What It's Really Like Being A Disney Chef

You may book a trip to Disney for the Mickey Mouse shows and princess hugs, but you're going to be blown away by everything the parks have to offer — including the food. As a matter of fact, there are so many different kinds of foods to enjoy at so many different restaurants and venues that it would take countless trips to try it all. There are also seasonal food festivals that are constantly popping up at the parks.

There are 391 dining options at Walt Disney World, 121 at Disneyland in California, 70 at Disneyland Paris, 88 at Disney Tokyo, and 30 at Hong Kong Disneyland, adding up to a stunning total of 700 dining options. There are also more options on Disney cruises, Vacation Club resorts, catered events, and Disney Adventures. Restaurant styles range from ultra-fine dining to Mickey-shaped pretzels sold from carts. The amount of people cooking on Disney properties to bring all of that magical food to life is absolutely mind-boggling.

With so much going on, you may be wondering if all of the food is actually made at Disney (it is) and if cooking for Disney is anything like cooking at a typical restaurant (sort of). To give you an idea of what it's really like being a chef at Disney, we took a look at how all of the food comes together in the happiest places on Earth, and here's what we found.

Chefs and cooks at Disney aren't called employees

You may or may not have noticed that Disney parks don't have "employees" per se, but "cast members" — and we're not only talking about the movie stars or park employees who dress up as princesses and characters walking around the parks (via Reader's Digest). Every Disney employee is a cast member because every employee is part of the big magical story that is the Disney experience. After all, a Disney vacation is quite the production. You're plopped straight into your favorite childhood fairytales and action-adventure stories come to life, and in a Disney theme park, you can bring as much of that main character energy as you want.

That means every single person who handles, cooks, and serves food on Disney properties — whether they're working behind the scenes in a production kitchen, selling Mickey ice cream bars from a concession stand, or frosting cupcakes right in front of guests — is a cast member whose ultimate purpose is to add some magic to the story.

All Disney cast members are identifiable either by their uniforms (like chef coats), attraction-specific costumes, or simply by the cast member name tags that everyone wears. All name tags include the cast members' first names and where they're from, which helps them connect with guests from all over the country and all over the world.

Kitchen teams at Disney are structured the same way as high-end restaurants

You're probably familiar with several of the positions in a professional kitchen. Everyone knows there's a chef, line cooks, and a dishwasher. But large kitchens, like the ones at Disney, have a slightly more complex structure (via Culinary Lab).

Not only is there a dishwasher, but there is also a kitchen porter or steward that handles general kitchen maintenance and cleanliness. There are several levels of cooks, indicated by numbered position, 4 being an entry-level cook or prep cook and 1 being the highest level cook (or chef de parti). After that, there are sous chefs who oversee intensive day-to-day restaurant operations and have some say in menu development. The chef tends to spend less time on the line, and more time keeping up with kitchen operations. For especially large operations, there can be several chefs, including the classic Chef de Cuisine, Pastry Chef, Banquet Chef, and Catering Chef. Finally, there's an executive chef that oversees all of the chefs in an establishment, or even the chefs and operations at several locations.

Oftentimes, the food on a Disney property seems to magically and effortlessly appear, which is undoubtedly by design. But in reality, there are small armies of people working to make all of that food for us to enjoy. Disney resorts and parks are massive hospitality operations, and the kitchens are structured the same way high-end restaurants are anywhere else.

New food projects for Disney are created in the Flavor Lab

For those who love to cook (and those who love Disney), going to work at a place called "The Flavor Lab" sounds like an absolute dream come true. The Flavor Lab isn't a typical restaurant kitchen (via WESH). Instead, it's a 7000 square foot test kitchen on Walt Disney World's campus where foods for properties and venues all over the world are imagined and created. An incredible amount of work goes into developing food concepts and menus at Disney restaurants. Everything including film inspiration, attractions and rides, service style, and dining ambiance is taken into consideration when creating a food and dining experience.

Per Thrillist, chefs in the Flavor Lab work side-by-side with sommeliers, mixologists, and bakers to develop new foods, but that's just part of the team. Park imagineers, architects, and designers are all involved in creating a complete experience so the foods you enjoy in a particular environment make you feel like you're completely immersed in a Disney story. Take Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in Disneyland and Disney World, for example. Not only do the parks have Star Wars-themed rides, but the parks themselves were designed to transport you to a completely different planet. Famous (and infamous) Star Wars characters roam the parks and interact with guests. The food at Stars Wars: Galaxy's Edge was all created to make you feel like you've been dropped right into a Star Wars story.

The food at Disney theme parks has come a long way

When you think of theme park food, carnival or fast food might come to mind. Hot dogs, cheeseburgers, pretzels, ice cream, popcorn and sodas are all typical theme park offerings. And while Disney parks do offer those foods (along with an absolutely iconic turkey leg which is more reminiscent of Renaissance fair food), Disney has invested heavily in developing the food options available.

