Character Dining- the good, the bad and the ugly!

It’s time for the big trip to Walt Disney World and you’ve got a little one coming along.  Dining suggestions are flying from all of your friends and family.  “You absolutely have to take her to Cinderella’s Royal Table.  She will love the princesses!”  “Every toddler loves Crystal Palace.  Winnie the Pooh and friends are adorable.”  “Don’t forget to go to Chef Mickey’s!  Little Junior will never forgive you if you don’t see Mickey!”  Before you know it, your whole trip has become a hop from one pricey character meal to another.  What looks like a young child’s dream trip could easily end up a nightmare for all, with you left wondering where you went wrong.  So before you go overboard, let’s sort out the good, the bad and the frankly ugly aspects of character dining so you can plan the perfect mix of character meals to make your trip magical.

Let’s get the downright ugly truth about character dining out of the way.  You might create the perfect agenda of the top-rated character meals only to discover on the first day that your little one is absolutely terrified of characters.  Kids are unpredictable.  The little tyke that ran up to Winnie the Pooh a year ago might scream in terror this year and hide her face in a plate of scrambled eggs.    One of my sons loved most of the characters but grouped face characters (those without masks, like the princesses) in with the “stranger danger” group and refused to look at them, let alone pose for a picture with them.  It is very important that you know your child before you plan so you can pick the spots least likely to end in disaster.  If you’ve got the kid that bolted from Santa at the mall, you may want to rethink spending how much time and money you spend on character meals. 

That brings us to the bad.  Character meals cost money- quite a bit of money.  And frankly, the food isn’t often stellar.  The majority of character meals are standard buffets and they don’t come cheap.  At breakfast you’ll be paying about $15 for children over 2 and under 10 and $30 for everyone else in your party to eat scrambled eggs, breakfast meats and a Mickey waffle or two.  At dinner those prices can rise to $30 for the tykes and almost $60 for adults.  Given that your 11 year old picky eater is  an “adult”, these meals are not always the best deal on property.  

We’ve covered the ugly and the bad and you may be ready to throw in the towel and cancel all of those character meals.  But don’t!  Because when character dining is good- it’s really good.  Sometimes, it’s even downright magical.  Character dining gives you and your child the chance to interact with some of your favorite characters without standing in the sun for hours. In less time than it takes to make it through one standby line, your child will get to hug, chat with and collect autographs from multiple characters, all while you relax and eat.  I’ve heard tales of Mary Poppins sewing up a tear in a little girl’s dress, watched the Mad Hatter shout out the name of a too-cool pre-teen until he couldn’t help but smile and witnessed a five year old throw himself into the arms of Eeyore.  Character meals give you the chance to snap a picture of your son getting a peck on the cheek from a princess.  They allow you to relive your childhood as you hug Donald Duck.  Character meals give us all the rare opportunity to meet and mingle with some of the most important “friends” from our childhoods.  The trick isn’t to avoid character dining completely- it’s to follow a few simple steps to make sure that the bad and ugly don’t overshadow the good.  

Step one- don’t overdo the character meals.  Unless you are 100% positive that your child will want nothing more than character time and you are willing to sacrifice your budget and tastebuds to meet that need, book no more than one character meal per day and consider limiting yourself to even less.  Between the high cost and the redundant buffet food, character meals are much more enjoyable interspersed between meals at some of the nicer, character-free venues with full menus.  

Step two- know what each character meal actually offers.  While the majority of character meals involve characters visiting your table in rotation- a few don’t.  For example, Mickey’s Backyard BBQ features Mickey and Minnie but they don’t actually come to your table.  The same goes for The Beast at Be Our Guest.  This is great if your little one is fearful but a disaster if you’ve hyped up meeting Mickey and your little one never gets a chance.  Also, remember that Disney doesn’t guarantee that the same characters will always appear.  While the website will list the characters who are typically present, make sure you don’t promise your child one specific character.  As you head to Crystal Palace it’s better to say “we’re going to meet some friends from the 100 Acre Woods” instead of “let’s go see your favorite donkey, Eeyore!”  This way you avoid disappointment if someone’s not available that day.

Step three- plan for change in case your child doesn’t like characters.  If you can, book your character meals for later in your trip after you’ve had a chance to see if your child seems drawn to characters or terrified of them.  If your sweet munchkin tries to climb on top of your head in fear when she lays eyes on Winnie the Pooh in the park, you’ll have time to cancel your meals without penalty.  At the very least, space character meals out by at least 24 hours- again giving yourself the chance to cancel without penalty if one meal proves a disaster.  For your first meal, consider booking a location that has a mix of face characters (like Alice and Mary Poppins) and costume characters (like Eeyore or Mickey).  The Supercalifragilistic Breakfast at the Grand Floridian comes to mind as one place where you can find such a mix.  Since some kids seem fine with one group and not the other, this will give you a chance to see which, if any, your child fears and rearrange your plans for later in the week if needed.  

Step four- increase the odds of having a magical meal by doing a little prep work.  Make sure your child is familiar with the characters you might meet.  A few Chip and Dale cartoons or a viewing of Winnie the Pooh shortly before your trip can create the sense of familiarity your child needs to feel comfortable.  Once you’re in the restaurant, seating your child where she can see the characters before they approach can help set her at ease.  In my experience, a little effort can go a long way in getting the characters to engage with your child in a memorable way.  Dressing your kiddo like a character, bringing a toy or book featuring the characters he might meet or encouraging her to ask the character an “in-character” type question can all result in wonderful interaction that your child will talk about the rest of the day.  To increase your odds even more, make sure the adults in your group treat each character visiting your table respectfully and as though they truly *are* that character.  As soon as you ask, “is it hot in there?” to Chip or “how heavy is that wig?” to Jasmine- you’ve ruined it for the character and your kid.  On the other hand, flashing your fork to Ariel and squealing “Look!  A dinglehopper!” may just earn you a table full of smiles.

And finally, step five- go with the flow.  Little Annie might have loved Piglet yesterday but is now set on hiding under the table.  Don’t try to fight it.  Pushing her on Piglet will lead to nothing but disaster.  She’ll be traumatized and you’ll be frustrated.  Instead, in the words of a very famous Disney queen, “Let it go.”  Let one parent gather an autograph while the other distracts your child with a quick trip to the buffet.  Take turns taking your own pictures with the characters and making your own memories.  And later that night as you relax in Narcoossee’s, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying a beautiful meal, you can pat yourself of the back for having done your research, picking a few perfect character meals and not overdoing it. 

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