Review: Celebration at the Top at Disney’s California Grill at the Contemporary Resort

Wider: https://www.easywdw.com/reports13/california_grill_sunset.jpg

Back on February 21st, in this Parks Blog post, Disney announced that a new event centered around food, alcohol, and fireworks would be taking place at California Grill. The event is currently scheduled on Sunday evenings through April 16th, with the exception of March 5th due to a previously scheduled event. You can catch up on Disney’s official word, in addition to being able to check availability and book the event, here.

At a cost of $123.26 per person with mandatory 18% gratuity and 6.5% sales tax, Disney promised “canapés, a selection of sushi rolled by the expert California Grill sushi chefs, a selection of flatbreads and other small plates” in addition to “a complimentary bar offering craft beers, California wines, cordials and coffee” located inside ” intimate and secluded banquet rooms.” After that, “guests will be lead to their private observation deck, which offers stunning views of Magic Kingdom park and the fireworks. After taking in the breathtaking sights and sounds, guests can return to the private room for petit four desserts including decadent chocolate confections and fruit tarts.”

The event officially begins one hour prior to the fireworks.

Check in begins 30 minutes before the official start time. You’ll confirm your reservation and receive your wristband on the second floor of the Contemporary next to the regular check-in area for California Grill.

After checking in at 6:30pm for the 7pm event, we were invited up to Califoria Grill’s lobby/lounge area.

I have reviewed the lounge at California Grill positively in the past, perhaps most recently in this post. Basically, if you don’t want to commit to a reservation at the signature restaurant, you can instead go to the check in desk on the second floor and inquire about lounge availability.

If there’s space at the bar or in the circled lounge area, cast will invite you inside the elevator to head up take a seat. The lounge includes the high top chairs at the bar itself and several tables. It’s typically more of a guarantee to be let up earlier in the evening and again 30 minutes after Wishes (depending on when Wishes starts and if the restaurant is still open after). But the lounge offers California Grill’s full food and drink menu and if you’re thinking about just sharing an appetizer and a couple of cocktails, you may feel more comfortable doing so at the lounge. On the downside, the closer you get to the fireworks, the more likely it is that the lounge will be full. When we arrived on Sunday at 6:15pm with Wishes scheduled at 8pm, there were still three tables and a couple of chairs available. But you never know – if you “have” to see Wishes from California Grill, then you want a reservation, probably 45 to 90 minutes before the show is scheduled to start. Those dining earlier in the evening, and including brunch on Sundays, can return to the second floor podium prior to Wishes and show their receipt to be led up to the observation deck.

Because the event is “all you can eat and all you can drink” with a relatively short period available to “get your money’s worth,” I recommend arriving 30 minutes before Celebration at the Top begins to check in. Then once you’re upstairs, head out onto the observation deck to take in the sunset and the view.

Celebrate at the Top: Sip, Savor, Sparkle takes place in the Sonoma and Napa rooms inside the restaurant. After arriving on the 15th floor, you’ll take a left around this corner to get there. Before the event begins, take a right if you have the time and proceed to the far left or right of the restaurant to the observation decks.

This is where the event took place – the room is perhaps cramped…perhaps intimate…but I didn’t think the bright yellows were particularly welcoming and nothing about hodgepodge tablecloths, green-cushioned chairs, and spiky glowcubes creates an atmosphere of class and prestige as far as I could tell.

Being the first event, there are typically a number of kinks to work out…they had assigned seats with name tags. But nobody had a copy of the seating chart…and there was no hostess…so you had to search around the room looking for your name kind of like a game of Thanksgiving at Grandma’s. My assumption was that seating, if there was any, wouldn’t be assigned like at Party for the Senses when you try to find the least creepy people that have also identified you as being acceptably creepy and then ask if they want to share a table. Typically, with these “all you can drink” events, everybody is best friends by the end of the night anyway. But there were some issues when two couples had booked separately but wanted to be seated together and some groups of three were seated with single bloggers of varying importance.

Corless and I had booked separately because we rarely acknowledge the other person’s existence even though we do everything together. They were having a terrible time figuring out what to do to get us at the same table, but fortunately my aura of bloggability must have won over the trifecta that I was seated with and they made the mistake of graciously letting us squeeze in a fifth chair.

