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Dining with Disney Cruise Line: Food, food and more Disney food

A look at just some of the restaurants and meals available on the Disney Fantasy. Pictured here is Animator's Palate. Photos taken March 2014.
A look at just some of the restaurants and meals available on the Disney Fantasy. Pictured here is Animator's Palate. Photos taken March 2014.
D.K. Peterson. All rights reserved.

For many people, food factors at the top of the list of reasons to travel with the Disney Cruise Line (DCL). My husband and I got a taste of why that may be on our first Disney cruise, 7 nights aboard the Disney Fantasy. While we personally wouldn’t make it our primary reason to pick a Disney cruise, dining on DCL is worth asking for seconds.

Disney Cruise Line's variety of dining options, and foods, means that guests will not walk away from their vacation hungry. Cabanas offers an extensive buffet of choices for breakfast and lunch, as well as a casual sit-down option for dinner.
D.K. Peterson. All rights reserved.

There are three Main Dining Room (MDR) restaurants on the Disney Fantasy: Animator’s Palate, Enchanted Garden and Royal Court. All are themed, with much to look at, and Animator’s Palate offers entertainment that makes the restaurant a not-to-be-missed opportunity for the Disney animation fan. Then there is Cabanas, which operates as a buffet for breakfast and lunch, and as a casual sit-down option at dinner.

Quick-service places serve a variety of casual fare from pizza to sandwiches to ice-cream treats, while DCL Room Service is available for no additional fee (though gratuities are appreciated) and offer cake of the day. That’s not to mention the bars and lounges, where one could enjoy the alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink of the day or the libation of one’s choice.

Adults may enjoy Palo and Remy, dining available by reservation and with a nominal upcharge. These restaurants offer fine dining in a quieter, more formal atmosphere than the MDRs and other venues. It’s like date night (or day) on a Disney cruise.

Disney’s Castaway Cay has three dining spots for a casual lunch: Cookie’s BBQ, Cookie’s Too, as well as a smaller spot at the adult Serenity Bay Beach. These meals are included with guests’ cruise package.

DCL’s Main Dining Rooms: Good food made better through attentive service

Just from the range of standard-dining options, Disney fans might get the impression a DCL sailing can focus primarily on eating and drinking. They’d be right. Part of the decadence of a Disney cruise is that combination of abundant choice, well-executed dishes, and excellent service.

Eating at the MDRs like dining at a nicer restaurant in your city – a solid dining experience made memorable with Disney theming and top-of-the-line service. The four-course meals – appetizers, soup and salads, entrees and desserts, plus bread service and after-dinner drinks – offered variety. Each evening, at approximately two hours, offered a leisurely dining experience (at least by Disney standards). For the size and activity of the MDRs, dining was relatively subdued at a late dinner seating.

MDRs offered a nice selection to accommodate many tastes. The menus included meat, poultry and fish, and there were options for vegetarians those with lighter appetites and those who prefer more basic fare. There were also children’s menus. In short, the dining options attempted to offer a wide but not overwhelming variety of options to appeal to various tastes.

Servers offered their recommended dishes and encouraged guests to let them know if a particular dish isn’t to their liking – another was offered – or if there are substitutions or special requests. Servers confirmed any dining allergies or dietary restrictions with guests, and substitutions or alternatives would be prepared.

The food quality at the MDRs proved very solid, with dishes ranging from good to excellent depending on the night. Appetizers and entrees were generally more ambitious than soups, salads and desserts. Thus, the successes of the former varied a bit more but were also more memorable. Dishes tended be heavier, richer foods, and sauces tended to favor the sweet over the spicy. Portions were generous but not excessive – not the double to triple serving size found in many mid-range restaurants – and the multi-course meals were always filling.

In our experience, it was the service at the MDRs that stood out as much as the food. A strong part of that is due to DCL’s highly-praised rotational dining plan, where the ship’s servers follow a table of guests from restaurant to restaurant to ensure consistent, high-quality service. A relationship between guests and servers may emerge that contributes to a pleasurable evening should the personalities all gel – and the servers are adept at adapting to various guest personalities. And if the personalities between the various guests don’t gel, as they sometimes don’t, DCL will do its best to accommodate seating-change requests.

Palo brunch and tasting seminars: Adult dining and drinking experiences

Though generally booked in advance, Palo and Remy keep back a few spots for on-board booking. That’s how we, as first-time cruisers whose booking window is shorter than repeat cruisers, were able to secured a reservation for Palo brunch; we signed up on for a Palo brunch, offered only on sea days, on embarkation day.

Our Palo brunch satisfied our curiosity about the experience, and sated our appetite for the rest of the day. Good as the food and service is at the Disney Fantasy’s MDRs, the Palo brunch is better. Our decadent buffet of sweet and savory brunch foods and select made-to-order dishes was marked by its variety of dishes, interesting flavor combinations, and an attention to meal preparation and plating. The brunch’s quiet and intimate atmosphere, beautiful views and understated yet attentive service complemented the food.

