Trip Planning 101: Disney Dining

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Magic Kingdom's Liberty Tree Tavern is popular with families, particularly for dinner. Planning ahead will help you secure your place at the table

Eating at Disney World is always a huge topic of discussion. Some people love it; others just see meals as the fuel that gets the commando tank moving through the parks. Whichever camp you fall into, you’ll still have to eat. And, unless you want to eat only Dole Whip and soft pretzels for the duration of your visit (and if you do, don’t let us interfere), you’ll have to do some planning. Here are some tips to get you started:

When You First Start Thinking About Your Trip
Along with all the other things to think about when you first consider booking a trip, you should think about dining. Is this going to be a food-centered trip where you plan to experience all the restaurants you’ve been meaning to try? Is it a quick trip where you plan to get in as many attractions as possible? Is it in summer when the heat might make you less hungry than usual?

Once you get an idea of the importance that restaurant meals are going to have in your trip, think about the Disney Dining Plan (DDP). Available only to those staying in Disney Resort Hotels, the DDP in its various flavors is covered ad nauseum here and all over the web. Learn about it, because you’ll need to know when you book your trip if you want it or not. Also, be sure that you can secure Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs) at your preferred locations before booking the Dining Plan.

Regardless of whether or not you choose to book the Dining Plan, get an idea of where you plan to eat for both budgeting and planning purposes. Use our Disney dining links to help plan where and what you’d like to try on your vacation.

180 Days Before You Arrive or As Soon As You’ve Booked Your Trip
This is when you spring into action and start making those Advance Dining Reservations. If you’re less than 180 days away from your arrival date, don’t worry. We have a chart in the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World that lists the typical number of days out you need to make a reservation at the table service restaurants. You won’t go hungry if you make ADRs 90 days out or even a week out for MOST times of the year. Naturally, peak seasons and holidays will be busiest (see the Crowd Calendar for relative crowd levels for the next 365 days), but Disney promotions can pack restaurants even when the parks are not crowded. Never count on getting a walk-up table (although feel free to try if you don’t mind being rejected). Starting October 26, 2011, be prepared to give a credit card guarantee for Signature and Character Dining experiences at the time you make an ADR. Also note that dinner shows (like Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue) require prepayment in full.

A note about allergies: Disney dining reservation agents will ask at the time of booking if anyone in the party has allergies or special needs and note it on your record. To be on the safe side, confirm when you’re at the restaurant. Disney chefs are well known for going out of their way to prepare meals that are both safe and tasty for everyone you’re traveling with.

Before You Go
Verify confirmation numbers for any ADRs you’ve made and keep them with your travel documents. Pay special attention to any ADRs for which you’ve prepaid or had to make a credit card guarantee. Remember you must cancel these in advance (generally 24 hours for restaurants and 48 hours for dinner shows) to avoid cancellation fees.

How To Budget for Dining
Restaurant prices and menus can be found on our site, but here are examples of what you might spend for two grown-ups and three children aged 5, 8, and 12:

Breakfast on the go:
5 bagels at $2.59 each: $12.95
2 coffees at $2.09 each: $4.18
3 small fruit juices at $1.69 each: $5.07
Total: $22.20 plus tax ($23.64)

Lunch at various fast food places:
3 piece chicken strips with fries at $7.69 each: $23.07
1 nachos with cheese: $7.95
1 taco salad: $7.69
5 lemonades at $2.19: $10.95
Total: $49.66 plus tax ($52.89)

Dinner at Chef Mickey’s (character buffet):
$34 for adults; $17 for kids 9 and under.
Total: $136 plus tax and gratuity (about $170)

Even if you don’t dine lavishly, it is not hard to spend $200 per day on food if you dine exclusively on Disney property. Know ahead of time where and what you plan to eat to avoid shock when you get your bill. Read our article on vacation budgeting for an in-depth look at how to break down the numbers.

We list current prices for table and counter service restaurants on our web site and in our books. Additionally, we survey local grocery prices every year for the book to help you plan.