When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, there were only a handful of dining options available — several of which are still in operation (via Mickey Blog). Most of the food back then was American cuisine, but the park's offerings have subsequently expanded to include cuisines from almost every continent. There are now 36 foodservice locations in the Magic Kingdom, 157 restaurants across the four major Disney World parks, and 391 dining locations on the entire Walt Disney World property.

1996 saw the very first EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival, which was initially created to attract more guests during the slower fall months. It's now one of the most popular festivals at EPCOT every year. The Flavor Lab opened in 2016 and became the home base for culinary development for Disney properties all over the world. It's not just about quick and easy food, but also what's trending in the food world, what's special and authentic to diverse cuisines, and how food can be tailored to not only feed people but also create an all-encompassing experience.

There's a special kitchen just for EPCOT festivals

EPCOT is home to four international festivals every year, including the Flower & Garden Festival, Festival of the Arts, Food & Wine Festival, and the Festival of the Holidays — and all of them are food intensive. All of the festival food is served from special booths, independent of the 59 permanent dining options already at EPCOT. To say it's a lot of food is a huge understatement. It's hard to fathom how that much food is even made every day, especially when it's estimated that an average of 34,000 people visit EPCOT in a single day. There's a lot of work going on behind the scenes to make it all happen.

To keep up, a 12,000-square-foot kitchen was built exclusively to prepare the EPCOT festival foods alone. For a little perspective, an average restaurant kitchen is about 1,000 square feet, if not smaller. The walk-in refrigerator alone in the event kitchen occupies 5,000 square feet — which is the average size of about two single-family homes in the U.S., according to Statista.

While the food is prepared in this massive kitchen space, that's not where it's served. The foods are transported unfinished to the festival booths at EPCOT, where they're cooked to order, so all of the foods are served freshly cooked. Not only does it taste better when it's finished on-site instead of precooked and reheated, but the delicious smells coming from the food festival booths are downright irresistible.

Chefs have to test and taste foods repeatedly until they're perfect

In traditional kitchens, new menu items are created with a modest amount of research and development. Chefs take into account the style of the restaurant, guests' tastes, and current favorite menu items, as well as seasonal ingredient availability. Most chefs are experienced enough with the ingredients they're using that it doesn't take very many tests to bring a dish to life.

Chefs in Disney kitchens go through a similar process when creating menu items, but often the process is more complex and takes quite a bit longer. Planning dishes for food festivals at EPCOT can begin a full year in advance, according to USA Today. Chefs take into account what was popular at previous festivals, as well as current food trends. They brainstorm, cook, and taste new dishes sometimes three or four times before presenting them to other cast members and executives for even more feedback, which can lead to several more rounds of testing and tasting.

On top of tweaking flavors and figuring out which dishes are winners, chefs also have to figure out how to scale the new menu items to serve thousands of guests smoothly and efficiently (via Thrillist). Foods prepared in larger quantities can taste different than the same dish created on a small scale, so maintaining that exceptional flavor while serving thousands of servings requires regular tasting and quality control.

Chefs and cooks often move around to different restaurants on Disney properties

If you've ever tried to figure out where to eat while on a Disney vacation, you might know how overwhelming to can be to choose just one restaurant. It's undoubtedly just as overwhelming for someone to try and figure out which restaurant at Disney to cook in. But the beauty of cooking at Disney is that cooks can move around to different restaurants and even different parks.

Chef Gloria Tae may currently be at the helm of the most exclusive restaurant in Disneyland, Club 33 — but her journey took her through many of the fine dining restaurants on Disney's California campuses. She began at Golden Vine Winery before moving to the Napa Rose restaurant at the Grand Californian Resort & Spa, then finally through the kitchen at Carthay Circle Restaurant before finding her place at the helm of Club 33 (via Disney Parks Blog).

The availability of different restaurants all under the umbrella of one employer is a huge benefit to those looking to build their cooking career. Typically when a cook moves from one restaurant to another they have to either start at the bottom and work hard to gain the respect and attention of the rest of the kitchen. Cooking at several restaurants within the same group allows cooks to learn a wide variety of cooking techniques from several different chefs, all without derailing or slowing down their careers.

There's room for growth in Disney kitchens

Many of the chefs working at the highest levels in Disney kitchens have cooked at Disney for years, if not decades. Executive Chef Scott Hunnel of Victoria & Albert's restaurant at the Grand Floridian resort at Walt Disney World has cooked there for almost 30 years after spending a short amount of time cooking at one of the restaurants at the Yacht and Beach Club Resort just after graduating from culinary school.

