After many trips to Walt Disney World contemplating the idea, I finally bit the bullet and invested into the Dining with an Imagineer program which takes place during lunch at the Hollywood Brown Derby. Offered only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the program which costs $60.99 + tax and 18% gratuity per adult (bringing the per adult total to about $75) and $34.99 (or about $45 total) per child, brings the group (maximum of eight guests) face to face with a bonafide Disney Imagineer at Walt Disney World.
Booking proved to be a bit of a challenge as, if I recall correctly, the 90 + 10 didn’t work too well. After a few days of trying, however, I was able to secure my reservation. A credit card is required at time of booking (there is a 48 hour cancellation policy), but you are not charged. Instead, you are presented a bill at the end of the event as with any dining. For booking purposes, it also appears to help if the Cast Member starts looking at The Hollywood Brown Derby moreso than for the experience itself.
Meeting time for the event is 11:30 am and we were each presented with an engraved nametag created specifically for the program (see below) at check-in. Shortly thereafter, we were lead into a private room within the restaurant and met up with the Imagineer as we got seated. After a brief introduction, a group photo was taken and we were handed personalized menus which listed our choices for entree and dessert.
It’s a four course meal beginning with the soup which was a sweet corn chowder with applewood smoked bacon and ancho chili oil, followed by a classic cobb salad with finely chopped greens, turkey breast, bacon, egg, tomatoes, crumbled bleu cheese, avocado and cobb salad dressing.
For the entree, we had a choice of: grilled rib eye steak with arugula, crispy sweet onions, gorgonzola, red bliss potatoes and oven-dried tomato vinaigrette; Thai noodle bowl with barbecue breast of chicken, sugar peas, bok choy and shiitake mushrooms in a red curry broth; or spice-rubbed black grouper with sauteed haricots verts and sunchokes, rainbow carrot slaw and citrus butter. I opted for the Thai noodle bowl.
Dessert was a choice of either the house specialty of the grapefruit cake (light layers of yellow cake with fresh grapefruit cream cheese icing) or double vanilla bean creme brulee with dark chocolate dipped biscotti. Curiosity had me go for the grapefruit cake.
Not being a foodie, it turns out that The Hollywood Brown Derby is the first signature restaurant I’ve ever even stepped foot in at Walt Disney World and it definitely seemed to be worth it. The soup and salad were quite good as was the entree, with the chicken being perfectly cooked. I must confess I was not a big fan of the grapefruit cake and if the opportunity arises again, I will opt for the creme brulee which I understand is very good as well.
Beyond the food, the service was also extremely attentive. I even found myself looking for a hidden camera placed somewhere in the room to see if they were keeping an eye on us since none of the group was ever left waiting for anything such as a drink refill for more than a couple of minutes.
As good as it was, however, none of us had come for the food. It was the one on one time with the Imagineer. In our case, the Imagineer (who will vary from experience to experience) was Alex Caruthers, art director for the Magic Kingdom. During our introductions, Alex asked each one of us if there were anything we’d like to focus on during his talk. One of the attending guests was a student who had just received her associates degree in film editing which is something Alex had his own roots in so he spent a lot of time talking about that. He joined Walt Disney Imagineering at the suggestion of a friend to work on The Magic Carpets of Aladdin. Despite the Orlando office of Imagineering not having a position where Alex’s background fit in, his demonstrated capabilities afforded him the ability to stay on at WDI in Orlando and his video production skills continued to be used. Whenever there was a meeting or segment within WDI to be filmed, Alex would become the go-to guy and as a result he ended up spending a lot of one-on-one time with Disney legends such as John Hench. He talked about his personal experiences with the various legends, talked a bit about the lighting used in various lands in the Magic Kingdom (including the introduction of LEDs and why they’re still not up to snuff for fully replacing incandescent bulbs as of yet, especially on Main Street, USA) and talked about his most recent key projects, the Pirates League (which perked my ears up quite a bit) and the Hall of Presidents. He also continued to field question after question to the best of his abilities, to which he did an admirable job in my humble opinion.
Although I believe the experience is meant to last only a couple of hours, I recall ours going a full three hours, or at least until 2:30 or so. At the end of the experience, we were each presented with an exclusive glass plate which the Imagineer (Alex) personally addressed and signed at the time. We were also presented with a B&W copy of the photo taken at the beginning of the experience as part of a would-be commemorative program from the event.
While not a quite once-in-a-lifetime-experience, at least not for me, I have to say that between the experience and the lunch itself, it was worth every penny and then-some. I don’t believe I would hesitate for a second to try to fit this into my schedule again during future trips where I can.