By Ashley Nichols
For many, the words “theme park” brings thoughts of thrill rides, costumed characters, awe-inspiring shows and memorable moments. But thoughts of theme park food often include carnival-style favorites including burgers and fries, funnel cakes and snow cones. Dining is one of the most frequently overlooked details of a trip to Central Florida’s theme parks by guests, but Orlando’s parks are taking steps to improve their culinary offerings and bring dining into the spotlight. As a result, many parks are moving away from the “burgers and fries” model and are offering higher quality menu options at every price level.
The Theme Park Foodie blog was created to share information on these changes and improvements in the Central Florida area. Like the blog, this new regular column will cover theme park food news, dining and reservations tips, top (and bottom) fives, reviews and more.
To get things started off, here are my top five restaurants that I would recommend to any theme park goer. In short, they are my five favorites!
5) Crown Colony Restaurant, Busch Gardens Tampa
Located on the top floor of the Crown Colony House, the Crown Colony Restaurant is Busch Gardens’ table service restaurant. The restaurant offers both a full menu and a family style, all-you-can-eat fried chicken or fish meal. Those who dine at the Crown Colony Restaurant will be treated to not only satisfying food, but also to one of the best views in the park. From the center of the restaurant, you can see over the park’s Serengeti Plain and watch both the Montu and Cheetah Hunt roller coasters. Be sure to ask for the dessert menu after your meal; the Black Forest Cheesecake is to die for!
4) Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano, Disney’s Hollywood Studios
While the food at Mama Melrose’s is delicious, it really is standard Italian fare. What puts this restaurant in our top four isn’t the dining or even the atmosphere, but the service. The wait staff at Mama Melrose’s always goes above and beyond, even surpassing the excellent Disney customer service. If you are looking for a restaurant to enjoy a special meal where you will feel like family, Mama Melrose’s is an excellent choice.
3) Seafire Inn, SeaWorld Orlando
The only counter service restaurant on our list, the Seafire Inn makes the top five for one very important reason: the food. SeaWorld Orlando is always evaluating and working to improve the quality of its dining options, and they scored a home run when they revamped the Seafire’s menu in early 2012. The hand carved signature sandwiches, served on pretzel rolls, are mouthwatering. The best part? The Seafire Inn is included on SeaWorld’s All Day Dining Deal.
2) ‘Ohana, Disney’s Polynesian Resort
‘Ohana means family, and apparently family means “stuff your face.” That’s pretty much what happens every time we decide to dine at ‘Ohana (pictured above). The food at the dinner buffet is so enticing that it’s nearly impossible to stop eating. Marinated sirloin steak, grilled turkey, grilled steak, pork fried dumplings and more … I’m drooling just thinking about it! The ONLY reason ‘Ohana is not number one on our list is the “entertainment.” A loud woman with a nasally singing voice and a ukulele walks around the restaurant and is played over the restaurant’s speakers. While great for kids, it’s a little harsh and takes away from the restaurant’s relaxed atmosphere.
1) Sharks Underwater Grill, SeaWorld Orlando
The combination of tasteful fine dining, underwater ambiance, friendly staff and a unique view of SeaWorld’s Shark Encounter make Sharks Underwater Grill my favorite theme park restaurant in Central Florida. Though a little expensive, this dining experience is really not to be missed. The menu features a wide selection of appetizers (the lobster bisque is fantastic), delectable entrees including steak, seafood and chicken, scrumptious desserts and a few choice selections for children. Although a reservation is recommended for those hoping to sit close to the shark tank, we prefer sitting at the bar; no reservation is needed, you still have a great view of the sharks, and the bar itself is actually a fish tank full of colorful and playful fish that are just as interesting as the big predators across the room!
If you agree (or disagree) with some of the restaurants on this list, send me a tweet at @themeparkfoodie or leave a comment below! I’d love to hear your thoughts about these “top five,” and I’m always interested in hearing your dining stories.
• Ashley Nichols is the editor of Theme Park Foodie, a blog that highlights dining and cuisine opportunities at theme parks throughout the United States with a focus on Central Florida. Her interest in the amusement industry’s food offerings began in 2010 when she served as a seasonal team member at an Orlando-area theme park and was repeatedly asked for referrals to the park’s best restaurants or dining options.