I started writing this post a while ago, which is a fortunate thing now. Originally, it was to be the second part of my review of Trail’s End, specifically the dinner buffet. With my first post I wanted to really see if the breakfast buffet was “worth it”. Was it a good value? I planned on doing the same with the dinner buffet, but, as I picked up my writing again, I just couldn’t. While I stand by my original article about the breakfast buffet, I just felt it lacked something. And where this one was headed lacked it as well.
Recently, I’ve been engaged in discussions about Trail’s End, on podcasts or with other Disney fans. I found myself explaining and, at times, defending Trail’s End, but inside I couldn’t help but think that what I was saying wasn’t really, 100% true. Not a lie, but I found myself using terms like, “all your bbq favorites”, or other such verbiage you might find on the Disney website. Generic stuff. Biased stuff. I felt like my love of Fort Wilderness was blinding the obvious: that Trail’s End had flaws. And that brought my mind to this unfinished blog post, and where it should go. I felt I needed to be honest, and so, here is an unabridged, unbiased opinion of Trail’s End, and the value it holds. Here’s the truth.
Setting – I’m not going to get too much into this one as I described it at length in my write up of the breakfast, but, in short, it’s one of the biggest reasons I like Trail’s End. Now, a lot of this is my preference. I like that old-timey, quasi-western feel. It goes quite well with the rest of Fort Wilderness. To me, it’s much better than the setup and feel at Whispering Canyon, and without the fear of having to order ketchup. It’s a little dark inside, and maybe the buffalo head that watches over you is getting a bit long in the tooth, but I think it makes it feel warm and cozy. Honestly, the feel of the place, both inside and out, is probably the biggest reason we go at least once every trip. By now, I’m sure a huge part of why I feel this way is nostalgic, but that’s OK with me.
The biggest worry I have on our way to Trail’s End, however, is if it will be busy. And busy for Trail’s End does not equate with being shut out of a table, at least not 90% of the time. Busy can mean only three quarters of the restaurant full, but at dinner when there is a carving station incorporated in the buffet line, it means backups. Sometimes it can take a good 10 minutes to get through the buffet line because of the carving station. The carvers also, at times, have to help with to-go orders, or get out of the way of the pizza oven that is right behind them, which means you will have to wait for them to be available. This setup is less than ideal, but, in fairness, of all the times I’ve eaten dinner at Trail’s End I’ve only experienced a severe backup like the 10 minute march I spoke of twice. It’s possible, just not a regular thing.
I’ll also include availability in this section. This is another reason why we eat at Trail’s End as much as we do. It’s always available. I’ve been over spring break. I’ve been over the 4th of July. I’ve been over President’s Day Weekend. Trust me. As I write this, 2 days from the 4th of July, arguably one of the busiest days at Fort Wilderness, there are numerous available reservations for dinner starting at 5 PM on Independence Day. Christmas week, a time you need to book a campsite six months to a year in advance, has availability, as of today, for Christmas dinner. While I always recommend a reservation anywhere you are certain you want to eat, it’s not really necessary here. I like that. I like always having that option that, if I don’t feel like throwing burgers on the grill, I know we have somewhere to go on little or no notice.
Food – Obviously, a very large part of why we go here as well. If the food was inedible I wouldn’t care about anything else. I find, as a whole, the food here is good. Let’s delve just a little deeper than that broad assessment though, shall we?
First, you have the salad bar/cold food area. I’ll be honest, other than the peel and eat shrimp, I steer clear of this portion of the buffet. This isn’t a knock against the quality of salad—it may be the greatest salad ever produced for all I know—I just don’t eat salad and I surely am not going to fill myself up on it when so many different meats await just feet away. Now, the peel and eat shrimp I do indulge in at times. Mostly, my daughter likes it and being that she is only 7, I end up having to peel the shrimp for her. Of course, I will sneak a few for myself and my general opinion of it is that it’s fair. It’s kind of hard to explain, really. It doesn’t have an off taste or anything, it’s just the texture and feel when you bite into it. Sort of clammy and gritty, I guess. Not terrible, but not something I would concern myself with if I was building the ultimate dinner plate (which I always strive for).
