Disney Dining Plan: A Doubter’s Experience

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The Disney Dining Plan (DDP) is immensely popular.  Free stuff is also quite popular.  Put those together, and it’s the equivalent of getting your chocolate in my peanut butter (um…it’s good).  I have never been the biggest proponent of the dining plan, but on my recent trip to Walt Disney World I took the plunge (and the free dining promotion).

This chef needs a hairnet

Let me start with my preconceived notions about the DDP.  I’m always leery about package-style deals because, in most cases, I can find a better deal by breaking the package into pieces.  My spidey sense started tingling as soon as I began hearing about all the money that could be saved with the DDP.  However, since I became a travel agent I have realized just how popular this promotion is, especially when it is offered for free.  To better inform my clients (as well as stuff my face every day) I decided to just say yes to Disney’s Dining Plan.

(For purposes of information, I was on the “standard” Disney Dining Plan, which allowed me 1 Table Service, 1 Quick-Service, and 1 Snack per person per hotel night.)

Negatives
I’m starting with the bad stuff so that I can end with rainbows and unicorns (not literal…or is it…teaser!).  My biggest problem with the DDP is that I felt like it really negatively impacted my park touring.  I’m not a drill sergeant when it comes to getting through the parks (well, I try), but I do like to get certain attractions done early because I don’t like waiting in line.  Since we had at least one Advance Dining Reservation (ADR) every day, I felt like everything was based around that. For instance, one day we had an ADR at The Crystal Palace for breakfast (but after park opening).  What we did was arrive at the Magic Kingdom at opening, ride Dumbo, grab FASTPASS tickets for Peter Pan, and go to breakfast.  It worked fine all things considered, but that monrning (and the entire week) I felt like I was always looking at my watch so we wouldn’t be late for an ADR.

Dreary day at the Crystal Palace

The other negative for me was the amount of food, which is an oddly common complaint.  It felt like work to get rid of all those snack credits by the end of the week (which is sad, because some of the snacks are awesome).  Nothing makes a person more conflicted than staring at a sweet cream cheese pretzel, knowing you can get it, and not being the least bit hungry because you ate at a breakfast buffet 5 hours ago.

Positives

Now the rainbows and unicorns (gotcha, it was metaphorical).  The biggest plus for me with the DDP is the freedom to try all sorts of new restaurants without feeling like you are risking your own money (you are of course, but it doesn’t feel like that).  On this trip I ate at several restaurants for the first time such as: Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, Tusker House, Kona Cafe, and Les Chefs de France (which I found to be very good, good, excellent, and “really, this is supposed to represent French cuisine?” respectively).

The other positive is that I now believe that you can save money on the dining plan (and it takes a lot for me to admit that).  The caveat is that you have to be very careful because it’s very easy to lose track of, and therefore waste, credits.  One mistake that is often made when determining how much money is saved is looking at the receipt and assuming that the dollar figure on there is the savings.  You have to be careful with that because if you wouldn’t normally order dessert at a quick service, you shouldn’t count that as savings.  The only real way to determine your savings is to look at what you would order at a specific restaurant and compare only those items (which requires yet more planning, but we love planning, don’t we?).

Biergarten

Overall Impression

My overall impression is mixed (helpful, I know).  I really like to eat, and I like trying new places, but the time and the excessive scheduling necessary just didn’t make me happy.

From a fiscal point of view, I determined that I personally would have saved about $20 with the dining plan (if I had paid full price) versus what I would have spent out of pocket.  Of course, if I was not on the DDP, I would not have eaten at so many table service restaurants either.

Overall I can feel comfortable in recommending the Disney Dining Plan to others, especially if they love to eat out, but I don’t think I’ll be doing it again.  My best advice to those who want to do it is to plan.  Plan your ADRs carefully, plan when to use which credits, and plan on which exercise program to start when you get back.

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Posted on September 27, 2011

24 Responses to “Disney Dining Plan: A Doubter’s Experience”

  • I have to agree with most of what you said. We just returned from a six night stay at the world, and had decided during our initial planning that we weren’t going to purchase the dining plan for the reasons you give, but also a very strong consideration was the age and eating habits of our daughter. At 11 years old we would have had to pay adult rates, yet she eats very little~a total waste of our money. THEN, free dining was announced and because we stayed at POFQ we were on the basic plan. It got to be a hassle working around an ADR, but we did use it to eat breakfast at the Castle, which we would never have done otherwise. So, as it was free(I’m not a package dissector) I guess it was good for us this time. However, I think we would rather have had the quick-service plan instead.

