In this full-course book about dining at Disneyland, you’ll learn how to navigate the noshes and get a taste of what’s on the plate at Disneyland’s never-ending variety of food venues, from snack stands and quick service to signature restaurants and dinner shows.
Eating stress-free at Disneyland requires planning—just as much planning as it took to get to the park in the first place. The victuals in the happiest place on earth are vast and varied; it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and to just settle for wherever you can find a table. You can do better!
Theme park veteran (and former Disneyland VIP Tour Guide) Andrea Keech breaks down your dining options into short, digestible chapters, with extensive coverage of the culinary possibilities in each land, the resort hotels, Downtown Disney, and Disney California Adventure, as well as a separate chapter on dining packages and character dining.
Sure, you’ve come for the mouse, but it’s the meals you’ll remember. All the ingredients for the very best dining experiences at Disneyland are right here at your fingertips.
About the Dining Reviews
Main Street, U.S.A.
Adventureland and New Orleans Square
Critter Country, Frontierland, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge
Fantasyland, Mickey’s Toontown, and Tomorrowland
Downtown Disney District
The Disneyland Resort Hotels
Disney California Adventure: Buena Vista Street and Hollywood Land
Grizzly Peak, Cars Land, and Pixar Pier
Pacific Wharf and Paradise Gardens Park
Dining Packages and Character Dining Recap
As far as Walt was concerned, Disneyland was “the star” of his entertainment empire. “Everything else,” he said, “is in the supporting role.” The park was an incredibly special personal achievement, the place where his hopes, dreams, and ambitions came to life right alongside costumed character versions of his classic cartoons. Something the park wasn’t known for, not until the opening of New Orleans Square in 1966, was superlative foods and beverages.
You may have heard the origin stories, how as a young father with two active daughters, he wanted to share with them a weekend outing suitable for the whole family to enjoy together. He knew what he didn’t want—no ill-kept, lackluster, under-maintained carnival-style rides and games of chance staffed by unsavory employees who went about their work as if it were the last thing on earth they wanted to be doing. He became disenchanted taking his girls to places where Diane and Sharon went on the rides while Dad sat on a bench and watched and waved at them. Disneyland was his answer to the dilemma.
With his film and television enterprises off and running, he first cast his eye on an undeveloped little corner of land near his studio in Burbank, California. It wasn’t much, but he thought with some imagination and elbow grease, he could turn it into a pleasant place for families to share a Sunday afternoon where his beloved animated characters could come to life and interact with the public and where rides would be designed to appeal to guests of all ages.
Eventually, with the expert help of consultants, he decided that particular parcel was too small to accommodate his big dream. The little undeveloped corner is now home to the Walt Disney Animation Studios and ABC. He needed at least 160 acres for a theme park, enough room for the place to grow over the years. After World War II, Southern California was booming. I know because I grew up there myself, right along with Disneyland. Every bit of land was quickly being snapped up by developers. Orange groves soon gave way to housing tracts and schools, just like the one down the street from my house that became Ceres Elementary School.
Ultimately, Anaheim some thirty-seven miles east of his Burbank studio was the site he selected. Other areas, for one reason or another, didn’t make the final cut. There were too many local restrictions and regulations, the land owners wanted too much money for their property, access wasn’t supported by the freeway system. Once he had the land, he needed to raise the funds, and that proved an even more ponderous task than selecting a locale. Banks weren’t at all convinced that something entirely new like a theme park was any sort of a sure thing. Still, this was something he believed in so strongly that he was willing to borrow against his personal life insurance policy and sell his Smoke Tree Ranch home in Palm Springs. Finally, ABC agreed to invest if Walt Disney would create a television program for the incipient network, and he did. Not surprisingly, he called the show Disneyland.
Construction started on July 16, 1954, and on July 17, 1955, the main gates opened. The initial cost was the oft-quoted figure of $17 million. By today’s standards, that financial outlay seems relatively modest. Keep in mind that the venture’s success was far from assured, although it is difficult to imagine today how fiscally precarious those early years truly were. Nothing like Disneyland had been done, let alone done well. Still, by 1960, Disney owned all the shares in Disneyland. By August 1, 1995, the New York Times reported:
In the second-largest corporate takeover ever, the Walt Disney Company moved yesterday to create the world’s most powerful media and entertainment company, announcing that it would acquire Capital Cities/ ABC Inc. for $19 billion.
From then on, and with a number of cyclical ups and downs, the global entertainment juggernaut known as Disney and the Disneyland theme parks have continued to move forward just as Walt Disney dreamed they would so many decades ago. “As long as there is imagination left in the world,” as he aptly put it, they always will.
I was there as a four-year-old the summer Disneyland opened, not on opening day when you either had to have a special invitation or be a member of the press, but shortly thereafter and every season following that summer during the years I spent growing up in Southern California, going to college, and starting a family. The early years were every bit as exciting as you’d imagine, and nothing felt quite as special as the opening of a new attraction like the Matterhorn which we watched as it rose to tower over the Santa Ana Freeway, usually referred to as the 5, or the creation of an entirely new land like New Orleans Square. We went often and enthusiastically took out-of-town visitors on tours, proudly showing off what felt like our own personal park.
Working there was always a dream for me, and when my cousin got a position as a sweeper at a time when that job was exclusively for men, it whetted my appetite. He came home with thrilling descriptions of what went on “backstage” and anecdotes about insiders-only fun like cast member canoe races, cast baseball games, and the Parking Lot Olympics. Very late one evening after the gates had closed and the guests had gone home, he even ran into Walt Disney himself strolling the deserted streets keeping a careful eye on things. They greeted each other with a nod using first names, something Walt insisted on from sweepers right on up to the man in charge. It seemed impossibly glamorous, and I couldn’t wait to start working there myself!
