Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is offering free dining to everyone who books a holiday before 5th of November. Come Stateside with me as I attempt to make a dent in the more than 6,000 menu items on offer.
World class food is not normally what comes to mind when one considers holidaying in a theme park. Stomach-churning rollercoasters, pose-ready characters from your favourite animated films and mind-blowing firework spectaculars are what makes our eyes light up with childlike delight, while long queues, temper tantrums and dodgy burgers have traditionally been the necessary evils of such overwhelming merriment. Mickey Mouse & Co, however, have invited me to step out of my closed culinary mind into a magical place where all foodie dreams come true.
Ok, that might be going a bit overboard, but after spending the past three days in Walt Disney World trying out as many restaurants as humanly possible, I'm more than happy to detail the smile of relief that has been plastered across my greedy maw since I tucked into my first short rib. That delicately-spiced-melt-in-your-mouth morsel managed to cut through the jetlagged haze of my first evening at Jiko, the signature restaurant at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. Washed down with a glass of Painted Wolf pinotage and accompanied by a triptych of flatbreads with African- and Asian-inspired dipping sauces, the bar was set high.
Pancakes sporting M&M polka-dots were a feature at breakfast the following morning at Boma - a win for the youngsters and grown-ups who still think they're kids. I decorated mine with strips of bacon and creamy scrambled eggs before giving the lot a good maple syrup soaking (when in the USA, and all that...). I was certainly set up for a morning of rides and 'celebrity' spotting (yes, I got my photo taken with Mickey Mouse and others) at Disney's Magic Kingdom. At Be Our Guest (AKA an in-park quick service restaurant designed in intricate detail to look like the Beast's enchanted castle from Beauty And The Beast), I tried the grey (and pink) stuff above. It was delicious, I didn't need to ask the dishes.
For lunch, we stopped by The Crystal Palace to dine with Winnie The Pooh and pals. This is a great place to take kids, and not just because Tigger bounces by your table. The buffet is resplendent with healthy options, including lots of salads, veggies and fruit. There's also an ice cream machine and sprinkles station - it is a holiday, after all!
Up next comes the highlight of the trip so far - and I'm not talking about Space or Splash Mountain (though both were ace). At California Grill we watched the sun set over Magic Kingdom while being treated to some of the best tuna sushi I've eaten outside of Japan, while the filet I had for mains was just the right size and cooked precisely to order. The cocktails are also worthy of a mention, particularly the not-too-sweet cucumber fizz, which was both elegant to look at and mixed to perfection.
This is actually a good time to talk about portion sizes. American restaurants are notorious for opting for quantity over quality. There's been many a time where I've been presented with a dish that could feed the entire cast of The Lion King and a few smaller characters from The Jungle Book too, but when you're ordering a la carte at Disney, attention to detail, fine ingredients and a good balancing of flavours and textures reign supreme.
And now for more about Simba et al. Tusker House at Animal Kingdom was next on our list. Here we're talking Mickey waffles on your plate and Mickey Mouse as your dining companion. Minnie, Donald, Daffy and Goofy make an appearance too. It's a brilliant way to start your make-believing day. As is the Festival Of The Lion King - a fun show featuring loads of acrobatics and your favourite songs from the film. Hakuna matata, if that's not your thing. Head to DINOSAUR instead, but be prepared to have your pants scared right off you.
Sanaa was our next stop. No, I'm not talking about the Yemeni capital. This gem is the stand-out restaurant at Kidani Village. I'm talking slow cooked short ribs and chunks of paneer bobbing in a variety of curry sauces accompanied with steamed five grain brown rice. Our dining partners here were African antelopes and zebras of the non-animated variety. And, while the mains were exceptional, the trio of desserts was the standout. The chai cream was so good that I had to ask for the recipe and will be sharing it here with you soon. Promise.
There was no rest for the adventurous of spirit, so after Sanaa we headed to Hollywood Studios were we rode the Tower Of Terror until our knees shook, looped the loop with Aerosmith and saved us all from crossing over to the dark side. The adrenalin, however, did nothing to put us off our dinner, so we headed to Grand Floridian for a meal at Citricos. This is quintessential fare from the American heartland - fried tomatoes, beet salad and monk fish accompanied by Bellini cocktails, a cheeky Chablis and Lonzy - our brilliant server and 38-year Disney veteran.
And now I'm resting (AKA missing breakfast) so I can make some room for my next instalment. We're heading back to Hollywood Studios today for something sci-fi inspired before LA comes to Orlando at dinner time. I'll be sure to keep you posted...
For more information on Disney's Dine For Free holiday, click here.
Image © Kate McAuley
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