Tips For Saving Time, Money, And Your Sanity While Dining in Disney World

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This is a guest post by AJ from the fantastic Disney Food Blog. You can also listen to AJ talk Animal Kingdom on Episode 637 of the WDW Today podcast, as well as follow her on Twitter.

It’s no secret that Disney World can be a busy and confusing place, but with a little preparation, you can sail through unscathed when it comes to your dining choices. In fact, where you choose to eat might even save you a little time, money, and energy during your vacation!

I’ve chosen three of my most important “goals” for my dining experiences and given my favorite tips and tricks for meeting them via some shrewd Disney planning:

Avoiding Crowds:
Pretty sure you don’t want to battle thousands of other hungry Disney fans for a burger and a table? Me too. Here are a couple of rules I like to follow in order to minimize rubbing elbows while I’m chowing down:

  • Eat At “Off” Times: Believe it or not, following this one rule will significantly improve your chances of a pleasant dining experience. We’re somewhat pre-conditioned to eat breakfast between 8AM and 10AM, lunch between 12PM and 2PM, and dinner between 5PM and 8PM. If you’re able to schedule your dining outside those major rushes, you’ll have a better chance of getting reservations, and be more likely to have an enjoyable, crowd-free, relaxed meal. A second benefit to eating at “off” times: you’re riding popular rides at noon while everyone else is standing in line for food!
  • Head Out of the Theme Parks: It’s simple math: everyone’s in the theme parks all day, which means everyone’s eating in the theme parks all day. Consider heading to Downtown Disney or to a Disney World Resort Hotel for a meal; you’ll have plenty of counter service (fast food) and table service (sit-down) choices, and chances are you’ll have a more relaxed meal.

  • Visit a Lesser-Known Restaurant: This tip might take a bit of research, but it’s another one that could save you a lot of headaches. While there are many restaurants in Disney World that are well-known for food and fun-factor, there are still plenty of dark horses that have delicious food yet remain under the radar! You’ll find many of these at Disney’s resort hotels; good options include Olivia’s Cafe at Old Key West, Kona Cafe at the Polynesian, and Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village. While in the theme parks or Downtown Disney, try Tokyo Dining or Marrakesh in Epcot for good ethnic cuisine, The Plaza at the Magic Kingdom for inexpensive sandwiches and great ice cream sundaes, and Paradiso 37 in Downtown Disney for some good Latin American fare!

Saving Time:
If you’ve only got limited time in the World and want to be sure to hit everything without going hungry, here are my favorite time-saving tips:

  • Eat at “Off” Times: Once again, this is going to save you time as well as the crowd headache! If you’re eating while others are playing, that means you can get in and out of both counter-service and table-service restaurants faster. You save a lot of time when you’re shown to your table as soon as you arrive instead of having to sit with a pager for 30 minutes.
  • Create Touring Plans: Appropriate, eh? Seriously, one of the best things you can do to save time in Disney World is have a good plan. When it comes to dining, this includes checking out theme park hours, figuring out which theme parks you’d like to visit on which days, and planning your dining accordingly. For example, if you know you’ll be in the Magic Kingdom for Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, plan on getting an Advanced Dining Reservation for a Magic Kingdom dining location that day. Sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed how many folks find themselves in the far reaches of Animal Kingdom when they realize they’ve got 15 minutes before they forfeit their dinner reservation in Cinderella Castle!

  • Speaking of ADRs…Make Them! Advanced Dining Reservations in Disney World have become not only “recommended,” but mandatory if you plan on having an enjoyable vacation. I know that everyone has a friend who “never makes ADRs and does just fine,” (for me, those are my parents!), but planning ahead and making reservations never hurts and usually helps. You can even make ADRs online these days, so do think about making a few bookings — especially for the most popular restaurants.
  • Consider Buffets and Counter Service: While I like to have a few table-service meals during my trip, snagging some counter service meals is usually quicker. This is a good tip for very busy days, or days when you can’t eat at “off times.” Also, counter service meals have improved by leaps and bounds in the past dozen years or so; you have many choices outside the standard burger or hot dog these days.When you do choose table service and you’re in a hurry, head to a buffet. Disney has delicious buffet restaurants — many that include character interaction — and because you serve yourself, the timing of your meal is largely up to you. Some popular buffets are Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary Resort and Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom. Slightly less popular, but just as delicious, buffets include Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club Resort and Tusker House at the Animal Kingdom.