Pastry Chef Gracie Gomez in California has also spent a substantial amount of time cooking with Disney. In 2018, she had already been at Disneyland for 11 years, starting her Disney career as a candy maker and eventually climbing to a role as a pastry chef where she oversees dessert production in a kitchen that produces desserts for most of the resort.

With so many types of cooking venues at Disney, the opportunities for growth are nearly endless. Disney also has a strong track record of promoting from within, keeping those familiar with Disney's kitchen culture close.

You'll find celebrity and award-winning chefs at Disney

Disney is a massive entertainment company that brings millions of people into Disney parks every year, so it's no surprise that celebrity chefs want to collaborate with Disney and share in the spotlight that comes with such a prominent partnership. Disney Springs is a hub for several signature restaurants, including Jaleo by José Andrés, Chicken Guy! from Food Network star Guy Fieri, and Chef Art Smith's Homecomin' restaurant. Famous international chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Iron Chef winner Masaharu Morimoto also have signature restaurants in Disney Springs, Morimoto Asia and Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill.

Not only have award-winning chefs come to set up shop at Disney, but more than a few have also won James Beard Awards. Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Cocina has won a stunning seven James Beard Awards for everything from his cooking, cookbooks, and podcast, to his humanitarian work. Disney's own Executive Chef Scott Hunnel has received eight James Beard nominations for Best Chef in the South, and Executive Pastry Chef Rabii Saber has received two James Beard Award nominations for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

Disney doesn't just lure celebrities in — it also creates them. Chef Carolyn Portuondo, pastry chef at Disney's Aulani Resort & Spa in Hawaii is one of the contestants on Season 8 of Food Network's Spring Baking Championship — but no spoilers, you'll have to tune in to see how far she made it.

Desserts are a big deal at Disney parks too

During a trip to Disney, you might be spellbound by the Mickey pretzels or the gourmet dinner at Cinderella's castle, but you'll be equally impressed by all of the sweet treats available. And why shouldn't you be? It's a place built for fun and indulgence, and desserts play a big role in all of the excitement. Disney even hosts several "Dessert Parties" as vacation add-ons where guests can watch the fireworks in the Magic Kingdom from a special location and enjoy custom desserts, cheeses, drinks, and alcoholic beverages.

The Disney desserts you've come to know and love over the years are still available, like the iconic Dole Whip (and its many flavor combinations), Mickey ice cream bars, and the Holiday Cookie Stroll at EPCOT. But Disney has also upped its dessert game by offering custom baked goods like cookies, mousse cakes, eclairs, push-pops, churros, cupcakes, character-inspired macarons, cake pops, dipped apples, chocolates, and plated desserts.

Because desserts can take hours to make and thousands of each dessert are made a day, desserts can be made up to 24 hours in advance and finished the day they're going to be served. Pastry kitchens are staffed the same way savory kitchens at Disney are, with several shifts starting in the wee hours of the morning or spanning overnight hours. It's clear from the intricacy and variety of desserts that Disney is just as invested in desserts as it is in other food options.

Exclusive and underground restaurants serve cast members

If you're still having trouble wrapping your head around how so much food is made and transported through Disney theme parks, we're going to let you in on a little secret: Not only are there people working behind the scenes to make it all happen, but some of them are under your feet.

Walt Disney World was built with underground tunnels called "Utilidors" used strictly for cast members to move around the park, produce and deliver food, and even get a quick haircut. Not only do the underground tunnels make it easy to transport food from one location to another without having to dodge the crowds, but it's reported that there are also kitchens, refrigerators, and storage underground to support the food service locations above. We think it's a pretty genius move that really maintains the small-town Main Street illusion.

Along with kitchen and storage spaces underground, the tunnel system was also built with a cafeteria for cast members to eat at called the "Mousekateria." There are also break rooms at different locations around the tunnel system and areas for cast members to change in and out of their costumes and uniforms. One other secret dining spot for cast members is the on-site Subway restaurant, visible on Google Maps but inaccessible to park-goers. The Subway gives cast members a little more variety when it comes to food and helps keep everyone fed behind the scenes.

Disney chefs meticulously create plant-based and allergen-friendly meals for guests

The days of having to bring your own food into the park if you have special dietary needs are over, at Disney parks at least. Or rather, you can still bring your own food if you want to, but now there are far more choices available to you. Disney chefs have dedicated themselves to creating allergen-friendly and plant-based foods for guests with any number of nutritional needs. Disney states that most full-service restaurants and major quick-service restaurants on Disney properties provide allergen-friendly options or can make adjustments to current menu items for food allergies and intolerances including eggs, fish, gluten, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, and wheat. At most places, it doesn't even require calling ahead or having a special menu made. Chefs on-site are available to talk through any needs and adjust your meal for you accordingly.

