Maximizing Disney Dining Plan Value: Worst Table Service Restaurants

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Although I’m not always the biggest proponent of the Disney Dining Plan, I have used it plenty of times, and I think it can be great, especially if you are savvy when making your Advance Dining Reservations and ordering. While Beaches & Cream might be a fun place to grab a meal, it’s generally not the best advice to use all of your Table Service credits on their cheap menu items, like the $9.49 cheeseburger, when you could use those same credits on a $30+ steak at Tutto Italia. I’m no master statistician like Fred Hazelton, but something tells me you get over three times as much bang for your Dining Plan credit by using the credit on the Tutto Italia steak instead of the Beaches & Cream burger.

Wide swings in price like the example above demonstrate how the value of the Disney Dining Plan can vary widely depending upon where and what guests order. Luckily, saving money on Disney Dining Plan really isn’t that difficult. All it requires is that your eating habits at least somewhat closely match the Plan, and that you plan ahead to maximize your value, eating at restaurants that would typically be more expensive if paying out of pocket and ordering the most expensive entrees at these restaurants (you’ve already paid a flat daily fee for the Dining Plan, so ordering the most expensive menu items is actually a good idea on the Dining Plan to get more bang for your buck!). I’ve previously detailed why Signature Restaurants are usually a bad use of Disney Dining Plan credits. I’ve also done quantitative rankings of the 10 best table service┬árestaurants, 10 best counter service restaurants, and 10 best snack credit uses at Walt Disney World, if on the Dining Plan.

What about the restaurants to avoid based upon value? For the reasons listed in my post discussing the poor credit value of Signature Restaurants, these 2-credit options are generally among the worst per-credit values on the Dining Plan. We already know this, so let’s just focus on the five 1-credit Disney Dining Plan restaurants that, on average, offer the worst bang for your buck.

Since we’re only focusing on 1-credit restaurants here, this list actually has dual purpose: it gives you the worst-value restaurants for the Disney Dining Plan, and the best-value restaurants when paying out of pocket or using the Tables in Wonderland card.

The Plaza Restaurant (menu) – The Plaza Restaurant’s most expensive entree is a salad. Need I say more? No entree here comes near $20, and while this restaurant is a fan-favorite that is frequently recommended as a Magic Kingdom dining gem, this is in large part due to the cheap prices. Those cheap prices make it a great option for those paying out of pocket or using the Tables in Wonderland card, but make it a terrible option for those on the Disney Dining Plan. I’d save the Plaza Inn for a trip when you’re not using the Disney Dining Plan.

Beaches & Cream (menu) – Beaches and Cream is one of my favorite restaurants at Walt Disney World. We eat here at least once every-other trip, and this is largely because of the incredibly reasonable prices, since we’re almost always paying out of pocket. It’s basically a table service meal for the price of a counter service meal! Additionally, the ice cream is great, the ambiance is really fun, and I find it oddly romantic in a 1950s sort of way (or at least what I assume the 1950s were like). That said, the most expensive menu item here is a $14.49 double cheeseburger. That doesn’t bode well for value on the Disney Dining Plan.

Trail’s End (menu) – Trail’s End is yet another fan favorite and, again, this is because of the great value it offers. At $25/person for dinner (and even less for breakfast and for its a la carte lunch menu), it’s the cheapest buffet on property. This all-inclusive price is $10 cheaper than entrees, alone, at some of the best-value restaurants, making Trail’s End a poor choice. Trail’s End is a fun restaurant and it’s always nice to visit Fort Wilderness (especially at Christmas), but this is another restaurant you should hold off on visiting if you’re using the Disney Dining Plan.

ESPN Club (menu) – ESPN Club makes the list largely because it has a number of menu items below $15 and only one item that crosses the $20 mark (and just barely, at $20.99). If you order one of the handful of items that are above $18 and an expensive dessert, value here is not terrible, but you still will get significantly less bang for your buck than if you maximized your value at a restaurant like Tutto Italia or Kouzzina.

Big River Grille & Brewing Works (menu) – This is where the differences in potential value start to become less significant, especially if you’re not fixated on maximizing your value. Big River Grille has a few entrees that are $25.99. While it also has a lot of low priced entrees (mostly burgers and salads), these $25.99 entrees look the most appealing to me. By contrast, comparable menu items are nearly $10 more expensive at top-value restaurants, but median menu items at the top-value restaurants are less expensive than $25.99, as are (obviously) lower priced items. To be sure, you can still squeeze a lot more value out of a restaurant like Whispering Canyon Cafe or┬áCoral Reef Restaurant than you can Big River, but beyond this point in the list, the gap closes quickly between “worst” and “best” restaurants.