Saving Money:
Even if budget is your main concern, you can still experience some of the great food Disney has to offer. Try a few of these tips in your planning sessions:

  • Eat Two Meals Per Day: Even if you’re used to eating three meals per day at home, Disney restaurant portions are massive, and most folks can get away easily with two big meals per day instead of three. My favorite tip is to schedule dining so that you’re eating brunch and “linner” (yep — that’s a combo lunch and dinner)! For example, schedule one meal for around 10:00AM (breakfast is usually cheaper than lunch or dinner at Disney World table service restaurants) and the second for around 3:00 or 4:00PM (make sure the restaurant is still serving lunch, as the lunch menu is often less expensive than the dinner menu). If you need a tide-me-over in the morning or evening, consider bringing snacks from home, which will surely be less expensive than those you can purchase on Disney property. We usually have cereal bars for a morning energy kick and cookies, crackers, or fruit for evenings. (Or you can always use the money from the third meal to buy snacks at the park, if you’re like me and need a Dole Whip!)
  • Get Table Service Favorites at Lounges and Counter Service Locations: This is a tip for those of you who just want to sample the famous dishes and not pay for a full meal. Many times, the lounges and counter service locations at Disney’s resort hotels will carry some of the table service restaurant’s most famous dishes. For example: pick up some of Boma’s famous Zebra Domes and roasted red pepper hummus at the Mara at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, or get an order of Kona Cafe’s famous Tonga Toast down at Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian Resort. Have the Artist Point cheese plate at the Territory Lounge instead of in the Artist Point. This is an option more often than you think, and it saves on buying a whole meal and paying a huge tip.

  • Consider the Disney Dining Plans: While Dining Plans won’t offer a savings for everyone (not even when it’s free), depending on your family and your eating style, it might help you to not break the bank on your Disney trip. Note than you can only purchase a dining plan if you’re staying in a Disney resort hotel.
  • Use Dining Discounts: There are actually a myriad of potential dining discounts that you might qualify for in Disney World and the surrounding restaurants.For Florida Residents and Annual/Season Passholders, a Tables in Wonderland membership gives you 20% off of all food and beverages at most Disney World restaurants.And if you’re a member of AAA, a Disney Vacation Club Member, an Annual Passholder, or a Florida Resident, there are other dining discounts available to you. Just check in with each website for details.The bottom line is, there are lots of Disney dining discounts out there; a little bit of research goes a long way!

Here’s hoping these dining tips and tricks will help you to have a wonderful, stress-free Disney World trip!

Thanks for reading!

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Posted on December 8, 2009

12 Responses to “Tips For Saving Time, Money, And Your Sanity While Dining in Disney World”

  • by [ this is jerry ] on December 8, 2009, at 6:30 pm EDT

    Love the x-post!

    One of our favorite ways to save time and money was to ‘eat’ at Food & Wine Festival. The lines were usually short, the food was great and you didn’t have to stop (unless you wanted to). Your series on F&W was awesome.

  • Thanks for the fantastic post, AJ!

    I especially like the “linner” tip. I think I’m going to do this on my upcoming trip.

  • Thanks, Jerry and Henry! I think my favorite tip is getting table service favorites at counter service locations and lounges — what a huge time and money saver!

