Updated August 27 2013 with 2014 information.
Now that we have an idea about what we’re getting ourselves into with each of the three Disney Dining Plans, we can begin to consider whether or not one of them “makes sense” in different circumstances.
The Dining Plan is (Potentially) a Lot of Food
The first thing I recommend doing is sizing up the members of your group. How much food does each person normally eat? Would everyone be happy eating McDonalds for lunch followed by Applebee’s for dinner (Regular Dining Plan)? Burger King for Lunch followed by Taco Bell for dinner (Quick Service Dining Plan)? Olive Garden for Lunch followed by Chili’s for dinner (Regular or Deluxe Dining Plan)? IHOP for breakfast, followed by Red Lobster for lunch, followed by Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse for dinner (Deluxe Dining Plan)?
The Dining Plan comes with dessert at every meal other than breakfast. Do you plan to eat cake, cookies, ice cream, or a similar item at every meal? Can everyone eat that much? There won’t be a lot of “doggy bags” or taking food home for later, unless you want to walk it around the theme parks with you or take the time to drop it off in a car/locker. Consider what you would normally order at a restaurant or quick service location. Check out the various menus at Allears and ask people in your group what they might order at several restaurants you’re considering.
With the rising cost of the Dining Plans, you can no longer assume that they will save you money. The Dining Plan originally included the gratuity and one appetizer per person at table service meals. It no longer includes either. The Quick Service Dining Plan used to include two snacks per night, but now includes one. On the other hand, all Dining Plans now include a refillable mug and most items as expensive as $5.49 are included as snacks. It was only two years ago when the refillable mugs were not included and an item needed to be $3.99 or less to be included as a snack credit. While the cost of the Dining Plan is going up, it’s important to take into consideration that the cost of dining around Disney World is also increasing. If you’ve used the Dining Plan in the past couple of years and were pleased with the value, chances are that they will continue to “make sense.” If the cost is becoming prohibitive and you plan to share more meals, skip desserts, eat off-site, bring more food with you, etc. then paying out of pocket for meals may make more fiscal sense, even if out of pocket prices seem daunting.
The “Disney Adult Dilema”
Remember that everyone in your group between the ages of three and nine will be required to purchase the children’s Dining Plan and everyone age ten and older will be required to purchase the adult Dining Plan. This can pose potential problems if you have younger kids that eat a lot or older kids (or adults) who eat very little. For example, if you have an eight year old who can easily eat an adult meal, you’ll need to share food, order additional food and pay out of pocket, or attempt to circumvent the system in some way. That eight year old will only be allowed to order off the children’s menu at table service restaurants and you will be limited to how many adult meals you can purchase in one transaction at the counter services.
On the flipside, if you have a child that is ten years old or older who doesn’t eat a lot, you will still be paying the full adult price for their Dining Plan. This is less of a problem if you have other people in your group that will happily eat the rest of their food, but it poses a more significant problem if no one’s interested. Technically, it is possible to lie about the ages of children in order to make them appear as though they are “Disney adults” or “Disney children.” However, that may require instructing your kids to lie if they are asked how old they are and can cause other problems throughout your vacation. Keep in mind that other costs also change based on whether or not members of your party are classified as “adults” or “children,” including the cost of theme park tickets.
Finally, a lot of quick service locations have lackluster options for children. Hamburgers, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are all common. Even quick services like Yak & Yeti and Tangierine Café, which serve relatively interesting food, don’t offer smaller portions of the same or similar food on the children’s menus. The Tangierine Café offers a hamburger or chicken tenders and Yak & Yeti offers a cheeseburger or chicken tenders. That’s it. If your kids are happy eating mostly hamburgers and chicken nuggets for the majority of their trip, you won’t run into many complaints. However, you’ll need to plan more carefully if your kids enjoy more variety in their meals. Don’t assume that a restaurant or quick service will offer interesting options for kids just because the food for adults is a little different.
