While normal life and normal travel were largely off-limits over the past year, Disney World eventually found a way to bring the magic back: by implementing the strictest safety measures possible. After shuttering for more than 100 days, the park reopened in summer 2020 with new social distancing and mask policies and a greatly reduced capacity limit. Along with these changes, the very nature of a trip to Disney also changed: rather than follow their whims around the park, guests are being prodded to make reservations. For everything.
While digital reservations aren’t new to the Disney World experience, COVID-19 made them an absolute necessity. It doesn’t sound so bad, does it? If you’re an organized type of person, you might actually prefer traveling with some firm plans in place each day. But Disney’s signature dining experiences—the high-end destinations that arguably separate a childhood Disney trip from an adult one—were already highly competitive, and now with the restaurants only seating parties at every other table, snagging a reservation adds a cutthroat edge to one’s trip planning. I was only able to manage it thanks to several days of prep and research.
Planning a trip to Disney in 2021 is nothing short of an Olympic sport. It begins with waiting, like a sprinter at the starting blocks, until exactly 60 days in advance of your trip, which is when the ticketing opens up for all of your dream Disney dining destinations. The ticketing opens up at midnight, meaning you and hundreds of other people are up in the middle of the night trying to book the same restaurant at the same time on the same day. (The 60-day window also means that by the time I set foot on Disney property, the park had relaxed some of its regulations and added more operating hours to the parks, yet the trip I had designed for myself reflected how limited the choices were at the time I booked.) As tedious as it is, before the days of digital booking and the ever helpful MyDisneyExperience vacation management app, all planning had to be done over the phone or on the vastly complicated, less functional early version of Disney’s website. Despite this, while we were growing up, my mom somehow managed to make every family trip to the parks memorable, jam-packed with things to do and eat. She deserves a gold medal, or twenty.
Once your booking window opens up, you have exactly 10 glorious, excruciating minutes to complete your reservations. Knowing exactly where you want to go in Disney World, and at what time, is crucial. You’re presented with an endless list of dining options, both sit-down restaurants and quick service meals, and their available time slots. Do you want to stay in the park to eat among characters? Then it’s Be Our Guest or Cinderella’s Royal Table for you. Prefer a more exotic menu? Quick, select Tiffins in Animal Kingdom before your booking window runs out. Looking for something cheaper, but still heavy on the theming? Skipper Canteen and 50’s Prime Time Cafe fit the bill (if you can get in—hurry!).
If you are not dead set on precise meal times, and/or if you’re a bit of an early bird or a night owl, your booking process will be slightly easier. You can also alleviate some of this pressure by scheduling your visit during one of EPCOT’s festivals, eating your way around the World Showcase instead of filling your trip with expensive and rigid (albeit unforgettable) dining reservations. And if you really want to take a gamble, you can wait and see if any other travelers’ last-minute cancellations leave restaurant reservations up for grabs.
When my 10-minute booking window arrived, I had it all laid out in my mind—I would do much of my eating at the quick service options surrounding EPCOT’s ongoing Flower and Garden Festival, then punctuate the days with a few casual sit-down dining experiences and a few high-end signature ones. When Disney calls something a “signature” dining experience, they mean it: you can expect to pay $35-60 per person, not including beverages and appetizers.
Of course, the less time that dining takes away from the rides, the better. At the time I made my selections, COVID restrictions saw the park closing around 5 p.m. and restaurants closing around 8 p.m. each day, so I scheduled all my meals in the evening, preventing me from walking around feeling sluggish and riding rides with a full belly and a fair amount of alcohol in my system. Perfect, right? Except, by the time I arrived, the resort’s health regulations had changed, the parks were staying open later, and I ended up cutting into potential ride time with sit-down dining all the same. I logged into the app to see if I could modify my reservation, but of course, all the later time slots were already taken by others who were a step ahead of me. No worries; we were determined to enjoy both the rides and the food no matter what.
My first reservation brought me to Morimoto Asia, a Pan-Asian fusion restaurant by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. It offered everything from sushi to dim sum, and even some Filipino cuisine. My date and I chose the Peking Duck and 3 ounces of Japanese A5 Wagyu Beef, cooked tableside to our specifications. It was, by far, one of the best meals I’ve eaten at Disney World, and one of my top five meals, period.
The next morning was Kona Cafe in Disney’s Polynesian Resort. During quarantine, Disney took advantage of the low attendance and began making changes and renovations to their resorts, parks, and transportation system, including the Polynesian. Kona Cafe was one of the only casual restaurants open on that particular campus when we visited, and while the food was outstanding, it was incredibly eerie to walk through a nearly empty hotel lobby to get to it. Kona’s best dish is a toss up between cinnamon, banana-stuffed Tonga toast and the sweet and fluffy macadamia-pineapple pancakes. Paired with a mimosa, it’s the perfect start to a day. I somehow rustled up the energy to navigate Magic Kingdom after stuffing myself with carbs and champagne.
Later, we returned to Disney Springs to enjoy some lakeside dining at The Boathouse. While the menu offers your usual surf and turf, the highlight of this place is its specialty cocktails (and, okay, the firecracker shrimp too. For some reason, all the firecracker shrimp options at Disney World are consistently amazing.) Try playing around with the sides and substitutions; I swapped out the usual lobster tail for the house Lobster Oscar, a combination of lobster tail meat, asparagus, and Bearnaise sauce. Our waiter, Dylan, happened to know the menu very well and recommended some amazing cocktails and appetizers, which is a good reminder that it’s often a huge help to ask the server to weigh in.
Our last hard reservation took us to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to enjoy one of the newest, most elaborate, and most treasured reservations on the property: an evening at Oga’s Cantina in Batuu. Once we arrived at Oga’s it was clear why the reservations were so hard to get. The cantina itself was small with limited, socially distanced seating, and the entire bar was a work of art. Each party was only given 45 minutes inside to enjoy their drinks and snacks, and those 45 minutes go by fast. One drink was made with a foam that kept my mouth numb for the better part of our time there, but it was such a novel sensation that I didn’t mind it. The bartenders were never out of character and every drink was unique.
Our last big dining experience brought us to EPCOT to enjoy bites from the Flower and Garden Festival. While our sit-down meals were out-of-this-world good, the counter-service windows scattered throughout the World Showcase really blew our mind. We were able to eat and drink nearly everything featured on the menu, walk around with our cocktails, admire topiaries while biting into themed desserts, and walk up to queues while doing it. The real challenge here is making sure you don’t overspend. It is quite easy to blow more than $100 eating your way around EPCOT—just pace yourself. And after you eat, know that Soarin’ and Living With The Land are both rides that are easy on the stomach, but the same cannot be said about Test Track or Mission: SPACE. Choose wisely.
I wouldn’t trade our signature dining experiences for anything, but how you weigh them against the rest of your stay is ultimately up to you. No matter what type of dining you choose to do at Disney World, my best tip is make sure your eyes are not bigger than your stomach. Don’t overbook yourself at too many sit-down restaurants, as it is an expensive, time-consuming, and filling endeavor—but don’t rely solely on snack-sized quick-service meals to satisfy you on your vacation, either. It is a vacation, after all. And hey, you’ll certainly need one after all the Olympic-level research, planning, page-refreshing, scheduling, and optimizing involved in planning your Disney World getaway.