Updated for 2016!
Ever taken a small child to eat dinner with a towering, walking, stuffed doll? There you have it…a Disney Character Meal. Many parents are understandably giddy at the thought of booking a character meal for their next Disney vacation, but is your child really ready to dine with Mickey and all his pals?
We’ve all seen the cute television commercials, and we watch our free Disney planning videos. The children running through an almost-empty Magic Kingdom hug those iconic characters full on with no hesitation. Nuthin’ but LUV! Memories are made, photos are taken, smiles are exchanged, and the vacation life is indeed lookin’ good. But this isn’t always the reality with close encounter character meet and greets
And the same goes for those character dining situations, especially if your child is fairly young and has not spent a lot of time around unusually large costumed-characters. If you’ve ever seen a child flip out on Santa’s lap at the mall, then you know exactly where I am headed with this. Disney characters can be frightening for small children, and “small” doesn’t have to be the diapered crowd.
I don’t write a lot about character meals because until 2015, I had been to exactly one. My husband and I had a late dinner at the Crystal Palace in 2015, where we brought along no small children. Back in 2012, my sons took me to Chef Mickey’s for my Christmas present that year for our very first character meal experience, at the ripe old ages of 11, 13, and 42. How’s that for the epitome of “cheapskate?”
The little girl seated on her mom’s lap in the photo below appears to be about four-years-old, maybe five. I watched this family come into Chef Mickey’s, and everything seemed fine, until delightful Disney characters started popping up at tables nearby.
When Chef Goofy, over 6 feet of him in a large costume, approached her table, she let out a piercing scream that stopped conversation eight tables away. When Minnie touched her chair, this child’s screams almost warped the ceiling beams of the Contemporary (just a bit of exaggeration here, but not much) And uh-oh, breakfast was over for their family.
Her father quickly removed her from the table and took her to a spot in a corner, far away from characters and her mother, her grandfather, and her grandmother. These three adults then picked at their meals, looked unhappy, and glanced over at dad and daughter composing themselves in the most un-magical of spots 30 feet away from characters and fun (and food!)
Character meals are some of the more pricey family dining experiences at Walt Disney World. In 2016, for breakfast, you will pay $21.29 for a child ages 3-9 and $40.46 for adults, not including tax or $18 gratuity. For dinner, you will pay $25.55 for a child ages 3-9 and $50.05 for adults, not including tax or $18 gratuity. For a true cheapskate like me, those prices are hard to swallow, or digest, or insert another food joke here.
I have no doubt that if this little girl and her dad were unable to complete their breakfast, (and no, they had not returned to their table when we finished gobbling up our Mickey waffles and doughnuts,) that Disney probably reimbursed their money. They ate little if anything. I frequently sing the praises of the Disney Company for going that extra mile to keep their customers satisfied. But mom, granny and pop-pop just forked out over $40 each for this breakfast, and they didn’t seem to be experiencing the joy we almost demand from a meal so pricey and full of expectations.
What can you do if you’re not sure how your child will handle the characters, but you really believe now is the time to start character dining?
We asked our Cheapskate Princess Facebook Fans, real moms who’ve been there on more than one occasion, to provide some suggestions. Their ideas can help you make the most of your vacation time and money.
1. Kids Lead
Mandy, “My child LOVED the character breakfasts at nine months and 21 months. He did not like them at 26 months; he did not like them at all.”
Let your child take the lead in terms of how close he/she allows the characters to get. You need to be accepting if he or she wants to watch the character from afar.
Don’t freak out if there are no photos of your little one hugging Mickey. Is this about the enjoyment of the meal or a photo opportunity?
2. Wave From a Distance
Point out the characters from a distance, and if your child doesn’t want the character to hug them, explain that to the character or Cast Member close by.
You can practice before you travel as well. Heather, “‘Practice’ by meeting mascots at local venues before you book your meal – parades, grand openings, some restaurants, or local amusement parts might let you gauge you child’s reaction to costumed characters before you risk the time and money at Disney.”
Every child is different, thus certain characters can get different responses. Don’t assume because your child loved Goofy that they will be totally fine with Donald. Being straightforward with the characters is the best option. Disney Cast Members are highly trained and have handled plenty of screaming children before. Well, hopefully not plenty!
Krystal, “Sit your child where they can see the character coming. My child was more receptive to meeting them when he could see them, rather than having them come up behind him.”
Karen, “Have the child sit on the outside close to where the character can get to them more easily.“
If you know your child is hesitant about characters, seat them away from the aisle, or toward the back, and ask the character to just wave at first. This will provide a few extra moments to decide if he/she is ready for a big ol’ character hug.
Sara, “Get a character Fastpass+ at the parks if you want to see how your child will react before the dining experience.”
Or if possible, schedule the breakfast later in the week. That way you can take the kids to meet characters in the parks to see how they react. You can cancel your character meal reservation, as long as it’s 24 hours out, if the pre-meeting is not going too good. And it may not go well, so be flexible with your plans. Mandy‘s suggestion for character meals was, “Don’t do it! For the love of God, don’t do it!” So clearly it doesn’t always go well, but you can prepare.
Make sure you schedule your meal at a time of day when your child is most rested and happy, whether it’s breakfast or an early dinner after a good nap. A one p.m. lunch may not be your best option.
5. Lower Your Expectations
Tina, “If you take your kids to a character meal, remember it’s about them, and some kids just get upset when the huge characters come near. A few tears never ruined a vacation, and adults freaking out and getting angry at scared kids just makes it so mush worse.”
Relax, and try to set your expectations a little lower than Greatest Meal of Our Entire Lives. This way if something does go wrong, you can handle it so there are not two people freaking out at the same table. Save the freak out for when the bill arrives!
6. Extra Tips
Sara, “Take your children when they are under age three so they can eat from your plate for free. We did that twice before my sons turned 3. They were three the last time we were there, and we skipped out on the character breakfast.”
Colleen, “Have them bring their autograph book. When my son was four, he was so excited to get their autograph, he didn’t think to be scared!”
Mandy, “Definitely bring an autograph book. My son was terrified, but he loved having them sign in his book. And have your camera out and ready.”
Holly, “Talk with them about the characters so they can ask fun questions. My then-4 year old loved asking Stitch about his missing “extra” arms and Pooh about being a little black rain cloud.”
Mandy, “Eat your fill, or use a Disney Dining Plan. Those meals are expensive!”
Jenny, “We bought a Mr. Potato at Downtown Disney. He became our dinner companion and distraction.”
And if you want to live on the edge, throwing caution to the wind, Lola suggests, “Don’t let them know you are going to a character meal…awesome expression on their face when the characters come out!!!”
Now let our vacation planner help you plan your trip, totally for FREE!
Use this link for a free no obligation vacation quote from Erin, our Vacation Planner with Destinations in Florida travel. She offers promotions like Disney Trading Pin sets, autograph books, and free Mickey Mouse ear hats for kids under age 17. We know our readers love free…
Give Erin a call at 214-697-7732, or send an e-mail to erin @ destinationsinflorida.com.