*I’ve mostly shied away from blogging Disney tips and tricks mainly because I feel like there are SO MANY Disney specific blogs out there that already do this very thing. But I’m often asked by readers for MY opinions, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts over the next few posts.
As most of you already know, our family has annual passes to the Disneyland Resort parks in California.
What you might also know is that we aren’t exactly locals. The parks are a 3 hour drive away, which isn’t terribly far, but it’s far enough that we can’t stop by for a few hours after school and still make it home in time for dinner. We go several times a year, and stay for at least 2 days each time. Being a family of 6, we are often asked how we don’t end up spending a small fortune on meals alone, and we’re often asked where the best place in the parks are to eat. So here ya go:
Breakfast: we never eat breakfast in the parks. The pancakes at Carnation Cafe look amazing, but we save our meal spending for dinner. If the hotel we are staying at has a continental breakfast, we do that, although we are finding that fewer and fewer hotels actually offer this anymore. I have left our hotel before and run down to a nearby McDonald’s, but a word to the wise: the menu pricing is higher than at your typical McD’s so you might end up spending more than you expected (we certainly did!). Instead, I usually bring muffins (the giant ones from Costco), bananas, and oranges to eat in the room before we head out. I never buy muffins, so it’s an extra special treat as far as the kids are concerned. Win Win.
Lunch and Snacks: We pack in food for the kids. Disney isn’t averse to people bringing food into the parks, so I suggest you take advantage of that. Some families will pack in full on coolers and rent lockers to store their food for the day. But we’ve found that isn’t necessary if you pack light and plan accordingly. Plus, the lockers are the located at the very front of the parks, so it means that you have to haul your way back to the front when you want to eat a meal…we like being able to eat wherever/whenever we want.
I pack huge tote bags full of food to the hotel (including an entire loaf of bread and entire jars of PB & J…we make the sammies in the morning on that hotel desk in every room). Every morning before we head out, we pull out just what we need for that day’s meal and snacks. I always end up bringing food home, but I like to have more than we need just in case.
When you go shopping, keep in mind a few things:
-Items should not be easily crunched or squashed. Remember that your lunches will be in a backpack all morning, either stuffed under your stroller, or hauled around by a family member. The chips that come in tubes (like Pringles or Stax) are perfect for staying intact even with lots of movement. Another tip: hang onto a small box (like this one from the granola bars) and use it to store your sandwiches. It will keep them from getting squished and disgusting, while being lightweight AND disposable. (One time I didn’t put them in a box and the sandwiches had gotten so smooshed they were literally inedible and I had to buy the kids food.) You can do the same thing with a Tupperware container, but then you’re just stuck carrying around an empty container all day. Up to you, but I prefer to get rid of what I can so we have less to carry as the day wears on.
-Provide variety. You can find assortment boxes of chips/crackers at your local grocery store. Kids feel less like they’re “missing out” on cool food when they have a choice. I also always include (frozen) GoGurt tubes. Make sure you pack in enough not only for lunch time, but also for snacks throughout the day. Pack more than you think you need. Kids eat a TON on these days. They expend a lot of energy doing all that walking and laughing.
-Buy stuff you normally wouldn’t buy. Remember, the park is filled with kids of all ages eating Mickey Mouse shaped ice creams, cotton candy, and popcorn in specially designed tins. So pick up some fun items like cookies, crackers, and candy. I always buy licorice, Reese’s minis, and Whoppers for our Disney trips (and never any other time). The kids have never once complained, and it’s saved us a lot in Mickey shaped treats while still giving them something fun that they normally wouldn’t have.
-Don’t forget snacks that pack a protein punch. Trail mix is always a great idea, as are granola bars. It will keep your crew fueled during a long day of walking miles in what could be the very hot sun.
-Individual Portions WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE. Either buy products already individually wrapped, or what I often do is pack a handful of sandwich baggies so that each child has their own personal stash and they don’t bicker about So-and-So eating all the cashews, or walking too fast, or too slow, or ALL THE GREAT INJUSTICES OF CHILDHOOD SNACK SHARING. For example, I pack in a big bag of trail mix, but I then portion it out in small sandwich baggies when the kids ask for it and refill them as needed.
-Water Bottles. Buying drinks for six people all the live long day could cost you close to a semester of college tuition. We always pack in our water bottles (one per person), which I fill with ice to the brim back at the hotel and fill in the gaps with actual water. The ice eventually melts, but it keeps the water nice and cool throughout the day. You can refill them at water fountains throughout the park.
-Fruit. Believe it or not, even kids will get sick of the sugar laden, processed stuff you packed. Fruit can be tricky to pack (bananas are a definite no), but we’ve found that apples and tangerines are a safe bet. I especially like to pack apples that are on the smaller side (you can often find them pre-bagged and marketed to kids)…this way, the kids get something healthy without a ton of waste.
