Puns of Fun at the Jungle Skipper Canteen
*Disclaimer: I was invited to dine with a friend at the Skipper Canteen on 4/11 gratis. I was not obligated to write anything in exchange for this meal. My other dining experience here was not comped. All opinions stated here are my own (or my friend's).*
I so vividly recall my first time dining at the Magic Kingdom as an adult. Probably because it wasn't that long ago. It involved a burger that would have felt right at home in my high school cafeteria, but at an inflation rate of around 1000%. Most of us, when we think of Theme Park dining, probably flinch. Oh sure, we all love a corn dog nugget, but a week of corn dog nuggets? Yikes. Fortunately for Walt Disney World Resort guests, Disney Dining has some options that aren't only edible, but world-renowned destinations for culinary enthusiasts. Most of these are located at resorts or Disney Springs (Victoria and Albert's at GF, Todd English at Swan and Dolphin, Morimoto at DS, etc.). Epcot has managed to stand apart as a park with really great food options (I EAT around the world, not drink). The other parks have some highly stylized sit-down dining, but not necessarily anything that will knock your food socks off. Plus you pay a premium for that sort of dining INSIDE a park. For the same price, you could potentially have exponentially better food at a resort restaurant. Magic Kingdom in particular was the mainstay of barely edible "theme park" food (although I'll get down on some Liberty Tree Tavern pot roast or Pecos Bill burritos, don't get me wrong). Then came the opening of New Fantasyland and with it Be Our Guest.
Be Our Guest has been a success of unprecedented levels. The reservation-only table service restaurant is almost impossible to get into unless you are ON booking that reservation right at the opening of the 6 month window. The prices are premium, the fare is mature and sophisticated and *dum dum dum* Disney broke the Magic Kingdom no alcohol taboo and allows alcoholic beverages to be ordered inside. I've managed to dine there ONCE through sheer luck, and it was absolutely incredible. The decor, the service, and the food are 100% up to the hype.
So WHY hasn't the Jungle Skipper Canteen managed to make the same impact?
It's not because the food isn't good, I'll tell you that much. The menu is, particularly by Disney standards, DARING and interesting. It explores flavors from Asia and Africa. You will be offered dishes at JSC that are unlike anything available elsewhere on property.
The roll out for the restaurant never seemed to have much fanfare. Maybe BOG benefited from being part of the massive media blitz that surrounded the New Fantasyland launch.
I would speculate that there are other reasons.
The menu is not particularly kid friendly. At least not by Disney standards. JSC shares kitchen space with other dining facilities, so I'm sure that if you let them know ahead of time they could probably have some innocuous chicken tenders ready for your kid who eats nothing (*cough my kid cough*). However the first time we went, I figured the kids' menu would be like any other Disney restaurant. Instead there were options like mac and cheese (but in a bechamel sauce, and I tried it, my kid would NOT have accepted that as mac and cheese) and grilled fish with veggie sides. Oh man, I wish my three year old would eat that stuff, but no dice. Instead I shoveled packets of crackers and fruit pouches at her while savoring my tasty Fish Collar.
2) JSC is struggling to define its target audience. This is a mature restaurant, with mature flavors and offerings and no animated characters in sight. There are no Oscar-nominated movie tie-ins, no royalty to wave magnanimously at the diners. There are serving staff overflowing with puns ranging from gut-busting to witty to flinch-worthy (and I love ALL of them). None of this adds up to something super attractive for a family with young children. Magic Kingdom is THE destination for the FAMILY unit; adults are not generally making plans for MK when it comes to a mature dining option.
So what can they do? They could tone it down significantly, both in menu and in overall tone and vibe. I do not favor this option, however. I think they should...
Embrace the idea of a more mature dining destination in the Magic Kingdom.
