The first sign that breakfast at the Crystal Palace buffet is not going to be as other breakfasts I have eaten comes as we approach the restaurant. For the 300-cover diner is, for reasons unknown, housed in a miniaturised facsimile of Sir Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, complete with palm trees, wrought-iron conservatory furniture and staff in the get-up of mid-Victorian milkmaids.
“I may be wrong,” says Ron, the sous chef giving us a tour of the snaking buffet, “but I believe this is an exact replica of the crystal palace that the Prince [Albert] gave the Queen [Victoria]”.
I let that one slide, as my attention – and that of my friend Gillian – is now entirely taken up with the food in front of us; there is a great snaking counter before us groaning with hot plates and dishes, bowls and jars. It is a glutton’s dream; like something from a Punch cartoon on the dangers of gout.
We go in hard and heavy. Our haul includes “breakfast pizza” and sausage gravy, heavy frittatas and fried “Pooh toast”, smoked salmon, and boiled eggs. We even try an inventive confection called “breakfast lasagne”, which owed little to breakfast and less to lasagne, and whose content, the label above it revealed, includes: “layers of waffle, pancakes, pound cakes, strawberries and bananas topped with pastry cream and caramelized sugar”.
It was an unreal start to the day, but then Walt Disney World is an unreal place.
We had travelled on the nine-hour flight from Gatwick to the 26-square-mile Disney estate outside Orlando, Florida, with a singular aim: to eat our way through Disney’s four parks. We would eat salads in the Magic Kingdom; burgers at Hollywood Studios; chow down on chips at Epcot; and enjoy a steak while staring at the animals going about their business in the Animal Kingdom.
It sounded so easy. I have, after all, spent years eating large quantities of all manner of food for The Independent. At Disney, however, I met my Waterloo. I was defeated by the sheer breadth of food on offer, and the number of restaurants and cafés and burger joints and pizza houses – 281 in all. The thought alone is enough to raise your cholesterol by a percentage point.
Of course, you don’t have to eat everything that doesn’t move in Mickey’s Magic Kingdom; indeed to do so would not only cause a tightening of the waistband but also an emptying of the bank account. For the average main course in most of the sit-down restaurants we ate in came in somewhere around $30-$40 (£18-£25) mark. Not cheap by anyone’s reckoning. And because the Disney Estate is twice the size of Manhattan, eating anywhere save for the park or one of its 30 hotels demands a not-inconsiderable car drive.
There is, though, help at hand. Walt Disney World is currently running a Free Dine Offer. Book a trip to the resort for five or more days in 2014 by 5 November this year and you dine free for the entire stay. While a good few terms and conditions apply (Easter, for example, is excluded), this is a lifeline for hungry families.
When the park opened its gates to punters on 1 October 1971, its culinary offering didn’t extend much beyond burger and fries. In the intervening years, though, as tastes have changed, so have its restaurants. You can still have a take-out lunch for little over $10 but it’s also just as easy to drop $100 on a three-course meal – and that’s without wine.
The first stop on our foodie tour is the Yachtsman Steakhouse, a restaurant very much in the upper price bracket. The corridors leading to the dining room might be thronged with people in shorts and bumbags, but inside they aspire to a certain formality: men wear jackets, women dresses and the waiters are decked out in ties and waistcoats. It also has the distinction of being the only restaurant I have ever visited whose waiting area contains a 9ft-high glass box inside which a butcher spends the entirety of his day slicing and dicing the meat which gawping punters will soon find on their plates.
Our waiter, Thomas, recommends the Porterhouse steak: “Taste and texture; it’s the best of both worlds.” It’s also 27oz. I flinch and go for the New York strip steak instead. This 12oz hunk of cow is expertly cooked with a proper char on the outside and a blood-red centre. It is a fine dinner.
