An In-Depth Review of Coral Reef Restaurant
Some restaurant experiences at Disney theme parks are difficult to encapsulate. You have to see them for yourself before you can truly understand their genius. Still, I’m going to take this opportunity to detail why I have such a love/hate relationship with one particular establishment at Epcot. Here’s what you need to know before you book a reservation at Coral Reef Restaurant.
What’s the Big Deal?
In 1986, The Living Seas became the latest expansion pavilion at Epcot. Originally planned in the late 1970s, it didn’t open with the rest of Epcot due to cost and degree of difficulty. The Living Seas finally debuted four years later with a mindboggling 5.7-million gallon saltwater tank, the largest in the world at that point.
As theme park analysts obsessed on the technical wizardry involved in bringing The Living Seas to life, Disney quietly snuck in a second landmark, one that would stand the test of time. Named Coral Reef Restaurant, it was half eatery and half aquarium. At the front of the restaurant, one wall with eight-inch thick plate glass is all that separated diners from schools of fish.
Okay, the Fish Is Fresh. What Else?
First of all, Disney doesn’t serve the fish from the aquarium. That would mess up an extremely delicate ecosystem. Also, it’s kind of mean.
Anyway, Coral Reef Restaurant is one of the true experiential establishments at Walt Disney World…or anywhere in the world, really. It’s right beside a children’s ride, The Seas with Nemo & Friends, making it a common choice for hungry theme park guests.
You can book a FastPass for Nemo and then head out one door and walk another 100 steps to reach the restaurant. And the restaurant is truly unforgettable. It offers a view of an underwater habitat that’s totally engrossing and a lovely distraction during an active day at Epcot. Perhaps that’s why Coral Reef is consistently booked, forcing guests to schedule Advance Dinner Reservations (ADRs) when they want to eat with the fish.
What’s the Big Deal?
Essentially, Coral Reef shares the same theme as Rainforest Café, only it’s not a few fish tanks filled marine life. Instead, it’s an actual aquarium that hosts a restaurant in basically the same space. When you look long enough, you’ll even see Disney cast members performing their daily rituals. They enter the aquarium to feed and interact with the fish.
What’s the big deal about all this?
Well, that depends on how much you enjoy watching fish swim around in their natural environment. The saltwater tank features groupers, sea turtles, sharks, stingrays, and tarpons among many other species. You’ll see them do laps around the aquarium, and you may even make a friend or two.
The rays in particular are friendly. They have a tendency to lay down right beside the plate glass window. The lucky guests seated at the tables beside the aquarium are about two feet away from a ray. You can watch them blink and breathe as you eat. You certainly won’t find anything like it at Red Lobster. Then again, Red Lobster has cheese biscuits…and that’s where this conversation takes a turn.
The Food’s the Problem
Coral Reef is one of the most divisive eateries at Walt Disney World for a simple reason. A lot of folks don’t like the food. The expectation is that a Table Service restaurant at Epcot should taste delicious. Otherwise, customers have regrets about not heading back to the World Showcase to dine on some kind of international cuisine instead, and that’s valid. The opportunity cost of a bad meal at Epcot is staggering.
The brutal truth about Coral Reef is that you’re not going to get one of the best meals at Epcot.
That’s not to say that you’ll get a bad one. To the contrary, my wife and I eat here on every trip, something we wouldn’t do if the food were consistently bad. It’s just not…memorable. A meal at Coral Reef isn’t about the food inasmuch as the sheer joy of watching the secret lives of fish.
What to Order
This article may not sound like a full-throated endorsement of Coral Reef, but it actually is. I’m a firm believer that people should eat here at least once. A lot of what’s been said is about managing expectations. As long as you don’t enter the restaurant thinking that it’ll be as good as Teppan Edo, you’ll be fine.
Each meal starts with bread and butter, a salty concoction that sets the tone. The menu is obviously fish-heavy, but that’s a good thing. The crab cake and lobster bisque appetizers are both great, and the Charbroiled Octopus is…different, something that adventurous eaters should definitely try once.
The entrees include expected items like salmon, Mahi Mahi, and scampi, but some basic options are available for people like me with child-like palates. Chicken, pork, and steak are all available. I usually go for the steak and while it’s no Le Cellier, it’s above average for Walt Disney World.
The star of Coral Reef is dessert. That’s the one portion of the meal where you’ll definitely feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. I’ve tried everything here, and I would honestly recommend all of it. The Baileys and Jack Daniel’s Mousse and Chocolate Wave receive much of the acclaim, but the Key Lime Tart and Turtle Cheesecake are also divine.
We’re generally on the Deluxe Dining Plan when we eat at Walt Disney World. What I would suggest for people who aren’t is to skip the appetizers. Most of them aren’t worth the price. If you’re hungry, nosh on bread until the entrée arrives.
People who like fish should definitely pick one of those entrees, even though it’s kind of weird to eat fish right in front of the fish. It makes me feel like an apex predator taunting a vanquished foe. As for dessert, you really can’t go wrong, so absolutely order something. My family always gets several things and shares bites, which is only viable when you have a large party like ours.
Coral Reef Restaurant is controversial since the food is so scattershot. Disney has always had a strong sales pitch with the aquarium, and so they haven’t prioritized food quality the way that they should. Still, there’s nothing like having a stingray come up to your table and lay flat right beside you. The inimitable nature of the meal experience is reason enough to eat there. Just don’t expect the tastiest meal of your life.
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