The decision not to offer alcohol in JSC is a HUGE mistake. If you're going to offer options like Fish Collar, Falafel, and head-on shrimp, offer me some cocktails to compliment them. I also believe they could take the second story of the restaurant and make a cocktail bar/ lounge with an indoor/outdoor option. This would be a great spot to have a balcony where you could sip a cocktail with a brilliant view of the Wishes Fireworks. Putting this lounge upstairs would also keep the adult atmosphere from interfering with the rest of the "dry park" vibe with which Magic Kingdom is so entrenched
With that impassioned plea for the Disney Parks and JSC to embrace some change, I shall continue with a more thorough review of the food and experience at JSC. After being invited to participate in this event and bring ONE guest, I immediately thought of my friend, Jess. Jess is not only an avid Disney fan and AP, I've had to see firsthand the struggles she faces in dining out due to her dietary restrictions. I wanted to put JSC through its dining paces. So I RSVP'd and warned them of her strict gluten free diet, which I was assured would be no issue. Jess's views will be interjected below.
JSC may not have the shock and awe of BOG's west wing, enchanted rose, animated snow windows, CASTLE, but Disney's decor is still TO THE NINES in here. I was really impressed with how artistic and subtle some of the references were to the Jungle Cruise ride. This allowed the decor to be punchline assists for Skipper puns, but they didn't look cheesy or forced and could blend with the decor even without being brought up for a joke's sake.
When we first sat down with the Social Media team for my second dining experience and they announced cocktails would be brought, I was STOKED. Look at that salted rim! I took a sip.
Let's call that drink what it is. A mocktail. The term is perfect for a cocktail without alcohol, because it MOCKS me with a tease of thinking it will be a cocktail before SHUTTING ME DOWN. The drink is tasty, don't get me wrong, but it is VERY sweet, mostly fruit juice with a spicy pepper rim.
We tried out the “Punch Line Punch”, described as Tropical Fruit Juices and Mango Purée with spiced rim. I was a little skeptical of the drink at first, expecting it to be too sweet as many fruit juice drinks tend to be, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it refreshing and not overwhelming. I was also glad that they mango flavor didn’t take over. The spiced rim was a nice touch (and also helped to avoid the drink being too sweet). Honestly, while it was good on it’s own, it was the perfect base for a bit of rum.
Bread service was brought for the table. It did not appear exceptionally popular with the diners, and I can understand why. Fenugreek is not a spice for everyone, and it's heavily featured in the bread. I developed a taste for Fenugreek my first year as a mom (fellow EBF moms will back me up here), but while the taste is good and the seasoned honey for dipping is interesting, this bread could do well with a little more crunch to it or being served with a less sweet accompaniment to offset the Fenugreek.
I was especially surprised and pleased to see that most of the dishes on the menu were either allergy friendly on their own, or could be easily modified. The chef came out to talk to me, and I discovered that they use gluten-free soy sauce (tamari) in all of their dishes so there’s even less worry of cross contamination or accident. This also meant I had a wide range of choices. During bread service I was offered a gluten free tapioca roll, which is standard at Disney restaurants. The tapioca rolls aren’t bad, but not worth filling up in my experience. Out of the entire experience, this was maybe the only thing that was overlooked in terms of my allergy, and it’s so minor I hesitate to even bring it up.
We were brought appetizers to share among the table: mini-Arepas, Falafels, and Shu Mai dumplings. The dumplings were enjoyable. I appreciated the kick to the dipping sauce. The falafels could do with more crunch and spice (they were ok, and I ate my allotment). The star of the show, however, were the Arepas. I could have eaten my weight in those. I would have been happy with a plateful as an entree, too. Tasty caribbean flavor profile, nice hint of crunch to the base, perfect little 2-3 bite morsels, flavorful meat, YUMMO. These and the fish collar that I had at a previous dining experience have been my favorite dishes at JSC.
The arepas and falafel were completely gluten free, but the SEA buns [dumplings] were off limits. The buns smelled delicious, but I was too busy wolfing down the arepas and falafel to feel left out. Both the arepas and falafel were very tasty, although they were both a bit different than what I expected. I was thinking the arepas would be, well, arepas: a soft cooked pancake like dish, made from corn flour and topped with the beef and beans. These “Arepas” used something resembling tostones as the base. Tostones are traditionally slices of plantains, mashed slightly and fried. The flavor of the tostone base was obscured by the strong flavor of the beef, beans and cheese, so it was hard to tell if they were plantain or corn, but it definitely had the firmer, almost hard texture of fried plantains rather than the soft corn I was expecting. The flavor overall was great though.
