The California Grill atop the Contemporary Resort was recently refurbished (in 2013) into what Imagineers describe as a "sleep, contemporary interpretation of mid-century modern California design." I never ate at the California Grill before the refurbishment, so I can't say how it differs from the previous interior. We had one of the first reservations after the restaurant reopened in November 2013. We chose the restaurant because we had spare table-service credits on our 2013 trip, and we'd decided to use them on extravagant dining experiences; that is, restaurants we had never eaten at before and probably would never have eaten at, except for the spare credits. As I was researching all the dining options at Disney World, I read that the California Grill was one of the must do dining experiences, especially during fireworks. I was skeptical about all the hype but after having done it, I'd have to say I agree.
To get to the California Grill you check in at a nondescript desk within the Contemporary resort, then ride a dedicated elevator up to the restaurant. I believe this is to manage the waiting crowd up at the restaurant, because there is not a lot of space for waiting. We had a very large group and we waited out on the observation deck, which gives you a gorgeous view of the Magic Kingdom and Cinderella's castle.... It was sunset, and a great photo opportunity!
Note that the California Grill does have a dress code. "Men may wear khakis, slacks, jeans or dress shorts and collared shirts. Sport coats are optional. Women may wear Capri pants, skirts, dresses, jeans or dress shorts. Not permitted are tank tops, swimsuits, swimsuit cover-ups, hats for gentlemen, cut-offs, torn clothing and t-shirts with offensive language and/or graphics." So you'll need to remember to pack an outfit specifically for dinner.
We ended up being sat at a long table that ended at the glass wall. The reviews I'd read prior to visiting the California Grill had said to be sure to ask for a window seat... but there's really no need, every table in that restaurant has a gorgeous view! There's really not a bad seat in the house!
We had a large group (9 people) and everyone ordered something different. Between us, we probably accounted for half the menu options available. There was lots of "try this!", and "can I have a bite of that?" going on, and I'm guilty of tasting pretty much everything. There was nothing that I wouldn't order, every single dish and side dish was divine. But the best part -- oh! the best part by far--- were the desserts. There are not words to express how great the desserts were. They were so good that I even took photos of them (and I'm not a food-photo-taking type of person, generally).
I had the seasonal apple dessert sampler platter which had an apple creme brule, maple sugar rock candy sticks, hot apple cider, apple strudel, and apple cupcake! Each item was individually spectacular, and the collection taken as a whole was memorable, to say the least.
My girls ordered this... forgive me, I forget what it is called, and I don't see it any longer on the online menu. But, just so you know what you're looking at, those are candy sushi rolls made with rice crispie, gummy worms, swedish fish, and wrapped in fruit rollups! So delicious! (I might have stolen one from them... you know, being that I was worried for their health and stuff).
But, the best part by far are the fireworks! Here is some video of our view of HalloWishes, from my seat in the middle of the table.
The restaurant plays the music synced with the show, and it's such a lovely way to watch the fireworks. We have had so/so experiences watching the fireworks in front of the castle (it's very crowded and difficult for me to manage as I'm not a big fan of the pushing / shoving / touching strangers) and had been seeking alternative ways to enjoy Disney's nightly pyrotechnic displays. For our 2013 trip we did the Pirate and Pals Fireworks voyage for the same reason, and on our upcoming trip we'll be testing out the Tomorrowland Terrace Fireworks Dessert Party.
If your goal is to see the fireworks from the California Grill, you will need to check the park calendar ahead of making your reservations to find out what time the fireworks are on the day you want to eat at the restaurant, because the fireworks times vary. Then, you'll need to try to get an Advance Dining Reservation for one hour prior to that start time. (For tips on how to get ADRs, check out my previous post on the subject). This often puts you around 7:00PM for dinner.
If you prefer to eat earlier than that, they've made it so you can return to the California Grill observation deck to watch the fireworks later, all you need is to bring your receipt from earlier in the day with you. On the night we were there, the observation deck wasn't terribly crowded during the fireworks and I think that this would be an excellent way to view the show, too!
We don't do a theme park on our check-in day, and we chose fireworks at the California Grill as a way of still feeling like we were experiencing the parks on that first night. I think it's a great way to kick-off a Disney trip if you are on the deluxe dining plan and looking for a way to spend those extra credits... Would I eat there if I was paying cash or on a regular dining plan? To be honest, probably not. It is very expensive, and costs two table-service credits, putting it outside my standard trip budget... I imagine it's out-of-budget for lots of people. I certainly wouldn't categorize it as an every-trip must-do type of experience, but if you're looking for something extra special and it's within your trip budget, definitely give the California Grill a try! Everyone should do it at least once. You won't regret it, and you'll never forget it!