You might remember that in the original announcement, Disney mentions “craft beer.” In the amended description of the event on the webpage, you may notice that “craft” is nowhere to be seen.

And craft there is perhaps not, though Cigar City’s Jai Alai is quite good if you like relatively high (7.5% ABV) percentage IPAs. But California Grill ordinarily has some nice beers available from the likes of Ommegang, Corsendonk, Coronado, and Bell’s, none of which are to be found here. I was looking forward to sampling a few different selections throughout the evening, but wasn’t really in the mood to put back eight Coors Lights.

The wine list is considerably better. Disney charges $18/glass on the Roededrer Sparkling Brut though the retail price is just $22 a bottle. The MacMurray Estate Pinot Gris is in the “Disney Family of Wines” at $19/bottle. The Wind Racer is a $50 bottle while the LaFond SRH, for Santa Rita Hills, is $20. And the Chappellet Mountain Cuvee would set you back $30 a bottle. And considering Disney’s standard markup is around 200%, you could do well sticking to the wine as you could rationalize four glasses of the Roededrer would set you back $72 at the restaurant.

While Disney lists the cordials available, they make no mention of the other alcohol they have behind the bar – Ketel One Vodka, Bacardi Rum, Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum, Tanqueray Gin, Jack Daniels Whiskey, Seagrams 7 Crown Whiskey, and Dewar’s Red Label are all available with limited mixers. But I thought the lack of acknowledgement was a little strange and with just two bartenders for the 48 guests, I didn’t really want to put the two guys out by ordering a bunch of seemingly off-menu drinks and in turn, requiring everyone waiting behind me in line to wait longer. So I stuck to Jack on the rocks.

The bartenders did a fantastic job considering how much they were responsible for. When making cosmos and martinis, they first filled the glass with water and ice to cool it down while the drink was being made. Then they poured the ice out and strained the cocktail into the glass. And despite there being just two of them, they came around at the end of the night announcing last call and seeing if anybody wanted to top up one last time, in addition to occasionally coming by with one of the wines to offer guests. But while the two bartenders did a fantastic job, there was virtually no other interaction with any other cast at the restaurant. One of the reasons why you might try a signature Disney restaurant is the expectation that service will be elevated – but we are decidedly in serve yourself territory here both at the bar and the “buffet.” They didn’t even have silverware or full size napkins available…if you needed to wipe your hands, you’d have to find a small black cocktail napkin to use.

With the price tag and “sip, savor, sparkle” tagline, I felt like I could expect something about the event to be particularly impressive. But this is the entire buffet setup – two small tables on wheels. And while there were several different items stacked high, there wasn’t a lot of variety.

Later in the evening, I was able to get a better look at the sushi.

A Vegetable Roll.

California Roll.

Salmon and Chive Roll.

Shrimp Tempura Roll.

Lobster Roll with Avocado and Micro Cilantro.

Above is the picture Disney used to promote the event – you’ll notice that the top level is three types of nigiri and there’s also a Spicy Tuna Tekka Maki on the second level. None of those items were actually on the buffet. Otherwise, the sushi was okay – California Grill doesn’t offer anything more basic. The little Lobster Rolls were served on nicely toasted, buttery rolls, and it was mostly well-seasoned lobster. But the amount inside each roll seemed to get smaller with every subsequent tray.

The other table featured hot appetizers.

Roasted Tomato Flatbread – Laura Chenel and Midnight Moon Goat Cheese, Arugula Pesto, Aged Balsamic.

Duck Confit Flatbread – Red Onion Jam, Laura Chenel Goat Cheese, Candied Pecans.

The Flatbreads would run you $16 each at California Grill and both are fantastic – the Duck Confit in particular is covered in a generous amount of duck with the salty, creamy goat cheese complementing it really nicely against the astringency of the jam.

Something about trying to pick up half inch slices with tongs detracts from the experience though.

The Tandori Style Chicken Satay with Vietnamese Peanut Sauce was popular and quite good when it was in stock.

I wasn’t able to get an appetizing picture of the Pork Belly Bao with Cucumber Slaw, but they were also quite good on their own. The bun was really soft and chewy and they were stuffed with the pork belly, which had a nice mildly spicy hoisin sauce that contrasted nicely against the cool cucumber.