  • “Since we had at least one Advance Dining Reservation (ADR) every day”

    You didn’t need to use one per day – you could have easily done none one day and 2 the next – or used 2 credits for a signature meal. The plan is very flexible.

    “It felt like work to get rid of all those snack credits by the end of the week”

    You can use snack credits to fill the all important need for fluid intake that is so important when traveling to WDW in August/September – you can use them for water, soft drinks, powerade, and fruit juice etc.

    There are a few great articles on the web about maximizing your snack and dining plan credits.

  • We really enjoy the DDP. In the past, we’ve upgraded our Standard plan to a Deluxe plan. The Deluxe plans include 3 Table-Service meals a day. Now, that’s way more food that anyone can eat, but we use the extra credits to try out some of the 2 credit restaurants at WDW. Places like CRT, LeCellier, and Hoop-Dee-Do are examples.

  • We went last year during the free dining (Quickservice meals) and it was great. Even with just two Quickservice meals a day we almost had too much food. I don’t think I would ever pay to have it though. We paying for food ourselves we bring oatmeal from home for breakfast, snacks from home through the day and a QS meal around 3.

    • We experienced the exact same thing. I would never do the Standard plan because then I feel like my touring would revolve around an ADR everyday. With the QS plan, you can eat when you want, where you want. But even with that it was SO much food. I found that we were pretty much using one QS meal and two snacks a day. But that is probably because like you family, when not on the dining plan, we bring breakfast to eat in the room, snacks for the park, and only eat one QS meal at the park.

  • I visit WDW every other year (approximately) and always stay on property. As much as I love Disney, and especially WDI, I enjoy 3 or so days off property in a 2 week trip at UIOA/USO/SW. Our last visit was at Animal Kingdom Lodge – making the breakfast buffet at Boma almost irresistible on those dark days that we headed up to Universal et al. That said those days off gave us free credits to ‘upgrade’ to signature dining on other occasions. Being from cold, cloudy England I am always glad of snacks as drinks in the Florida sun. There is something very relaxing when you don’t bother to look at the prices, whatever restaurant you visit.

  • Agree with John above that the plan is more flexible then you made it sound. So many people think you do have to use one table, quick service, and snack credit a day. Save the credits for a 2 credit meal/show or do a buffet breakfast and a dinner the same day. The extra snack credits can be used to bring home goodies for the plane/friends. I wouldn’t pay for it but staying at a moderate and getting free dining was better than a room discount for our group of 4 with 3 adults.

  • First caveat – is the “free” dining plan really free? It tends to be the only discount on the package, so you can be paying a pretty high hotel rate at your Disney property, say, compared to an off-site hotel. You can’t get a room promotion e.g. 20% off room AND the free dining package. The other factor is that you do have to pay gratuities on the full amount, typically 15% to 20%, so for us, a sit down meal for five tended to require a $30 to $40 tip. We wouldn’t have ordered as much e.g. desserts, without the dining plan.

    That being said, we really, really, really liked the free dining plan on our trip the last week of August, staying at POR with the sit down meal, quick meal and snack meal per day. From Sunday to the following Saturday, we never paid for drinks, snacks, meals. We went to restaurants we never normally would have tried e.g. the Moroccan restaurant. We used the two-credits for the Spirit of Aloha, again, something else we never would have budgeted for if paying for it(would have been over $300), and this one did include the gratuity so we didn’t pay extra for it. It also didn’t bother me when my kids decided to try food they don’t normally try (e.g. catfish at Boatwright’s, apparently it tasted as ugly as it looks), because I hadn’t paid out of pocket. We did two sit downs in one day at Epcot, lunch at Teppan Edo and Restaurant Marrakesh later in the day. And did you know churros count as a snack credit? I would prefer actually not having a dessert as part of the quick service meal, instead it would be better if they just made that snack separate, so it could be used between meals, or for more drinks, fruit, etc. At the end of the week, all meals were used up, all snacks were used up, and we had a couple of left over quick service meals. In regards to the restaurant booking, we looked at which parks we were going to be in that day, and then checked restaurant availability, and did some adjusting over a few weeks till we got the pattern and choices we liked. If doing it again, I would try to buy my package earlier and make my choices earlier to improve my choices, but overall, we very happy. We even scored one of the DHS Fantasmic meal packages, even though it meant eating at 330 (early dinner).
    The only way the Dining Plan saves money is if you have the kind of appetite where you would normally eat every day (or most days) at a sit down restaurant. When I think that buying quick service lunch for five would have cost about $50-$60, I’m very pleased with the free dining package. In the end, I know we spent less than if we had paid for food, even knowing we wouldn’t have bought as much. And the idea of using Signature dining is an excellent one. In summary, if you get the free dining plan (even with paying non-discounted hotel rates), it is completely worth it. If paying for the dining plan, I would be thinking more carefully, especially if you are planning on spending some days out of the resort.

