I’m about to write something that might seem like sacrilege to some Disney fans: I don’t really care for character dining.  It’s not that I don’t feel a flutter of happiness in my cold little heart when I meet Donald Duck or get a hug from  Buzz and Woody. Quite the contrary–I’m as nerdy as the next fan meeting their favorite character. The real issue for me is the food.  With so many great options available, I hate to spend money (and calories) on food that is sometimes mediocre. Fortunately, there are some great choices that combine fun character interaction and good food–you just need to know where to look.

Best Classic Character Dining at Disney World:

You probably know that Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Resort is the classic character meal of choice for meeting Mickey and Minnie, but did you know you can meet the same characters (plus Donald, Goofy and Daisy) at Donald’s Safari Breakfast at Tusker House in Disney’s Animal Kingdom?  I find that the high volume of guests who cycle through Chef Mickey’s can sometimes overwhelm this restaurant, causing the food and the character interaction to suffer for it. Not so at Tusker House, where the buffet is always hot and filled with tasty choices and the character interaction is some of the best on property.

Get Park Wise: Characters are always present at Tusker House for breakfast, but they’re sometimes not available at lunch and dinner. Make sure you verify beforehand if you’re visiting for those meals.

So, you want to meet Cinderella but don’t want to break the bank?

Cinderella’s Royal Table, located in Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom, is the ultimate princess experience but it also comes with a high price tag, over $200 for a family of four or eight dining credits! That’s a lot of money! Fortunately, there are two great options that won’t break the bank: Cinderella’s Happily Ever After Dinner at 1900 Park Fare in the Grand Floridian and Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot’s Norway Pavilion.

1900 Park Fare’s dinner is an especially fun option for adults. Sure, meeting Cinderella and Prince Charming is fine, but who wouldn’t want her Stepsisters and Madame Tremaine to saunter by the table for a little chat? The girls are campy and spend their time flirting with the boys–don’t be surprised if Anastasia or Drizella ask your son if he as a girlfriend. The teasing isn’t carried too far and it’s all part of the fun.

Akershus serves a family-style breakfast, lunch and dinner and also features a buffet where you can help yourself. There’s something for everyone on the buffet, so while there are some more “exotic” Scandanavian options available, even the pickiest of eaters should find items to suit them. Of all the princess options on property, it’s your best chance for seeing four or five princesses at once, including Snow White, Ariel, Aurora, and Belle.

Get Park Wise:  Cinderella only makes occasional appearances at Akershus so if it’s important to meet her, go with 1900 Park Fare.

My “go-to” character meal:
We almost never miss a trip to the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom. I prefer breakfast, but this character meal featuring Pooh and Friends is a reliable standby at any meal in a park that doesn’t always have the best sit-down meals.  Even when it’s crowded, Crystal Palace is a nice break from the noise and busy pace of the parks.  The food is hot and plentiful, with something for everyone, and the ice cream sundae bar wins over even the most jaded teenagers.

When should I dine?
If you’re on the dining plan, don’t worry about cost, since every meal will be either one or two credits regardless of whether or not it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. If you’re on a budget, there are really two schools of thought at play here.  Breakfast is usually $5 cheaper, but dinner is the big meal of the day for most people. You can easily eat a quick budget breakfast in your room, have a light meal for lunch, and then have your big meal of the day at dinner.  So, in some ways, you’re better off paying for the more expensive meal; you might find you get more of your money’s worth out of it.

There’s one other thing to consider, though. Most little kids, say under five years of age, are just in better spirits in the morning. So if you want great pictures of your little princess with Snow White, you might want to try breakfast rather than risking a dinnertime meltdown. Not only that, but they’re the most neat and tidy at breakfast, having not spent the day dealing with the heat, humidity, and melting Itzakadoozies.

How many character meals is too much?
Obviously, this varies by kid, but I tend to plan no more than two character meals per trip because they tend to run together and become less “special” for the child. Further, since most of the buffets are the same no matter where you go, with some exceptions, it can get a little tedious eating the same thing every night, especially for grown-ups.  Finally, Disney is a great place to expose your child to some different and yet accessible cuisines that they might not get a chance to try at home. It would be a shame to feed them the same chicken nuggets every day for a week when they could try authentic Neopolitan pizza for the first time or a creme brulee that will have them asking for their own blowtorch when they get home.

Don’t forget: It’s your vacation as well:
The point to this entire post is really this: It’s still your vacation. Yes, you want to treat your kids to a wonderful time, but mom and dad deserve something special too.  So make those reservations for your character meals, but while you’re at it, make sure you also visit some of the really great restaurants Disney has to offer. Some of them, like Via Napoli or Ohana, are fan favorites that you won’t want to miss. Others, like the Citricos or Yachtsman Steakhouse, serve food that will have you thinking about it long after your trip is over. Part of the experience of visiting a Disney park is the food, so don’t miss out.

What’s your favorite (or least favorite) thing about character dining at Disney World? Do you have tips to share?

Park Wise is written by Chris Wood.

You can find Chris at Everything Walt Disney World.

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If you have any specific questions you would like me to tackle, please leave me a comment!