Over the years, theme park food has become much more than hot dogs, burgers, and ice cream cones, and Walt Disney World in particular features some of Orlando’s best restaurants. Aside from numerous great food options within the parks, there are also multiple five-star eateries located just outside the four parks yet still on Disney property.
The California Grill restaurant is one of these great restaurants located outside the parks. This restaurant is known for its delicious food and fantastic view overlooking the Magic Kingdom and the Seven Seas Lagoon, but the best part of California Grill and its Lounge is actually watching the Happily Ever After fireworks show from its 15th floor terrace for a one-of-a-kind view!
We’ve got our full review of the food and fireworks coming up in this article, as well as our top tips for seeing the fireworks and getting a table at this this popular restaurant.
Also look for our bonus tip and video near the end!
California Grill is located at the very top Disney’s Contemporary Resort, which is one of three Deluxe Level hotels just outside of Magic Kingdom. While the Contemporary Resort that originally opened on October 1, 1971 may not look all that different now – at least not on the outside – the restaurant on its roof has undergone some pretty major changes since then. Though it also opened with the resort on October 1, 1971, this restaurant was then named “Top of the World Lounge” and remained that way until 1995 when it became “California Grill”.
Sitting high atop the resort on the 15th floor, the California Grill is probably best known for its stunning views. With an expanse of windows that gives guests a 180+ degree sight of Seven Seas Lagoon and the Magic Kingdom, there is really nothing else quite like it in all of Walt Disney World.
This is definitely one of Disney World’s more expensive restaurants, but it is absolutely worth eating here at least once – even if just to experience the incredible view alone. Our visits to the Disney Parks are generally on a budget, so we understand that eating at higher-end restaurants isn’t always feasible, but if you would like to include one signature dining experience to your Walt Disney World vacation, then we would recommend considering California Grill or California Grill Lounge. We also chose to eat only appetizers since we were there in the late afternoon, which cost less than individual entrees, and we found them to be quite filling even though they were smaller portions.
We opted for the Lounge as it didn’t require a reservation and we could come back later to watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks from the balcony. The opportunity to see such a unique view of Happily Ever After with a minimal crowd makes this a standout restaurant in Disney World, and for that reason it’s at the top of our list when it comes to a more upgraded dining experience and makes the overall expense of the meal carry much more value.
We both ordered the California Breeze, which ended up being a great choice. This beverage was made with Guava, Orange, Passion Fruit, and Sprite, and it had a very refreshing, tropical taste. Even though it was a little on the pricey side for a non-alcoholic drink (most beverages without alcohol are around $5–$10 each), we didn’t mind that it was a little splurge in our budget because it really was that delicious. If you like fruity, citrus drinks, then we highly recommend this one!
For our first appetizer we ordered the Sonoma County Pizza made with a pea and mascarpone spread, spring onion agrodolce, mushrooms, goat cheese, flowers, and herbs, which at the time cost $21. We were a little unsure about what to expect with this one since we had no idea what an agrodolce was (turns out it is actually a type of sweet-and-sour Italian sauce), and flowers isn’t one of our go-to picks for pizza toppings. But after the first bite, we were happy to find out that this was another great menu choice for us, and we enjoyed its rather unusual flavor combinations.
Even though the mascarpone and spring onion sauce did give the pizza a sweet flavor, it wasn’t too sweet overall, and it was nicely balanced with the tangy goat cheese and hearty mushrooms. The flowers also ended up being an interesting addition, though they seemed to be more for color and design than for taste since they didn’t really have much flavor. Even though it may be a bit small for the price, it is definitely unique and artistic from a culinary standpoint, so for that reason we would absolutely recommend trying it. Although, if you are not a fan of goat cheese or mushrooms, you may want to steer clear of this appetizer as there is quite a bit of both of these strong flavors.
The second appetizer we ordered was the Braised Beef Short Rib Wontons which cost $17 at the time. These wontons were made with braised beef short rib meat, Doenjang miso-cola onion sauce, crispy garlic chili oil, radish, and pickled lotus root. The beef was very moist and tender, and they did have a slight spice. We aren’t big fans of super spicy food, so we were a little concerned that the spice might be too much for us, but it was just enough to add flavor without being too spicy for us to eat. These were just as delicious at the pizza (perhaps even more delicious!), and we could have easily eaten another plate full – not because we were still hungry, but because they were that good!
Though this restaurant is on the pricey side, the great news is that everything we ordered off the menu really was excellent, and we would definitely eat there again in the future. The menu does seem to change quite often at California Grill, so the items we ordered may no longer be available when you visit, but from what we have heard and experienced ourselves their dishes are most often great quality and extremely tasty!
