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ImagiNERDing

Chef Mickey and the Evolution of Character Dining

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
by , 03-18-2012 at 04:08 PM


It is hard to imagine a Walt Disney World vacation without a character breakfast experience. Cinderella’s Royal Table and Chef Mickey’s still command long waiting lists and require travellers to fit their vacations around their dining choices, but it wasn’t always like that. In 1977, one of the first character dining experiences was a simple buffet at Cocino Cove at the Contemporary; guests could join Disney characters for breakfast every Sunday. The buffet would move a year later, but not too far away. A 1978 Walt Disney World News offers this glimpse of the Terrace Cafe at the Contemporary: “As an added treat, guests may join the Disney characters for breakfast each Sunday morning from 8 - 10:30 a.m. It's a delight for the kids- and fun for adults, too.” Reservations were not required.

So, how did we get to the point where it is necessary to call more than 100 days in advance to make a reservation?

Let’s dig into some of our early Walt Disney World publications to look at the history of character dining. In April, 1981, the Walt Disney World News announced the Dining a la Disney evening meal. “Each evening at 5p.m., Walt Disney characters will arrive at the Golf Resort’s Trophy Room to mingle with guests and pass out a gift to each child.” This is the earliest mention of a daily character dining experience.



The Breakfast a la Disney appeared shortly after that at the Village Restaurant, the Empress Lilly and the Polynesian Resort. From Walt Disney World News:


On the menu are danish breakfast rolls, scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and a breakfast beverage of your choice - all spiced with the presence of your favorite Disney characters, who happily hop from table to table, passing out complimentary “fun gifts” (and making sure everyone’s cleaning their plates!).

The 1984 Birnbaum’s Guide to Walt Disney World offers less than a quarter page about breakfast with the Disney characters. At that time there were three spots for breakfast: the Empress Lilly, the Terrace Cafe (Contemporary Resort) and Minnie’s Menehune (Polynesian Village). An additional spot was available as part of an Easter Airlines package at the Village Restaurant. Reservations were needed at each of these locations except for the buffet at the Terrace Cafe.

In 1986, there was Melvin the Moose Breakfast Show at Pioneer Hall at Ft. Wilderness. This was one of the more elaborate character meals and a step towards what we see today. Chip and Dale would take over the breakfast and rename it a Jamboree a year later. The breakfast lasted until 1991.


Image courtesy of Progress City USA.

Our next big change in character dining would take place in 1990 and center on the Village Restaurant. Let’s take a look back at the Village Restaurant and its history. The Village Restaurant was a prime dining location during the heyday of the Disney Village. It was an elegant and subdued dining experience that offered fashion shows and jazz bands in the Village Lounge.




1978 Walt Disney World News described the Village Restaurant:
A prime choice of afternoon and evening shoppers is the Village Restaurant. Comfortably seated in a countryside setting brought indoors, diners are tempted by unusual lunchtime entrees (served 11 a.m.-3 p.m.), such as Eggs Benedict, Spanish Omelet and King Crab an Artichoke Omelet. They also may choose from among Fried Shrimp, Fried Scallops, or French Dip, Rueben, Beefeater and Turkey sandwiches, and the waist-watchers' specials, Crab and Shrimp Salad or the Calorie Counter. … The aroma of New Orleans Bouillabaisse simmering on the stove and steaks grilled on an open hearth draw guests for an evening (after 5:30 p.m.) of fine dining. Besides the famous seafood stew, the restaurant specializes in Steak Oscar, Shrimp Mediterranean, Sauteed Frogs Legs and Long Island Duckling.
By 1989, Birnbaum's Guide to Walt Disney World mentions that Cinderella was appearing at dinner. This was also the time that the Village Restaurant would be closed; when it reopened in 1990, it would be known as Chef Mickey’s Village Restaurant providing the template for character dining as we know it.




The exterior of the restaurant received the most attention by adding the colorful red overhangs sporting the Chef Mickey logo. At the time, the Disney Village was known for its muted browns and greens, adding the bright red of Chef Mickey signaled a change for the complex.


A view of Chef Mickey's from the Sassagoula River Cruise.


During a visit in 1994, we reserved a 5:00pm seating. It was surprising to look at the receipt almost 20 years later.





Our dinner for two consisted of prime rib, ribeye, baked potato, fries and two souvenir drinks. Even in 1994, $36.75 was on the high side for dining, but it was all worth it to meet the Mouse. Goofy's Grog came in a souvenir cup and had actual grapes in it. Not grape juice, but whole grapes. Choking hazard, anyone?





The author's arm and Tigger watch meeting Mickey Mouse

The Chef Mickey's Village Restaurant closed on September 30, 1995, it reopened in 1996 at the Contemporary Resort. The Rainforest Cafe took over the spot vacated by Chef Mickey in 1996.


To me, the change from the Village Restaurant signifies a change for the entire Walt Disney World complex. It is one of the turning points when the Vacation Kingdom of the World started its march to the Walt Disney World Resort that we see today.

