by Beth Keating
March 21, 2023
I hesitated to write this article because, quite frankly, if too many people figure this little trick out, it won’t really work anymore. It was a great find for our family during the busy winter holidays when the parks were packed, and we even discovered a few new gems in the process. With spring break crowds pouring into the parks right now, this is a good time to share these tips. Allow me to explain…
When you live near the parks, you aren’t waking up 60 days out at 6:00 a.m. to make dining reservations the way you used to when you were planning a long distance vacation to the Most Magical Place on Earth. Instead, you usually find yourself scrolling through your My Disney Experience app, frantically trying to find an open dining room the day of your visit (or, if you are super organized, maybe the night before.) Sometimes that results in a gift – a favorite restaurant shows up in a desired time slot and you grab it quickly before it disappears. More often than not, and particularly so during packed park days, you are left staring at a set of weird meal times, or restaurants that are nowhere near the park you’re visiting.
That was the case for us over the winter break, when parks were still jammed with visitors. Even the quick-serve counters had long lines, and mobile ordering (when the app was working) had meal times that were hours away. During these visits, we did, however, discover a few tricks. By heading out of the parks, even for a short reprieve for a meal, we had a greater selection of places to eat, and we uncovered a couple of places that are now among our favorites.
First up was a new old restaurant. Back in 2021, at the beginning of the Disney World 50th Anniversary celebration, “The Wave… of Contemporary American Flavors” at the Contemporary Resort wrapped up its renovations, and reopened as Steakhouse 71, a tribute to the opening date of Magic Kingdom. You can walk to the Resort from the Magic Kingdom, or take a quick monorail jaunt, with the monorail pulling right into the cavernous atrium of the Contemporary.
While we didn’t manage to snag a table in the Steakhouse 71 dining room itself, we were able to walk right up, no waiting necessary, and grab a seat in the Steakhouse 71 lounge. And we discovered what is, by far, the best burger on Disney property. I’m not kidding. No exaggeration. Oh, my word, I sometimes think of this burger when I am nowhere near Disney, and suddenly wish myself there. The Steakhouse 71 Stack Burger ($21.00) is a signature blend of smashed patties of beef with pork belly, smothered in melty American cheese, garnished with lemon aioli, red onion, a smattering of house-made pickles, and served on a lovely soft Brioche bun. On the side is a small basket of parmesan fries. Wait, hold on. I’ll be back in a little while. I’ve got to go grab that burger now…
I can’t begin to tell you what else is served at the Steakhouse 71 lounge because I’ve been there three times now, and I’ve never wanted anything but that Stack Burger. The lounge is open from noon to 11 p.m. The entrance to Steakhouse 71 pays tribute to the opening days of Disney World, with its long hallway filled with black and white photos of the construction of Magic Kingdom. It’s located on the bottom floor of the Contemporary.
On other days, when the Magic Kingdom has simply swallowed us up, and we’d decide it was time to get away from the crowds, we’d hop on a Resort-bound boat at the front entrance, and head out across Bay Lake, where we’ve had great success trekking over to Wilderness Lodge. Two fabulous eateries there have gained our loyalty.
Geyser Point Bar & Grill is an open-air venue that has a handful of low-slung tables around a central bar, as well as a take-out window if you’d prefer to find seating elsewhere at this beautiful resort, or if you are spending the day poolside. We’ve never had to wait more than a few minutes to grab a chair at this national parks-feel dining location. It has amazing views of the waterfront, and while it is only a short trip from Cinderella Castle, it feels eons away. It is officially a “quick-serve” spot, but its relaxed vibe and rustic seating make it one of the most chill venues at Disney. And if you’re missing your favorite sports teams, there are usually a bunch of games on the monitors over the bar. At night, you might even catch the Electrical Water Pageant floating by.
On Geyser Point’s “lounge menu,” we’ve enjoyed the cheesy barbecue brisket ($11.00), a ramekin of melty cheese infused with tender brisket (or is it brisket infused with cheese?), served with house-made chips for scooping. I wouldn’t be telling tales out of school if I didn’t mention that we’ve scarfed down more than one of these dishes while sprawling in the wide, cushioned chairs. Another time, we chose the “Shrimp on a Wire” ($13.00), a set of jumbo shrimp with a tasty soy-lime vinaigrette and chili aioli. We almost always wrap it up with the Bison Burger ($21.00), a super-high quality, juicy and always cooked to order burger with bacon, marionberry sauce, garlic aioli, and crispy onion straws on a soft roll. Sometimes the roll has been grilled, but not always. Definitely on our list of top five burgers in Disney World.
If the weather isn’t cooperating for a meal at Geyser Point, we’ll also head to Territory Lounge at Wilderness Lodge. They’ve recently revamped the menu there, and it’s wide-ranging, to say the least. A tiny little room right off the main lobby of Wilderness Lodge, there are only a smattering of tables around a short bar area which seats little more than a dozen guests. That doesn’t stop Territory Lounge from having some excellent appetizers on their lounge menu, however, and we’ve paired a bunch of small plates together into a pretty substantial meal.