But that was it for the food before Wishes….four types of sushi, the lobster roll, two types of flatbread, the pork buns, and the chicken satay.

But life is an expectations game and it’s possible that mine were simply too high after enjoying California Grill’s brunch so much back in October – a review of which is available here, which included the Charcuterie spread above.

Brunch also included the nigiri that was supposed to be present at the evening event along with the Tuna Maki.

Then that brunch also includes an entree selection and unlimited mimosas for $20 less than the evening Sparkle event…and you can bring your receipt back in the evening to head up to the observation deck for Wishes.

Speaking of Wishes, a couple of minutes before the fireworks started, we headed out to the observation deck for the show.

The half glass of Michelle Brut was a nice touch and there were a couple of tables set up for those that wanted to put their drinks down during the show.

This is the Sparkle crowd down to the right in front of me.

And the “regular” California Grill crowd ahead.

I’m not sure how much value to ascribe to the fireworks, a view which is famously off-center as the majority of the fireworks are shot from behind Space Mountain.

But there is an opportunity to watch the show from basically the same vantage point as those dining at the restaurant and lounge. While we were further back, there were so few of us that everyone was basically able to get a front row spot down at the end. The music is piped in and clear.

After Wishes, a dessert cart was rolled in and guests were also able to continue eating any of the other sushi/flatbread/hot items that continued to be replenished.

I thought the desserts were the best part of the evening and I appreciated having the ability to try a couple different smaller versions of the various items.

The Creme Brulee Tart was a favorite with the earthy nuttiness of the pistachio contrasting nicely with the sweetness of the plump raspberry and creaminess of the custard.

The Hazelnut Crunch Cake was another highlight – a really crispy base underneath the decadent chocolate with a mildly nutty flavor and an interesting crunch to eat bite. Very good.

Everything inside the Fruit Tart was fresh and vibrant with a lot of natural sweetness from the fruit and a variety of textures from the kiwi, blueberries, strawberry, and other fruit inside of the crunchy crust.

The Assorted Cream Puffs were just the right size and injected with a surprisingly refreshing cool chocolate cream. Very good.

The Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes had a really distinct, intense chocolate flavor to them with a moist, flavorful cake base. They should have satisfied anyone looking for a chocolate treat.

I really enjoyed everything about the dessert.

So Is It Worth It?

The event includes:

  • 60 to 75 minutes of open bar before Wishes, including okay domestic bottled beer, a very good IPA, above average wines, cordials that you probably aren’t going to order, and cocktails featuring an assortment of middle tier brands. After Wishes, there’s another 30 minutes of open bar for a total of around 90 minutes. Note that you’ll probably need to get up and order/pick up the majority of these drinks as there are no servers to speak of.
  • Four different kinds of sushi, the lobster roll, two very good flatbreads, and the two “small plates.” It’s a limited menu, but everything was at a minimum good. You’re somewhat out of luck if you don’t like sushi or seafood.
  • The reserved observation deck view for Wishes with an accompanying half glass of okay sparkling wine.
  • 2+ hours total at California Grill in one of the two private dining rooms. While the event runs from one hour before Wishes to one hour after Wishes, you can get going 15 minutes before the official start time and nobody is there to push you to leave. About a quarter of the tables were still there 20 minutes after the end of the event or however long it takes for your tablemates to start talking about Trump.
  • Valet parking.

So…Is It Worth It?

I didn’t think so. Nothing about it really “felt” special – there was basically no service staff outside of the bartenders and a third and possibly fourth person clearing the generic plastic plates that we were using at the buffet. There wasn’t even silverware or cloth napkins and it didn’t “seem” like much effort had been put in to decorating the space appropriately for a premium event. The food was in a separate room and there was very little variety. I’d be singing a different tune if some version of their delicious Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli was available or a plated steak dish of some kind. Another hot seafood option would have been welcome as well. There was no cocktail list or any indication of what was available or could be made. There was one decent beer selection. Anybody looking at wine should have been satisfied though.

