Dining Out and About: Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater
by Jack Spence, ALL EARS® Columnist
This article appeared in the July 3, 2007 Issue #406 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
I grew up in the Los Angeles area during the 1950s and '60s. Since L.A. was one of the larger media markets, we had seven television channels to choose from -- the three networks and four local. That was a lot compared to most of the country at that time.
During the summer, one of the local stations, KHJ channel 9, would run some of the worst monster movies ever made. Since their budget was small and the available titles limited, KHJ would show the same movie five times a week during the afternoon. That meant that I got to watch Godzilla destroy Tokyo every day at 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. I was in heaven. Coincidentally, KHJ was later bought by Disney and was owned by them from 1989 - 1995 with the call-letters KCAL. Under FCC rules of the time, Disney was forced to divest the station when they bought CAP/ABC.
Also abundant during the '50s and '60s were drive-in movie theaters. I'm guessing that at least half of you reading this have never been to an honest-to-goodness drive-in theater. As a kid, my mom would fry chicken and make potato salad to take along with us as the snack bar was a little too pricey. We'd also bring along blankets to keep warm on those cold winter nights. Since you were in the private environment of your own automobile, you were also free to talk during the movie. It was a great way for a family to spend the evening.
Since I was a kid, my parents got to pick the movies that we saw -- and it was a cinch it wasn't going to be "Invaders From Mars." I remember in 1961 going to see "Pocket Full of Miracles" starring Glenn Ford and Bette Davis. About halfway through the movie, a dense fog rolled in which is typical for Los Angeles in the evenings. The screen disappeared in a thick mist and people started honking their horns -- yeah, like honking was going to make the fog go away. Eventually, everyone started their cars and jockeyed for a position in line to leave. When we finally reached the exit, we were given a rain-check to come back another night. Do you know, to this day I have never seen the end of that movie.
When the Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, Disney built one of the most wonderfully themed restaurants, the Sci-fi Dine-In Theater. Here, people can relive a part of their youth and enjoy bad monster movies in a make-believe drive-in theater. This was a perfect match for me.
The Sci-fi Dine-In is located at the end of Commissary Lane. The entrance is well marked and easy to spot. Inside the double doors is a 1950s styled check-in booth that is reminiscent of the pay booths you would have driven by at an actual drive-in theater. Here, you give the receptionist your party's name if you have a reservation or check to see if they have tables available. You are then asked to wait either inside near the podium or outside the doors until your name is called. Hung on the wall near the podium are several movie posters advertising some of the flicks you will be previewing once you are seated. Don't worry about stepping outside or into the adjacent "The Writer's Stop" shop to wait, the host or hostess will find you just as long as you haven't strayed too far away.
Soon your name will be called and you will be escorted through an uninviting narrow hall made of 2x4's and plywood. Remember, you're in a "studio" and everything is a facade. The actual theater is on the other side of these ugly walls. Eventually you'll reach an opening and turn into the perpetual night of the Sci-fi Dine-In.
The first thing that will catch your eye is the large movie screen flickering in the darkness. Then you will see 40 or so cars parked in semi-circles facing the screen. At the rear of the theater you will find the snack bar (which is actually the entrance into the kitchen). And finally, you'll notice the night sky and twinkling stars.
The cars you see are actually the tables you will be seated at. As in real life, the cars come in several sizes -- seating for 2, 4, 6, and 8. Each seat holds two diners and faces forward toward the screen. Note, larger guests might have a tight squeeze as the seat and dashboard (eating area) are stationary and cannot be adjusted. There are also a handful of tables that actually have movable chairs. These tables are perfect for those guests in wheelchairs.
The "cars" in the middle of the restaurant have the best view of the movie screen, but I have been seated on the outer edges of the theater and I could still see the screen without any trouble. But, if you're seated at one of these outer tables and really don't like it, just ask the host or hostess if it's possible to wait for a table situated more in the middle.
Each dashboard (table surface) has a dim light that runs across its back edge. This light provides just enough glow to read the menu -- with nothing to spare. In fact, I've been known to flip the menu this way and that to try to cast light on different sections of the menu.
When the Sci-fi Dine-In first opened, all of the car-hops (servers) wore roller skates. This was really cool and added a nice detail that made you smile. These days, it's a rarity to see a host of hostess on skates, but it does occasionally happen. Also in the early years, everyone was provided with a basket of popcorn. But alas, this too has been axed by the kernel-counters, err, I mean bean-counters.
Just like in a real drive-in movie, talking is not forbidden. People do tend to speak softly in here, but no one can help but comment on how bad the movies are. And it's not uncommon to hear someone say that they remember seeing a particular movie when they were a child.
Beware... A car that holds six people might be seated with a party of four in the front two seats and a party of two in the back seat. The backseat party is known as hitchhikers. If you're in the back seat, every word you say can be overheard by the strangers seated in front of you.
