The Disney Dining Plan: Exposed

by on July 17, 2012 154 Comments

Filed under: Dining, Recent News, Trip Planning, Walt Disney World (FL)

The ever controversial Disney Dining Plan is constantly a topic heating up Disney message boards all over the Disney online community and it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Since its introduction in 2005, the Disney Dining Plan has gained many faithful users that swear by its convenient and possibly money-saving practices. Of course, the beloved pre-paid meal plan has also garnered a rather impressive amount of criticism as well, for many reasons. Here’s something that shouldn’t surprise anyone… the Disney Dining Plan price will increase again in 2013. To see the detailed changes for 2013, check out this article.

Before I start my ranting and raving on the topic, I’d like to touch on the truly great benefits of the Disney Dining Plan. First of all, the plan allows for families to pre-pay for their meals ahead of time before ever leaving home. I can understand that for some people, this is huge plus. Secondly, the Disney Dining Plan does provide a substantial amount of food… much more than the average person chooses to eat on vacation. I will also say that it absolutely can be a money saver for people, provided it’s done the right way.

Back when the Disney Dining Plan was first introduced to the public, there was simply what we know now as the Standard Dining Plan. Nothing less, nothing more… just one plan. The plan included everything that it does now, only with your full-service meal, you were also given an appetizer. Oh, yeah! And an 18% gratuity for your sit-down meal was also included in your pre-payment. Did I mention that the plan was about $35.00 per adult, per night, and $10 per child, per night?

Today, we have three plans offered to us, Quick-Service, Standard, and Deluxe (for all you super foodies). In comparing the 2005 Standard Dining Plan to the 2013 Standard Dining Plan, the differences are substantial. While the snack portion of the plan hasn’t changed much, we have seen minor adjustments to the quick-service dining. For example, using a quick-service credit on breakfast used to allow you to get an extra drink with your meal to make up for not getting a dessert. That’s gone.

The biggest changes that have obviously hit guests the hardest is in regards to table-service credits. While you were previously given an appetizer along with your meal, that was cut out. Your gratuity is now your responsibility to pay outside of the plan at the end of your meal, even though 18% used to be included in the plan’s upfront price. Over the years, the price of the plan has slowly increased. Think about this… the 2005 Standard Dining Plan was about $35 for an adult (per night, of course) and the appetizer-less, gratuity-less, 2013 Standard Dining Plan is a whopping $55.59 per night for an adult. And that’s during a value or regular season! If you’re thinking of traveling during peak season, add almost $2 more to that amount.

I’d like to also mention that the 2013 Quick-Service Plan will cost adults $37.38 per night. That’s right, folks. The plan that doesn’t even include one sit-down meal is currently more money than the 2005 Standard Dining Plan before all of the changes.

If you’re new to the Disney community or didn’t use the Disney Dining Plan before the changes, you might be wondering why Disney chose to alter the plan. I, along with many other dining plan users, contacted Disney to express our frustration and also get some well-deserved answers. Everyone got the same reply. Disney said that guests often complained of receiving far too much food on the plan. They also claimed that their guests wanted control over their tip instead of having 18% automatically given to their server. Now, I’m not saying that these claims aren’t true, but, I will say that it’s a very nice excuse for Disney to give their guests who disagree with the changes, all the while saving the company a buck or two.

In my opinion, I think the plan was too much of a money-saver for guests in Disney’s eyes. The appetizer was a clear winner of what to cut-out because it’s much easier and affordable to mass produce desserts than it is appetizers. Gratuity was probably targeted because there was a plausible reason as to why to cut it out. Do I agree that guests are constantly being offered less in the Disney Dining Plan while being charged way more for it? No way. I don’t think many of you agree with it either.

Let’s take a look at “Family X.” They are a family of 4 traveling to Walt Disney World in 2013 and have decided to pay for the Standard Disney Dining Plan. They are 2 adults and 2 children. However, their son is 10 years old and must order off of the adult menu while their daughter, age 7, is still young enough to count as a child. Per night of the stay, the family will pay a total of $183.93 for the plan.

Scenario A

Let’s pretend that they are super planners and have their Advanced Dining Reservations taken care of well ahead of time. They’re also financially savvy and want to make the most of the Disney Dining Plan. They’ve chosen to pack granola bars for breakfast every morning. Maybe they even made a run to a grocery store or used Garden Grocer to get a few boxes of cereal and milk for breakfast before they ever leave the room. They’ll be trying to realistically order the more expensive items on menus to get the best value. Their park of choice for day 1 is the Magic Kingdom.

