Tucked away in the far off corner of Future World West at Epcot, you'll find one of Disney's most overlooked dining locations. I wouldn't blame you if you've never even considered dining at Coral Reef Restaurant. It is one of those very few places that even I've avoided for my entire life because I am not a seafood lover. Yet, I was always intrigued and curious what the inside of the restaurant looked like. Coral Reef sits on the north side of The Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion and offers a unique view of the huge salt water tank. But I never wanted to fork out the cost of a table service restaurant at a place that serves primarily seafood just to see a giant fish tank.
On a recent trip to the parks, I had the rare opportunity to try something different, since I had a gap in my schedule. On this particular trip I was utilizing the Disney Dining Plan. I added the plan to my travel package mainly because I made plans to visit a few character restaurants that I wanted to review. (Check out my reviews on Tusker House and Hollywood & Vine!) But on the first day of my trip I had no dinner plans and no real motive to go into the parks. I originally was going to just drive up to Orlando, check-in to my hotel and relax before a busy week of fun inside the parks. But since I was on the plan and had a spare table service credit in the air, I decided to simply go to a restaurant where the plan would be very price effective and a place that I would normally never want to pay for out of pocket.
I didn't want to add a third character meal to my trip just because of preference and I booked this trip a little late. Therefore, popular places like Storybook Dining at Artist Point were completely full. So I did some heavy research on what other locations would be wise on the plan. I discovered that Tony's Town Square Restaurant does offer a dining package that comes with reserved viewing for Festival of Fantasy Parade. Normally it would cost $54 for adults or count as 1 table service meal credit on the plan. My number crunching led me to the conclusion that this is possibly the most price effective place to dine at that is not a character meal on the plan. But let's face it, I wasn't going to go through the effort of going all the way to the Magic Kingdom for Tony's. It doesn't have the best reputation. This is when I arrived to Coral Reef Restaurant at Epcot. Since the menu is mainly seafood, many entreés are at a higher price point and dining there on the plan seemed to be a good choice. I would never, repeat NEVER, pay for this place out of pocket. But this seemed like the best opportunity to give it a shot. If I didn't like it, at least I could put my curiosity to rest and feel that I made good use of the plan.
I made a very late reservation to Coral Reef Restaurant by choice, around 8:30pm. I would like to note that I booked this about a couple of weeks before my trip and there was plenty of availability. I can appreciate that you may be thinking this is the worst time to eat dinner in Future World at Epcot because you'll miss IllumiNations. However I needed to give myself some time before I arrived to the park for a variety of reasons. Additionally, I was meeting up with family who were visiting another park for a few hours before meeting me for dinner.
I arrived to Epcot around 7:45pm and managed to score a Fastpass+ reservation for the Character Spot. After a quick round saying hi to Mickey and his friends, I made my way to The Seas with Nemo and Friends. Since I still had a good 30 minutes to spare, I decided why not go for a quick spin on the ride itself. The only downside to this was that after getting off the attraction, I had to exit the pavilion and walk all the way around the building, pass the main entrance outside, just to get to the entrance of the restaurant and go back inside. I really wish there was a way into the restaurant from within the tanks section of the pavilion, but oh well.
My initial reaction when I entered the waiting area was underwhelming. Upon entering, you'll find a medium-sized waiting area with a podium to check in, a few seats to relax at and absolutely no view of the restaurant itself. I found it odd. Since it was late, it almost looked like there was not a soul in sight. Was I the only person eating dinner at Coral Reef just before the fireworks? While you don't get a preview of what's to come inside the dining room here, there are a few cute accents reflecting the theme of the pavilion. I loved the shell-shaped light fixtures but thought that the mosaic tile floor and colors were a little outdated. But since there was hardly a single person eating dinner here, we waited almost no time and were escorted to the dining room right away.
The big reveal into the main dining room was pretty interesting. As I suspected, there were hardly any guests dining here. I think I counted no more than 5 tables occupied with people. But as you enter the somewhat intimate dining room and begin walking down the steps, your eyes are immediately drawn to the huge glass windows looking into the tank. I later learned that when originally built, this was the largest salt water tank in the world. The Living Seas held on to that record until 2005, when the Georgia Aquarium opened and broke the record. It also takes a series of strong, eight-inch thick glass panels to keep the 5.7 million gallons of water and hundreds of sea creatures inside the tank. Could you imagine what would happen if one of those glass panels broke?! It is indeed a beautiful sight and provides a soothing ambiance to the restaurant. Even if the place was more full, I guarantee you that guests would be hypnotized at all the different fish flying by.
Once we were sat at our table, we were given menus and a guide that detailed what creatures we would see inside the tank. Immediately I thought, this would be a great place for kids who are into marine life. My 3-year-old niece is a little too young to read the names of all the creatures on the guide, but she instantly wanted to get a better look at the sharks swimming by and was easily entertained for the duration of the night. But it was time to look at the menu and discover what my options to eat were.
Since I was on the dining plan, I felt it was important to ask a couple of questions to report back on. As you probably know, a meal credit entitles you to an entree, a dessert and beverage. There were a few good appetizers that were appealing such as the Colossal Shrimp Cocktail and the Seared Sea Scallops. I asked my waitress if dessert could be swapped for an appetizer. She said if I were to bypass a sweet ending, I could swap dessert for one of the soups, which was the Lobster Bisque or New England Clam Chowder. When asked if the Caesar Salad was a choice, she said she could make a basic House Salad work. Another guest dining with me went for the salad, but I stuck to my entreé and dessert.
