Great Disney World Dining On A Budget

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Walt Disney World dining is expensive. This could be because Disney charges an appropriate premium, much like restaurants near other tourist destinations, due to its location, theming, and convenience (probably true). It could be because Disney raises prices to create more illusory value in the Disney Dining Plan (also likely true, in my opinion). It could be as simple as demand (also quite possible). Whatever the reason for the pricing of Disney dining, it’s undeniably expensive.

If you want to eat on a budget at Walt Disney World, smuggling in Ramen Noodles and requesting cups of free hot water isn’t your only option (as alluring as that may sound). You also don’t have to eat exclusively at counter service restaurants that have toppings bars and free refills. Even if on a budget, you can eat at some of Walt Disney World’s nicest and most fun restaurants! At this point, you might be wondering, “what’s the catch?” Well, to take advantage of this wonderful offer, you only need to sit through an obligation-free 30 minute timeshare presentation hosted by–I’m only kidding. There is no catch.

First, there’s the obvious. If you want to dine at nicer restaurants on a budget, order water instead of soda or alcohol, order cheaper entrees, and split meals. The same types of things you can do anywhere to save money. Rather than waste your and my time elaborating on these rather pedestrian common-sense tips (apologies to those short on common sense who could have used further elaboration!), here are some concrete tips for items to order to save money at specific Walt Disney World restaurants:

1. Hollywood Brown Derby (menu) – The Hollywood Brown Derby is one of the best restaurants at Walt Disney World, but unfortunately, it’s also one of the most expensive. However, you can dine at the Brown Derby for just a bit more than it would cost to eat at a counter service menu and you can order two of the Brown Derby’s most popular menu items. For $22 per person, you can order the Famous Cobb Salad (on the appetizer menu) and the Grapefruit Cake (dessert). The Cobb Salad at the Brown Derby is colossal and contains a kitchen sink of awesome ingredients. Seriously, if it were sold at Beaches & Cream, it would simply be called “Kitchen Sink Salad.” I’m not typically a salad fan, but this Cobb Salad is amazing, and incredibly filling. The Grapefruit Cake isn’t as filling or large, although it’s still sized well, but it has a very unique flavor and is one of the Brown Derby’s signature items. For $22 per person plus tax and tip,  you will get a chance to dine at one of Walt Disney World’s nicest restaurants and you’ll leave full. Compared to the $80 or more you can easily spend per person when dining here for a full meal, this is a great way to sample the ambiance and two of the best menu items at the Brown Derby!

2. Le Cellier (menu) – Le Cellier has three great lunch menu items that you should consider when trying to dine on the cheap, all of which have great reputations: the Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup, Le Cellier House Burger, and BLT Salmon Sliders. I don’t really think any of Le Cellier’s dessert’s are mindblowing, so I’d probably go with the Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup and the BLT Salmon Sliders. Total, this is just over $20. If you want to dine cheaper and you really like dessert, consider a bowl of the soup and the Maple Crème Brûlée (it’s good, just not any better than what you’ll find anywhere else, in my opinion). Add to that the amazing complimentary pretzel bread, and you’ll have a filling meal for less than $15. I recommend spending a bit more and getting the sliders or burger, but that’s just me. Another option if you’re in Epcot is ordering the Caesar Salad at Coral Reef (menu). The aquarium ambiance is the big draw at Coral Reef, and the salad can be a way to cheaply enjoy that amazing ambiance.

3. Via Napoli (menu) – Since Animal Kingdom doesn’t have much to offer in this department (don’t make the mistake of going to Rainforest Cafe…unless you like poor-quality common chain-restaurant food and loud rainforest sounds), here’s another Epcot-option. I’ve gone from being lukewarm on Via Napoli to it being a pretty much “must dine” for us each time we go to Epcot, all because of the value and quality we’ve experienced at Via Napoli on recent trips. If you have 3-5 people in your party, order a “Metro” size pizza. It’s $41, and should be able to feed about that many people. I can’t resist Via Napoli’s Calamari Fritti, so we usually get that, too. Depending upon the number of people and what else you order, you can easily dine at Via Napoli for $10-20 per person. Not too bad for a restaurant many people have called overpriced!

4. Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater (menu) – This list could probably be made exclusively of Disney’s Hollywood Studios restaurants, as its restaurants offer theming that makes them an attraction in-themselves and several have affordable and delicious menu items. Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater is often unfairly slammed. The menu changed for the better in Fall 2011, yet critics continue to slam it based upon their pre-Fall 2011 experiences. My picks here are the Picnic Burger (it’s really good, I swear) and a milkshake. This will set you back around $21. Considering the awesome theme and the fun atmosphere, not to mention the underrated food, this is a great value. Give Sci-Fi a chance–I don’t think you’ll be sorry that you did!

5. The Plaza Restaurant (menu) – I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not a huge fan of this cult-favorite amongst many Walt Disney World regulars, but it still makes the list due to popularity and pricing alone. The Plaza Club is less than $12, and The Plaza Restaurant Sundae is only $5. Less than $17 for a popular Walt Disney World table service restaurant?! Perhaps it’s time I give this one another try…

All of the menu items at the restaurants on this list are great (or at least popular, in the case of the Plaza Restaurant), and they give you the opportunity to enjoy the atmosphere of some of Disney’s coolest restaurants without paying premium prices to enjoy that atmosphere. While I strongly recommend these particular restaurants and items, you can follow this same formula (order and appetizer plus dessert or a cheap entree) at just about any restaurant on property. I highly recommend you look at Walt Disney World restaurant menus before your trip, regardless of whether you’re on a budget.

Even though our menus here at TouringPlans launched only recently, we’re already constantly updating them. These menus make a great planning resource if you want to know what is currently on the menu at Walt Disney World restaurants! Obviously, some inexpensive items are inexpensive for a reason (they aren’t as good as the expensive items), but like many of the items on the dishes on this list, there are some inexpensive gems to be found!

