Character dining at Walt Disney World is always a mixed bag. Elementary culinary experiences aimed toward the Duggar crowd of mass appeal, these family feasts are a chance for broods to chow in total chaos while costumed icons roam the floor encouraging photo and autograph interaction. It’s really never about the food at these establishments, only the easy-peasy face time with characters that would normally be a hassle and a half to tackle within a theme park. Still, Disney does cough up a little extra effort for these daily events, leading me to visit the restaurant Chef Mickey’s, located in the Contemporary Resort.
The Contemporary Resort was one of the first hotels built for the opening of Walt Disney World back in 1971, offering a sleek futurist design and feel, greeting guests with a cutting edge environment of vacation living. And nothing signals the still-burning flame of ultramodern accommodations quite like hearing the synth-chirpy theme to “St. Elsewhere” upon entrance into the main lobby. The future! Now the Contemporary is more of a museum for Disney’s once incredible ambition for Florida, beautifully designed and brilliantly positioned on property -- the last of its kind. It’s a glorious behemoth of a hotel, with a mammoth sun-drenched atrium housing a collection of shops and restaurants, making it worth a visit just to bop around, staring at the cash-heavy opulence of it all. The occasional interior monorail appearance is a nice touch, as are the various birds that have slipped into the building, giving the day a suspenseful “will I or won’t I be crapped on” build.
Chef Mickey’s is the centerpiece of the Contemporary, plopped right in the middle of the building, emphasizing its reputation as a beacon for families everywhere. A colorful place to make a pit stop for some eats and greets. Like most (if not all) of the character dining spots, Chef Mickey’s is a buffet-style restaurant, which is an ingenious tool to help parents out when in the presence of picky kids, or in the case of yours truly, picky adults. Highlighting a massive amount of delicious offerings from various food stations situated around the establishment, the buffet allows everyone the freedom of choice, which I can only imagine comes in handy when corralling five or more kids around Disney.
Upon arrival, guests are pushed to line up in front of a Chef Mickey statue for a photograph, which seems like such a friendly, welcoming idea until it’s explained that, of course, the snapshot is available for purchase after the meal. I guess draining the piggy bank just to buy a plate here doesn’t entitle a guest to a free 4x6 glossy.
Disney: Checking Your Pockets for Loose Change Since 1923.
I attended the breakfast buffet, hoping to devour a local legend: the Mickey-shaped waffle. The waffle is only a small part of the wide assortment of dishes to choose from, with plenty of egg-based concoctions, fruit, pancakes and French toast, and cereal to inhale while the Disney gang pays a visit to each and every table, greeting families with a series of heavily-rehearsed reactions and poses while Mom and Dad Manchester wipe away the syrup from their chins and push their kids to interact with the oversized, handsy magic.
I’ve become fascinated with costumed characters in recent years, imagining what life must be like wrapped inside a sweltering cartoon exterior, bound by rigid Disney rules that require you to jettison every last human instinct to play make-believe for a pushy horde of demanding brutes. Also, it’s cheap thrill to speculate on the sex of the cast member inside the costumes. Traditionally, most of the male performers offer me a firm handshake or a pat on the back, while the females tend to innocently caress and hug. It’s lead to a few confusing moments, once where Chip blew a few kisses my way; another time had Lilo extending the glad hand to me. Don’t ask, don’t tell. These brightly colored, sweat-stained heroes don’t get paid nearly enough.
While not a quivering culinary experience, Chef Mickey’s is a cut above the normal breakfast buffet fare. At least it tries to mix things up with a hefty fruit and bread selection, joining the various omelets, potato bombs, and breakfast meat trays the reach far and wide. The enjoyment of a buffet is the opportunity to try a little sample of everything, which worked out well for me, permitting a taste of a cheesy, peppery, bacony potato dish that was magnificent for exactly one bite. Just enough to shock the taste buds with its odd collision of flavors and textures. A second forkful would be assured doom, forcing me to move on to little territories of juicy sausages, fluffy pancakes, and the vacation staple: the breakfast pizza. A weird item that slaps bacon, cheese, and egg on a pizza crust, the slice confused me at first. On one hand it’s clearly a morning delight with classic ingredients. The other side of me felt like I was eating pizza for breakfast, making it perhaps the greatest invention in the history of foodkind.
If we can merge the worlds of egg and pizza without the universe imploding, why is this health care thing such a pain in the neck?
The jewel of the morning was the Mickey waffle, which to the common man might not seem like such a big deal. Obviously it’s just a scrumptious waffle, but it’s in the shape of Mickey’s head! Find that in Austin, Texas, you blasted hipsters. It’s a tasty treat, with added entertainment value emerging from the opportunity to chomp gleefully on mouse cranium, indulging the inner Lecter.
Dessert, because every meal deserves a grand finale, contributes a few sad plates of brownies, pastries, donuts, and Rice Krispie treats, stationed below an allotment of humiliated fruit that always seem to lose the “now what should I have for dessert?” war. Chef Mickey’s only truly fails here, right at the finishing move, going cheap and easy while the rest of the edibles submit a little more effort.
Between bites comes the big show, with numerous Disney characters (dressed in chef outfits) flooding the floor, basking in the glow of their fame. That’s the reason to seek out a character dining experience: the sense of surprise. Once the kids spot their favorites, it’s a whirlwind of excitement, infant terror, and hilarious conversation, nicely complimenting the dining event for those able to withstand periodic moments of excited squealing and the occasional birthday celebration, which brings out the wait staff and the characters to sing and whip around (used) napkins.
I enjoyed my time at Chef Mickey’s more than I was expecting. One doesn’t go for the culinary gymnastics, but more for the playful ambiance, and perhaps the chance to get a surprise picture with Mickey himself while rocking a mouthful of eggs.
More pictures (click to huge-o-size)...