  • I agree with most of the comments here. We fell into the burger rut before we tried the dining plan so if it didn’t save me a lot of money it did get us trying new food and restaurants around the Disney property. It is also a nice feeling to know that most of your trip is paid for before you step on property and not have to fish through the menu to keep the costs down. It can be more food than anyone needs so bring the stretchy pants and pick out your diet plan for when you get home :).

  • Really this is a matter of taste (pun intended). We have done the DDP on our last two trips and are doing it again on our upcoming January 2012 trip. For our group (seven the last two times and nine on the next trip) we appreciate using the ADR once a day for a table service. It becomes the highlight of our day! We keep it to lunch or dinner, and we like planning the attractions for the park we will be in. We also like to work it into evening extra magic hours if possible. As for the amount of food, the kids in our group devour everything and the adults know to balance themselves from past expereince. I have heard plenty of times about having leftover snacks, but on our last trip (two years ago this week) it was so hot we used almost all the snacks on drinks!

  • “I determined that I personally would have saved about $20 with the dining plan (if I had paid full price) versus what I would have spent out of pocket. Of course, if I was not on the DDP I would not have eaten at so many table service restaurants either.”

    This has long been my position—the DDP isn’t really a discount program. It is an upsell in disguise.

    • Of course it is. But with the free promotions, what it is for Disney is keeping guests coming to their hotels instead of staying off-site, and spending more time in the resort overall(which means more shopping revenue as well)instead of the other venues in Orlando. I might opt only for a quick service plan if I was paying full price for it. But we don’t normally eat enough to justify paying for the table meals plan, so I agree, it would be an upsell (enticing you to buy something you might not have normally)

  • We love the DP! We usually use our snack credits for a quick breakfast at the resort food court; i.e. bagel, muffin, etc. We schedule one sit down meal a day and it’s usually a character meal, this way we don’t waste park time standing in long lines waiting for characters. We get to spend an hour or two taking pictures, dancing, and marching around the restraunts waving our napkins with the characters….our boys just love it! Also, did you know that you can get grapes or an apple instead of a sugary dessert?!?! We are not big sugar eaters so we get a piece of fruit as our dessert, easy to stash away for later.

  • I am still a Disney novice, so I would like to ask a (semi) relevant question….
    Do you have a hard justifying the time spent traveling to and from parks to different resorts to eat at certain restaurants? Part of me can’t see burning touring time to commute back and forth. Booked a trip the week of Valentine’s Day and have been looking at ADRs, but can’t justify the taking time away from the attractions.

    • Heather,

      It depends on what you’re looking for. The restaurants and character meals can be a fabulous experience in their own right, so I always do a few. I found doing 7 in one week to be a bit much, but that’s me.

      Going to see the other resorts and eat in different places is great, but it all depends on the way you want to tour and the time you have. Just remember that you’ll have a fantastic trip no matter what you decide.

    • Lots of good choices at each park. Try one of the restaurants you wouldn’t normally. Or, use two credits for a signature experience. Also, from Magic Kingdom, you can go to participating Dining Plan restaurants at Grand Floridian, Polynesian or Contemporary. Try to plan your meal around which park you will be at that day. Plus, it is sometimes not a bad idea to take a mid day break anyway during crowded days. Plus, for the sit downs, consider some of the restaurants themselves to be an “attraction”. eg. character meals. Teppan Edo where they make the meal in front of you. Even though I have heard less than favourable things about the food at Sci-Fi, kids might think that is really neat.

    • “Do you have a hard justifying the time spent traveling to and from parks to different resorts to eat at certain restaurants?”

      Then don’t!

      If possible, plan your meals in the same park that you are visiting that day.

      If not, plan them to be close by – if I must eat at Chef Mickey’s, I plan it when I am visiting the MK. Boma – AK day.

