The Rainforest Cafe Takes a Stumble in the Jungle

Disney World's outpost of the popular theme restaurant chain offers interesting recipes, but poor ingredients and an atmosphere that is showing its age.

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Published: August 4, 2005 at 9:40 PM

Early last year TPI correspondent Joe Lane reviewed the Rainforest Cafe at Downtown Disney in Walt Disney World. Joe gave the Rainforest Cafe a glowing review, which earned a raspberry from me. I called it a disappointing theme restaurant with mediocre food and suggested the likes of Universal Orlando's Mythos and Emeril's Orlando as superior theme park dining alternatives.

Joe countered that he'd been disappointed with Mythos when he ate there. So after a little back-'n-forth, we decided to give each restaurant another go.

Last summer, Joe returned to Mythos and declared that the three-time TPI Award winner really was a “must-east restaurant.” And I -- well, I never made it back to the Rainforest Cafe.

It's not like I hadn't tried. I just couldn't get in. Last time I tried to eat at the Rainforest Cafe in Anaheim's Downtown Disney, Natalie and I found a two-hour and 45-minute wait. (We opted for Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen instead, which had no wait, plenty of empty tables and absolutely delightful food.)

Last week in Orlando, Laurie, the kids and I tried again, this time at 2 p.m. (Still jet-lagged on L.A. time, it seemed like an early lunch to us.) To our delight, we found a mere 10-minute wait. Finally, I'd get to give the Rainforest Cafe another chance.

Well, I still don't think much of it.

A restaurant can be no better than the quality of the ingredients it presents. Typically, busy restaurants such as the RFC don't have problems with freshness, as they run through ingredients so quickly nothing lasts long enough to get old. But RFC's wildly varied menu works against itself here. With dozens of items from a wide range of cuisines, the kitchen's stockroom must be immense – so large that even the restaurant's high volume can't keep some things from sitting around too long.

Such as the lettuce in my wife's Cobb salad. Or my paella.

No self-respecting chef would let a salad of brown iceberg lettuce out of the kitchen. Or even an over-cooled kids' grilled cheese. When both made it to our table, I was left to wonder if there was a chef back in the kitchen here, or instead just a bunch of indifferent line cooks, merely going through the motions of the Rainforest Cafe corporate SOP.

The recipes are not the problem here. It's the execution. Paella should be a symphony of flavor, with rich saffron binding savory meats and briny seafood. Here, the notes of flavor are all right, but their intensity is wrong. The dish tasted like a warmed leftover, as if it had been sitting a vat under a heat lamp, waiting to be dished out one order at a time.

Serving the mussels on the half-shell are a delightful convenience for the diner, but not if the shellfish have been sitting open long enough to absorb the liquid of its companions in the dish. A mussel should wake the tongue with a distinct, briny splash of the sea. It shouldn't stumble across your taste buds, lugging along hints of chicken and onion.

The atmosphere struck wrong notes for me, too. Neither sufficiently lifelike to create a compelling illusion, nor fantastic enough to create a sense of cartoonish whimsy, the Rainforest Cafe's animatronics live in an entertainment no man's land. Either make a commitment to a realistic theme and create a Steve Wynn-like garden of exotic flora, or go the Disney route and make this child's fantasy of the Rainforest come to anthropomorphic life. The middle road comes off too cheesy, like a late '80s attempt at realism that simply hasn't kept up with advances in entertainment technology. Which, well, this is.

The kids get silly with dessert.

At least the Rainforest Cafe ended the meal on an up note. As gimmicky desserts go, the Volcano actually works. The chocolate in this oversized brownie sundae is dark enough to restrain what could have been a cloyingly sweet dish. And the presentation is just silly, over-the-top fun. Just don't split one among any fewer than four people.

So why is this restaurant so popular that one can't get in without a hefty wait during normal dining times? Search me. I guess if your normal dining options include McDonald's, Applebee's and the occasional stop in the Outback, the Rainforest Cafe looks like an appealing step up. Which, to be honest, it is. But adventurous diners can do much, much better. Even in Orlando.

Readers' Opinions

From Jason Jackson on August 4, 2005 at 10:49 PM
When I was in Orlando recently, I stopped in the Rainforest Cafe...the luster is definitely lost! There was one here in Norfolk, VA, but it closed. The food was actually good then.
From vj ali on August 5, 2005 at 1:39 AM
You should see the RFC at Disney Village in Paris. Staff never smile and can sometimes be close to being rude. As you walk around the merchandise section you will often notice a member of staff following you to see if you are about to take anything without paying. You would get a warmer welcome from some of the predators in the real rainforest.
From Mark Hollamon on August 5, 2005 at 4:30 AM
Great piece Robert, except you wasted too many words describing this place.

We invested in a Safari Club membership to cut the wait down and that worked, but for me it just got us bad food faster.

In addition to this, once or twice is enough for this place if it were good! It is SO LOUD and BUSY in there I leave with a headache each time.

Finally, in my opinion, the food is WAY overpriced for what it is! When you consider that pretty much for the same money you can dine at Pucks or HOB one must ask why you would ever go there in the first place!