There are rolls, and some cornbread, in the center buffet station mixed in with the deserts. I usually skip these as well as I have found the cornbread to be dry, and the rolls to be hard. Now, this probably has to do with how long they have been out. If you see fresh rolls or cornbread being placed in the buffet, grab some as they are probably very good, but if they have already been sitting out they can probably be avoided.
Back to the main buffet. The first section beyond the cold offerings has steamed veggies, a pasta dish which changes periodically, and one of the 2 macaroni and cheese dishes. The veggies are typical. There is no corn on the cob as you might expect from a BBQ restaurant, but there is kernel corn (What’s the proper term for this? Cobless?). The pasta is OK, nothing special, but it is decent if you are looking for a creamy, cheesy sort of noodle dish. It’s more or less a plate filler. The mac and cheese dish in this area I typically skip. It has a breadcrumb topping and goldfish crackers mixed in and just isn’t my thing. On to the next section.
Here is where the heavy hitters come into play. First stop is the mashed potatoes. I think these mashed potatoes, and the optional gravy that comes with it, are excellent. They are creamy, with large pieces of potato mixed in. Honestly, they are one of my favorite dishes on the buffet and I think they are one of the better done dishes offered. Next, the fried chicken. By far, this is the best dish on the buffet—most of the time. When it is done well, it is some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, second only to Publix. It’s crispy, moist, juicy, and absolutely delicious. So, you can imagine how disappointing it is when the chicken is off, as has been the case on several occasions. I’ve had it when it is dry and greasy and it is just average chicken at best. It’s never terrible, just not what it is supposed to be.
Next up is some type of fish, typically salmon or cod, with a crust on the top. I’ve had this before, but I typically skip it. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, as much as I’d describe it as forgettable. Last item in this section is the baked chicken. It does get overshadowed by the fried chicken, but it is still very good. It is lightly sauced in a sweet, salty BBQ sauce, which is nice compared to the sauce the ribs are in (upcoming discussion). The meat is moist and juicy as well. My only knock on this chicken is that, occasionally, the skin is a bit rubbery, but overall I consider it above average and one of the better dishes on the buffet.
Next section is the BBQ items. First up are the ribs. This is a tough one. They are small, probably St. Louis cut or baby backs, though they seem smaller than that. They are fall off the bone, if that is what you are looking for, but are VERY heavily sauced in a tangy sauce. Overall, I think they are decent and I get them every trip, but I think part of that is because I like ribs and, like pizza, they are very difficult to completely screw up. I’ll put it this way: if I had ordered ribs on a menu as an entrée and received these I would probably be pretty upset, but since they come as part of a buffet their status is elevated a bit. Next up is the pulled pork. This is another item that I feel is above average. Unlike the ribs, they are not heavily sauced, and have a good amount of bark mixed in with the meat. You will also find cheese pizza in this area. Not much to say about this as it is the exact same pizza you would find at any food court on property (see above feelings about the ribs). There is also the second, and more traditional, mac and cheese offering here. This one is pretty good, though there isn’t really anything to set it apart (I would love to see a BBQ version, perhaps dry rubbed pulled pork mixed in?). Lastly, this is where the carving station is located. The meats at the carving station rotate nightly, but consist of ham, pork, steak (steamship round or some similar cut), brisket, and/or sausage. I would honestly say that none of these meats are really above average. The brisket, steak, and pork are sort of flavorless, while the ham can be a bit too fatty. I’d say the best offering, in my opinion, is the sausage.
The next section is the baked potato section. I feel that if there is any one thing that does and should set Trail’s End apart, it is this section. The potatoes are done well with a salt crust on the skin. There is traditional butter, sour cream, and cheese, but the toppings possibilities extend to the entire buffet. You really could make a meal out of the potatoes themselves if you top them with pulled pork and/or mac and cheese. Again, to me, this is the part of the buffet that is above average in taste, and really elevates Trail’s End.
