How to eat better than you expect at Disney World

You shouldn’t go hungry at the Happiest Place on Earth
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Normally when I tell my food friends that I am taking my 5-year-old daughter to Walt Disney World, their reaction is something along the lines of: Ew. Gross. Theme Park food. Where will you eat? But they’d do well to remember that this is no ordinary theme park. The Orlando park, well, World has multiple hidden culinary delights, even holding events targeted to food and drink lovers throughout the year, such as the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival (this year taking place from August 31-November 17). Alongside famously gluttonous turkey legs and Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream bars, healthier kiosks offer lighter options such as hummus and crackers, chilled raw vegetable sticks, and yogurt. Beyond the parks, Disney Springs, the dining and retail development formerly known as Downtown Disney, relaunched in 2015 with restaurants from chefs such as “Iron Chef America” Masahiro Morimoto, PBS star and Chicago restauranteur Rick Bayless, and Art Smith, the man behind Atlanta’s Southern Art restaurant and Oprah’s former chef.

Despite Epcot’s need for a major rides overhaul, it’s the obvious best of the four parks for dining due to the string of international-themed pavilions and widespread availability of alcohol. Many of the other parks don’t serve booze except for in a few select places, and let’s be real: Kids plus lines plus intense Florida heat plus other people’s crazed children equals a desperate need for a cold beer. While I am not suggesting you go on an Epcot bar crawl (a popular pastime—some parkgoers even have shirts made so they can check each country off with a Sharpie), this park is a great place to spend the afternoon feasting.

Here, a few of my favorite dishes from Epcot, Magic Kingdom, and beyond:

The Dole Whip with rum

When you need something tropical to take the edge off: Right as you enter the Epcot World Showcase, there’s a pineapple-emblazoned stand you must visit. Everyone who has ever visited Disney knows about the Dole Whip—an intensely tangy pineapple soft serve ice cream that you can also order as a float. But did you know you can also get that float spiked with clear rum? After spending the first half of the day riding Spaceship Earth and exploring the Seas with Nemo, this makeshift piña colada will cool you down and ease you into the best part of Epcot: the country pavilions.

Fish and chips in the United Kingdom pavilion

When you want to eat an actual meal without sitting down (and wasting precious time): As I walked around Epcot, I kept spotting people holding this tray of fish and chips. Being the sucker I am for this British staple, I made a beeline for the stand located just past the boisterous pub in the U.K. pavilion. The fries were super crispy and hot, and the fish was actually a decent white fish—I was told it was cod, but it was so mild I couldn’t tell. The puffy batter had cooled a bit too much, causing the crispiness to wane. But with a squeeze of the malt vinegar packet, it was pretty tasty for theme park standards.

Enormous pretzels (and beer) in the Germany pavilion at Epcot

When you want a snack that’s more substantial than candy: After eating way too many overcooked and gummy Mickey Mouse pretzels in an attempt to sustain energy, I was happy to see my favorite soft giant pretzels at the Germany pavilion. These pretzels, as you can tell the picture above, were bigger than my kid’s head. And unlike the Mickey variety, these were so hot and fresh-tasting, you could swear they had just been baked. Our party quickly tore off bits and devoured them in minutes. The stand also sells shots of strong and sweet German cherry liquor and, of course, plenty of beer.

A frosted vanilla doughnut with rainbow sprinkles from Joffrey’s at Epcot

When you need to plan ahead for a midnight snack: Buy this doughnut at Epcot! Seriously. The Joffrey’s stands at Epcot are plentiful, and they also have a store at Disney Springs. This oversized yeast doughnut with pink or white vanilla frosting is super fluffy and perfectly sweet. Joffrey’s also sells boozy coffee drinks laced with Bailey’s and Kahlua if you crave something a little stronger. I did my calorie math after devouring that plate of fish and chips and picked doughnut over a drink, which ended up being a wise decision when I happily ate it in my hotel bed that night, savoring each bite. Way better choice than quickly chugging Irish coffee while pushing a stroller.

Roast chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe in The Magic Kingdom.

When you don’t want to eat something fried or covered in cheese again (not that there is anything wrong with that): A local expert told me the quick-service Mexican and Italian spots are your best bets for dining at the Magic Kingdom, but I wanted something a bit more comforting at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe, the place my daughter insisted on for lunch due to its proximity to the “racing cars I get to drive like a big girl.” Surprisingly, this Tomorrowland restaurant serves up a juicy roast chicken with buttery mashed red potatoes (skin-on) and green beans that were al dente but unseasoned. The kids actually ended up preferring my roast chicken to their chicken tenders. This a good stop if you want to get some clean protein to help you power through your day. They also have special BB-8 cups that are a must-buy for any Star Wars fan—detailed, durable, and with a bendy straw to boot.

Iceberg wedge and a whole lobster at The Boathouse.

When you’re craving something green (and could go for some seafood): Gibson’s, the steakhouse out of Chicago, opened The Boathouse at Disney Springs in 2015. The restaurant is set on the water, and that popularity means reservations are a must. The chilled oysters and an excellent whole steamed lobster are worth ordering, but my favorite thing here, ironically, is the iceberg wedge. It is a pitch-perfect representation of this crunchy steakhouse classic. The lettuce was crisp with no signs of fridge age and topped with thick slabs of bacon, a few cherry tomatoes, raw red onions, and a tangy blue cheese dressing that was more lemony than heavy. There’s also fried fish and shrimp if you want to keep the deep fried party going.

Pan con Tomate and Iberico ham at Capa.
A salad of kale, shaved Brussels Sprouts, soft cooked egg, and Gooseberries dressed in a garlicky anchovy dressing.

When you want fireworks with your dinner: The Magic Kingdom fireworks show is spectacular, but the thought of camping out along Main Street for hours is anything but. If you’d rather be showered and relaxing on a comfortable couch with cocktails, tapas, and steaks, by the time the light show starts, head to Capa, the rooftop Spanish restaurant at the Four Seasons Orlando (located on the Disney property). While you can dine, you can catch the fireworks from the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios. If you are in need of vegetables, there’s a salad of kale, shaved Brussels Sprouts, soft cooked egg, and Gooseberries (which added a tart sweetness and worked surprisingly well) dressed in a garlicky anchovy dressing. Kids under five eat free, and they eat well—a petit filet mignon with vegetables can serve as a nice break from Disney’s typical all-carbohydrate-and-dairy diet. The steaks are good but the tapas are better: I suggest the Iberico anything, pan con tomate (bread rubbed with tomato), the shrimp, and ham croquetas.

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