Fireworks Viewing Location Review
Up on the 15th floor of the Contemporary you get a fantastic view of everything surrounding the Seven Seas Lagoon, including the Magic Kingdom. While the restaurant itself spans a good distance, the lounge area is a smaller portion of the restaurant. The lounge area includes the bar as well as a handful of small tables (designated with orange chairs at the time we visited), which are all located near the entrance and the elevators. This places the lounge area sort of in the middle of the whole restaurant, giving guests an especially great view of Magic Kingdom Park, the Grand Floridian Resort, and the Polynesian Resort.
From where we were sitting, we could see the Magic Kingdom sitting slightly to the right of our view out the window, and we were able to get fantastic pictures of Cinderella Castle and Space Mountain in particular. The photo below shows our view of the castle with our Canon G7X II camera zoomed most of the way (which is pretty great for a small point and shoot camera), while the photo above gives a more accurate representation of how the view appeared to us without the help of a zoom lens – at least when it comes to distance. As good as cameras are today, it still doesn’t quite do it justice. It truly is a beautiful view and I think we could have stared out that window all day.
As you can see from the pictures, we could see Cinderella Castle and Space Mountain quite well, as well as Astro Orbiter over in Tomorrowland. We could also see a good bit of Fantasyland, including Beast’s Castle (Be Our Guest restaurant), Eric’s Castle (Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid ride), and the top of the circus tents near Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Looking to the left of the castle we could also see some of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain in Frontierland, as well as a tiny bit of the main entrance to the park, though these areas are somewhat blocked by the backside of the Main Street U.S.A. buildings and some of the backstage areas.
Turning our view more to the left allowed us to see some of the Disney properties outside of Magic Kingdom, including the Ticket and Transportation Center and the Monorail Station off in the distance. We could also see the Grand Floridian Resort and the Polynesian Resort across the Seven Seas Lagoon, where the nightly showing of the Electrical Water Pageant takes place.
View from the Top of the Resort:
- Magic Kingdom – Fantasyland including Cinderella Castle, Beast’s Castle, and Eric’s Castle; Tomorrowland including Space Mountain and Astro Orbiter; Frontierland including Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain
- Seven Seas Lagoon
- Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort
- Disney’s Polynesian Resort
- Ticket and Transportation Center
- Monorail Station
Tips for Eating at California Grill Lounge
At the time of year we visited, the Lounge opened each day at 5:00 PM, and Cast Members would begin taking groups of people up to the 15th floor right when it opened. There’s always a possibility these times may change in the future or depend upon the time of year you are visiting, so we recommend checking ahead of time some you arrive at the correct time.
We visited the Contemporary earlier that day around 2:00 PM and headed up to the second floor of the resort where the California Grill check-in is located. At that time we were told by the Cast Members that the restaurant lounge would open at 5:00 PM and that we should return to the check-in area a little earlier than that since seating in the lounge is first-come, first-serve. We returned sometime around 4:30 PM and there was already a small group of people waiting to be taken up to the lounge at 5:00 PM.
Because Cast Members only take guests up to the restaurant via the elevators located on the second floor of the resort, we recommend standing as close to the elevators as possible while you wait so you have a better chance of getting a seat. It seems that they do sometimes have people line up to wait if there is a crowd, but we were not told that this was the case when we arrived back at the check-in at 4:30 PM, so we suggest asking a restaurant check-in Cast Member that day what time you should come back to check-in and what to do when you return. While some things at Disney have steadfast rules (especially when it comes to safety), other things are sometimes left up to Cast Members to decide, so if you aren’t sure what to do it’s always a good idea to ask them directly if you can. If it’s something that they are able to answer, then they are usually more than happy to help.
The California Grill restaurant itself is quite large, but the lounge is only a small portion of the restaurant. Overall, there were probably around eight to ten tables total in the lounge, plus the bar stools, so it’s not the biggest area. Since there are no reservations available for California Grill Lounge (reservations are only available for the California Grill restaurant itself) and there’s no guarantee that you will get in, it is best to get there at least a little bit early if you can. Even if you don’t get in the first couple of groups, though, it’s also a good idea to stick around because you may still be able to get in once the guests in the first group have finished eating.
The lounge doesn’t have the best acoustics due to the big open room design, so it can be a bit loud if it’s crowded, but we still found it to have a relaxed atmosphere and we were able to sit and enjoy the view and the food even though there were quite a lot of people in the restaurant while we were there.
Tips for Seeing the Fireworks
If you’d like to return to the California Grill later that evening to watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks on the terrace (which we highly recommend!), then you will want to keep your receipt that you received after your meal. Then, when you return for the fireworks, you can show your receipt to the check-in desk Cast Members and they will take you up to the restaurant again where you will make your way to the terrace walkway off to the right side of the restaurant. The best view of the fireworks is on the left side when you walk out the terrace doors since you’ll be right next edge of the terrace that looks out over Magic Kingdom. If you stand next to this railing, then you will be able to see the show without anything blocking your view.