Oh yeah, I remember! The kids! Hey, they get all the theme parks! Let the adults have some good eats and relax in a nice atmosphere!

From Cameron Rust on August 5, 2005 at 5:10 AM
Rainforest Cafe does have mediocre food, though the breakfasts at the AK one are good. I didn't really think Mythos was very good either, despite its theming.
From B Chin on August 5, 2005 at 9:35 AM
We went there in June 2005 and the food was awful. We had the artichoke dip and a pizza. The dip was ok but the pizza was terrible. It sounded good on the menu but it didn't taste any good. The dough didn't taste good and the toppings were bland. We won't be going back.
From Anthony Murphy on August 5, 2005 at 10:45 AM
Its funny, I think that it has gotten better! I think it is losing its novelty though!
From Jason Lester on August 5, 2005 at 3:31 PM
I ate at one in London. It was awful. I don't think I'll ever be returning to a RC.

But I do love a good paella. Not that RC's sounds any good.

From Dave Bradley on August 5, 2005 at 9:59 PM
We eat at the RFC in DownTown Disney Often. I never have a complaint. Food is always great, and so is the service! I too, have a Safari Club membership, and I use it every trip.

Maybe you are going with too high of an expectation? I don't know. Mytho's is great as well. And for those who know me, I am in the theme parks almost daily, and I have tried every rest, every beer stand, every quick service there is in the Orlando Area.

I do agree that the theme has gotten old on the animitronics of RFC, but, if I was an owner, it would be hard to shell out a million dollars each year just to keep a few people happy.

The RFC in Disney's Downtown Area is busy enough, that people actually utilize Capt. Jacks, WolfGang Pucks and more in the surrounding areas as well..

I can not bring myself to downgrade in anyway!

From Kevin Baxter on August 6, 2005 at 5:00 PM
Everyone knows how picky I am, but I have never had a problem at any of the RFCs I have been to (Downtown Disney Anaheim, Downtown Disney Orlando, MGM Grand Las Vegas). At least not with the food. Waits for tables and for food can be annoying. And the theming doesn't bother me. But it has been a long while since I have been to the Orlando one, while I have eaten at the Anaheim one several times recently. The food isn't spectacular by any means - I'd much rather eat at the ESPN Zone - but I tend not to get too adventurous at chain restaurants, especially those with theming out the wazoo. What I like best about RFC is the drink menu. Lots of delicious alkiehol in their nice take-home glasses. Stuff like that makes food taste even better!
From Jason Lester on August 6, 2005 at 5:59 PM
My question about eating at RC in Dowtown Disney is why? Why eat there when there's much better places around. Like House of Blues or Jazz Kitchen, the two best DD restaurants.

You sacrifice food for some crummy themeing.

From Robert Niles on August 6, 2005 at 6:04 PM
The best meals I've had in or near theme parks over the past two years have been at Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen at Anaheim's Downtown Disney. In addition, Catal, Naples and even the ESPNZone provide good meals (haven't eaten at HOB yet). I pick any of them over anything at DCA and would suggest them for a better table service meal than you can find inside Disneyland park. (Though the Pizza Port and Rancho del Zocalo each serve up a good slide-tray meal.)
From Jason Lester on August 6, 2005 at 11:05 PM
Rancho's pretty good for a theme park restaurant.

I forgot Naples. Like Robert said, it's very good.

Robert, I suggest you try House of Blues. If you like Jazz Kitchen or Cajun/Creole food in general you'll like HOB. Get the gumbo, it's really spicy and flavorful.

From Chuck Campbell on August 7, 2005 at 11:01 AM
I haven't eaten at an RFC in a few years, but I've had only one bad experience--at the Downtown Disney location. I ambled down there for breakfast on a particularly hot, nasty day and ordered something that can best be described as "hell in a tortilla shell": scrambled eggs, peppers, cheese, and chilis. I felt so bloated from the food and the heat that I thought my belly was dragging on the ground between my knees.
From Cameron Rust on August 7, 2005 at 12:08 PM
I went to the AK one for breakfast and they had a special buffet for some reason, but it was really good. I forget the price. They had wonderful french toast.
From Doug Songer on August 10, 2005 at 10:09 PM
If you've been to one, no need to go to another. Kind of like Planet Hollywood. 3 hour waits at the one at DtD do not make a great restaurant. Drive 5 minutes off property and go somewhere like Bahama Breeze. The last time we were at RC, the 3 of us spent 70.00 for a sub-par lunch. there's much better offerings right outside the East Gate.
From Andy Cotter on September 16, 2005 at 7:07 PM
Ive been to rfc three times.. the first time my brother threw up... the second time i was 4 and got seated by a gorilla that i was scared of .... and the third time, last year.. a waiter spilled dirty dishes on our table and the floor next to our table.. they all broke. I absoulutly dispise the rfc. if your in dowtown disney go to somewhere like planet hollywood.. thats good.. and if your in animal kingdom.. just dont go to the rfc
From Anthony Murphy on September 16, 2005 at 8:09 PM
You had three bad experiences that had nothing to do with the overall RFC. Yes, you had bad times and it was their fault, but you must have been unlucky. Planet Hollywood is good too, but that always seems to have a ridiculous line!

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