Lastly, there is the desserts, which is mixed between the buffet table in the center of the room, and a table on the immediate right hand side as you enter the room, next to the soft serve ice cream machine. On the far right you’ll find apple cobbler, bread pudding with raisins, and toppings for the chocolate and vanilla ice cream (caramel sauce, chocolate sauce, gummy bears, and M & Ms). The ice cream is, well, ice cream. No different than you’d find at a Ponderosa or Golden Corral. The bread pudding is decent, if you like raisins, but probably the best item offered for desert is the apple cobbler. While I say it is the best, it still is not anything I’d order from a menu and pay for individually.
In the center buffet table you’ll find a chocolate cake, cookies, and a pound cake topped with strawberry compote. While nothing is bad, nothing here is really worth noting either. Let’s just say you really aren’t going to Trail’s End for the desserts. That said, if you happen to be celebrating a birthday they will bring you out a strawberry shortcake at no additional cost that is very good.
So, the food items that I feel are above average are as follows, in order:
- Fried Chicken, though it is inconsistent
- Mashed Potatoes
- Pulled Pork
- Baked Potato
- Baked Chicken
I wouldn’t say that anything else is truly bad, but just average.
Value – This is probably the greatest factor in choosing Trail’s End. For a family of 4 it cost us roughly $80 pre tip. You will not find a cheaper buffet on Disney property. Now, depending on how you feel about the food will truly judge if it was worth it or not. The way I’ve come to justify the cost is this—is a plate of excellent fried chicken (fingers crossed), excellent mashed potatoes, good pulled pork, a good baked potato, and good baked chicken worth $24.99? Not just would it fill me up, but would I be pleased with the quality of the meal for the cost? I have to say the answer is yes, which, in my mind, makes it a good value. It makes it worth it. If you aren’t a fan of most or all of the 5 items I believe Trail’s End does well, then I’d probably say it isn’t your best value.
Overall – So, as I close out this post, I will continue with my honesty. Is Trail’s End the best restaurant on property? Not even close. Is it the best buffet on property? Again, not even close. If the price was the same—of the buffets I’ve eaten at—I’d choose Cape May Café, Garden Grove (not to be confused with Garden Grill), and ‘Ohana over Trail’s End. Of course, the price is not the same. In fact, Cape May Café can cost as much as $35 more per adult. That swings things in Trail’s End’s favor.
Though it’s difficult to compare a sit down, order off the menu meal to a buffet, I’m going to compare the cost of another Disney restaurant famous for its fried chicken to the cost of Trail’s End, 50’s Prime Time Café. There you can order a fried chicken meal consisting of most likely 2 or 3 pieces of fried chicken (I have not had this meal so I can’t say for sure, though I doubt very much it would be more than that), mashed potatoes, and veggies, all for $19.99. It’s hard to say that Trail’s End would not be the better value when, for a mere $5 more, you can have as many pieces of fried chicken as you want, plus many other items.
As a whole, I still feel Trail’s End offers the best value on property. In my opinion, it does 5 items very well, and offers a slew of other average items. The cost is cheap, by Disney standards, but, in continuing honesty, the reason we really continue to go back isn’t so much the food. It’s twofold. First, convenience. As a camper, it is rare that you can find a restaurant like Trail’s End within your campground, and when you can, you take advantage of it. Second, nostalgia. We’ve been going for so long, if we didn’t things would feel weird. It’s calming, sitting on the porch waiting for your table, or standing in line at the buffet looking at the washboards and old time decorations. The smells, the décor, everything makes you feel at ease. It takes you to a simpler time, I guess.
So there’s the truth. Is Trail’s End a must do, every time you’re at the Fort? No, I don’t think so. Is it a must do for all Disney fans? No, probably not. But I will stand by my assessment of it being the best value on property. It offers 5 quality food items, with no items I would say are terrible. There are certainly a lot worse places within the Walt Disney World bubble, and all of those places are at a much higher price.