Here are some examples of some interesting options for kids. Also check out the quick services that don’t have a children’s menu, like Sommerfest, Yorkshire County Fish Shop, Toluca Legs Turkey Company, Lunching Pad, and others. This post has a complete list of the quick services that do not offer a Kids Picks menu.
Flame Tree Barbecue – Baked Chicken Drumstick
Katsura Grill – Teriyaki Chicken.
La Cantina de San Angel – Cheese Empanada
Lotus Blossom Café – Sweet and Sour Chicken
Sunshine Seasons – Each of the stations offers a smaller portion of adult fare for kids – make your own sub, sweet and sour chicken, chicken leg with mashed potatoes are all available
Toy Story Pizza Planet – Mini Meatball Sub
Columbia Harbour House – Tuna Sandwich
Tortuga Tavern – Quesadillas
Otherwise, expect to find a mixture of the previously mentioned items. Kids can still mix up the usual suspects, but they may get tired of burgers, chicken nuggets, and pizza by the third or fourth day. Of course, the poor variety of food choices at the quick services is not unique to the Disney Dining Plans. However, you have more leeway to purchase adult meals for kids if you’re paying with cash.
Will You Be Visiting Sea World, Universal Studios, Kennedy Space Center, or Other Off-Property Locations?
If you plan to eat meals at locations other than Disney World, you’ll need to consider whether or not you’ll be able to use all of your meals. For example, if you’re staying for six nights and plan to visit Sea World and Universal Studios, you may only be eating on Disney property for four or five days. If this is the case, you’ll need to plan how to spend your meals more carefully. Since the Quick Service and Regular Dining Plans cover two meals per day, you may end up eating breakfast and dinner back at Disney with the credits. You might also consider some of the signature restaurants like Cinderella’s Royal Table or California Grill that cost two meals per person. When deciding whether or not the Disney Dining Plan makes sense, consider what your itinerary looks like and whether you will be on property to use all of the credits.
Sharing Meals on the Disney Dining Plan
Officially, it is against policy to use your meal entitlements/credits to pay for meals ordered by people that are not on your resort room reservation. For example, if you have six quick service meals left over at the end of your trip, Disney officially will not allow you to use your Dining Plan to purchase meals for strangers or friends. However, they can only combat this if you flamboyantly make it obvious that you’re paying for someone else’s food with your Dining Plan. At a Quick Service, if you simply hand over your card after a person or group that is not on your reservation orders, the cashier and Disney won’t have any idea that they aren’t on your reservation. Only one person has to hand over their Key to the World card to pay with the Dining Plan, making it virtually impossible for Disney to have any idea who is on your reservation. In many cases, the cashier won’t care who the meals are meant for, but it’s always better to keep things on the “down low” if you don’t want to be denied.
At the table service restaurants, it’s less likely that your server will allow you to use your Dining Plan meals to pay for a group of people that are not at your table or obviously not part of your group. It used to be easier to pay for other people’s meals, but Disney has cracked down on the practice because it leads to decreased revenues. Unused credits are basically money in Disney’s pocket and they have no reason to let customers use their credits/entitlements on people who would otherwise be paying cash for their meal. If you are dining at a table service restaurant with people at your table that are not on your resort reservation and not on the Dining Plan, it’s also against policy to use your Dining Plan to pay for their meals. However, remember that only one Key to the World card is necessary to pay for the meal and the server and restaurant have idea who is on your reservation. Also keep in mind that the total number of children and adults is listed on your Key to the World card and the computer won’t let the server charge more meals than you’re supposed to be able to order at once. For example, if you have three adults on the Dining Plan and you try to use your Dining Plan to pay for five people, both the server and the computer system will question that transaction and possibly deny it. If there are more adults or kids at your table than is printed on the card, you may want to instruct the server to split the bill and pay for the meal with two Key to the World cards, even if those cards are linked to the same Dining Plan. The worst case scenario if you get “caught” or it doesn’t work is that you’ll have to pay for the meals not covered by the Dining Plan with cash, which is what you would need to do anyway. Most servers will do their best to push the transaction through because it will likely result in a bigger tip, but you never know when the manager will be around or when you’ll get a less-than-helpful server. It’s up to you to decide whether or not it’s worth trying to circumvent the system. I’m not supposed to advocate doing so and probably not supposed to let you know that it’s possible.