Several of these Walt Disney World restaurants probably look appealing to you (they better!). What do you do if you think the Disney Dining Plan would be a good deal for you, but you also want to eat at some of these restaurants? If you’re not taking advantage of the “free” dining promotion, I recommend splitting your stay (you’ll usually be able to stay in the same room for both parts of the trip) and not purchasing the Dining Plan during part of that split stay. For example, on our honeymoon, my wife and I split two days of our trip off as a separate reservation. We purchased the Dining Plan for the first 8 days, but didn’t purchase it for the last two days. On those last two days, we dined at Victoria & Albert’s (not on the Dining Plan), California Grill (a Signature Restaurant that is a bad value on the Dining Plan), and Beaches & Cream (another bad value), along with some cheap counter service restaurants. The rest of the days, we ate at “high-value” restaurants on the Disney Dining Plan. This helped us maximize our bang for buck both out of pocket AND on the Disney Dining Plan. It was the best of both worlds!

What restaurants do you think offer the best and worst value on the Disney Dining Plan? Share your tips in the comments!

 

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Posted on March 30, 2012

38 Responses to “Maximizing Disney Dining Plan Value: Worst Table Service Restaurants”

  • Thanks for the article. It might as easily been entitled Best Cheap Eats. Trail’s End, Beaches and Cream and The Plaza are three of our favorite restaurants. I feel like we’re eating cheap while DS just thinks he’s living the good life!

    • Yep, it could have been called that, too! Like I said in the article, it really has two uses: restaurants to avoid for those on the DDP, and restaurants to hit for those paying out of pocket.

      Although I can’t say I’d recommend ESPN Club to OOP folks. It’s fun if you’re looking for a sports bar, but nothing special.

  • Because I’m a vegetarian most of the meals I would eat at a table service restaurant end up being the cheapest on the menu anyway. We’re splurging on 2 Signature restaurants on our upcoming trip since we have the free dining plan (I figured we wouldn’t go there otherwise and I’d really like to try them). We are paying out of pocket for Beaches & Cream though. Why isn’t that a counter-service credit?

    • I’m curious–as a vegetarian, do you find you make the most of the Disney Dining Plan? If you had to pay for it out of pocket (instead of the free dining promo), would you do it?

      • My children and I are vegetarians as well and we never get the dining plan. We had it free once and it was nice to try some different restaurants and we will have it free again at the end of August. When we go otherwise, we just pay OOP for the occasional table service when we get sick of veggie burgers and the like but I don’t think it’s the best value for us. My children do like all the desserts though!

      • I did pay OOP for a dining plan on my first trip, and we got it ‘free’ on our second trip. My husband loves the meal plan, and we both have to get it, so therefore I use it. ;-) We ended up not using 4 credits for our signature meal. I split the 2 I would use at a signature to add another restaurant, and my husband used the remaining 2 for his signature meal and we paid OOP for mine. Worked well!

  • we did DDP last week and looking back, i wish we just bought a tables in wonderland card. there were 10 in our party. we could’ve saved more w/ a straight 20% across the board.

    • We have found this to be true for us on a number of occasions. Some people swear by the DDP, but we rarely use it unless we know we’ll be eating at a lot of expensive restaurants.

  • Best counter service value on DDP:
    Wolfgang Puck Express (DTD), Pepper Market lunch buffet (Coronado Springs)

    Best table service value on DDP:
    Coral Reef (Epcot), Tutto Italia (Epcot), Le Cellier lunch (Epcot)

    Don’t know about “worst value” because we always go for best :)

  • And a few more:

    Best Character dining value on DDP:
    Akershus (Epcot) because photo prints are included on the plan

    Best value on Deluxe Dining plan:
    In-room dining at Grand Floridian from Citricos or Narcoosees — Still costs you two credits each but gratuity and 25% upcharge are both covered by the dining plan. Other deluxe resorts/signature restuarants may do this too but it worked out fabulously for us on our honeymoon at Grand Floridian.

