For me, one of the best things about travel is the food: trying local specialties, visiting markets and grocery stores, and eating dessert far more often than I do at home. But our recent vacation to Disney World presented a challenge, especially since we were staying on Disney property without a rental car. After spending about $200 per day on theme park tickets, I couldn't stomach the sticker shock of Disney's casual table service restaurants (entrees range from $14.99 to $34.99, with most around the $20-$25 mark). On the other hand, five days of cheese pizza wasn't terribly appealing.
Browsing through the menus on Disney's dining website allayed my concerns. As someone who eats a mostly-vegetarian diet, I love that Disney posts menus for all of their restaurants, from swanky fine dining down to snack stands selling popcorn. All prices are listed, and you can filter by location, price range, and cuisine. I narrowed down the 300+ restaurants to counter-service places with at least one solid vegetarian option, and then came the fun part: field research. Here are my favorites, organized by theme park, plus some bonus suggestions outside the parks.
Disney's Hollywood Studios offered the fewest options for budget foodies, skewing heavily towards burgers, chicken nuggets, and pizza. But since there aren't all that many attractions at Hollywood Studios either, we only had to eat one meal there.
- Backlot Express (Echo Lake) has a decent Caprese sandwich, with a ciabatta bun and a tasty balsamic pesto. Other options include Disney's ubiquitous 1/3 pound Angus bacon cheeseburger, Darth Vader-shaped waffles with fried chicken, and a chicken salad. There's lots of indoor seating and an expansive covered patio seating area.
- Other options: Starring Rolls Cafe (Sunset Boulevard) has a great central location and a nice-looking selection of salads, soups, and sandwiches. Unfortunately it was closed during our visit.
At Disney's Animal Kingdom, quick-service food options in the Discovery Island and Dinoland U.S.A. areas are mostly standard Disney burgers and pizza. However, there are some gems in the Africa and Asia sections of the park. Africa is styled as the fictional East African port town of Harambe, and Asia encompasses the fictional kingdom of Anandapur in the foothills of the Himalayas.
- Harambe Market (Africa) is Disney's version of an East African food court, with four windows selling a variety of African-inspired foods and an open-air seating area. The grilled vegetable stack was most inspired vegetarian meal I had at Disney: grilled vegetables, a giant mushroom cap, and pesto-seasoned tofu served with arugula, green papaya slaw, and a black-eyed pea salad. My only gripe is that the portion is skimpy; for $10, throw in a couple more pieces of tofu. Mike enjoyed the foot-long beef and pork sausage fried in curried corn batter (basically a gourmet corn dog). Other options include ribs, a grilled chicken skewer, and a beef and lamb gyro flatbread.
- Tamu Tamu Refreshments (Africa) serves a variety of desserts, from Mickey sundaes to pineapple Dole Whips spiked with rum. You can't go wrong with a Dole Whip, and the dark rum-spiked rum version was especially refreshing. Although Tamu Tamu is just a take-out window, the nearby plaza offers plenty of seating--take a moment to appreciate Disney's attention to the details of Harambe, from the faded advertisements plastered on the walls to the laundry hanging out to dry on a nearby roof.
- Other options: Yak & Yeti Local Food Cafes (Asia) With unique-for-Disney offerings like a teriyaki beef bowl, honey chicken, pork egg rolls, and a roasted vegetable cous cous wrap, we would have tried this pan-Asian spot if we had spent more time in the Animal Kingdom.
Food at the Magic Kingdom is geared towards the younger crowd, with lots of hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and popcorn kiosks. Luckily there are few spots that cater to budget foodies, too:
- Columbia Harbour House (Liberty Square) feels more like a genteel New England pub than a quick-service theme park restaurant, with wooden paneling and nautical decor. Fittingly, the menu gives fish a starring role, with a lobster roll, shrimp macaroni and cheese, grilled salmon, and a fried fish plate. There's also a solid vegetarian option: the Lighthouse Sandwich features hummus, a tangy broccoli slaw, and vegetables on hearty multi-grain bread with a heap of fresh kettle chips on the side. The broccoli peppercorn salad has a nice mix of fresh vegetables and a tasty dressing, although the chicken was inadvertently omitted from Mike's salad--the apologetic staff offered us a new salad or a refund.
- Aloha Isle (Adventureland) Dole Whips have become a Disney institution for a good reason: they're an incredibly refreshing when the Florida sun is beating down. In addition to serving the pineapple soft serve in cups, Aloha Isle offers it as a pineapple juice float.
- Plaza Ice Cream Parlor (Main Street, U.S.A.) has one of best patios in the Magic Kingdom, with a stunning view of Cinderella's Castle. There are a variety of sundaes, floats, and cones featuring sponsor Edy's hand-scooped ice creams. Ending our final day at Disney with sundaes and views of the illuminated castle was one of the highlights of our trip.
- Other options: Pinocchio Village Haus (Fantasyland) serves flatbreads and other Italian-inspired fare in a cute Swiss chalet setting--we planned to eat dinner here, but just missed the end of service.
