We all enjoyed a traditional Italian dessert: zeppole di caterina which are ricotta cheese fritters, served with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Photo by Megy Karydes.

We all enjoyed a traditional Italian dessert: zeppole di caterina which are ricotta cheese fritters, served with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Photo by Megy Karydes.

Eating at fine dining restaurants is not what most people associate when they think of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Understandably, most families visiting spend hours and days planning their itinerary around attractions including the hottest thrill rides or meeting their favorite Disney character.

What most families who visit for the first time don’t realize is that there are a number of great restaurants in the Disney parks and throughout the resorts. The trick is to book your reservations earlier than later to guarantee a spot at the table. Here are some restaurants worth trying including some fine dining establishments.

Animal Kingdom Lodge

Jiko – The Cooking Place is a fine dining restaurant that serves African cuisine. The extensive wine list features South African wines (South Africa is well-known for its outstanding wines.). Order the Bordeaux blend from Stellenbosch or ask the waiter for a recommendation based on your preferences. Then, consider starting your meal with the Taste of Africa appetizer that includes African-inspired dips with pappadam, poppy seed lavash and house-made naan (various types of thin breads). The Spicy Botswana-style “Seswaa” beef short ribs is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes and served with cassava-potato purée, sambal, mushrooms and fava beans. Finish off your meal with Ghanaian chocolate and Kenyan coffee pot de crème for dessert.

Jiko is a fine dining restaurant with a fine dining price tag. If young kids are part of your party and you don’t think they’ll be up for African dishes, there is a limited children’s menu that does not include traditional African cuisine (think mac n cheese).

The atmosphere is warm and inviting and the layout offers a view of the kitchen so you can watch the chefs cooking. Jiko is probably my favorite restaurant at Walt Disney World and perfect for celebrating a special occasion or date.

Magic Kingdom

California Grill – On the other side of the décor spectrum, California Grill recently re-opened in Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Another fine dining restaurant, the contemporary restaurant also features views of Magic Kingdom’s fireworks in the evening with music piped into the restaurant for the full effect.

Much of the menu is New American fare which will please just about anyone but it also has a great selection of sushi and seafood. Kids have their own entrée and dessert menu options that range from grilled beef tenderloin and chicken breast to pasta and pizza.

Reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance but if you don’t have a reservation, you can always try to saddle up to the bar seating area which is first come, first served.

Epcot

Chloe enjoying a slice of quattro formaggi pizza which she was not willing to share. Photo taken at Via Napoli in Epcot, Walt Disney World by Megy Karydes.

Chloe enjoying a slice of quattro formaggi pizza which she was not willing to share. Photo taken at Via Napoli in Epcot, Walt Disney World by Megy Karydes.

Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria – a more casual and fun environment for both adults and kids, Via Napoli provides great entertainment for diners because you get to watch the pizzas being made in the kitchen and placed into the wood-burning ovens.

On the night we visited, we were seated without reservations about 20 minutes after arriving (not bad). The adults ordered a flight of Italian craft beers while the kids were treated to some acqua fesca.

We began our meal with the insalata del contadino which my son immediately devoured. Since the star is the pizza, we opted for three individual servings of pizza including the: quattro formaggi pizza: a white pizza with mozzarella, parmesan, fontina and provolone cheeses. The prosciutto e melone pizza is another white pizza with fontina, mozzarella, prosciutto, cantaloupe and arugula. The pizza margarita is a traditional pizza with fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce.Quite honestly, after walking throughout the park all day, this hit the spot with us adults and the kids. It may not have been the best pizza we’ve had in our lives but it was tasty. My son opted for the spaghetti with meatballs and he was happy with his decision.

Alex about to enjoy his spaghetti with meatballs at Via Napoli in Epcot, Walt Disney World. Photo by Megy Karydes.

Alex about to enjoy his spaghetti with meatballs at Via Napoli in Epcot, Walt Disney World. Photo by Megy Karydes.

We left room for dessert so we ordered a tiramisu (made with mascarpone cream, espresso coffee, lady fingers and chocolate) and zeppole di caterina: ricotta cheese fritters, served with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Our waiter described the latter as mini donuts so the kids were eager to try something they’ve never had. Once it arrived, they were fighting over the whipped cream dip (oddly enough, they preferred that over dipping it into the chocolate sauce).

Hollywood Studios

Hollywood & Vine – my fellow TravelingMom writers Dana Zucker and Sherry Wernicke were pleased with the menu offerings at this restaurant because it also provided plenty of healthy fare.

Vegetarian-Friendly Restaurants

The other thing that Walt Disney World does well is being mindful that not everyone fits in a mold. Dietary restrictions or preferences aren’t snubbed. Judy Antell, Vegetarian TravelingMom, found several restaurants offering delicious vegetarian options throughout the parks and resorts. If you find yourself with a special request or need specific options, simply ask your waiter and more often than not it will be accommodated.

In the hustle and bustle of planning a Walt Disney World holiday, restaurant dining is sometimes overlooked. If I learned anything during my recent time spent at the popular entertainment venue it’s that food is not an afterthought. It’s as much of the Disney magical experience as are the rides, shows and other attractions. Spend some time reviewing the menus and locations and book your reservations in advance so you can enjoy some much-needed quiet time with your family and loved ones.