-Snacks should be portable. Most of your snacking will be done on the go…walking from one attraction to the next…standing in lines…etc. So try to only pack things that your kids can eat and handle while they walk. Anything that requires a spoon should probably be avoided or saved for when you sit down for lunch.
Now, you might have noticed that I’ve only specifically mentioned lunch…and I said that we pack in lunch for the kids.
Here’s the deal: We don’t love the idea of carting around enough food for two full meals for our 4 kids all day (that would be 8 meals!). It’s just a lot of food, and at least when you stick to just packing in lunch, you eat/dispose of most of it within the first few hours at the park. It’s harder to keep things cold and not crushed when you also have to keep an entire second meal for several more hours on board. (This might be where renting a locker is a good option.) So we just know that we have to buy the kids dinner in the parks. The way we see it is that it’s worth the money to keep it a little simpler, and hey, it’s still only ONE meal. Breakfast, lunch, snacks, and all drinks were taken care of on the cheap, so paying for one meal still seems super affordable.
We adults eat lunch AND dinner in the parks. Listen, I don’t like sandwiches, and I especially dislike PB&J. We adults eat the snacks alongside the kids, but I just cannot eat a PB&J and some Pringles. Call me High Maintenance. I’m okay with that. If you don’t mind eating meals with the kids, go for it. But I’m just being honest: we don’t. And the kids don’t care at all. In fact, they often ask why they can’t just have another sandwich come dinnertime.
Here are a few of our favorite spots:
Note: to save money, I would stay away from the kids menus/portions. It’s cheaper to just order a regular menu item and have smaller children share.
Taste Pilot’s Grill is in California Adventure and our meal of choice is a simple chicken breast nuggets and french fries. Yes, it sounds like “kid food” (and it could be!), but they are good, all white meat chicken tenders and the fries are yummy. It’s perfect for lunch time. Two adults can order 2 chicken nugget baskets and 2 drinks for about $20. (They also serve burgers, but to be honest, I have yet to taste/see a burger in the parks that looks appetizing.) (Side note: this area of CA Adventure is currently under construction, so it might be called something else when they unveil the remodel.)
Pacific Wharf Cafe is also in California Adventure and has FANTASTIC bread bowls. You can choose either broccoli cheese soup or clam chowder served in freshly baked bread bowls. Delicious and great for nighttime when you want to warm up and recharge after a long day. It’s a little more expensive at about $30 for two adults. (You can also get bread bowl soups at Royal Street Veranda on the Disneyland side. There, you can choose from clam chowder, steak gumo, or vegetarian gumbo.)
(Image from Disneyland website. I forgot to take a picture.)
Lucky Fortune Cookery. We love this place (and the kids do too!) for their rice bowls, also in CA Adventure. You can get your choice of protein (chicken, beef or tofu) and then your choice of sauce (mandarin orange, spicy Korean, Thai coconut curry, or teriyaki). The kids and I always opt for the teriyaki chicken. Portions are hearty, and it’s a yummy meal that will fill you up. Also a great choice for dinner when you could use a warm meal in your tummy that isn’t fried. Rice bowls cost about $10 each, and kids can definitely share them.
Rancho del Zocalo is on the Disneyland side. It serves things like burritos and enchiladas and is a little more expensive at about $15 per plate. Now, I will tell you that the food here is not my favorite (my husband likes it better than I do). Maybe I’m just spoiled because I’m a native Californian, but I know Good Mexican Food and this…isn’t so much it. So why include it in my list? 2 reasons. 1) it is a FANTASTIC place to sit and recharge, particularly for lunch when you are feeding kids from your stash. It is located right in this little corner between Frontier Land and New Orleans Square, where there aren’t really any rides or attractions. It’s mostly a walk through area…which means people mostly walk right by it. Oftentimes, dining at a theme park is a stressful, Excuse Me Pardon Me Can I Get By Is This Your Purse type of experience. At Rancho del Zocalo, I have yet to see a time when it was anywhere close to packed. We often sit under their big shady areas and casually eat. Take our time. Put our feet up on the chair across from us. The kids have space to spread out. We all catch a breather. There’s lots of shade and it’s quiet. Perfect for a midday break. Worth Not the Best Mexican Food.
And it’s really pretty. But see? I took both of these pictures during Christmas time (notice the poinsettias and the garland?)…a traditionally busy time of year, and there’s space for dayyyyys. The second reason I like this place: it is the ONLY place (that we know of anyway) that gives you FREE REFILLS. Caffeine recharge yes please and thank you.
None of this makes eating at the parks free. Just your trip to the grocery store back home will cost you a decent chunk of change. But if you know you’ll be spending the day there, it’s always nice to free up your budget to either simply save the money, or (what my husband likes to do from time to time) and surprise the kids with a Disney shaped treat or permission to pick out a small souvenir.
Do you have any tips/tricks you’ve picked up about eating at Disney? I’d love to know yours!