Equally good are Charlie Restivo’s creations. Restivo is a thick-set New Yorker of Italian extraction, who makes the most dreamy pizzas I have eaten in a long while. In the briefing notes Disney had sent before I flew, it claims that “Disney World calibrate the water used to make the dough for its pizzas to the pH found in Naples.” Perhaps this is Charlie’s secret.
Either way, it is the type of lunch people write sonnets about – and, of course, I follow it with a ride on a rollercoaster. I know, I know ... climbing aboard the Rock’n’Rollercoaster – 0-60 mph in two seconds – is no way to treat a lovingly-made lunch. But what else were we to do? We were in Walt Disney World.
One of the stranger experiences to be had at Walt Disney World is not on a ride, though, but in the Coral Reef Restaurant. Here you can dine on an extensive seafood menu while being ogled by the 4,000 sea creatures that swim in the aquarium which forms one wall of the dining room. “I think that stingray is staring me out,” says Gillian as she eats her Scottish salmon.
It is here, our helpful guide Angel tells us, that a businesswoman throwing a children’s party asked for a scuba-diving Mickey to be present throughout her event. “It cost $6,000,” says Angel. “Disney always tries to make it happen for the guests.”
Disney, alas, didn’t make it happen for me on our trip to Sanaa in the Animal Kingdom Resort (a sort of vast nature reserve with rooms). Here you can “experience the art of African cooking with Indian flavours”. It is not a happy meeting of cultures, but we are lucky and a giraffe walks passed the windows as we eat our naan bread and houmous, which adds to the excitement considerably.
It is not all fusion food and concept restaurants, though. The traditional fast-food joint, with its snaking queues, is still very much part of the experience. Here prices are cheap and vegetables hard to come by. Much better to take the middle road and order your burger, chips and milkshake at the Sci-Fi Dine-in Theater Restaurant at Hollywood Studios. Your table for lunch is a Fifties-style car and entertainment comes in the form of a massive cinema-screen playing clips from black-and-white horror films. It is memorable in the best way.
The problem with all these dinners is that they are invariably heavy on meat but light on veg and fruit. It’s a puzzling state of affairs considering the vast Land Pavilion in Epcot was built in 1982 as a far-sighted attempt to get visitors to be a little more ecologically friendly. It produces 25 tons of fruit a year for the park, including Mickey Mouse-shaped cucumbers and a single tomato vine that produces a harvest of 32,000 tomatoes.
Ride-weary adults should also note that alcohol is hard to come by in the parks. In the Magic Kingdom, for instance, only Be Our Guest – a restaurant themed around Beauty and the Beast and featuring eight talking suits of armour – serves booze. There is, however, a six-month waiting list for tables in the evening.
In Epcot at least, things are little freer flowing. In the Mexican-themed area you can visit La Cava del Tequila which has a range of 200 tequilas and mezcals. Or if you long for home comforts, you can always visit the Rose and Crown Pub which has a “specially designed ale warmer” which heats pints to 55F: “The temperature favoured by Brits.”
The sense of unreality runs deep at Walt Disney World and the food is no exception. It is, of course, not the place to go for a gourmet meal, but then that is not the point of the place. To dine there is to be asked to become part of the all-encompassing Disney fantasy; for a moment you become an extra in the show. Very often that means restaurants are extensions of, or accompaniments to, the rides. The conceit may sometimes wear thin for adults, but if you are a child, the experience can hardly be anything but magical. And that is what Disney is all about.
Samuel Muston travelled as a guest of Walt Disney World Resort Florida. Travellers who book a stay of 5-21 nights at Walt Disney World Florida by 5 November will receive free dining for each guest. The offer is valid for selected arrivals in 2014 up to 30 November, excluding 9-26 April 2014. For more details, see disneypackages.co.uk.
Travel City Direct (0844 557 6965; travelcitydirect.com) offers a week in Orlando from £1,004 per person including park tickets, accommodation at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, the Disney quick service dining plan and car hire. Prices are per person, based on two adults and two children travelling and sharing a standard room, based on departure on 10 January 2014.