As far as sharing meals among yourselves goes once you order, Disney doesn’t care what you do with the food at the quick service locations. 50 people could share a sandwich for all they care. At the table service restaurants, they will generally split an entrée between two people without any problem and charge you just one table service meal. This is a good way to save up credits for a signature meal or dinner show that costs two meals per person. They would do the same if you were paying cash. Disney servers would like me to ask you to tip as though you purchased two complete meals in those situations.
At the buffets, everyone age three and older will be charged a meal if they are seated at the restaurant, regardless of whether or not you’re on the Disney Dining Plan. There is no such thing as a non-paying, non-eating visitor at the buffets. It would be impossible for Disney to police something like that (and make sure those who don’t pay actually don’t eat), so everyone is charged the same amount, whether they eat seven pounds of beef or one slice of bread.
Is The Dining Plan Worth the Cost?
The Disney Dining Plans are marketed as a means for consumers to save money. It is certainly very possible to “come out ahead” on the Disney Dining Plans. “Coming out ahead” would be defined as spending less money by purchasing the Disney Dining Plan than you would have spent had you paid for those meals out of pocket. In my overview of the “Best Disney World Table Service Restaurants” and “Best Disney World Counter Service Locations,” I go over how much the most expensive meal at each restaurant or counter service would cost and also the average cost of a meal at each restaurant or quick service location in the “Best Value on the Disney Dining Plan” section. As you can see, many of the most expensive meals at the table service restaurants cost $40 or more. Considering the Regular Dining Plan is $51.54 to $53.54 per person, you can come close to spending that much money with just the table service meal and one of the more expensive snacks. However, the average cost of a meal at many restaurants is much lower – in the $30 range for dinner in most cases. In addition, most buffets are about $35 per adult for dinner and less for breakfast and lunch. To “come out ahead” on days that you eat at a buffet, you would need to have an expensive quick service meal and snack.
The Disney Dining Plan will “save” you the most money when you eat at the most expensive restaurants and select the most expensive entrées, desserts, and beverages. If you were to eat at Tony’s Town Square in the Magic Kingdom for dinner and purchased the Spaghetti ($16.99), Gelato ($4.99), and a Coke ($2.69), you would end up paying $24.67 for the meal. One other thing to take into consideration is the fact that the Disney Dining Plan prices include tax, but the prices on the restaurant menus do not. The tax rate is 6.5% in most of Walt Disney World, so we’ll need to add that to the price of the meal, to get a total cost of $26.40. Since the Regular Disney Dining Plan costs at least $51.54 per night, it would be difficult to spend the $25 difference at a quick service location. It’s possible if you ordered the $13.99 Chicken and Rib Combo at Cosmic Ray’s, but would be more difficult if you purchased an entrée at the more common $9 price point. However, it’s possible to spend much more at Tony’s Town Square. Let’s say you purchased the most expensive items on the menu – The New York Strip Steak ($28.99), Tiramisu ($6.49), and the usual Coke ($2.69). In this scenario, you would spend $40.84 (with tax) on a meal at the same restaurant. That’s a $14 difference just by ordering the steak instead of the spaghetti. In that scenario, you could “come out ahead” by about $8 with a $15 quick service meal and $4 snack.
The money you “save” on the Disney Dining Plan is solely attributed to where you eat and what you order. On one hand, it may give you freedom to purchase the most expensive items on the menu and visit restaurants that you wouldn’t ordinarily visit. On the other hand, you may feel pressure to purchase the most expensive items on the menu because it wouldn’t be “worth it” to purchase cheaper entrées. In our example above, the person ordering dinner might love spaghetti and only sort-of like steak, but they feel pressured to order the steak because it’s a better “value” on the Disney Dining Plan.
