Once upon a time I took glamorous, grownup vacations that involved wine tasting and cocktails and stunning scenery and jetsetting. And then I had a child. And after much discussion we decided not to fight the toddler and we took our summer vacation at Disneyland.*
Now, I know it's cool to hate Disneyland because it's so corporate, but the truth is I am a Southern California girl and I grew up going to Disneyland (as did my mother -- she was at the press preopening day in 1955 with my grandfather, who worked for the L.A. Times) and it really is pretty magical. Add in an almost 2 year old who's just old enough to start to get it but not old enough to be scared of Pirates of the Caribbean (she can perform an excellent rendition of "Yo Ho Pie Life ME!") and it really was fun.
But I'm really here to talk about the food.
The thing about Disneyland is that you're not going for the food. You're going there for everything but. And what you get is overpriced. But I'll give you a quick rundown of where we ate and what I'd do again.
Lunches (inside the Park). My favorite place to eat at Disneyland is New Orleans square, and this is no small part because there are restaurants with table service and more importantly, air conditioning. Disney restaurants generally have kids menus, too, which is nice (not because my kid is more likely to eat something from a kids' menu than not, but because it's such a crapshoot to get her to eat anything that it's nice to have a cheap option. Plus she got a Disney cup.)
We booked one meal at the Blue Bayou, which is inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and is a fairly convincing rendition of eating on the large, lantern-lit patio of a Louisiana mansion next to the bayou. The atmosphere is terrific, which is good, because you're paying a lot for it. The food is expensive (entrees in the $30 range) and only OK (what did you expect?) Still, it's an experience worth having, because the atmosphere really is great (and did I mention the air conditioning?). If you want to eat there, book in advance (Disney has a reservations line) because it fills up fast. As for food, we shared the famed Monte Cristo, which is made the old fashioned way -- i.e., a heart attack on a plate. Ham and cheese sandwich dipped in batter and fried. And I mean DEEP fried. It's like a ham donut -- especially since they serve it with powdered sugar and blackberry jam. The upside? 1) It comes with a salad; 2) it's the cheapest thing on the menu and 3) It's by far big enough to share.
We also at at the Cafe Orleans, which is also in New Orleans Square, and also takes reservations (although we didn't make one). It's less formal than the Blue Bayou and can't touch it with a ten foot pole for atmosphere, but is also less expensive. We shared a very good chicken sandwich and a VERY good salad, which was a nice change from the Monte Cristo (though they have that here, too).
Dinner (Downtown Disney) Thank GOD for Downtown Disney says I. This option wasn't around when I was a kid, and it's great BECAUSE YOU CAN GET ALCOHOL. This is huge. After riding Small World six times, a cocktail is definitely in order.
Rainforest Cafe -- meh. I mean, there were animatronic animals everywhere, but this is after all Disneyland, where animatronic animals are old hat. The Nuni was thoroughly unimpressed (though she liked the aquariums, which are cool.) It's chain food with a vaguely "tropical" theme -- even the salads are heavy, and the food isn't particularly inspiring -- and it's kind of expensive for what you get to boot. Also, the drinks are weak.
Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen. (Hey -- I just realized we took a vacation to fake New Orleans!) This was actually very good. First, they have a great cocktail menu, the cocktails are real cocktails, as in they contain a discernible amount of alcohol and they're reasonably priced to boot (try the Sazerac for $6.50). We were kind of burned out by the time we ate here, but the appetizer plate we shared had some creative options (the blackened chicken spring rolls and the pulled pork sliders were standouts), the salad was interesting and the children's menu was fresh and tasty.
Snacks: Pack your own water (you can bring as much as you want into the Park), and some snacks, but expect your kids to beg for a) popcorn b) churros c) ice cream d) lollipops. The ice cream is fine, the churros are good, the Dole Pineapple Whip in adventure land is overrated. The Blue Ribbon Bakery on Main Street is not as good as it smells (though the La Brea Bakery at Downtown Disney is better).
In another non-food note, we stayed at the Sheraton Anaheim Park which is not castle-themed or swank or even super close to the park, but we did have a balcony with an excellent view of the Disney fireworks, and Disney fireworks should not be missed.
* This is not to say that one must stop all non-theme-park traveling upon childbearing. The Nuni used to be considerably more portable, and when she was 6 months old we spent a weekend in Portland drinking pinot noirs and eating fantastic food, and when she was 9 months old we took her to Paris, where they love babies, and Belgium. But two years old is not the BEST time for traveling. She is high on mobility and low on impulse control.