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Magic in the Menu 

A critic digs into the Disney World food scene.

click to enlarge During a meal at Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Resort, beloved Disney characters will stop by your table for a visit and a hug.

Walt Disney World

During a meal at Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Resort, beloved Disney characters will stop by your table for a visit and a hug. 

We are entering a Disney parks golden era.

New movies, rides and experiences seem to debut every six months. A "Star Wars"-themed area, opening Aug. 29, is predicted to attract record-breaking, capacity crowds.

If you have a 4-year-old or a "Star Wars" fan in your family, you may be destined for the happiest place on earth before long. This means by the end of each day you'll be exhausted and ready for a good meal.

And I'm not talking chicken fingers or goopy, bland spaghetti marinara.

For the sake of your stomach and your sanity, here are some tips for focusing your trip on the best food and drink in the world.

1. Restaurants at the resorts are far superior to restaurants at the theme parks — mostly.

The average theme park sit-down meal may as well be at TGIFriday's, while across the lagoon at a resort, for a similar price you could be eating at a Heritage equivalent.

There are rare exceptions. At Epcot, Les Chefs de France, originally opened by French cooking legend Paul Bocuse in 1982, still is run by his son. Morocco is worth a visit for its artistry and Mediterranean flavors at four restaurants in the pavilion. And the Columbia Harbor House in the Magic Kingdom is noted for its lobster rolls ($16) and grilled salmon ($14).

For the best meals, though, retreat to the resorts — you've got 27 to choose from on the Disney property. While you may not always feel like you're in a movie, the menu is often more inventive and the culinary skill more impressive.

On a recent visit, Ale & Compass at Disney's Yacht Club served up the best meals of the whole trip. The restaurant cures its own apple-wood-smoked bacon for flatbreads ($18), and serves dishes like cabernet-braised short ribs with roasted vegetable mash ($27) for dinner. And while Cinderella didn't make an appearance, my breakfast of blueberry-bacon pancakes ($14) with hints of orange zest and sage turkey sausage was plenty magical. I left Florida wishing Ale & Compass was located somewhere more convenient, like Stony Point Fashion Park.

click to enlarge Trattoria Del Forno - WALT DISNEY WORLD
  • Walt Disney World
  • Trattoria Del Forno

Also book the Bon Voyage Adventure Breakfast at Trattoria Del Forno at Disney's Boardwalk Resort. Your princes and princesses can visit with the Little Mermaid and Rapunzel, and you can enjoy the poached eggs with fennel sausage and golden polenta. Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary Resort makes for a more rambunctious start to the day with the presence of the Mouse and Goofy, plus plenty of those waffles with the signature ears.

2. Snag the famous snacks.

Lean into the throwbacks of county fair food lore: Get that turkey leg in Frontierland. Try the corn-dog nuggets at Casey's Corner on Main Street USA.

I didn't know I needed pineapple-vanilla-swirl soft-serve ice cream until I took a stroll through Adventureland and saw a line of guests snaking around from a bamboo stand called Aloha Isle. The viral sensation of a dessert, known as a Dole Whip ($5), is served in several iterations around the parks —at Disney's Animal Kingdom, it can be doused in coconut rum— and I can see why. There is something remarkably refreshing about taking in a spoonful while baking in the Florida heat.

Dole Whip - WALT DISNEY WORLD
  • Walt Disney World
  • Dole Whip

3. Drinks are expensive, but worth it.

While alcohol seems to be everywhere, expect a shortage around the castle. If you're in need of a cold one after It's a Small World, get thee to a sit-down restaurant, because you won't find it at counter-service establishments.

For best all-around bar experience, stop at the Dawa Bar in the Animal Kingdom. Disney's own Safari Amber Ale is available, as well as a refreshing jungle juice concoction. On your way out, visit the Nomad Lounge near the park exit. Part casual oasis, part art gallery, it offers creative small plates like chicken satay with spicy peanut sauce and cucumber salad ($10) and wagyu beef sliders with yucca fries ($16), plus wine and beer from Africa, Thailand and Singapore.

click to enlarge Nomad Lounge - WALT DISNEY WORLD
  • Walt Disney World
  • Nomad Lounge

You'll find a culturally-themed themed beverage cart literally every few steps at Epcot in the evenings. The one in France serves a Grand Marnier, rum and Grey Goose orange slushie ($10), a lovely place to start. And you've got to hit Trader Sam's Grog Grotto, a wacky little Tiki bar hidden in Disney's Polynesian Village Resort. Order the Shrunken Zombie Head ($10), the strongest drink on the menu.

4. Need a break? Head to the Springs.

The parks are the reason you're here, but consider taking a break to recuperate midtrip. Check out Disney Springs, the newly built shopping district that boasts upscale retail and excellent food and drink spots.

Start at Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar, a 1940s dive showcasing the trappings of the elusive pilot and friend of Indiana Jones who briefly appears in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The Cool-Headed Monkey ($13) is a delightful watermelon Tiki concoction, and the appetizers are flavorful and satisfying, too: Try the Doctor Astorga's Queso Fundido ($12) and the Air Pirate's Pretzels ($11).

Around a few corners, Morimoto Asia is a dinner destination. The multilevel interior design spectacular and the ramen get top marks, but you can't leave without trying the spare ribs ($27). The half-rack of pork ribs, seasoned with cilantro and a hoisin sweet chili glaze, fall off the bone and melt in your mouth.

click to enlarge Morimoto Asia - WALT DISNEY WORLD
  • Walt Disney World
  • Morimoto Asia

5. Prep and plan.

With the My Disney Experience smartphone app, almost every moment of your trip can be booked, secured, and, sometimes, paid for in advance. All table-service restaurants require reservations, and you'll need a credit card to secure your table. Almost all of these restaurants will be booked solid a few weeks out from your vacation. If you have a must-do, however, it may open up the day you get there due to cancellations. Just keep refreshing the page.

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