Bring The Family For The Fun But Bring A Good Appetite For The Fine Food At Walt Disney World Resorts
At Topolino’s Terrace, guests can enjoy indoor dining or terrace dining, alfresco style. T
Preston Mack, photographer
More than once before I went on a recent trip to Walt Disney World Resorts in Florida was I asked by naïve friends, “Why?” When I replied that I was going to check out the restaurants, my inquirers—none of whom had been to Disney in Lake Buena Vista or Disneyland in Anaheim since they had young children or perhaps ever—looked dumbfounded, assuming that all food service at those resorts was geared either to small fry or so tied to a “theme” that a good adult restaurant was impossible to find.
That myopic view hasn’t been vaguely true for more than fifty years, and as someone who, at the age of 10, went to Disneyland the year it opened in 1955 and many times to Disney, which opened in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, in 1971, I’ve seen the evolution of food service from being good, wholesome and basic to extraordinarily sophisticated and well worth a trip for anyone who also intends to stay at some grandly conceived resorts, swim, play golf and relax, with or without kids in tow. In fact, few restaurants in the city of Orlando or Miami would compare well with the best at Disney.
Cream-filled burrata is a sumptuous first course at Topolino’s.
Food service got serious at Disney with the opening of the international pavilions at EPCOT Centre in 1982, by contracting established master restaurateurs like Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé and Claude Troisgros to open two French restaurants on the property, along with other outside professionals to open the Italian Alfredo the Original of Rome, Chinese Nine Dragons and Moroccan Marrakesh.
In addition, themed restaurants like The Hollywood Brown Derby at Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) and some highly innovative restaurants in the hotels and resorts—like the California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Victoria and Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa—were directly aimed at the hundreds of thousands of adults who want more than burgers and pizza after spending $109 to $189 for a one-day pass.
Since then Disney has opened more than 500 food service units, including Broadway Joe’s Marvelous Margaritas ($15) on the boardwalk. And, because of its enormous clout in the market and the rigors of its health rules, Disney can order the finest, most consistent meat, seafood and provender in the global market. That goes for stocking wine cellars, with a few of the resort hotel restaurants having award-winning wine lists that would rival the best in any U.S. restaurant. EPCOT Centre’s annual International Food Festival is one of the most extensive and popular in the state.
Food prices are also comparable with upscale restaurants in Florida, although in décor and sightlines alone, which include a nightly fireworks show, you get a lot more bang for the buck at Disney.
A wintry squash soup is flavored with a touch of espresso and annatto at Topolino’s.
On my three-day trip, then, I sought to go back to some established restaurants—which are always being refreshed or re-imagined—and some, post-Covid, new ones.
Of the latter is Topolino’s Terrace in the Riviera Resort, so called after Italians’ name for Mickey Mouse, though there is nothing to remind you of the character in the dining room. The menu focuses on the cuisine of the French and Italian Riviera, overseen by veteran chef Dominique Filoni, whose work I’ve known since he had his own Mediterranean restaurant outside of Philadelphia years ago.
The spacious dining room’s décor is done largely in browns, taupe and gold colors, with a huge shimmering chandelier, though the lighting needs to be brought up on the bare brown tables to show off the beauty of the food.
Among the starters is a house-made creamy burrata with black truffle, artichokes, grapes, verjus gel and yeasty, warm focaccia ($12). Impeccably fried fritto misto includes artichokes, clamshell mushrooms and zucchini with an herbed emulsion and a tangy-sweet golden raisins mostarda conserve ($12 ). Outstanding was red kuri squash soup I had owing to its out-of-the-ordinary flavors like espresso, annatto and dried fruit granola for texture ($14 ). Luscious, slow-roasted octopus comes out very tender with a soffritto, crispy polenta-like panisse, saffron aïoli, roasted garlic and a touch of mint ($19.)
A blanquette of pork shank is a hearty take on blanquette de veal at Topolino’s.
Pastas are all delicious and come in ample portions. Plump but light gnocchi was lavished with rich braised lamb shoulder ragù, mushrooms, red wine reduction and sweet carrots ($18). Rigatoni comes with a braised chicken sugo, broccolini, pancetta and wild mushrooms ($34). Lobster is impeccably cooked to retain its moisture and gains sweetness from English peas and rich, creamy sauce américaine with pickled onions and a tuile colored with squid ink, all atop linguine ($52).