To my surprise, there were only four entrees that were seafood dishes; seared mahi mahi, sustainable salmon fillet, shrimp and grits and a whole Main lobster. However, there are side enhancements like crab and lobster mac 'n cheese that you can add to any main dish for an additional cost. Now when I said I dislike seafood, I have to be more specific. First of all I must admit that I love sushi. Go figure, raw fish is not a problem for me whatsoever. However with cooked fish, I actually prefer shellfish such as lobster, shrimp or crab. What I really hate are things like cooked salmon or any other creature that swims without a shell. I think I am completely backwards from the norm, but there you go. Lobster is something that I can go for if I'm in the right mood and in this case, since it was priced at $40, I instantly knew this would help me save money on the plan. So it turned out to be an easy choice.
All the tables are designed to look straight at the tank. So no matter where you are, you'll get a direct view. There are a few levels, so if you have little ones it's best to ask if you can sit closer to the bottom level so that they can go right up to the tank for a better view. While we waited for food, we received a basket of dinner rolls and starting looking closer at the marine life with the help of our guide. We spotted a Sandbar Shark, a few different sting rays and a Giant Shovelnose Guitar Fish. It was a lot of fun to spend quality time with my niece who was ecstatic about all the different fish swimming by. For a second, I almost forgot I was at Disney and I always look at this as a good thing. It turned into really cute bonding time together.
When my lobster arrived, I was severely intimidated about the work that laid before me. This was a huge, beautifully red Maine lobster. She was stuffed with a mixture of sweet potato mash that was delectable. But to get to the real meat I had to take some equipment and crack through some shells. I must confess, I've only ever done this once in my life. About 10 years ago I did get the chance to visit Maine and enjoy some local lobster. But thankfully at that occasion, my bib told me what to do and how to work through the lobster. All that I learned on that simple afternoon left me completely here, and I embarrassingly had to ask my waitress for some advice. Once I worked through the tail and cracked open the claws I got a good amount of meat dunked in some butter.
It was excellent, but as you can imagine, you only can get so much meat out of a single lobster. But that was to be expected and the reason I ordered a beer with my meal. I figured it would help fill me up. I always love a good wheat beer so I went with a simple glass of Blue Moon. The citrus flavors paired well with my lobster. But then it was time for dessert and I was stumped on what to order. Nothing was really jumping out at me so I again talked to my waitress for some tips. I almost went for some Turtle Chocolate Cheesecake simply because I thought the presentation would be cute, but my waitress assured me that there would be something better; the Key lime tart. I trusted her instinct, she hadn't steered me wrong all night. I knew I was in good hands.
Boy was I delighted that I listened to her advice. I thought it would be a simple, Key lime tart but the presentation on this was exquisite. The Key lime filling served as the base layer, shaped like a simple round disk but with no tart crust. On top was a thin layer of baked meringue and then it was topped with a collection of passion fruit boba pearls to match the sauce drizzled beneath the dessert. I love Key lime pie, but this was a very interesting twist with more tropical flavors. It was the perfect ending to my meal between my citrus flavored beer earlier and lobster. It felt like a very appropriate Sunshine state meal with an import from Maine.
In the end, my meal would've cost me about $60 before the tip. Considering what I ate, I think that is to be expected at Disney. Visiting Coral Reef while on the Dining Plan proved to be an excellent choice, since you save money as long as you surpass the $41 mark at a table service restaurant. I wasn't tremendously full because let's face it, you don't get a whole heck of a lot of lobster. But I was perfectly content when I left and there were plenty of opportunities to enjoy more food throughout the rest of the trip. Coral Reef Restaurant actually exceeded my expectations. The dining room is absolutely beautiful. It is a little strange to be looking at fish right before eating one, but if you can separate the two, the ambiance is great. Perfect for those who need to decompress from the crowds. The service was excellent. I am discovering that lesser known restaurants tend to have some of the best wait staff. Maybe it's because they are not as overwhelmed with fewer guests dining. If you are worried you'll get bad service at a quiet restaurant like this, don't be. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
But my two main takeaways from this experience are this. First of all, look at the menu before you go. If the dishes don't jump out at you or you don't like seafood really and can't find an alternative, skip this restaurant. Epcot offers so much dining. I think it is really important to make sure you and your party can all find something they like before choosing this place. Even if you do like seafood, the range and variety isn't huge, so take a good look. Secondly, I would only dine at this restaurant if I am enjoying a very long trip to Disney and experiencing two days at Epcot. I've always been of the school of thought that it is best to dedicate one day to Future World and a second day to World Showcase. This will allow you to really soak everything the park has to offer, enjoy the smaller exhibits at the various pavilions and create a good Fastpass strategy.
Dinner at Coral Reef could be a good ending to your day in Future World given the location. You can work through the area counter-clockwise starting with Spaceship Earth, then moving to Test Track and Mission: Space to then work your way to The Seas last. If you do this, you'll obviously be able to enjoy another restaurant in World Showcase on your second day and watch the fireworks. My personal preference if I was splitting the park like this would be to enjoy breakfast at Garden Grill instead of Coral Reef, but you just might find this restaurant to be a little bit of a under appreciated gem.