From Vegas to the Crystal Palace, buffets have become a staple in culinary life. There are several Walt Disney World restaurants that have been anchored by excellent, and sometimes notorious, buffets for decades. Between the ambiance, entertainment, or the buffet itself, these restaurants kept patrons coming back for one reason or another - until COVID-19.
Buffets are simply not a possibility in our physically distant reality. Some Disney dining locations who have long been known for their buffets remain closed; others have pivoted.
The outstanding Deni Sunderly recently reviewed Biergarten at the Germany pavilion in Epcot. Having personally been to Biergarten on several occasions, I can vouch for its strong buffet options, atmosphere, and band. As Deni reported, the restaurant has been offering new “family-style” meals at the table in lieu of the buffet, and that they did not disappoint. This leads to a big question: should buffets return to Walt Disney World?
Option 1: No Buffets Return
After the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wind down, there could be the natural movement away from buffets. Imagine if Akershus, Crystal Palace, and Boma revamped their spaces and offerings by cutting their buffets. No Crystal Palace chicken wings (were they even that good?) or soft-serve ice cream machine (yes, it was that good). No pre-entree offerings at Akershus (let’s be honest, it was a nightmare to wander back there with the princesses and festivities).
In the end, what would Disney replace the buffets with if they went down this route of no more buffets?
The natural movement would be to what Biergarten has done with family-style dinners with a somewhat prix fixe menu served on platters. This style of service is relatively popular on property with dining locations like Liberty Tree Tavern and Garden Grill. It offers the sizable food portions without the constant movement back and forth to a buffet.
Alternatively, they could move to a large menu like a traditional restaurant. Either way, there would need to be several renovations to make use of the new space freed up from the buffets being removed. Can you just imagine staying seated at the table the whole time at Crystal Palace waiting for Winnie the Pooh and friends to stop by your table? Seems almost crazy. Seems almost civilized. Seems almost too good to be true.
Option 2: Buffets for Everyone!
The next option is to revert back to the original style of service pre-COVID. This would likely be the preferred option for Disney as it wouldn’t require any capital investments in renovations or changes in supply management. Some guests would also welcome a return to the days before Disney was forced to alter their way of serving guests.
The challenges around returning to buffets across the board aren’t insignificant, however. There would likely be guest apprehension of buffets for many until the pandemic is solidly in the rearview mirror. There would also need to be a critical mass of guests to make a full buffet financially viable.
It feels natural to want to return dining locations to exactly what everything was before the pandemic, but this may not be the reality Walt Disney World diners will face when returning.
Option 3: Some Return While Others Pivot
No two Disney dining locations are the same. Pizzafari and PizzeRizzo sound like they should offer similar fare, and they do, but on different levels of awful. Disney restaurants, as a whole, have different chefs, different layouts, and different levels of service. It’s not like jumping from one Olive Garden to the next.
This means the recovery for Disney buffet locations could be unique to each restaurant and the environment in which it was created. Some may pivot, like Biergarten, to family-style dining. It could work depending on the traditional menu and what guests may expect from spending a small fortune. It may also make more sense for some locations to keep the buffet rolling, even with potential hesitancy from guests due to questions of hygiene. In this situation, Disney may opt to add one or two more cast members to help physically serve the food and act as an intermediary with the actual buffet. It could just come down to what makes sense from an operations perspective and the best business case.
How Disney comes to these decisions will likely be done in a black box far from the purview of the average Disney guest.
What Should Disney Do?
At the end of the day, I personally love a good buffet. Walking up to the Biergarten buffet that overlooks the tiered audience dining area as the band plays below remains a top Disney dining memory. But this was pre-COVID. Like it or not, the world has changed. Buffets are simply too impractical in today’s public health climate and it may be this way for years to come. Plus, they can be incredibly wasteful ventures for restaurant operators.
A study found that barely half the food that was put out on hotel buffets is actually consumed. This is terrible food waste and simply terrible business. That is revenue being wasted on buffets on an almost hourly basis (boy do I hope the food doesn’t sit out there for more than an hour). The time, effort, and ingredients it takes to prepare that wasted food adds up day after day.
Option three, as described before, is the most plausible shift Disney will make. A buffet will still make sense for some restaurants and be welcomed by returning guests. Others may shift permanently to a traditional menu or family-style dining. The options to change for a better dining future is in the hands of Disney, and all they have to do is determine what makes sense.
What do you think Disney should do? Should they revert back to the traditional, pre-COVID buffet or pivot? Either way, it’ll simply be nice to be there for most of us.