Because of the seating arrangement, this is not a good restaurant to gather at if you want to visit with your friends. Those in the front seats must constantly turn around if they want to talk to those behind them. And as I mentioned before, a stranger's conversation will find its way into your ears. But for the most part, you don't come here to chat; you come to watch the movie.
The film being shown is approximately 45 minutes in length. Just long enough to watch during your meal but not so long that guests would be inclined to sit longer than necessary in order to see the entire show. The sound is provided via the old-fashioned metal speakers, the kind you would find in a real drive-in theater and fasten to your car window.
The film is a compilation of movie trailers from some of the worst monster flicks ever made, newsreels featuring predictions for the future as seen in the 1950s and '60s, cartoons with a science fiction theme, and commercials for the drive-in's snack bar. It's shown in a continuous loop and it doesn't matter at which point you start watching. There is no beginning or end. It's hilarious and the real (reel) reason someone eats here.
Some of the trailers you'll see are:
Attack of the 50-Foot Woman
Plan 9 From Outer Space
The Cat Who Hated People (cartoon)
It Conquered the World
Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster
If you have a good bunch of carhops working the day you eat here, it's especially fun when the trailer for "The Amazing Colossal Man" is shown. I won't go into detail, but the servers add their own bit of comedy to the show. Also, if you listen closely, you can hear the same woman scream in scene after scene, no matter what trailer you're previewing. Someone had fun in the editing room.
So, what do I think about the food? Well, up until yesterday, I've been pleased with everything I've sampled, and I'll get to those items in a moment. But first, I must complain a little.
Before I write one of my reviews, I always try to eat at the restaurant a day or two before I start composing. Even though I've eaten at all of Disney's restaurants numerous times and could write a review about any of them without resampling their wares, a current visit helps me remember the details I want to share. So yesterday I ate at the Sci-fi Dine-In.
My first disappointment was the BLT Soup. The menu says that it's a creamy tomato-basil soup topped with shredded lettuce, bacon and herb crouton. When the soup was served, it was warm -- nowhere near hot. Warm/cold food is a major sticking point with me. I debated whether to send it back, but ultimately decided to just eat it. Since there wasn't all that much soup in the bowl (sigh), I was able to finish it before it cooled completely. As for the taste, it was OK. I wondered where the basil was and the bacon bits and lettuce did little for the flavor. Additionally, the crouton was as hard as a rock.
My next disappointment was the Caesar Salad with Chicken. First, for $12.99, the salad wasn't very big. And for that price you'd think Disney could afford some dressing. Someone on a diet wouldn't have had to worry about calories with this salad, the dressing was practically nonexistent. And finally, the grilled chicken arrived warm. I think it should be hot, or maybe cold, but not warm.
Thankfully, this wasn't my first visit to the Sci-fi Dine-In and my mediocre meal won't deter me from eating there again.
Here are a few of the items I've tried in the past and have been pleased with. First off, the Angus Chuck Burger. Like the burgers served in most of Disney's table service restaurants, this burger is big and juicy and you'll be stuffed when you leave if you finish the whole thing. Choices of cheese, onion, bacon and mushrooms are available. Another slice of heaven is the Onion Rings. They are sooo good and sooo bad for you. I've also tried their Smoked Turkey Sandwich. It's served on multigrain bread and the meat is piled high. A Cucumber-Melon Salad is served as the side dish and I like the combination of tastes. However, finicky eaters might want to substitute fries.
It's been a while since I've tried their Smoked Baby Back Ribs or Penne Pasta, but if memory serves, I was happy with both selections. The ribs were especially tender.
The Sci-fi Dine-In also serves milkshakes, but no malts. Darn it.
Something else I miss about the "old days" is the cute menus that they once featured. Each entree was given a sci-fi name. For instance, you might have ordered "The Burger From Outer Space" or "Martian Fries." Obviously, Disney was much more creative than my feeble examples, but you get the idea. This was a cute touch and hopefully Disney will bring it back someday soon.
All restaurants should serve good food, and with the exception of my last visit, the Sci-fi Dine-In has done a decent job. You're not going to find fine dining here, but then, that's not what this restaurant is all about. It's about the atmosphere. This is a place you go to have fun. In my opinion, this restaurant is another "attraction" that should be experienced just like Rock 'n' Roller Coaster or the Tower of Terror.
And there's one other good thing about the Sci-fi Dine-In -- an evening fog won't roll in during your meal and force you to leave.
The Sci-fi Dine-In opens at 11 a.m. and remains open through dinner. Closing time is determined by park closing.
Reservations are suggested and can be made by calling 407-WDW-DINE.
Photos: http://allears.net/din/gall_res.htm#mgm (Scroll down the page to see new photos of the Sci-fi Drive In)
Other reviews by Jack Spence: http://allears.net/btp/jacks.htm
Rate and Review: 81 percent of our reviewers recommend the Sci-fi with a rating of 7.1 out of 10. Post your own dining reviews, or read others' ratings, in our Rate and Review section: http://land.allears.net/reviewpost/showproduct.php?product=118&cat=35
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.