What other defining points in Walt Disney World history do you think about?

Any fond memories of dining at Chef Mickey's Village Restaurant?

Resources used in researching this article:




By George Taylor

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me at [email protected]

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George is also one half of the incredibly talented and handsome duo behind Communicore Weekly. You can find them on the Mice Chat Youtube Channel.

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Updated 03-19-2012 at 04:47 AM by ImagiNERDing

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Comments

  1. Dustysage's Avatar
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    Very interesting George.

    In many ways, I miss the old Disney World. Reading this article made me remember how much more special the character interactions once felt. Today, there are expensive character dining opportunities nearly everywhere in the resort. Plus, dedicated character meet and greets in all the parks. It no longer feels as if the characters live in the parks, but rather that they just work there.

    Thank you for a great article.
  2. yoyoflamingo's Avatar
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    To me, the oddest of the character dining meals was always the Odyssey. For a quick service place, they offered a character show, then the characters came out to greet guests. I guess Disney learned what a waste of money that was by allowing it as a quick service location, as we haven't seen it open since, except special events. I still hope one day it will open again, with or without characters, but it always strikes a chord as the anomaly of character dining.

    Thanks for the article! In many ways I miss the old sedate marketplace before the frenetic atmosphere, including the Rainforest Cafe, came on the scene. I didn't even realize it's that recent!
  3. JeffHeimbuch's Avatar
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    It always blows my mind, when looking a photos from just a few years ago, how peaceful Downtown Disney USED to be, before being turned into this super shopping mecca. I miss the old Chef Mickey's AND Empress Lily.

    Seriously, George, it cracks me up you still have that receipt.

    - The OTHER half of the talented and handsome duo behind Communicore Weekly
  4. Fishbulb's Avatar
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    Great article George! Oh if only they had stopped just before Goofy's Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel.
  5. Gullywhumper's Avatar
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    I always thought of the Town Square Cafe on Town Square, Main Steet, Disneyland, as the first Character Dining Experience. It wasn't official, yet the Characters would enter onto Town Square right next to the Cafe, walking past and interacting with the diners on the patio, ruffling up kids hair and posing for pictures with the diners on their way to the rest of Town Square. I remember this from my first trip to Disneyland in 1973, when I was a very young kid. As well as later, into the 1980's.
  6. Country Bear Fan's Avatar
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    [QUOTE=Dustysage;bt22421]Very interesting George.

    In many ways, I miss the old Disney World. Reading this article made me remember how much more special the character interactions once felt. Today, there are expensive character dining opportunities nearly everywhere in the resort. Plus, dedicated character meet and greets in all the parks. It no longer feels as if the characters live in the parks, but rather that they just work there.

    Thank you for a great article.[/QUOTE]

    Sorry, DustySage, but, as usual, I'm going to have to disagree with your overly-negative opinions.

    Despite what you think, character interactions are still special and the feeling of them "living in the parks" is still there. Just because they're in set meet-and-greets does not mean that that feeling is gone.

    They have dedicated meet-and-greets for a reason. You don't want guests to physically abuse them, do you? Something that they frequently fell victim to in the past and sometimes still do today.
  7. penguinsoda's Avatar
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    Thanks for the article George! I've never been to WDW, so I can't compare the then and now as you have, but its interesting to see some of the history of the character dining we have in place today.
  8. JeffHeimbuch's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Country Bear Fan
    Sorry, DustySage, but, as usual, I'm going to have to disagree with your overly-negative opinions.

    Despite what you think, character interactions are still special and the feeling of them "living in the parks" is still there. Just because they're in set meet-and-greets does not mean that that feeling is gone.

    They have dedicated meet-and-greets for a reason. You don't want guests to physically abuse them, do you? Something that they frequently fell victim to in the past and sometimes still do today.
    If that was an overly negative opinion, I'd love to see a super positive one!

    I think the point he was trying to make was that characters used to be able to roam freely, making character interactions a very spontaneous and unique experience. Now, they are very regimented, and only between certain times. Especially at these custom built meet and greet places.

    That's not to say that a young child or a kid at heart meeting their favorite character isn't a special moment any more, because it still is. However, the surprise of walking down Main Street or around Adventureland, and randomly running into a character is now long gone.
  9. pardilia's Avatar
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    I think it's probably more likely that they nixed the random meetings as park attendance increased because more and more people complained that their darling's picture with Winnie the Pooh was shared with a strange kid they didn't know. Shy kids missed out entirely if they could not work up the courage to be a bit "pushy" to meet their favorite character. Yes, I speak from personal shy person experience.

    While the random meetings were fun from a discovery/surprise point of view, if it was a popular character it was very difficult to get the one-on-one experience you can get now with the meet 'n greets. You might only get a few minutes and a picture, but everyone in line gets about the same amount of time.

    I think overall I'd prefer a blend, but I am very happy that the more popular characters have organized meeting places as now you don't have to openly compete with strangers and go home with a photo of you, your favorite character, and that other kid you don't know.