    • Elizabeth–your instincts on these are right. All of the restaurants you’ve named are on the top 10 lists for best DDP value (measured quantitatively).

    • That’s a great tip DxDP tip!

    • Elizabeth, you are brilliant! I’m going to try the in-room dining from Narcoosee’s and Citricos during my stay at the Grand Floridian. I wanted to try some Signature dining but did not relish the idea of sitting in a Signature restaurant with two small children (under the age of 3). Thanks for the tip!

  • I’d add Sci-Fi Dine In to the list, especially at lunch. Really, any table service meal where you’re planning to get a sandwich should be a huge tip-off to pay out of pocket! These are great options though when you’ve run out of credits and have a few more meals to pay for out of pocket. You don’t have to split off your trip to do it either–a signature or a dinner show will leave you with a meal to do out of pocket, as will having full arrival and departure days.

    Side question–do the Signature restaurants become significantly better deals on Deluxe Dining, due to the addition of an appetizer? Seems like they would…

    • Sci-Fi is somewhere in the middle of the pack, mostly because it has a few expensive options. However, you CAN eat cheaply there, so paying for it out of pocket isn’t a bad idea.

      You hit the nail on the head with Signature dining on the Deluxe Dining Plan. I’m testing this firsthand for…uh…the sake of research…in May and look forward to reporting my results. Originally, we were going to try maximizing our value with Table Service breakfasts and Signature Dinners (to space the big meals out), but we’re “going for the gold” and will be doing early lunches at the most expensive TS 1-credit restaurants, then late dinners at the most expensive 2-credit restaurants. Here’s hoping we survive! ;)

      • We did the DxDDP last May for our anniversary and we found that with judicious planning – we totally came ahead on cost savings.

        We followed the same plan you are planning, really nice TS for lunches (Kona Cafe was one and probably was our favorite lunch) and Signature Dining for Dinners (Jiko as our favorite, closely followed by California Grill). When we added up the cost of our meals – we would have spent easily over $200 a day on food if we hadn’t been on the “free” Dining plan (we upgraded from DDP to DxDDP for about $150 more for our 4 day trip) – and that doesn’t count any of the snacks we had.

        In fact, we had so many snack credits left over on our last day that we stocked up on some of the more expensive pre-packaged items as souvenirs for friends and family back home (another way we found ourselves saving more than we planned)

        One of the biggest things we had to do was to continually remind ourselves that we didn’t need to finish all the food we were served. The amount of food was almost obscene and part of doing the DxDDP was accepting that food would be wasted (or we would have been ill trying to eat it all).

        It also gave us the opportunity to try new places and new food without regret. We would do it again in a heartbeat! I hope you have a wonderful trip. :)

        • That is what we do as well. Jiko is my favourite restaurant too!

          • I don’t know if you have had the wild boar tenderloin appetizer, but if you haven’t – order it next time you are there. It is out of this world amazing. As is the Lake Victoria Perch if it is on the menu. :)

      • We did DxDP in October and loved it (especially for all the snack credits we could use at the Food & Wine Festival). And in that case, DxDP saved us money where the regular DDP would not. We also bought a TIW to use on alcohol (and the two subsequent trips we had planned this year). It all worked out great! We did a few TS breakfasts and a few TS lunches, and we did Signature dinners almost every night. Can’t wait to see how your “research” goes Tom.

      • Tom – My family and I have gone this route several times and it really does work out for us. We save a lot of money over paying out-of-pcoket.

        But…it is a lot of food and we usually do not end up eating or even ordering our desserts.

        Good luck with your “research”! :-)

  • the best value for DDP (counter service) is to have some kids w/ ya, DDP is like $15 for kids, but the counter service counts the same (they don’t have to order from kids menu). thus, we ended up w/ plenty of QS meals, since the 2 kids just shared 1 meal most of the time

  • Also keep in mind that “price” and “value” may not be the same thing. If the $30 entree is something I can’t stand, I’d never order it to maximize my value.

    And if my favorite food happens to be the $10 burger, then it may be my best choice. (This might not be the case if there are going to be meals done OOP – then you might order the burger and pay cash, and save the DP credits for those locations where your choices *will* cost more.)

    It also gets into the whole thing of whether you’ve already bought the dining plan and are now just choosing where to eat, or whether you’re choosing whether or not to buy it at all, based on where you might already know you want to eat.

