Surviving Disney

Because you can drag your kids to only so many science museums and historical sites before they just want to plummet down a water slide, our family recently spent a week at Walt Disney World. My folks took me there twice as a child, yet I enjoy it so much more as a parent. There’s lots to do because — and this is something its detractors never seem to understand — Disney World is a giant playground. As an obsessive-compulsive, I also admire the verisimilitude of, say, a centuries-old facade fashioned from concrete and fiberglass; and logistically, WDW is much, much less taxing than taking children to a city like New York or Philadelphia or Boston. Enjoyable as those places are, I feel the tension easing from my shoulders more so in Orlando.

Nevertheless, Walt Disney World presents one dire peril that must be endured.

The food.

WDW is well-known for serving atrocious slop, particularly at the Magic Kingdom. Disney has responded by including more unfried foods (like wraps) to the menus of the counter-service eateries. And, perhaps to bump up the average, they’ve also added more fine-dining experiences to the parks, but these are useless unless you make reservations at least six or even twelve months ahead of time. Le Cellier may be terrific but I wouldn’t know — like a lot of people, I’ve never passed through its doors.

Having suffered on previous sojourns, this trip I blazed a bold strategy for eating, which, like Arne Saknussemm, I now share with anyone intrepid enough to follow us.

First, we ate breakfast in our room. There’s no reason for spending $40+ on ham and eggs when all anyone wants to do is run from the table and start the day. So beforehand, I bought some single-serving boxes of cereal and instant oatmeal, packaged them, and mailed the box to myself C/O the hotel. When we checked in, the package was already sitting on the bed waiting for me. Milk and fresh bananas were purchased daily at the hotel convenience store.

As for coffee: since Nestle holds the exclusive concession for coffee at WDW, NescafĂ© is widely but solely available throughout the parks and resorts — enough to make an aficionado consider his own urine as an alternative morning beverage. Knowing this, I stashed a number of Starbucks Via packets in my luggage. Two of them added to hot water (available for free at the hotel convenience store) make a surprisingly fine 12-ounce cup of coffee, saving me from castaway measures or — worse — drinking NescafĂ© for the entire week.

Secondly, based on positive recommendations from friends and family, we opted to try the Disney Dining Plan. This pre-paid plan gives each party member credit for one sit-down table service meal, one quick-service meal, and one snack (like an ice-cream cone or bottle of water) per day. They say “per day,” but actually there’s no daily limit — if you want, you can use all your credits in 24 hours. With breakfast already resolved, this meant we would eat fast food for lunch in the parks, then enjoy comfortable sit-down meals for dinners.

All of the lunches were forgettable experiences, eaten simply for biological necessity rather than enjoyment. The menus are heavy on fried food with a scurvy-inducing lack of vegetables; plastic bags of grapes or apple slices are available as sides. I gritted my teeth and pushed forward. The best option is the turkey wrap offered at multiple restaurants.

Making dinner reservations prior to visiting is crucial. Before the trip, I used WDW’s online reservation system to book dinner for each night throughout Epcot’s World Showcase. Because the greatest number of restaurants are clustered in Epcot and around the Boardwalk area, we stayed at one of the hotels on Crescent Lake, so dinner each night was within walking distance. It was our first time eating at any of the restaurants.

The food at the Rose & Crown Pub was fine; I had a pot roast. Yet my opinion of the R&C is greatly elevated by the availability of Woodpecker (on draught) and Strongbow ciders. They also have an exterior bar. Frequently whenever we passed through the UK section of the World Showcase I stopped to grab a Strongbow. Daddy needs his apple juice.

Nine Dragons is so-so, the food no worse and no better than that of a strip-mall Chinese takeaway. Les Chefs de France was the biggest disappointment. The hotel concierge was able to score us a reservation, something I had been unable to do using the online system. I was excited. The meal started well: a lobster bisque with huge chunks of lobster meat stacked on top. But the “braised ribs” tasted exactly like the Rose & Crown’s pot roast dropped on a bed of linguine — bland tasting and about as French as a Philly cheese steak. In a contrast of expectations, the San Angel Inn surprised me; I went in expecting cheap Ortega-style Mexican food and ended up having a great mahi-mahi.

The best meal of the trip was at the excellent Tokyo Dining. I had a feeling that because Disney employs native-born people at the World Showcase pavilions (although some, as we discovered, have since become Americans!), the sushi at a restaurant in Japan Land would be a good bet. Mrs. Kuhl had sushi and I ordered the bento box, which that day was a tuna tartare rolled in roasted sesame seeds; scallions wrapped in beef with a mesquite peppercorn rub; vegetable tempura; and slivers of pork with horseradish — absolutely fantastic. All of it was washed down with numerous Kirins and ginger ice cream. The only negative: a bowl of miso as an appetizer isn’t included in the Dining Plan and had to be paid for separately. Jigga wha? Mickey can’t afford to throw in a bowl of miso soup, an ubiquitous cultural dish that costs pennies?

Which brings me to a gripe about the Dining Plan: the system is needlessly complicated for table-service meals because some, if not many, menu items are excluded. Either the whole menu should be included or there should be a separate menu for just the people using the plan. Moreover, you have to sign twice at meal’s end: once to acknowledge that you used a credit(s), and another to pay for the tip and alcohol, which are not included in the plan (one evening we had to sign three receipts, which made no sense — even the waiter was confused). I understand having to pay the tip and booze separately, but why do I have to sign the credit acknowledgment? I don’t do it when I use credits for quick-service meals or snacks. The Mouse Overlords need to streamline this.

Finally, there were the snack credits.

We timed our visit to coincide with the annual Food and Wine Festival at Epcot. The Festival offers all sorts of programs like cooking seminars and wine and beer tastings — none of which we attended. More important is the presence of dozens and dozens of kiosks throughout the World Showcase featuring food samples from various countries (and not just those that have their own pavilions). In one stretch of pavement we found French escargot, New Zealand lamb sliders, and Chilean shrimp ceviche. Most of the tapas-sized portions could be purchased using the snack credits, and the last day of the trip we ran through the park, burning the credits as fast as we could. I didn’t eat a single fried thing. Many of the kiosks pair the food with appropriate beverages as well (kirs at the French kiosk, for example), and every night by nine o’clock Epcot assumed the atmosphere of an enormous kegger. It was awesome.

Like I said: Walt Disney World is a giant playground.

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