Among the main courses the sole meunière is a bargain at $50, if a bit overelaborated with sea beans, capers, asparagus, English peas, toybox tomatoes and roasted potatoes that detract from the classic simplicity of the dish. A massive veal chop had a slightly smoky flavor, with browned pommes fondant cooked with its juices, baby turnips, and a spicy Sicilian salsa verde ($53), while the pork shank blanquette with parsnips, polenta, apple butter and chimichurri was a dazzlement of gusty flavors ($46). I had some of the best sea scallops in a while at Topolino’s, with butternut squash risotto, root vegetable crackers and cioppino jus ($52). That most Provencal of all dishes, bouillabaisse ($48) teemed with morsels of red snapper, branzino, clams, shrimps and mussels in a reduction of fennel and a saffron rouille.
A classic chocolate opera cake at Topolino’s is rich enough to share after a big meal.
There is a cheeseboard of international selections served with honeycomb, figs, mushroom conserve and Marcona almonds ($21), and the desserts are requisite to share, like vanilla and citrus crème brûlée with morello cherry compote, strawberry foam, sugared beignets, and chocolate meringues ($14) and the warm chocolate cake with a caramel center, Chantilly cream and raspberries ($15).
Like many Disney restaurants, Topolino’s features a Disney character breakfast ($49 for adults, $29 for children).
A t Citricos the decor is themed to Disney’s two Mary Poppins movies.
Recast from what had been a Mediterranean restaurant, Citricos in the Grand Floridian Resort is now more eclectic. And, despite its name, the theme here is from the film Mary Poppins Returns, with the backs of dining chairs and server stations done with sprays of cherry blossoms, for Cherry Tree Lane, while the chairs in the lounges are configured like Mary’s corset. Birds perch in the light fixtures, and the floral pattern in the rug is from Mary Poppins’s carpetbag in the original 1964 movie. There is also a painting of Cherry Tree Lane, where the Banks family resides in both films. Inside the private Sommelier Room you can see the real carpetbag and Polly, her iconic umbrella, on display.
Chef Andres Mendoza works out of a big, brightly lighted open kitchen to produce a splendid and very balanced menu that begins with appetizers like rice balls called arancinistudded with wild mushrooms, with a truffle aïoli and Champagne vinaigrette ($16).
A beautiful corn bisque is studded with popcorn for texture at Citricos.
Compressed star fruit, passion fruit, Vietnamese nuoc cham condiment and blood orange puffed tapioca underpin full flavored citrus-cured hamachi ($21,) while Berkshire pork belly comes with boniato and a plantain croquette, salsa verde and jicama ($18) that provide crunch and citric balance.
The entrees have a hard-to-choose-among range. Both seafood dishes are very good— Golden tile fish with juniper rice and chorizo-flecked risotto, fresh Key West pink shrimp and a tomato confit ($46), and a butter-poached Florida mahi-mahi with mashed fingerling potatoes, grilled asparagus, local mushrooms and a beurre blanc tinged with grapefruit ($42).
Sweet and tangy flavors add to the tender and slow-cooked barbecued short ribs at Citricos.
On the carnivore side there is guava-slathered barbecued short ribs with creamy cheddar cheese grits, and roasted poblano chile. The only disappointment was an overly lavish plate of rigatoni bolognese with seasonal vegetables, hen of the woods mushrooms, and a bland vegan “egg yolk” ($15 ). But you should try the side dish of truffled mac & cheese made with house-made potato gnocchetti, black truffles and a sprinkling of tarragon ($21). By the way, wine suggestions (extra) are listed with each main course.
Pastry Chef Kristine Farmer’s desserts match the other courses, including an orange blossom flan with blood orange jelly, orange-scented shortbread and orange blossom honey ($13); an apple rose served with marzipan, raspberry jam and frozen coconut milk ($13); and a chocolate torte financier with a dark chocolate ganache, Morello cherry and vanilla mascarpone cream ($14).
The wine list has fifty-plus selections, heaviest in reds, and mark-ups are somewhat lower than you’ll find elsewhere in Florida’s fine dining restaurants. Surprising, then, that none have vintages listed, which are “subject to change.”
Just reading the menu descriptions of Topolino’s and Citricos gives you a sense of Disney’s range when it comes to upscale dining. But in the execution there are few to rival them in the South.