Disneyland offers five unique character dining experiences, each with something special that the littlest of visitors and their families will enjoy. But how do you pick the right character meal for your family on a Disneyland vacation?
After dining at all five of the restaurant options over the past few years with my children in tow, I have found that you really cannot go wrong with any of them. Some options, of course, are a better fit for some families than for others.
Why A Character Meal is a Smart Choice for Babies and Toddlers
First things first — does it really make sense to spend money on a character meal when you have a baby or toddler too young to remember it? Yes! First, babies and toddlers are free. Nearly all the character dining experiences are buffets where children under 3 eat free off a parent’s plate. With so many kid-friendly food choices on the menu, it’s a great value for families with little ones and often isn’t really that much more expensive than one of the quick service meals.
Second, the convenience factor is huge. The characters come to you! There’s no need to stand in a long line on a hot day in the parks while your baby or toddler gets impatient and cranky. You can simply wait while you eat and let the characters make the rounds. Most character dining experiences will allow you to meet, greet, and take photographs with 4-7 characters in a typical meal.
Disneyland Character Meal Options
So now that you know scheduling a character meal is a smart choice, how do you evaluate the options? It is fairly easy to keep them all straight with one shorthand. There are five locations offering character dining within Disneyland Resort: one location in each of the two parks and one in each of the three Disney-owned hotels.
Each meal at Disneyland has one guaranteed character meet and greet that corresponds to the name of the character who hosts the meal. While all five offer the classic breakfast Disney guests love, only one restaurant is also available for character dining at lunchtime and one offers character experiences at dinner. The meal options are:
- Minnie & Friends – Breakfast in the Park at Plaza Inn in Disneyland park (breakfast only)
- Ariel’s Disney Princess Celebration at Ariel’s Grotto in Disney California Adventure (breakfast and lunch)
- Chip ’n Dale Critter Breakfast at Storytellers Cafe at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa (breakfast only)
- Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel (breakfast and dinner)
- Surf’s Up! Breakfast with Mickey and Friends at Disney’s PCH Grill at the Paradise Pier Hotel (breakfast only)
Things to Consider when Choosing a Character Meal
Before making a reservation, I always consider a few key decision points for my family and so should you to make the most of the experience.
First, do you want to be in a park or outside in one of the hotels? The hotel character meals are excellent choices for days where you are arriving or departing and won’t be spending money on a ticket for an extra day in the parks. Alternatively, the in-park meals are smart choices for long park days where you can take break and recharge. Look at your overall schedule and make a choice that makes these logistics as easy as possible.
Second, consider any of your baby’s character preferences when choosing a meal. Believe it or not, babies and toddlers recognize characters earlier than you might think! My son already knew and recognized Mickey Mouse at a trip to Disneyland when he was 14 months old. So if your tot is crazy for a particular character, pick a meal that improves your chances of getting that all important meet and greet. Even though each meal at Disneyland has only one guaranteed character, several others are often regulars at certain meals. For example, while Minnie Mouse is guaranteed at Plaza Inn, you’ll often also spot Winnie the Pooh and Captain Hook there as well. For very young visitors, I find that Surf’s Up! Breakfast at PCH Grill is often the safest choice, as several members of Disney’s “Fab 5” that little ones are likely to know first – Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, and Goofy – appear there.
Conversely, also consider any of your child’s fears before booking too. Some little ones are afraid of characters in costumes, so a meal with “face characters” like princesses may be a smarter choice in those circumstances. Ariel’s Grotto is the only meet and greet with exclusively face characters. Goofy’s Kitchen always has at least a face character or two like Alice in Wonderland or a Disney princess, so it could be another choice that makes sense.
Disneyland Character Dining Tips & Tricks
Want to make the most of your experience with Baby? Here are a few parting tips!
Make a reservation. Disneyland accepts reservations over the phone or online up to 60 days in advance. Book early to get the time and the meal you want, especially on weekends and during busy holiday periods.
Buy Photopass+. Disneyland’s fairly new Photopass+ system now includes all character dining photos (except those taken at Storytellers Cafe). At just $39 for the day or $78 for the week, it’s a great way to capture memories from your character meal as well as throughout your park experiences all in one place.
Have your cameras ready. When dining, make sure you have your own cameras on the table and at the ready. While there are Photopass photographers to take an official photo of your family with the host character as you enter the meal, often the best photos are candid ones you take at your table.
Request the right table. Although Disney can’t guarantee table requests, it never hurts to arrive a little early and ask about your seating preferences. On a beautiful Southern California day, nothing beats the outside dining experiences at Ariel’s Grotto or Plaza Inn, but those same seats may not be what you are looking for during a heat wave or a drizzly day.
Bring an autograph book. For older toddlers, consider buying an autograph book (or just bringing a spiral notebook from home) in advance of a meal. My kids love collecting their favorite characters’ autographs.
Get out the high chair. While it may seem like a hassle, consider getting your baby or toddler of the high chair once or twice to capture different photo angles or to enable additional character interaction — like hugs!