The Quick Service Dining Plan takes even more planning and willingness to purchase the most expensive entrées in order to come out ahead. Let’s say you were visiting the Magic Kingdom and ate at Pecos Bill and Columbia Harbor House, both very popular and well-reviewed quick service locations. The most expensive meal you could order at Pecos Bill would be the Deluxe Angus Cheeseburger with Fries ($9.69), Carrot Cake ($3.59), and Coke ($2.59), which comes out to $16.90 with tax. At Columbia Harbour House, you also purchased the most expensive items – Grilled Salmon ($10.19), Apple Crisp ($3.59), and Coke ($2.59), for a total of $17.43. Combined, you’ve spent $34.33 on the two meals. Considering the cost of an adult on the Quick Service Dining Plan is $34.99 per person and includes the refillable mug (which costs about $15), you would basically come out even after just the two quick service meals. The snack for the day, which could cost up to about $4.50, would basically be “free.”
However, let’s say you theoretically purchased cheaper items at each restaurant. At Pecos Bill, you purchased the Caesar Salad with Chicken ($7.79), Strawberry Yogurt ($1.99), and a Coke ($2.59). With tax, that meal comes out to $13.17. At Columbia Harbour House, you opted for the Fried Fish Basket ($7.49), Strawberry Yogurt ($1.99), and a Coke ($2.59). With tax, that meal comes to $12.85. Combined, you’ve spent just $26.02 at the same two counter service locations. For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re staying for seven days. With the Refillable mug costing $15, you would get $2.14 of value per day. And we’ll add $4.50 for an expensive snack, to get a total of $32.66 for the day, or about $3 less than what you would pay on the Quick Service Dining Plan.
The Deluxe Dining Plan is the most expensive at at an average of $87.52 per person per night, but it’s also where you can “save” the most money should you really be in the mood to eat a lot of food. With three sit-down meals, two snacks, and a refillable mug, you can easily spend around $135 a day should you book three expensive sit-down meals and use your snack credits on $4 items. But it’s also a ton of food and a lot of time spent in restaurants. Assuming each meal takes about 75 minutes, you’re looking at nearly four hours in restaurants, plus transportation time and the time it takes to be seated at each restaurant. Should you be looking for that type of experience, the Deluxe Dining Plan may just be what you’re looking for. Just be aware that it’s a lot of time and a lot of food.
In conclusion, the Disney Dining Plans can potentially save you money, but it very much depends on what you order. To “save” money, you would need to purchase the more expensive entrées and desserts at most meals and eat all of the food. If the dessert or most of the entrée goes to waste and you wouldn’t have ordered them out of pocket anyway, it’s obviously not much of a savings. If you haven’t already, look over the menus at Allears and try to pin down what you would most likely order. If the amount per person, per day exceeds the cost of the Disney Dining Plan every day, consider purchasing the plan. If members of your party are light eaters or tend to purchase less expensive salads or pasta, the Disney Dining Plan may also not be your best choice. However, if the thought of being able to purchase anything on the menu at virtually any Disney World restaurant is appealing, the Disney Dining Plans may be a good fit for you and may be able to save you a considerable amount of money.
Deciding Which Disney Dining Plan Tier to Purchase
Other than price, the main difference between the Quick Service, Regular, and Deluxe Dining Plans is the type of service you will receive. The Quick Service Dining Plan is ideal for users who don’t want to spend a lot of time eating. Eating quick service, as the name implies, is much faster than dining at a table service restaurant. Quick service locations don’t require reservations and you can choose which location you want to dine at based on your preferences and mood when it’s time to eat. Quick service meals are also less expensive than table service meals and that price difference is reflected in the price of the Dining Plan.
People respond to table service meals differently. Some love the air-conditioning and opportunity to get away from the Disney crowds. Others are chomping at the bit to get back out and experience everything that Disney World has to offer. When deciding which Disney Dining Plan to purchase, consider whether or not you want to take 90 minutes out of your day to eat a table service meal, cool off, and reenergize. Some people would consider this a “waste of time,” while for others it’s the highlight of their day. Think about whether you would prefer to get in and get out or would like to be served in a more relaxing setting. Once you arrive at a table service restaurant, let your server know whether or not you’re in a hurry. Disney is divided among guests who are in a hurry to get back to the Park and those who would like to sit and enjoy themselves. “Speedy service” to one person is “rushed service” to another. Let your wishes be known and you’ll likely have a better meal.