Just like the lounge, you will want to show up early enough to get a good place on the terrace to see the fireworks since it isn’t the biggest area and there will be a good amount of people that have also returned to watch the show – as well as some of the guests who are currently eating at the California Grill Restaurant. While it may get a bit cramped as everyone lines up along the edge in rows to watch the show, it’s no where near as crowded as standing on Main Street U.S.A. in front of the Castle. This makes the terrace view a great option if you aren’t that comfortable with large crowds or would rather watch the show looking out over the park rather than up at the sky.
This terrace is one of the few places outside of Magic Kingdom that the show music is piped in through speakers, which is awesome since it’s almost like being in the park. It is very loud, however, so you may not want to stand right next to a speaker if you have a sensitivity to loud music. They should begin playing instrumental music and make an announcement over the speakers before the show begins. Make sure to get your spot by the time the announcement is done so you don’t miss the show.
From this distance and height, you won’t be able to see all of the projections on the castle, but you may still be able to see some of them throughout the show. This view is fantastic for seeing the fireworks, though, and the way they line up between the castle and Space Mountain makes for great pictures.
We also suggest getting there early enough to watch the Electrical Water Pageant if you’d like to see this classic Disney parade glide across the Seven Seas Lagoon. Though it may not be as grand or exciting as the firework show, this fun little water pageant is a nostalgic bit of Disney history, and we love that you can see it so well from the top of the Contemporary Resort. The Electrical Water Pageant is about 15 minutes long and Happily Ever After is around 18 minutes long with a bit of a break in between, so you will be standing on the terrace for quite a long time if you’d like to see both.
When you should return to the California Grill and find a spot on the terrace depends upon the time of year and what the schedule of events looks like for that specific day, so you will want to check ahead of time to make sure you arrive at the correct time. At the time we visited, they brought us up to the terrace around 9:00 PM and the fireworks began sometime around 9:30 PM with the Electrical Water Pageant taking place in between those two times. Sometimes, though, the fireworks begin much earlier or much later depending on the season, and occasionally the water pageant may take place after the show. Weather can also be a factor as sometimes thunderstorms or heavy rain can affect when these shows will begin. It all depends on what is going on at Magic Kingdom that night and what the weather may be like that day, so be sure to check ahead of time so you don’t miss either of these fun Disney shows!
Tx2 Top Tips
- Know when you should arrive – Stop by the check-in desk on the second floor of the Contemporary Resort early that day or call ahead to find out when the California Grill Lounge will open and what to do when you return.
- Be early for check-in – Arrive a bit earlier than the stated check-in time so that you have a better chance at getting a table in the lounge. Cast Members will take guests up to the fifteenth floor in groups via the elevators located near the check-in desk.
- Hold on to your California Grill receipt – Keep the receipt from your meal to show the Cast Member when you return for the fireworks later that evening. Your receipt is your ticket back into the restaurant (so long as you return on the same day).
- Find your viewing spot early – When you return later that evening for the fireworks, make sure to get there early enough to get a clear viewing spot next to the left side railing on the terrace.
- Check the show times for the day – Both the Magic Kingdom firework spectaculars and the Electrical Water Pageant start times can change depending on the season and the weather, so be sure to find out ahead of time when they are scheduled to take place and keep a close eye on the weather.
- BONUS TIP: Dress for outside weather – Even though you will eat inside the California Grill restaurant, you will be standing outside if you watch the fireworks from the terrace, so you will want to make sure you are dressed for the season. Sometimes guests are taken by surprise by a drop in temperature at night when visiting during the winter months, so make sure to dress according to the season. Also be prepared for the possibility of rain since the terrace is uncovered and Florida often experiences frequent rain showers.
All in all, we can highly recommend eating at the California Grill or its Lounge if you’re looking for a signature dining experience at Walt Disney World with great food and great value for the price. Even though it is one of Disney’s more expensive restaurants, the option to watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks makes the higher cost worth it in our opinion, especially compared to a lot of other fine dining restaurants on Disney property. The view is spectacular both inside the restaurant and out on the terrace, and being able to see the firework show without the large crowd while still getting the full experience of the music and lights of the park makes this a must-do experience at least once if not multiple times.
We really loved California Grill and look forward to eating there again, and we hope you will get the chance to eat at this awesome restaurant and experience the fun of watching the Magic Kingdom fireworks from the top of the Contemporary Resort during one of your Disney World vacations!
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