I visit Walt Disney World often. And, while it’s widely known that food and drinks on the WDW property are on the more expensive side, I’ve learned over the years which meals are worth the splurge and which aren’t.
I typically avoid pre-fixe menus at WDW because I think it’s more fun to taste my way around Magic Kingdom Park or Epcot, snacking as I go, but the special 50th Anniversary Celebration Menu at California Grill piqued my interest for more than one reason.
For one, it’s a limited-time offering. As part of the World’s Most Magical Celebration, WDW’s 18-month celebration of its 50th anniversary, the special menu is transporting guests back to 1971, when the Top of the World restaurant opened on the highest floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Today that location is called California Grill — known for its views of Magic Kingdom Park and the Seven Seas Lagoon — and serves up sushi, steaks and great vantage points for evening fireworks. For the limited-time menu, chefs are offering up both new creations, like wild Alaskan halibut with charred avocado and mole verde, and anniversary-inspired selections that were served in the ’70s, like Florida blue crab bisque. The celebration runs through March 2023, and then, this special menu ends, too.
California Grill is also already on my list of splurge-worthy restaurants. The food is amazing, the wine selections are impressive and nothing beats the view from up top. While I normally spend about $75 dining there, I was more than willing to take on this higher-priced menu both out of culinary curiosity and because I’m always looking for an excuse to ride those Contemporary elevators up to the 15th floor.
The 50th Anniversary Celebration Menu at California Grill costs $89 per person. Included is one selection from the appetizer menu, one entree and one dessert. But then, there are wine pairings. $39 per person will get you “signature” wine selections, while $69 moves things up to the “deluxe” level. The wines, which range from full-bodied Cabernets to delicately sweet dessert wines, are paired specifically with each dish. And they’re perfect.
We reserved a table at California Grill for 7:30 pm, choosing that time intentionally so we’d be seated during the Magic Kingdom fireworks display. As we watched the sun set over the lagoon, we were served an amuse-bouche of prosciutto and creamy cheese on toasted bread. Next came the bread service, where we dipped warm herb-covered rolls in a mixture of olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes. We hadn’t even been served our appetizers yet and our stomachs were happy.
A long-standing favorite menu item of mine remained on the 50th-anniversary menu: braised beef short rib wontons served in a spicy chili sauce with pickled lotus root and radishes. I couldn’t pass it up, so I ordered it while also tasting the sushi ordered by my husband and friends. The verdict? Everything about the course was perfect down to the Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet each dish was paired with respectively.
As our entrees were served, darkness had finally started to fall over WDW, so we alternated between commenting on how delicious our food was and how stunning the view was becoming as Disney World began to come alive with lights. My husband ordered Florida black grouper, served with cashew chutney and bok choy over basmati rice. My friends and I all had trouble passing up a good steak, so we ordered the oak-fired filet of beef served with perfectly cooked buttery potatoes and asparagus.
The filet was almost as bright a spot in the evening as the fireworks, which began lighting up the skies above Cinderella Castle halfway through the meal. The biggest challenge? Trying to decide if we should watch the fireworks through the window from our table, or abandon our delicious meal to watch it outside on the designated platforms. After sneaking a few more bites of the perfectly cooked steak, we snuck outside for the very end of the show.
We reentered the dining room for dessert. A favorite was the Five Magical Bites, five bite-sized desserts that each represent a favorite from California Grill chefs. From a tiny piece of carrot cake to a mini lemon mousse, exploring so many vibrant flavors in one dessert made for a fun time. Forever loyal to crème brûlée, I chose one served with pineapple-mango compote, toasted coconut and an iridescent sugar topping.
There was also an impressive plant-based menu, something WDW has prioritized in recent years. While we did not try the vegetable dumplings, spring pea and carrot risotto or peanut and banana torte, I have no doubt they, too, would have pleased our palates.
Two and a half hours later, full and happy, we finished our meal and made our way to the elevators to head back to the ground. Several days later, my friend group still sending texts about how delicious those steaks were and how much we wish amazing server, Jay, was still sending us wine and telling our delicious course as it was served.
In total, our check was nearly $700. Our Disney World annual passes did score us 10% off food, but not wine.
Would I visit again? Yes. In fact, I’m sure I’ll end up back on the rooftop of the Contemporary before the special celebration ends. Next time, I may try the duck à l’orange pizza or lavender sugar donuts.
But who am I kidding? I’m a wontons, filet mignon and crème brûlée kind of girl. Throw in Disney fireworks and that’s a perfect evening, $700 or not.
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