in quiet times, but it’s also a double-edged sword. While I waited in line to order food, my wife tried to go upstairs with our young daughter. An unfriendly employee blocked her because she wasn’t carrying food, which feels short-sighted. I expect this is a Disney policy, but this was our first experience with this rule.
On the positive side, the Chicken Breast Nuggets & Fish was still very good. It’s hard to mess up fried food. The Garden Salad was less successful. It was technically a healthier alternative but of poor quality and tasteless. It also had quite a few green beans on top of the salad, which was an odd choice. Despite still liking the location, I may skip the Columbia Harbour House on our next trip. If we do, I’ll make an even greater effort to visit away from the peak lunch times. There is more variety at The Magic Kingdom than in the past, especially during busy days.
Pinocchio Village Haus (Magic Kingdom)
We decided to stay for the fireworks on our last Magic Kingdom day and considered having dinner at the Skipper Canteen. In hindsight, it was probably the best choice given the diverse food selection. I’ve also heard that it isn’t drawing crowds, so it would have been a cool break. In the moment, the price felt too steep near the end of our trip. The kids’ menu also was a bit different. With those ideas in mind, we arrived at the Pinocchio Village Haus around 7 p.m. Once again, I assumed that we’d have lighter crowds at the later time. Predictably, I was wrong.
This time, we actually lucked out and grabbed a seat from a departing family. A very kind cast member also directed me to a newly opened line away from the masses. We mostly just chose the Pepperoni Flatbread, which was fine given my modest expectations. This was definitely the case where having a good experience with the cast member and table made the difference. The food wasn’t amazing, but the operations moved smoothly. It set us up nicely to tackle a few more attractions before the Main Street Electrical Parade and Wishes later that evening.
Despite some minor issues, I had a positive experience with dining at Disney World this January. We had good meals at Boma and The Mara, and there were no disasters. Be Our Guest was also a unique spot due to the very impressive theming. The Animal Kingdom Lodge was an excellent resort choice, and one of the main reasons was the restaurants. It’s refreshing to easily avoid basic fare without looking too hard.
Disney’s prices are quite high across the board, and the quality can vary widely. Even so, I feel like there are more healthy options each year. It isn’t hard to have something different at each meal, and new additions have even improved The Magic Kingdom. With new lands coming to the Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios down the road, I expect to have even more options during future trips. The only trick is having the money to pay for it.