Most Disney table service restaurants require reservations, unless you’re willing to be turned away from several restaurants or willing to head straight for the “lower tier” or less popular options. For example, your chances of walking up to Le Cellier, ‘Ohana, Chef Mickey’s, Garden Grill, and Akershus Banquet Hall and getting a table at prime meal times are slim. For the most popular restaurants, you may need to make reservations exactly 180 days in advance because that’s the earliest Disney allows reservations to be made. Because the Disney Dining Plans are required for the entire length of your stay, you will be “required” to eat a table service meal each day (on the Regular Plan), unless you opt for signature restaurants or dinner shows that cost two meals.
Luckily, Disney has put several systems into place over the last few months that have made it more difficult to double book restaurants. It used to be quite easy for someone to book a reservation for a family of four at an Epcot restaurant at 12:00pm and make another reservation for the same family at a Magic Kingdom restaurant for 11:30pm. That would allow the family to eat at a desirable restaurant at lunch time regardless of which theme park they decided to ultimately visit that day. Second, Disney now charges “no-shows” at character meal buffets and signature restaurants. Should you book Chef Mickey’s and not show up, you will be charged $10 per person on the reservation should you not cancel within 24 hours. These two changes, coupled with a world economy that hasn’t quite recovered from a recession, have made it easier to book Disney restaurants
Obviously to eat at a restaurant, you will need to be physically present at the location where it is situated. Many people feel like they are “tied” to their dining reservations on the Disney Dining Plan. After all, if you have 5:45pm reservations at Teppan Edo on Friday, you’ll either need to skip the reservation or be at Teppan Edo at 5:45pm on Friday. Skipping the reservation means that you’ll probably need to find another restaurant that isn’t as well-regarded or you’ll need to unexpectedly use a Quick Service meal and plan two table service meals for another day. If you’re someone who prefers to fly by the seat of your pants, the Quick Service Dining Plan might make more sense. If you have a well thought out plan and have no problem planning your Park days around dining reservations (or vice versa), the Disney Dining Plan may fit your needs better.
So…Are The Dining Plans A Good Deal Or Not?
The Quick Service Dining Plan makes sense if you’re planning to purchase the most expensive items on the menu at the most expensive quick service locations and every member of your party plans to eat all of the food that they order. Theoretically, it’s possible to spend about $50 per day on the two quick service meals and snack. However, it’s also very easy to spend just $30 per day at the same exact quick service locations. It really depends on what you order and how much you eat.
Personally, I don’t think the potential savings is worth the risk of locking in such a substantial amount of money. On average, you will probably save about $5 per person, per day on the Quick Service Dining Plan, provided all of the food is eaten, all of the snacks are used, and you normally purchase the more expensive entrées. That’s just not enough to make it worth it. If someone gets sick, decides they’re on a diet the day before, or simply isn’t in the mood to eat a lot of food at every meal, then the Dining Plan quickly loses its value. $35 per day is a lot of money to spend on two quick service meals and a couple of snacks, even by Disney standards. However, if you’re certain you’ll get your money’s worth, by all means take Disney up on the offer.
When considering the Regular Disney Dining Plan, the answer is very similar. It makes sense if you carefully plan your days, make dining reservations, order the most expensive items at the most expensive restaurants, and eat all of the food. The Disney Dining Plan quickly loses value if you’re shoving down desserts that you don’t want or eating steak that you aren’t enjoying as much as you would have enjoyed the pasta. However, it is easier to save money with the Regular Disney Dining Plan and come out well ahead, at least if you would have purchased that much food in the first place. At a minimum of $51.54 per adult, it’s also not cheap. However, the potential savings is much higher than with the Quick Service Dining Plan and I recommend it if everyone in your group eats a lot and you’re looking forward to ordering the more expensive entrées at restaurants that you might not otherwise choose.
