Character Dining: Worth Every Penny or Overpriced?
There’s no one size fits all Disney experience and the same can be said of character dining. Whether you think character dining is worth every penny or overpriced is largely a matter of opinion. It’s all about how you define value when it comes to dining at Walt Disney World.
The 411 on Character Dining
at Walt Disney World are an opportunity for your child to meet some favorite Disney characters up close and personal. The characters are integrated into each meal’s theme. In some cases, the characters’ costuming is designed specifically for the meal’s character (pun intended) and other times the characters themselves are central to the location’s theming. Ohana’s Best Friends Breakfast with Lilo & Stitch at the Polynesian Resort is an example of both. Lilo and Stitch are a natural fit for this South Pacific inspired resort. They are joined by their good friends Pluto and Mickey who rock some trendy Hawaiian shirts.
Most of the character meals are buffets or family style meals with the notable exception of Fairytale Dining at Cinderella’s Royal Table. As a general rule, you can count on meeting four or five Disney characters in about 75 minutes.
How does it all work? Once guests are settled, the Disney characters will stop at each table for a photo op, to sign autograph books, and for some good-natured antics. They may also lead a parade or a little activity such as napkin twirling.
Value is relative, especially at Walt Disney World. In the case of character dining, I look at four main factors: atmosphere (this includes characters and entertainment), food quality, quantity, and of course cost.
It’s all about the characters. After all, that’s why you frantically began dialing at 6:55 a.m. (sans coffee) 180 days out to get hold of a coveted Advanced Dining Reservation at Cinderella’s Royal Table, isn’t it? There are two types of characters at the character meals – face characters like the princesses and costumed characters like Winnie the Pooh. For me, face characters have an advantage over their costumed friends. Face characters can speak and really engage their guests through conversation while costumed characters are limited to gestures as they do not have a voice. So, if you’re looking for the most value, I say go for character dining with face characters such as the Supercalifragilistic Breakfast or Cinderella’s Happily Ever After Dinner at 1900 Park Fare or Princess Storybook Dining in the Norway Pavilion. You’re kids will get more than a quick picture, a hug, and an autograph. That being said, if your child is Handy Manny’s number #1 fan, there’s no doubt meeting him at Playhouse Disney’s Play ‘n Dine at Hollywood & Vine will b e a highlight of the trip, even if he doesn’t speak.
Let’s talk about venue next. Some are truly special such as Akershus Royal Banquet Hall or Cinderella’s Royal Table while others are run-of-the mill. Yes, Playhouse Disney Play ‘n Dine, I’m talking about you. If your food tastes better in pretty surroundings, then book a princess meal which take place in some of the prettier character dining restaurants. Something that is hard to put a value on is taking photographs inside an empty theme park. For a photograph of your kids alone in front of Cinderella Castle, book a breakfast character dining experience before the park opens; you’ll be able to enter early and get those special pictures.
Most Disney World character meals are buffets and I would rate the overall food quality to be mediocre – you’re really paying for the character interaction. Though it may be just average, there is a lot of variety and the food is plentiful. These buffets have kid-centric stations that are sure to please little ones. One of my favorite character dining experiences from both an atmosphere and food quality perspective is Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary Resort. To sum it up, if you weigh food quality heavily when judging value, then you’ll probably think character dining is overpriced.
There’s no shortage of food at the buffets and family style meals. The problem is my family usually doesn’t eat our money’s worth. My kids are bouncing out of their seats waiting for their favorite character to stop by so it can be an exercise in futility to get them to eat their food. I’m so busy taking pictures and filling plates at the buffet that all-you-can eat often translates into all-you-have-the-chance-to-eat. This is compounded by long lines at some of the buffets since multiple groups are often seated around the same time. Where’s the best value? For my money, family style meals win out. The platters are brought directly to the table and mom and dad don’t spend a lot of time taking turns at the buffet filling plates.
If you’re paying out-of-pocket and compare restaurants based on price and food quality, you’ll pay more at most character dining. But really, you’re paying for your little ones to have a guaranteed opportunity to meet their favorite Disney friend one-on-one. Guests on the dining plan have the advantage of meeting characters for one table-service credit (with the exception of Fairytale Dining at Cinderella’s Royal Table), the same as other table-service restaurants. That’s a good deal.
What I don’t like is feeling obligated to purchase a photograph on top of the sometimes steep cost of the meal. At locations like Ohana’s a photographer will take your group’s picture before breakfast and then will give you the option to purchase it for about $30.
What’s the verdict?
As a mom, atmosphere (i.e., meeting the characters) is the most heavily weighted factor when I judge value. That means if my little guys have a favorite character or two, a couple of character meals are worth the money especially if the character is not so easy to find in the park. In fact, a character meal often means more time for the attractions since I don’t have to arrange our touring schedule to find and meet an elusive character.
What do you think? Is character dining worth the money?
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Lisa M. Battista is the author of Beyond the Attractions: A Guide to Walt Disney World with Preschoolers. When she’s not chasing after her little ones, you can most likely find her at the beach or in the kitchen trying her hand at a new recipe. You call follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DisneyExplorer.