  • by Elizabeth Doda on December 8, 2009, at 8:48 pm EDT

    What a great article and we certainly use a lot of those strategies to save time and money (which is important as a mom of three very little ones) when traveling to WDW. Here’s another money saver – on our last trip, two of our three children were under three years old. We made many of our ADRs at buffets because that made two of our children free. But the best thing I found to save money, right at our favorite resort ~ Caribbean Beach Resort ~ at the broiler section of the food court, there was a rotisserie chicken or turkey meal. You had chicken or turkey, mashed potatoes and a vegetable (there maybe even was a roll). I could purchase one meal and split it between my two youngest. There was actually so much food that a few nights I split the meal between myself and my youngest daughter. Not only did it save money, but I felt the food was healthier than hamburgers, hot dogs or somethig fried. It is a great option for families.

  • Great article, AJ!

    Often times I would like to bring a small snack in to curb my hunger, but sometimes it’s easier to just ditch the Jack Skellington backpack and just go with my keys, wallet, and phone. It’s quicker through security and I don’t risk leaving it on an attraction or in a restaurant. Plus, it’s so hard to resist a Disney snack such as a Dole Whip! If you were presented with that or a granola bar that’s been sitting in the bottom of your bag all day, which would you HONESTLY rather have?

    [Note: Of course, this is much easier for someone like me to do; being a local (and not having kids so I can spoil myself!), I don’t always bring my camera, especially if it’s just a leisurely afternoon and not event-specific like Flower & Garden or Food & Wine. If a camera moment arises, I can always use the trusty iPhone (like the time I saw Dee Snyder at Animal Kingdom!).]

    One thing I DO bring with me in my zippered wallet are prepackaged individual drink mixes. Whether you carry your own bottle or buy a water while there and refill it, these have become indispensible to me. They come in an array of choices from basic lemonade to mixes with energy boosts and antioxidants to Gatorade sport drink mixes. And after drinking that $2.50 bottle of Dasani in the Florida heat, you realize the value of that water fountain. I, like many, can’t stand the taste of Florida water, but at least these little miracle packets make Florida water in the parks tolerable.

  • Elizabeth — Fantastic tip! Disney counter service meals are huge, and easily split between two people. Also, if you don’t want the whole meal, ask to not receive the portion you don’t want and it will usually be less expensive (e.g. get the chicken without the potatoes and it will sometimes cost less!).

    Sara — The pre-packaged drink mix tip is a great one! Those things are so light and easy to carry around — you don’t even need the Jack Skellington backpack! (You saw Dee Snyder there? Cool!)

  • Here’s a tip. Disney food has always been high priced, but NOW the quality of the food has slipped horribly. DON’T EAT AT THE PARKS & RESORTS!!! Especially sit down restaurants. I live locally and eat there on rare occasion. I can’t remember last time they served beef above lowest USDA grade, nor even white chicken meat. Sad to admit it, but they’ve let the place run down. WAY down. You can take in food/drinks. Another little known secret, ask to speak to chef, and they will piece meal you something better than on the ‘cattle call’ menus, even at Deluxe locations. (Sadly, you’ll still be stuck paying extra for less, and sold upgrades around park more and more,with less attractions)

    • Wow! My family and I spent a week at WDW in November and we found the food to be just fine. Is your tip a joke, just to get people riled up? If so, I guess I bit (pun intended).

  • Here’s a tip. Disney food has always been high priced, but NOW the quality of the food has slipped horribly. DON’T EAT AT THE PARKS & RESORTS!!! Especially sit down restaurants. I live locally and eat there on rare occasion. I can’t remember last time they served beef above lowest USDA grade, nor even white chicken meat. Sad to admit it, but they’ve let the place run down. WAY down. You can take in food/drinks. Another little known secret, ask to speak to chef, and they will piece meal you something better than on the ‘cattle call’ menus, even at Deluxe locations. (Sadly, you’ll still be stuck paying extra for less, and sold upgrades around park more and more,with less attractions)

  • The tips are great. And I have to agree with Max, we have always found the food to be just fine. In fact, the opportunity for so many different dining experiences is one of the things my family most looks forward to.

  • very insightful… I’ve heard about this site recently from a colleague of mine about your site This was very enlightening and got me thinking real hard. I have no idea where you come up with these brilliantly written blogs but keep up the good work. Got any suggestions for the rest of us fellow webmasters?