If you’d like to hear more about the early years from a cast member’s perspective, I’ve written about my college years from 1969 through 1972 in The Cream of the Crop: Tour Guide Tales from Disneyland’s Golden Years, published by Theme Park Press. I handed out carnations at the Main Gate for Disneyland’s big 15th anniversary, carefully steered my tour groups around throngs of Hippies and Yippies who took over the park on August 6, 1970, and took a very young David Geffen, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell on a memorable VIP tour in 1972 around the time he made a major deal merging his Asylum Records label with Elektra.
Disneyland was known for many things back in the early days, but good food was very definitely not one of them! Burgers and fries, Coke, ice cream bars, popcorn—yes. Typical “fair” food, what we now call fast food, was widely available. Something more inventive or substantial than that—not so much. When the Blue Bayou opened with New Orleans Square on July 24, 1966, it was a real revelation. The menu was extensive and inventive, especially when compared with what had gone before, and it actually tasted good. Better than good, in some cases.
The first time my cousin took us all for lunch at the Bayou, we marveled at the golden, crispy, heavenly-tasting Monte Cristo sandwich cut carefully into four wedges (these days, only three) served in a cloth napkin, dusted lightly with powdered sugar, and accompanied by fresh fruit and berry jam. As we sat in perpetual blue twilight by the river listening to the screams of guests in the boats heading over the falls to the brand-new Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, it was clear that Disneyland had made a definite sea change as far as cuisine was concerned. Dining would never be the same again in our favorite theme park. Since that day, eating at drinking at Disneyland has followed a sharply upward trajectory.
Today, you’ll be treated to a wealth of exceptional dining opportunities. Meeting and greeting the characters is always a thrill, but sometimes the lines are prohibitively tedious. Have a bountiful brunch in the Magic Kingdom with costumed characters like Minnie Mouse and her friends at the Plaza Inn, try the new Disney Princess Breakfast Adventures at Napa Rose, or sit down for dinner with Goofy and his pals at the Disneyland Hotel. Every character comes to every table to chat, pose for photos, and sign autographs with no waiting in queues whatsoever.
For upscale dining on a level Walt could hardly have imagined back in the 1950s, think about booking a chef’s table for dinner at the Napa Rose in Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel with Chef Andrew Sutton where you’ll feast on the finest, freshest foods California has to offer, accompanied by a wine list carefully chosen to complement each dish to perfection. Chef also serves up beautiful haute cuisine at Carthay Circle inside Disney California Adventure if you find yourself craving a very special lunch or dinner during your visit.
A casual day out with the family or friends, but you’d still like something seriously yummy? Not to worry, Fantasyland’s Red Rose Tavern has exquisite choices. The Beast’s Forbidden Burger, Chef’s Chopped Salad with Grilled Chicken, or Chicken Sandwich à la Lumière are all dandy, especially when followed by the decadent Grey Stuff Gâteau. The corn dogs at DCA’s Corn Dog Castle are spectacular. New Orleans Square restaurants have many authentic Creole specialties to tempt you, and you can get an espresso from the same machine that served Walt Disney to go with your Mickey-shaped beignets at the Café Orleans. Dine on out-of-this world specialties in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge like Roasted Endorian Tip-Yip Salad, Smoked Kaadu Ribs, or a plant-based Felucian Garden Spread.
Don’t forget the many offerings waiting for you between the two theme parks, either. At Downtown Disney, you’ll discover goodies you just won’t find inside the Main Gates. Mexican specialties at Catal or Tortilla Jo’s are spicy enough to be interesting but still friendly to most palates. Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen is lively, fun, and filled with Southern specialties. Look for house-made brews at Ballast Point Brewing Co., check out the wild new ice cream varieties at Salt and Straw, and Sprinkles always has you covered with world-famous cupcakes galore.
Dining at Disneyland was never like this back when the park was young, but today there’s a whole new world of flavors and treats just waiting to tempt you. Turn the page and dig in!
Andrea McGann Keech was born in Southern California and visited Disneyland often, ever since the summer it opened in 1955. She fulfilled a life-long dream by working at the park when she became a bilingual Tour Guide and VIP Hostess during college from 1969 through 1972, experiences fondly chronicled in her first book The Cream of the Crop: Tour Guide Tales from Disneyland’s Golden Years (Theme Park Press, 2016).
After graduating, Andrea taught students in English and Spanish in grades K-12 during her teaching career. She was a member of the National Assessment of Educational Progress Committee that established Writing Standards, 2011–2018, for students in grades 3–12. She has written for a variety of national educational journals and presented at many teaching conferences.
She lives in Iowa City with Shadow and Sunny, a pair of boisterous standard poodles. After school, she plays Mary Poppins to beloved grandchildren, Katherine and Drew, and spends as much time as possible with joyful Will and baby Lucy, her newest grandchild. For the past few years, she has begun painting under the helpful tutelage of artist Lianne Westcott and is enjoying it tremendously.
Other Disney titles for Theme Park Press are The Indulgent Grandparent’s Guide to Walt Disney World; Treasure of the Ten Tags: A Disneyland Adventure; Walt Disney World Characters 101: Your Complete Guide to Perfect Meet-and-Greets; A Mouse for All Seasons: Your Month-by-Month Guide to Walt Disney World; 50 Fun, Fabulous Foods at Disney Theme Parks; and The Disneyland Resort Dining Guide 2020.