Palo brunch turned out to be our favorite meal of the cruise, well worth the $25 additional charge per person. We would make it a priority to dine there for brunch or dinner. Based on Palo, we can only imagine the even more upscale Remy (additional charge, $75) would be as memorable; our experience with the Remy sommelier at a tasting seminar later in the week cemented our impression that dining at that location would be well worth the upcharge.

As suggested above, DCL offers alcohol-tasting seminars on its ships. They are available to reserve on a limited basis and for an additional fee. The three seminars we signed up for on the first day of the cruise – whiskey, chocolate and liquor and craft beer – ranged in price from $15 to $30 per person. They were well worth it. We found them simultaneously educational, entertaining and tasty.

Choices, choices: Cabanas or MDRs for breakfast and lunch

For many guests, Cabanas is a welcomed breakfast and lunch destination. Its casual buffet style provides guests – especially picky eaters or those with hearty appetites – the opportunity to try the variety of food. The portion sizes encourage experimentation with news food and a fairly steady rotation of dishes for freshness. There’s an abundance of comfort foods and buffet staples, fresh seafood, and attractive desserts that promise a sugar high.

For these reasons, as well as the fact it is the casual location on the Disney Fantasy, Cabanas can be very crowded and noisy – especially at peak dining times. What’s more, service at Cabanas is quick and, for all the hustle and bustle, attentive and friendly. Hosts will seat you during busy times, and make sure your plates are cleared.

Cabanas’ variety made it easy enough to find something to please the palate and fill the stomach. But little of what we tried was memorable. Filling, yes. Satisfying, yet. Even tasty and above-average when compared to other buffets with which Disney guests may be familiar – say, those found at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. A week after the cruise and neither my partner nor I could recall much of what we ate.

When possible, we ate at the open MDR for breakfast and lunch. Even though the MDR offered a more limited menu, and the meals were more leisurely, we preferred the experience. We found our meals were more relaxing, the food as good if not better than Cabanas, and the overall experience much better.

DCL’s two different types of dining approaches to breakfast and lunch, it’s worth noting, are designed to work well to meet guests’ different needs and planned activities. For those times when we wanted a quick meal or just to nosh, we greatly appreciated having the option to eat at Cabanas. It was very pleasant to enjoy an outdoor view of the port. And I can imagine Cabanas will be our go-to restaurant of choice on an extended-family cruise.

Yet more Disney food: Quick Service and DCL Room Service

With so many other dining venues, we had limited exposure to Quick Service and DCL Room Service options. Still, we tried both on several occasions because we couldn’t help but be tempted by the most casual of dining options – all for the sake of research of course. But we restricted ourselves to snacks and light meals because our eyes on a Disney cruise are definitely bigger than our stomachs.

Of the two, the Quick Service locations proved to be the pleasant surprise. They compared favorably with Cabanas for food quality and service, and Luigi’s Pizza was surprisingly tasty and offered some more sophisticated ingredient combinations. We would eat there again, and consider it a quick alternative to Cabanas.

The same can’t be said of room service. We sampled DCL Room Service – which has a very limited menu – for breakfast and late-afternoon snacks before the evening shows. Service to the door was quick and professional, but the food was the most disappointing of any we experienced on the ship. Unless we really wanted to stay in our room, we wouldn’t order from DCL Room Service again – with perhaps the exception of the cake of the day or another dessert.

Disney Cruise Line dining: “You’ll never go hungry again”

There was so much to eat on our Disney cruise that wed spent much of the trip in what we referred to as food coma. At one point I turned to my partner and, channeling Scar from “The Lion King, promised, “You’ll never go hungry again.”

Based on our experience aboard the Disney Fantasy, the Main Dining Rooms offer consistently good dishes and casual dining provides both variety and some real crowd-pleasers for quick meals. Accepting the limitations of the later, as well as of room service, and adding in meals at Palo or Remy, and I’d hazard many Disney foodies would find much to praise on a DCL sailing.

I didn’t find the food to be a top reason to take a Disney cruise; it’s not that difficult to find comparable meals where I live. But taken within the cruise’s context as an inclusive vacation, and DCL’s overall approach to dining (i.e. food, service, and atmosphere) is one of those things that is identifiably Disney and adds to a trip’s value.

Given our first-cruise experience – with all the caveats that phrase implies – I’d even say Disney Cruise Line offers more consistent, better executed, and tastier food compared to similar meals offered at Walt Disney World or Disneyland.

Note: I sailed aboard Disney Cruise Line’s newest ship, the Disney Fantasy, on a 7-night Western Caribbean itinerary. I booked travel with Michele of Pixie Vacations, a travel agency specializing in Disney vacations. Michele’s help was invaluable in helping me plan my trip. I paid all my own travel expenses and my opinions are my own.

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