Kids’ Meals
Pretty much wherever you eat at Disney World, a kid’s meal will be available. (This is Disney World.) Many offer standard fare, like hamburgers or macaroni and cheese, but some give more adventurous choices. They often come with a drink, side dish, and dessert, but often the entrée can be ordered separately—ask. When you eat at a buffet, you’ll find a mini-buffet for kids with standard offerings like chicken nuggets and fries. But at places like Sanaa at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, for instance, a kid’s meal at lunch ($7.59) includes an appetizer (such as cheese toast or creamy tomato soup), an entrée (meaty macaroni and cheese, tandoori chicken breast, or a cheeseburger), and dessert (vanilla ice cream, eggless chocolate cake, or coconut rice pudding). At places like Liberty Tree Tavern, there’s one set menu—again, when you book, ask what the options for kids are, especially if you have a picky eater.

At many table service and counter service restaurants, adult portions are so large that you can easily split a meal among two kids.

Once You’re There – Dining and Touring
People ask us all the time how to fit dining plans into their Touring Plans. Questions tend to fall into two categories:

  • What do I do if my ADR is no longer in the “best park” according to the Crowd Calendar?
  • When do I take a meal break in my daily schedule?

When crowd predictions change, you can either try to rebook your ADR or simply stick with your original choice and remember to follow a Touring Plan. We say it over and over and over—when it comes to minimizing your time in line, a good Touring Plan is way more important than the crowd level.

Our Touring Plans allow time for meal breaks, but here are some tips:

  • To take advantage of low wait times, spend your time touring rather than eating during the first 1-2 hours a park is open.
  • If you are booking a character breakfast in one of the parks, try to get a reservation for an hour before the park opens. You’ll get the character autographs and greetings checked off your list and finish eating in time to start touring when the park opens.
  • Make a late-ish dinner reservation (if your kids are up to it) so you can eat at a relaxed pace after you’re done with touring for the day; you won’t have to worry about rushing off to your next stop.
  • Arrive before the park opens; try to keep to the Touring Plan as much as you can, and try to keep breaks to a minimum. Around midday, when the parks become crowded, break for lunch.
  • If you plan to be in the parks for fireworks, parades, or other late evening events, eat an early dinner so you’re finished in time for the evening events.
  • If your main goal is to see the parks and you don’t have a lot of time, avoid table service restaurants. A table service meal will easily take 60-90 minutes plus travel time.

Other Dining Options
Dining offsite can definitely save you money, particularly if you’re already planning to rent a car. Buying groceries or having them delivered is also good for rooms that have a kitchen, kitchenette, or even just a refrigerator or cooler. We outline off-site dining and list local grocery stores and delivery services in the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.

What else should I do?
Do us and your fellow readers a solid by completing the reader survey after your trip. Your comments and ratings help make our books and web content useful for everyone.

How do you plan your dining? DO you plan your dining? Would rather take a Casey’s chili dog to the eye than hear any more about the Disney Dining Plan again?

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Posted on October 21, 2011

7 Responses to “Trip Planning 101: Disney Dining”

  • Don’t forget tables in wonderland. We like to eat table service and have found that the 20% can not only cover the charge for TIW, but also for upgrading to an annual pass. TIW also gives the discount on alcohol purchases. It is worth doing the math for this option too when comparing dining plans.

  • That’s a good point; Tables in Wonderland can be a money saver, and it does not tie guests in to the “structure” of the Disney Dining Plans. There’s a blog post about Tables in Wonderland at http://blog.touringplans.com/2011/04/22/tables-in-wonderland/.

  • What is the average wait for tables if you don’t make ADRs for travel in early Dec 2012? It seems almost impossible for me to know where we will want to eat 6 months earlier. Doesn’t that restrict you from enjoying the experience?

    • In all honesty, better to be safe than sorry. Your wait time can easily average an hour or more if it’s busy. If there are restaurants you really want to eat at, go ahead and make the reservation–you can always cancel if your plans change. And far from restrcing you, it often brings peace of mind!

  • We had a car last time and so “cooked” most of our meals using the microwave at the food court. We ate no counter service meals but did have a number of table service meals. Each time they were wonderful with preparing special foods for granddaughter with multiple food allergies. Wonderful experience. Next time might be a little trickier as she now also is diabetic.

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