I’ve never actually purchased the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan before because I’m not one to eat three table service meals in a day, which is what you would need to do to make the Plan worth your money. If you are planning three table services meals per day or planning a lot of signature restaurants and dinner shows, the Deluxe Dining Plan can save you a lot of money. In fact, you have the opportunity to save the most money of any of the Dining Plans. However, three table service meals would likely take up about four hours of your day and it would be more food than most of us have ever eaten in a single day, multiplied by the number of days in your stay. A lot of people swear by it and if you have the means and the stomach, it can be an excellent value.
Prices Continue to Increase, Even As Perks Are Removed
As recently as 2007, the Regular Disney Dining Plan included the gratuity and an appetizer at lunch and dinner. That’s right – no need to worry about the tip and Disney tossed in a shrimp cocktail, salad, chicken wings, or what have you. In 2007, the cost of the Dining Plan was $38.99 per adult, per night. In 2008, Disney no longer covered the gratuity and no longer included an appetizer with any meal on the Regular Dining Plan. For the trouble, Disney reduced the adult price by one dollar, to $37.99 per adult, per night. If the average appetizer costs $9 and the average tip on a $35 meal is $6, the “value” of the Dining Plan was reduced by $15, virtually overnight. In 2011, the price for the Disney Dining Plan has increased to as much as $47.99 per adult, per night, which is an increase of 26.3%. The appetizer is still not included on the Regular Dining Plan and the gratuity is paid out of the customer’s pocket. In 2012, the Regular Dining Plan increased to as much as $53.54 per night, per adult. That’s an increase of 11.6%. However, it’s important to note that the Regular Dining Plan does now include the Refillable Mug, which runs about $15.
In 2009, the Quick Service Dining Plan cost $29.99 per night for adults. In 2010, the price rose to $31.99. In 2011, the price increased to $34.99. That’s an increase of about 17% in two years. While the Quick Service Dining Plan’s cost did not increase in 2012, it now includes just one snack, instead of the two previously offered. You could consider that to be a $4 increase in price or a $4 decrease in value.
It’s important to note that the price of Disney food continues to increase as well. The hamburger that cost $8.79 in 2009 now costs $10.19 in 2012. The soda that cost $2.19 in 2011 costs $2.59 in 2012. In other words, the increase in the cost of the Dining Plan doesn’t necessarily make it less of a value because you’ll be paying more for the same food out of pocket as well.
The Free Dining Promotions
In an attempt to fill Disney-owned resorts during the last two weeks in August and most of September, Disney has offered the Dining Plans “for free” to guests who book certain packages that include a stay at a Disney-owned resort and theme park ticket purchase. In 2011, the Free Dining Promotion was offered for certain dates in January, February, March, May, June, August, September, October, November, and December. Because food is such a large expense, Free Dining is the most popular Disney promotion. When you hear about people praising one of the Dining Plans, make sure you pay attention to whether or not they paid for it or received it “free.” People who receive the Dining Plans as part of the Free Dining Promotion tend to have more favorable views of it than those who pay for it. After all, a family of four adults could “save” more than $200 per night with the Regular Dining Plan included in their package at no additional cost. Had that same family actually paid $200+ for the Dining Plan, they might have a different opinion.
The Disney Dining Plans can present a substantial savings if they are maximized. This entails carefully planning which restaurants and/or quick services you dine at, making reservations for those restaurants, ordering the most expensive items on the menu, and eating all of the food that’s served. That includes using all of the snack credits, eating all of the desserts, and using the refillable mug. If you don’t plan to do all of this, you are probably better off paying for meals out of pocket. Light eaters and kids under the age of ten may also get the short end of the stick when it comes to the Disney Dining Plan because guests can’t choose what level they want to purchase and many of the children’s menus have limited offerings. Overall, the Disney Dining Plan is useful under the right circumstances, but you really need to plan well to save a lot of money.