What are your favorite “value” menu items? Share your picks for dining at Walt Disney World on a budget in the comments!

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Posted on May 4, 2012

25 Responses to “Great Disney World Dining On A Budget”

  • My best tip for dining plan people is that there is no differentiation between adult and children’s counter service credits. Order your children adult meals, then save the rest for a snack later.

    • My best tip for non-dining plan is that an adult can order a children’s meal at counter service locations, which can include pre-wrapped sides (carrots or grapes or…) which you can carry with you, and a drink. Particularly the places where the children’s meal is just a smaller version of the adult meal. Very good value.

    • We figured that out about the dining plan on our last day! Now since the price went up, we might not get a chance to try it again :(

  • We spent 3 weeks in the World in December and found that if we ate breakfast at home and dinner outside the world lunch was fairly reasonable. As portions are generous it was great value for money, eating at local restaurants such as Cracker Barrel and Perkins a few times meant that our budget allowed for the more expensive Disney dining experiences such as Rainforest Cafe and Character Breakfasts. I did my research before we came and was able to earmark which WDW restaurants offered good choice and value. Incidentally I also managed to eat healthily for the whole 3 weeks and never once had fries wherever we ate.

  • by michelle h on May 4, 2012, at 9:24 am EDT

    i agree about the plaza restaurant. i should of never made reservations and just ate somewhere else. it was such a small restaurant i felt like we were just stuck in the side of the building. the club sandwhich was what we ordered and had the kiddos split a kids meal. the only bonus was while we were eating the only rainstorm that entire week came through while we were eating. i highly recommend eating somewhere else. Definitely not worth the hype! we also ate at the sci-fi drive in and it was a really neat and different experience. my son who is 3 absolutely loved sitting in a car and watching the old movies. i think our total for 3 adults and one kid. (my daughter who had just turned one was sleeping the whole time and we didn’t order her anything til she woke up, at a fast service place) was around $80. that was 3 burgers, 2 milkshakes, my mom and i split one and a kids meal. but it was definitely a favorite and we will definitely be eating there again!!

  • I’ve done Le Cellier this way – but for dinner – a couple of appetizers and split one steak. PLENTY of food for 3 (1 toddler). And – I’m a fan of the Plaza – to me it’s a way better option than the counter service options at the MK and for only a couple of dollars more, I’ll take it.

  • by Ashley Wilson on May 4, 2012, at 9:56 am EDT

    Really good tips! I think a lot of people forget that you’re not required to order an entree just because you’re at a table service restaurant. Most of the time a couple appetizers and desserts are MORE than enough food (and calories) to satisfy!

  • The hyperlink to your review of the Plaza restaurant takes you to a phantom page. :(

    That said, it’s the only restaurant we’ve made a point to visit on each visit because we love the sandwiches there! :)

    • Well, seeing that their personal reviews were based on “the last 18 months” and the menu was revised in the last 9, I really don’t know that a “fair” review was given. My family and four other friends have dined there multiple times in the last 10 months. The food was very good every time. A co-worker just returned from Disney and raved about her dinner at Sci-Fi.

    • There were a few occasions on that episode that you disagreed with the reader reviews, does that make you wrong, too?

      Reader review scores are an okay baseline, but I don’t put any stock in them. You don’t know sample size, circumstances, their frame of reference, etc.

  • GREAT tips, TOM! One question: Do WDW restaurants charge a “Split-Plate” fee if you share a meal? The Blue Bayou at DL does.

    • To my knowledge, no WDW restaurants do this (only a few DLR ones). Now, obviously you can’t do it at buffet or family style restaurants, but I’m sure you know that!

  • Fantastic tips, Tom! When it’s a “Disney year” for me and I have an AP and Tables in Wonderland card, it often makes sense economically to dine at some of the TS establishments you listed and get the 20% discount, rather than dine CS at full price.

    • We love Tables in Wonderland. It basically takes care of the tip, making a lot of these meals almost as cheap as CS. What’s not to love about that?!

  • We love Wolfgang Express in the Marketplace at Downtown Disney. Food is great and prices are reasonable.

    • I’ve heard that about Wolfgang Puck Express. I tend to stay away from restaurants I could find in normal cities, but a good tip for those who don’t mind!

      • There is no Wolfgang Puck anywhere close to New England so eating there when we go is a treat. It’s also very good! Earl of Sandwich is nowhere around here also and it’s a very cheap way to eat at Disney.

    • by GeorgeInNePa on May 4, 2012, at 11:22 pm EDT

      Downtown Disney? Bongo’s at lunchtime, order a Cuban sandwich.

  • I think Sci-Fi gets a bad rap too. I’m not sure what people are expecting from a restaurant with a drive-in theme. The burger and fries I ordered from there was certainly not gourmet, but was perfectly acceptable.

    Does anyone know if Brown Derby has changed it’s menu recently? I ate there 5 days ago and had a great time but seemed to recall different items when I visited it two years ago.

  • Interesting suggestions on how to visit the high-end places at a reasonable price. I’ll recommend a more conventional counter service option.

    A couple weeks ago I had a rotisserie chicken meal at Cosmic Ray’s that wouldn’t have disappointed me if it had been served at one of the snazzier table service restaurants, and it was half the price I would’ve paid (plus, no tip). This wouldn’t be for everyone, as some would prefer a quieter, more comfortable place to eat and the layout of the restaurant is a little strange, with different food at different counters, but it’s somewhere where I’ll return next time I’m in the Magic Kingdom.

  • by GeorgeInNePa on May 4, 2012, at 11:20 pm EDT

    Fish & Chips and a Bass at Rose and Crown. My favorite.