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April 11, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Where should you eat at Disneyland?

Beignets from Cafe Orleans courtesy of Disneyland

Beignets from Cafe Orleans courtesy of Disneyland

Until recently, I hadn’t been to Disneyland since I was a kid. From the looks of things when I got there, I was about the only Seattleite who had stayed away.

The hordes of visitors from around the world included enough residents from our hometown that we ran into them at random despite the enormous crowds. It was a blast, but mobbed and costly, and I wished we had planned meals and snack breaks better for our hungry, tired kids, not to mention their hungry, tired adults. With spring break here and prime traveling season in sight, here are some ideas for making it an even happier place on Earth — at least to eat.

First, be aware that there’s a price premium for anything you purchase in (or, sometimes, near) the park. Even cheese sticks at the closest convenience store outside Disneyland’s borders retailed at $1.95 for a 2-pack, and the breakfast bill at the nearby IHOP made me wonder if those were truffles instead of chocolate chips in the pancakes. (Denny’s prices, by comparison, didn’t seem to include any mouse-related surcharge.) We’d suggest instead:

1. Look within. Unless you want to budget entertainment dollars for a meal where Disney characters are present, the smartest bet is to bring your own food. Though bags are searched at the entrance, Disney had no problem with visitors packing in meals and drinks, and our Trader Joe’s trail mix and sack of apples took us far. Carts and kiosks throughout the park did offer surprisingly healthy options like fruit, but a single banana — each one in the heap precisely and perfectly ripe – ran $2.

2. Try coffee and beignets at Cafe Orleans (pictured above): Order at the window and take a break from the chaos at the outside tables in a relaxing spot where musicians often come to play. The sugar-dusted beignets are shaped like Mickey ears, which pleased the kids, and they were hot and crisp, which pleased the adults. The coffee here was the best we found in the park, and the break will give you strength to wait out the line at the nearby Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Hand-dipped corn dog photo courtesy of Disneyland

Hand-dipped corn dog photo courtesy of Disneyland

3. What could give corn dogs a good name? The quick and casual Little Red Wagon off Main Street serves super-sized juicy dogs with an extra-thick, crunchy batter that tastes worlds fresher than supermarket standards.

4. Get away from cotton candy at the La Brea Bakery in Downtown Disney, with salads, sandwiches and baked goods that would have been a pleasure to eat in any context in any town. The “California” salad topped with dried apricots and goat cheese was bright and refreshing, and the menu ranges from omelets to salmon depending on the time of day. Shaded outdoor tables also gave us a breeze and a break. The cafe is a branch of the well-known bread company founded by Nancy Silverton. It was notably better than the subpar packaged sandwiches and coffee at the Starbucks on Disney’s Main Street, though what sounds like a better and more unusual Starbucks recently opened nearby.

Ursula's Octo-Dog at Ariel's Grotto courtesy of Disneyland

Ursula’s Octo-Dog at Ariel’s Grotto courtesy of Disneyland

5. “Character” meals where dressed-up Disney creatures interact with you are mainly meant as entertainment. That said, lunch at Ariel’s Grotto was a sizable step better than it had to be. It made it easier not to grimace at the prices (roughly $40 adult/$22 kid,) and to just enjoy the procession of friendly princesses who came to drape their arms around the children, speak a few kindly words, and pose for pictures. That part of it is over by mid-meal, which did cause some awkward moments when our preschooler then attempted to crash the Ariel autograph line. The prix-fixe meal has a choice of courses; we thought both the rich vegetarian entree of corn cakes and the tri-tip platter were filling and well-done. Kid entrees like an “octo-dog” hot dog with Disney themes (pictured above) went over well too. Bonus: The bottomless basket of rolls allowed us to pack up the leftovers for afternoon snacks. Extra bonus: The preschooler keeps the luncheon photo of herself and the mermaid next to her bed, and has been known to fall asleep with it in her arms.

Got Disney dining advice for fellow Seattle visitors? Add your own favorite places in the comments. Let me know if I made a mistake when, after enduring the lines for the Haunted House, Pirates, and even Dumbo, I decided I couldn’t handle waiting 15 minutes to try a Pineapple Whip outside the Enchanted Tiki Room.

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