We got to choose our own entrees. I opted for the Mac and Cheese (because Mac and Cheese is pretty much my favorite food on earth in all its many incarnations).
The lunch menu is impressive, and I was tempted by everything. Again, the allergy-friendly menu is fairly extensive and there were only a few items that were off limits. In fact, I think there was only one item on the entree’ menu that was completely off-limits for gluten allergies; the mac and cheese. Fair enough. I finally deciding on the Rice Noodle Bowl with Duck. (I mean, really, no offense Donald, but how could I pass up duck??)
I mentioned briefly before that this Mac and Cheese is definitely not the orange noodley affair you would generally expect from that description. The noodles are tubular, but the resemblance pretty much ends there. The bechamel sauce it is presented with has a more Alfredo flavor profile than cheese. It's also presented with plenty of ground beef chunks that have been stewing in a tomato sauce with African flavors. STRONG flavors. I am by no means a picky eater, but I can definitely see how a lot of people would not be into the beef. JSC has smartly offered the beef to be served on the side of the dish, which I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to try this dish (make sure the beef does it for you before it's completely infiltrated the pasta). Overall I liked the dish, and appreciated that they were doing something different, but it was VERY rich (I ate at MOST a third of the dish, and I can put away food). I probably wouldn't order it again, unless I was trying to order for economy (two people could definitely fill up on that).
The Rice Noodle dish is essentially pho-soup; broth with a good amount of rice noodles, sliced duck breast, and vegetables; bean sprout, carrots, onion, basil, cilantro and a bit of jalapeño. Not as authentic as the restaurants in downtown Orlando's Asian district, but certainly a good entry. The broth was a bit mild for my taste; I could have done with more in terms of spices and heat, and maybe lemongrass. The duck meat was tender and flavorful and not at all game-y or excessively fatty (as it can be). There was a good amount of vegetables and noodles and overall, the soup had an excellent broth/noodle/meat/veg ratio. Oh and the portion size was huge! I ate less than half of it, and if we weren’t going to stay at the park for a bit afterward, I might’ve taken the rest home. (But I’m not carrying soup around a theme park, for any length of time).
I also didn't eat as much of my entree, because I knew they were bringing out a dessert sampler!
Officially, the only gluten-free dessert listed on the menu was the “Sugar-crusted Congee Pudding”. Looking at the menu, the Kunglaoosh! dessert caught my eye, but it wasn’t listed as gluten-free friendly on the allergy menu. The Kungaloosh! is described as an African-inspired Chocolate Cake with Caramelized Bananas served with Cashew-Caramel Ice Cream topped with Coffee Dustand while I was very interested in it (coffee and chocolate and bananas? Yes please!) I had resigned myself to not being able to have it. But Disney is a magical place, and without me even having to ask, the chef had already prepared a special version of the Kungaloosh, substituting the chocolate cake for the “OMG! Gluten Free” Brownie commonly served at Disney restaurants. The brownie, which I’ve had before, is always good, made an excellent base for thetoppings, which were the real star. I think the toppings were a bit different than what was described. A top the brownie was a bit of not-too sweet caramel ice cream, a dollop of a coffee flavored mouse, a caramelized banana and a “chip” of what seemed to be burnt sugar. It was excellent overall, with a good blend of flavors, and surprisingly, not too sweet.
The Kungaloosh cake was not bad, but as Jess mentioned it was the toppings that were the star. Frankly, I could have just done with a bowl of that cashew-caramel ice cream and such. YUM. We had a second dessert, small, sort of vanilla, fruity-looking, but it ended up being forgettable in the wake of the coffee-cashew-caramel-banana-chocolatey goodness of the Kungaloosh. This seemed to be the general impression of the rest of the diners I was with as well. Poor little vanilla thing, you never stood a chance...
The verdict from Jess and I is that we are quite impressed with the food and the options at the restaurant. We enjoyed the experience and would unquestionably go back. We both want JSC to embrace its potential for a more mature audience and offer something even more unique to the Magic Kingdom experience.