Help yourself to the quirky Territory Popcorn Sampler ($12.00), with spicy, caramel, sea salt, truffle or barbecue flavored popcorn. Strange and unexpected, but good! Over multiple visits, we’ve covered nearly all their available apps, from the Charcuterie Board ($22.00); a delicious Loaded Baked Potato Flatbread ($17.00); the Salmon Run ($25.00), a triple salmon featured flatbread; the Bacon On A Wire ($25.00), a candied bacon and deviled egg combo served on an adorable clothesline, with a bourbon drizzle that was so good we asked for more drizzle!; and the Loaded Macaroni and Cheese ($18.00), with sausage and pickled Chiles that was as unusual as it was yummy (and a tiny bit spicy). The only app we haven’t tried since the menu revamp has been the Bone and Brie ($25.00), because while we would love the honey baked brie with marionberry jam, the roasted bone marrow just scares us. Territory Lounge serves from 4:00-10:00 p.m.
We’ve also escaped the Magic Kingdom crowds to head to Tambu Lounge on the second floor at the Polynesian, a simple ride away on the monorail, and no reservations needed. In fact, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably miss Tambu altogether, since it is a tiny little spot with only a handful of seats, tucked into a corner by some windows at the entrance to its famous cousin, ‘Ohana. Most people stop by Tambu for a quick drink while they are waiting for their ‘Ohana reservation to be called. But those in the know seek out some of ‘Ohana’s legendary noodles, ordered off a secret menu from the bartenders. While the noodles aren’t always available at the bar, it’s certainly worth asking. Appetizers are served from 4:00-10:00 p.m., with only four real selections on the published lounge menu here. The California Roll ($18.00); the Pot Stickers ($13.00); the Big Kahuna Hot Wings ($14.00); or the Kaikane’s Barbecue Pork Ribs ($16.00) are all staples of the menu, but if you can snag those noodles, don’t hesitate. The lounge also has, obviously, a full selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic libations, but we honestly have never strayed from the Lapu Lapu ($19.50), a hollowed out pineapple served with a fabulous fruity rum concoction topped by, of course, a festive paper umbrella. It sets the tropical vacation mood.
Oftentimes, Hollywood Studios is another dining problem for us. It’s one of the most popular parks to begin with, and the restaurants there are well-themed and super-busy. One evening, we strolled around, heading for a Ronto wrap in Galaxy’s Edge because all the dining reservations were already snapped up, and discovered that we could join the “walk-up waitlist” for the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge. While the Hollywood Brown Derby is the park’s “Signature Restaurant,” the My Disney Experience app told us there was only a half-hour wait at the Brown Derby Lounge. In reality, it ended up being just 10-15 minutes before our text alerted us to an available table. We hustled over to the outdoor lounge, and enjoyed the Derby’s famous (and delicious) Cobb salad ($22.00), and experimented with a few non-alcoholic specialty drinks, including the “Pink Palace” ($5.99), a Sprite and watermelon blend, and the Tangerine and Sprite flavored “Sunset Boulevard” (also $5.99), whose name seemed to be particularly in tune with the Hollywood Golden Age theme of the restaurant. And while it wasn’t specifically on the lounge menu, our cast member cheerfully brought my husband a serving of the signature Grapefruit Cake ($13.00), a tart-yet-sweet treat to end the meal. (If you ask nicely, you can usually get items from the full restaurant menu at the lounge seats, though it may not be on the actual “lounge” menu.)
Want the guest favorite and oh-so-good Indian-style bread service ($21.00) at Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge, but can’t finagle a dining reservation? Try sneaking in to the Sanaa Lounge, a spot that I hesitate to call a bar because it is so small. Located just off Sanaa’s main dining room, it barely seats a dozen or so people. Regardless, if you are one of the few who know this little gem is there when the dining reservations are full, you can find yourself enjoying the bread service with five delicious types of naan bread with NINE different dips, sauces and accompaniments. It is absolutely filling enough for dinner, even shared with a friend… or not. It’s your trip, have it your way. Sanaa Lounge, though small, does serve a full complement of drinks as well. Plus, when you’re done, you can go outside to the savannah and visit the animals.
There are a few more lounges on our short list that we haven’t made it to yet, places like Scat Cat’s Lounge at Port Orleans-French Quarter for their famous beignets while listening to jazz; River Roost at Port Orleans-Riverside to experience YeeHa Bob’s show while chowing down on Mardi Gras Fritters; or the stunning Dahlia Lounge at Coronado Springs, to watch fireworks from the rooftop balcony while enjoying a Spanish Charcuterie board.
There is a plethora of lounges scattered throughout the Disney World property, many of which are hiding in plain sight at the Resorts. When the parks get crowded, it may be worth your while to seek these culinary havens out, because you just might find a few treasures along the way. And missing the enormous crowds will be a bonus!
Beth Keating is a theme parks, restaurant and entertainment reporter for DisneyBizJournal.