Not only have accommodations around food needs been made, but Disney chefs have begun designing menus that are intentionally plant-based and available as the main attraction in some locations. There are typically several vegan and vegetarian options available at food festivals and quick-dining options so guests don't have to go out of their way to find appropriate meals. Plant-based dishes at many restaurants have been given the gourmet treatment, either as creative reinterpretations of traditionally meat-based dishes or as high-end revivals of plant-based favorites.

Disney chefs show you how to cook some of their most popular dishes online

Let's say you've returned home from a fantastic trip to Disney World and you can't get that one dish you had during your stay out of your mind (we're looking at you, Duck Confit Gnocchi from Topolino's Terrace — and we aren't the only ones). If you've got some skills in the kitchen, you may be able to recreate some of your favorite dishes, but to help, Disney occasionally releases recipes and shows you how to cook them.

For example, Chef Kevin Downing was filmed making two incredibly popular dishes from Le Cellier, the wildly popular restaurant in the Canada pavilion in EPCOT. He demonstrates the Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup and Filet of Beef with Roasted Mushrooms and Beurre Blanc, with accompanying recipes. It's a Disney foodie's dream come true. Chef Kevin has also demonstrated how he makes the Vegetable Curry served at the Morocco pavilion in EPCOT. Disney doesn't reveal its recipes for us to cook at home all the time, so it's pretty special when they do.

Disney chefs have also spilled their secrets of how to make some irresistible desserts. One we'd love to try is the Chocolate Cannoli Cake once served in Disney's Hollywood Studios. For those of us who would cook just about anything to be transported back to Disney for a little while, all of the recipes Disney chefs create can be found on the Disney Parks Blog for inspiration.

Disney chefs work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year

It may not come as much of a surprise to you to learn that there are Disney chefs and cooks working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to keep the food flowing in Disney parks. Now that we've gotten a glimpse of just how many dining experiences there are, it makes perfect sense that there are people cooking all day and all night to make it happen. A quick look at a job listing for a full-time Pastry/Bakery Chef Assistant states that early shifts can start at 5 a.m., which is the same time that some overnight shifts end. It sounds like hard work, but for those of us that get to enjoy all of the delicious treats they produce, we're grateful for all of the effort chefs and cooks put into every item.

By one account, cast members at one of the main bakeries at Disneyland Paris each create anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 individual pastries per day. And it's not just the desserts that start to add up. At the festival kitchen that supplies food to EPCOT, it's estimated that at least 4,000 sheet trays of hot food are created every day. With volume like that, it's no wonder that chefs work nonstop to cook every bite.

Disney chefs sometimes have off-nights just like at any other restaurant

You've been to your favorite restaurant on a busy night. Sometimes it takes a while to get seated, or you may wait a little longer for your food to arrive. Now imagine that multiplied by thousands and drop it into the heart of one of the largest theme parks in the world. There are probably more cooks in the kitchen at a Disney restaurant than at the busiest restaurant near you, but how the kitchen operates and the difficulty of the work are absolutely no different.

Like any high-end restaurant on a busy night, the kitchen may churn out meals for several hundred people. It gets hot. Orders might get mixed up. One small error can put the kitchen behind for hours. And at Disney, it's likely that there are far fewer slow days, and the crowds will just keep coming. A kitchen shift may start a few hours before the restaurant is officially open for service, and will likely end a couple of hours after the last plate has left the kitchen, late into the night. In between, there is likely an intense handful of hours where the chefs and cooks are just churning through dish after dish. But in the end, they're talented cooks, working hard, that might have an off-night just like any other kitchen might.

Chefs say it's hard work, but worth it

It's a lot to take in. All of the food that gets created in vast numbers. The many hundreds of places to cook and serve food on Disney properties. Keeping up the storybook image at all times while in front of guests and having to maintain a high standard of cooking and cleanliness through it all. Is it all worth it? For some people, it may not be. But for many people, all of that just comes with the territory. Chefs are known for their resiliency, and in kitchens that nurture creativity and an inspirational atmosphere, it can be an absolute pleasure.

And that's the impression we get when reading first-hand reviews from current and previous cooks and chefs at Disney. It's hard work, but the environment and experience can't be beaten. A quick search on Indeed turned up dozens of reviews from cast members with experience cooking at Disney, with one previous employee stating, "The pay is excellent, the work is demanding and constant. But ... you'll learn a lot about yourself. No mistakes, no mercy, it's a well-oiled machine. Try it is the experience of a lifetime." The benefits are constantly mentioned as a pro of the job, while the long hours are predictably the hardest part. Ultimately, if your dream is to become a chef, and you've got a special place in your heart for all things Disney, cooking at Disney seems like a downright magical opportunity.