    • For a quantitative analysis like this, it’s impossible not to use “price” and “value” as synonyms. As you point out, a subjective definition of “value” would sort of render any type of list like this meaningless.

      Still, you make a good point–people shouldn’t order expensive items that aren’t appealing to them in the name of saving more money. If you order something you won’t eat or don’t like, it’s ultimately costing you more!

  • Great article, I am pleased to see that I utilize half of the top 10 maximizing restaurants for DDP. Although not always the best option for some, I alway use the plan for added value to my vacation frame of mind- paid for before I get there, relax ad enjoy.

  • Great analysis, Tom. Thanks.

  • To me, the best thing about the DDP is that I don’t need to worry about what things cost on the menu. I can just order what I am in the mood for. Trying to get the best “value” ruins that for me. I just want to eat where I want and order what I want without worrying about prices either way. That is the advantage of the dining plan.

    • I can understand and respect that, but if your purpose for using the DDP is the disconnect between what you’re ordering and “real” money, why not just use pre-paid gift cards or something similar at WDW? Unless you tend to eat more expensive items at more expensive restaurants (and a fair amount of food per day), the DDP can EASILY cost you more money than paying out of pocket.

      We don’t use the DDP very often, but when we do, it’s because we’re eating at expensive restaurants on that particular trip.

      • I agree with you which is why we usually dont use the dining plan except when offered as part of a promotion or one time when we were treating famiily to a trip and knew they would keep trying to pay for dinner. This way they didnt have the option.

      • The difference between DDP and “real money”, at least in the case that I’m already seated at the restaurant and my use of the dining credits is etched in stone, is that menu prices no longer matter – no matter what I order, my credits are going to be docked the same amount.

        Even with a pre-paid gift card, the price of what I end up ordering will have an impact on how much money is left on my card. So we don’t have a disconnect in that case either.

        Caveat – I’m speaking as one who has never used the dining plan but does understand how it works.

  • We’re trying the dining plan again this year because we got it free with our booking. As such the value doesn’t make much difference – it’s saving us so much money.

    However, we have already discussed that when we go to ESPN and Beaches and Cream (both family favourites) we might just pay in cash. The reason for this is that we like signature dining and will want to save our table service meals for California Grill, Yachtsman Steakhouse and Narcoosees.

  • Question since we are doing the dining plan for our first time …. can kids order regular food at counter service or do they need to get kids meals at counter service locations? Thank you.

    • Too late for the poster bur replying because this is a very important point: My experience is that Kids can order anything on the quick serve menu and do not have to order the kids meal. Our favorite in magic kingdom was the chicken and ribs at the “orbit??” food court in futureworld. Massive portions and one meal would feed two kids so we would use the other kids quick serve that day for breakfast meal.

  • Huge Genesee car givaway begins; biggest sale tops 200,000.A few of the most rare state license plates sold in lots for five figures. A set of vintage Missouri plates sold for $26,000, while Kentucky plates fetched $29,900.

  • Our first two times going to DW, we did the dining plan. For our next trip, we will do without. After the first time, it felt like it was worth it. But after the second time, it just didn’t, mostly because we don’t usually do desserts. We have a Disney credit card that is the only one we’ll use, so we’ll see how it goes. I am like you Tom – I just don’t see how “normal” dining does any better than break even, and probably costs money in the end. I don’t think you can say it saves you money if it forces you to do something you wouldn’t have done otherwise (like skip the appetizer and go with the dessert).

  • While I agree that the Plaza is not good ‘bang for your buck’ when it comes to the DDP, I find the rest of the plan gives you so much food that I do not mind using a TS there. Gives us a respite from the gluttony that the rest of the plan gives us. Of course, we have only used the free DP and we have it for 2 weeks, so you can understand our (just the wife and I) liking it’s simplicity. I do see the argument if one is paying and if one is there for a ‘standard’ vacation.

  • After using both the DP and DDP on several occasions I finally went without it my last trip and I am so glad I did. I thought I wanted it bc I didn’t have to worry about menu prices but I actually think I was more anxious with the dining plan bc I was so worried I wouldn’t end up getting value out of it. That’s no fun and I always ended up eating too much or throwing food out- or worse- leaving with unused credits!! We would get so tired of eating that we would cancel dining reservations and opt for quick service. Even with advanced planning I just don’t think it is worth it- in my experience.