Epcot is hands-down the best spot at Disney World for budget foodie eats: the World Showcase has delicious globally-inspired cuisine, and Future World's Sunshine Seasons is several notches above Disney's typical cafeteria options.
- Club Cool (Future World) is a Coco-Cola gift shop that offers samples of various sodas sold around the world--be sure to try the refreshing Greek Pineapple Fanta and the Thai Melon Frosty Fanta.
- Sunshine Seasons (Future World) Appropriately for a cafeteria in the agriculture-themed Land Pavilion, Sunshine Seasons has a welcome focus on fresh fare at a decent-for-Disney value. An Asian station serves entrees like Mongolian beef and shrimp stir-fry; the grill counter cooks up oak-grilled chicken, salmon, and pork loin; and there's a nice range of salads, soups, sandwiches, and fancy desserts. I ordered a vegan korma with jasmine rice and some very convincing Gardein meatless chick'n; I appreciated the heavy hand with the vegetables (tender-crisp peas, cauliflower, carrots, and onions) and the light curry sauce. Mike treated himself to a huge hunk of pork loin served with barbecue sauce, mashed potatoes, and corn-on-the-cob.
- Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe (World Showcase, Norway) is a bakery counter with Norwegian-inspired sandwiches and pastries. I loved the troll horn, a crisp pastry cone crackling with crystallized sugar and filled with a rich, lightly fruit-flavored lingonberry whipped cream.
- Sommerfest (World Showcase, Germany) offers a small menu of German specialties in a Bavarian beer hall-style setting. The jumbo pretzel is the best I've had outside of Germany, and it's sized to be shared with round of beers (or if you're me, you can just call it a day and eat the whole thing for dinner). The bratwurst is served on an authentic, crusty German-style roll, and there's apple strudel and Black Forest cake for dessert.
- Tangierine Cafe (World Showcase, Morocco) is my favorite place to enjoy a budget meal at Disney World. The indoor seating area is decorated with intricate tiling and chandeliers, and there are a few cozy outdoor tables just outside the exit by the pastry counter. I love the vegetarian platter, a feast of tossed salad, fresh Moroccan bread, hummus, olives, tabouleh, a lemony lentil salad, falafel, and couscous flecked with apricots. Mike recommends the shawarma chicken and lamb platter (rotisserie-cooked meat with a yogurt sauce and sides).
- Boulangerie Patisserie les Halles (World Showcase, France) has French-style sandwiches, salads, soups, pastries and desserts; eat inside or grab a bistro table on the Parisan-esqe street. As a lover of bread and dessert, this is a close runner-up for my favorite place to eat on a budget at Disney. Pair a fresh half-baguette (a mere $1.85) with the Niçoise salad for a delicious meal or snack on a giant croissant (at $2.25, probably Disney's best value).
- Yorkshire County Fish Shop (World Showcase, United Kingdom) has excellent fish and chips, lightly battered and fried to perfection. Unfortunately the condiment packets of malt vinegar and tartar sauce are difficult to open with greasy fingers--a pump-style condiment dispenser would be welcome.
Outside the parks, Disney Springs has dozens of budget dining options, from outposts of national chains to Disney-themed food trucks. My personal favorite is Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop: not only does the shop hand out free samples of Ghirardelli chocolate, the ice cream parlor has a neat vintage feel and an extensive menu of elaborate treats. Mike is partial to the very rich and very delicious chocolate malts, while I prefer an old-fashioned chocolate ice cream soda (it's not listed on the menu, but just ask and they'll make one for you).
Quick service dining is also offered at many Disney resorts. We stayed at Pop Century Resort, which has Everything POP Shopping & Dining. There's a cafeteria-style selection of crowd-pleasing fried chicken, pot roast, burgers, sandwiches, salads, pasta, and pizza. The cooked-to-order flat breads are excellent (we enjoyed the garden vegetable, buffalo chicken, and breakfast versions), but the other food we tried was lackluster. Pop Century's other refreshment option is the drinks-only Petals Pool Bar, which serves up some nice (albeit overpriced) signature cocktails poolside.
We also tried out the cafeteria at the nearby Art of Animation resort, Landscape of Flavors. The food selection is similar to what's available at Pop Century, with the exception of some Asian-inspired entrees. It's a similar hit-and-miss experience: my Mongolian fish and spinach and paneer were decent and I found the naan quite tasty, but Mike ended up with strangely flavored curry chicken and uncooked rice.
The takeaway: Budget foodies don't have to settle for chicken nuggets--Disney World offers plenty of tasty options, especially at Epcot's World Showcase.
A note about the Disney Dining Plan: For our 5-night vacation, the quick service dining plan would have cost $463 for two adults. This included 2 meals (an entrée and non-alcoholic beverage) and 2 snacks (like an ice cream bar, pretzel, or non-alcoholic beverage) per person, per day, plus a refillable drink mug that can be used at resort quick service restaurants. I usually drink water with meals (glasses of tap water are free throughout Disney), and I knew that my vegetarian entrees would be cheaper than average; I just didn't see how we would be spending $92.60 per day. Skipping the dining plan was the right call: all of our food and non-alcoholic beverages, plus 5 cocktails and a rum-spiked Dole Whip, came in at $406.
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