      My brother used to cross property for meals – i.e. go from AK to the Grand Floridian and back again – and he complained about that loudly. If you plan things correctly, you can enjoy great resort meals with minimal travel time.

      While it’s not always possible, if you keep it to a minimum, you will have a happier trip.

      Also, using a taxi can be a fast and inexpensive alternative to the often lengthy travel time that the Disney bus system can add.

  • To everyone,

    Thanks for all of your comments. I am starting to see that I did not explain myself as well as I thought I did :)

    I actually understand the nuances of the dining plan quite well and have done extensive research regarding the best use of credits. Obviously, not one bit of that came across in my essay above.

    The purpose of this post was supposed to be from the viewpoint of someone using the dining plan for the first time (which it was). Of course, different types of people with different family situations would yeild different results. We were with my 2 year old and my 2 month old, so the multiple sit-down meals were awkward (putting it mildly). Hopefully you got some value out of the post.

    Thanks for reading and keep the comments coming!

  • We always end up with a lot of leftover snack credits, too; in the last moments of our stay, we head over to the hotel giftshop and buy snack-credit candy that will keep a reasonably long time (and that can be packed away safely in our luggage), and enjoy those special treats long after we get home.

  • I agree if I got it free I would use it but I’m not going to pay for it. I think it would cost like $500 for all of us to eat for a week. I don’t even spend that much on food a month! And my mom said exactly the same thing you said if we didn’t have it we wouldn’t eat all those meals out. we probably would eat 1 nice meal out somewhere in the world and done everything else on our own whether it be cooking in the room or eating at cheaper places outside the world.

  • We have been fortunate to get the free dining for last year and also for our upcoming vacation this November. The first year we went to Disney World we actually paid for the regular dining plan. The biggest difference is that when there is free dining it is extremely difficult to make last minute reservations since there are more people doing sit down meals. The first year when we paid for it we were able to get all of the restaurants we wanted. It is kind of a pain working your trip around which restaurant you are eating at that day. This year we decided to use 2 credits to eat at Cinderella’s Royal Table and then make a couple more sit down reservations. That way the last 2 days of our vacation we can eat whenever we want. My husband really enjoys the sit down meals, but if we were paying for it, I think I would go for the Quick Serve plan. You get tons of food on that plan plus the refillable drink mug. It almost seems like the Quick Serve may be the better deal. :) We also had problems using up all of our snacks since we never at the desserts that came with the meal, just put them in the fridge in our room for later. I definitely like being on the plan because you don’t have to think about how much you’re spending and for me that makes the vacation even more relaxing! :)

  • I have used the standard dining plan several times while traveling with different groups. When it was just my husband and I, we ate at several signature restaurants. When my teenage sons and my parents used the plan, my parents split one meal and my sons and I split 2 meals between the three of us. With my mom, sister and a friend, we also ate at a few signature restaurants. On all the visits by sharing meals including breakfast, eating at some signature restaurants and taking some desserts with us, we never felt stuffed and didn’t end up with unused snacks or meals. A few trips we used up any leftover vouchers at the main street bakery for food to take with us for the drive home.

  • We have now used the DxDP for three trips and really enjoy it. Although we have always “spent” more than what the plan cost (i.e., the meals we had would have totalled more than what we paid for the plan), this last trip (9/21/11-9/28/11) we really got the hang of it. We had some big breakfasts and one room service breakfast with meal credits, snacked during the day and had mostly 2 credit dinners. We enjoyed lots of new places and new foods that we likely would not try at home. We like getting dressed up a bit and going out for leisurely meals even at home, so in that way, the plan works well for us. Since we tend to make our breakfasts early and our dinners later in the day, we don’t feel pressured to rush, usually, for an ADR. For our next trip in late Novemebr, we have free dining and just paid the upgrade to DxDP. as it saved more than the veruy small room discount we had. I’m curious to see if we like the plan even more since we’ve paid less!

  • My daughter (6) is a very good eater. She would take Sushi to chicken fingers anyday. Since the childrens menus at even the nicest restaurants are rather boring, I’ve decided to wait until she turns ten to try the dining plan – in my planning schedule that is the Disney Dining Trip – upgrade to the Deluxe Plan and make the entire vacation about eating our way around the world. That way I won’t feel like I’m missing out on the vacation to go to ADR’s. We are fortunate though and go to Disney often enough that we won’t feel like we are missing out on anything to focus on dining.