On the other hand, Disney charges $79/adult and $47/child for the dessert party inside Magic Kingdom at Tomorrowland Terrace and that includes no alcohol. And while the variety of desserts there is more expansive, California Grill’s are certainly better in quality. So if you’re adults considering a dessert party, I would personally pay the extra $40 to “upgrade” to the California Grill version for the food, quality of the desserts, and (arguably) more interesting view. That’s especially true if you’re looking to order a few of the otherwise more expensive alcoholic drinks.

But I really loved brunch here with the live music, vibrant atmosphere, improved service, expanded buffet options, plated entree selections, unlimited mimosas, and the overall “feeling” that what you were doing was something special.

If you’d prefer to spend your evening at California Grill instead, as a party of two for the same money as the Sip Sparkle event, you could do:

  • $16 – One Roasted Tomato Flatbread
  • $16 – One Duck Confit Flatbread
  • $25 – One Dragon Roll with Spicy and Tataki Tuna, Shrimp Tempura, Avocado, Dragon Sauce, Hijiki-Shirataki Salad
  • $24  – One California Roll – Jumbo Lump Crab, Avocado, Cucumber, Shrimp Tempura
  • $115 – 10 Cocktails of your choice, 12 Craft Beers, or 8 Glasses of Wine
  • $14 – One Luscious Chocolate Cake with Nutella Filling, Meringue Kisses, and Chantilly Cream

——————————

For $199.

Personally, that sounds like a much better time than having a limited selection of options in a cramped room, with no fork or napkin, with a bunch of people that may or may not be taking pictures of you and their food all night. Meal-wise, you could order the $15 Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli, $49 Filet Mignon, choice of $13 dessert, and still have enough money left over for two beers or cocktails.

But this is the sort of thing where improvements will certainly be made over time. One of the leaders of the event actually came over at the end and said to me and Tom, “Because of you two, we’re going to try open seating next time.”

Thanks, I guess.

Overall, I didn’t feel like there were any special touches to command a premium price and felt like I could have done better with a hundred bucks and two hours outside at the “regular” restaurant. And even then, I’d probably elect to book the brunch again. Those looking to drink a bottle of Roededrer over the course of the two hours will find a bit more value and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there was a third buffet station next time with improved selections and increased staffing.

But I won’t be offering an emphatic thumbs up until we see what, if any, changes are made.

Comments

  1. Dan Young says

    I’ve dined many times at the CG, and I just don’t see the value of this offering. You could sit down and enjoy a fabulous meal, take your drink out on the balcony to watch the fireworks, and then come back inside for dessert and another drink or two, all for less than what they’re charging for this event. I’d much prefer a fine sit-down meal to munching off of a limited buffet.

    • Sarah says

      Thanks for the review! I was pretty excited about this after the brunch review, but this looks quite disappointing in comparison. Honestly, I’m pretty shocked it costs more than the brunch. I guess because of the expanded alcohol selection? Maybe they’re concerned the Magic Kingdom dessert party will look like a complete and utter rip-off if the price for this was lower? I agree with the other poster above that I’d rather just opt for making a normal reservation. Hopefully they will make some improvements.

      • Jon says

        I would guess it costs more than brunch, partly due to the extra alcohol offered and mainly due to the fireworks viewing. They are selling the evening event as a fireworks party and priced according to the view. Brunch is priced for the daytime view (even though you can come back later if you know that).

    • dusty cheatham says

      my friend dan knows what he is talking about. the only thing that might seal the deal for the both of us is a cigar smoking area only. no coffin nails allowed.

  2. says

    Thanks for your blunt review. Also thanks for showing all the food. I don’t see anything except maybe the satay that might be gluten free and I’ve had bad experience at the parties where they bring me out a pre-packaged OMG brownie and say “here you go” that I could have bought for $3-5. :/

  3. Gigi says

    We were on the fence between this and brunch, but this review definitely tipped the scales to brunch. While all you can chug wine and spirits is tempting, I think the food offerings (along with bottomless mimosas) and more relaxed atmosphere at brunch seems much more appealing. Do you remember if you can use TiW for brunch?

  4. Redhed_2001 says

    Great review Josh, thanks!

    I really appreciate the breakdown of choices that 2 adults could get at dinner for roughly the same price tag.

    Flatbreads and desserts looked yummy :)

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