Breakfast: Protein bars and a piece of fruit for each of them. Cost = $5 total

Lunch: Columbia Harbour House

Mom: Grilled Salmon $10.19, Apple Crisp $3.59, and Water $2.50. Total = $16.28

Dad: Fried Shrimp $9.99, Chocolate Cake $3.59, and Water $2.50. Total = $16.08

Son: Chicken Nuggets and Fish $9.29. Chocolate Cake $3.59, and Water $2.50. Total = $15.38

Daughter: Tuna Sandwich Kids Meal = $5.49

Meal Total (including sales tax) = $56.69

Snack: Aloha Isle

4 Dole Whip Floats at $4.49 each. Total (including sales tax) = $19.13

Dinner: The Crystal Palace Character Dinner

3 adults ($39.40 each) and 1 child ($19.16) = $137.36 (including sales tax)

18% Gratuity Paid Out of Pocket = $24.73

Disney Dining Plan paid for $213.18 worth of food.

Family X Paid: $29.73 (Out of Pocket Total) and $183.93 (Plan Price) = $213.66

Had Family X paid for their meals out of pocket and ordered exactly as they did it using the Disney Dining Plan, it would have cost them $242.91. The family saved $29.25 by using the Disney Dining Plan. However, if they’d chosen a less expensive table service meal or chosen cheaper options for their snacks and quick-service entrees, they could have easily lost money. It’s also important to remember that if the family paid entirely out of pocket and not ordered desserts with either of their meals, they would have saved much more money. Alternatively, they could have shared entrees for lunch or even shared snacks. These are common practices that a lot of families do that are NOT using the Disney Dining Plan.

Scenario B

Alright, let’s pretend now that Family X is planning a vacation on a whim. They booked their vacation last minute and couldn’t get any of the more expensive restaurants. They prefer using their quick-service meal for breakfast and never look at prices when ordering.

Breakfast: Pop Century Food Court

Mom: Breakfast Wrap with Potatoes $5.99, Coffee $2.09. Total = $8.08

Dad: Breakfast Pizza $5.49, Coffee $2.09. Total = $7.58

Son: Chocolate Chip Pancakes with Side of Meat $6.29, Orange Juice $2.39. Total = $8.68

Daughter: Mickey Waffles Kids Meal. Total = $4.99

Meal Total (including sales tax) = $31.24

Lunch: The Plaza Restaurant

Mom: Plaza Club $11.49, Iced Tea $2.99, Sundae $4.99. Total = $19.47

Dad: Grilled Reuben $10.99, Soda $2.99, Sundae $4.99. Total = $18.97

Son: Turkey Sandwich $11.49, Soda $2.99, Sundae $4.99. Total = $19.47

Daughter: Kids Meal (Who cares which one? It’s a flat price.) Total = $8.59

Meal Total (including sales tax) = $70.83

18% Gratuity Paid Out of Pocket = $12.75

Snack: Popcorn Cart

4 Bags of Popcorn at $3.25 each. Total (including sales tax) = $13.85

Disney Dining Plan paid for $115.92 worth of food.

Family X paid $12.75 (Out of Pocket) and $183.93 (Dining Plan Cost) = $196.68.

I already know what you’re going to tell me. “Stacey! They haven’t eaten dinner yet!” Well, Family X made some poor choices and they are going to have to pay for that out of pocket later on in the day. To be honest, I could have made Family X more ignorant by having them choose pastries and fruit from Main Street Bakery but I decided to be more realistic. Family X lost $68.01 by using the Disney Dining Plan.

Disney has been consistently offering a popular “Free Dining” promotion to their guests every year. The discount was recently announced again for the end of 2012. Our very own Tom Bricker did a great expose on the Free Dining promotion last year and it’s a fantastic read that will help you better understand how Free Dining isn’t so free. The discount works best for folks wanting to stay at a value resort and those who know how to maximize the plan.

I’m sure there are many people that hear about the Free Dining promotion and decide to book a last minute reservation at the Polynesian Resort since they are “eating for free.” Paying rack rate for a garden view room at the Polynesian Resort will run you at least $400.00 a night. Multiply that by six nights and you can kiss your “Free” dining savings goodbye. Anyone booking a last minute reservation in order to take advantage of Free Dining is sure to get stuck with at least a couple of lower cost restaurants because ‘Ohana and Boma are booked up. Even if you can get into higher priced restaurants, you’re pressured to order more costly items off of the menu just to get the most savings.

Many guests feel that both quality and quantity of food at Disney has been compromised since the Dining Plan’s introduction. Even many of the restaurant menus have been altered to a combination lunch/dinner menu. Slowly but surely, variety is diminishing at Disney restaurants. Menu prices across the board have sky-rocketed so that those dining off of a Dining Plan can hardly afford the cost of one meal. The popular Epcot restaurant, Le Cellier, now requires 2 table-service credits for dinner and come next year, lunch will be 2 credits as well. Another new change for 2013 is that ordering from a prix fixe menu will come with a surcharge. Guests have previously gotten around the “no appetizer” rule by ordering from a prix fixe menu when it’s available. Those days are gone.

Remember when you could walk up to almost any restaurant in Walt Disney World and get a reservation for that same day? Yeah, that’s basically long gone too. This is easily the biggest complaint that locals and other non-Disney Dining Plan users have. Restaurants get booked up like crazy now and it’s hard to get a reservation for the most popular restaurants if you aren’t booking an Advanced Dining Reservation at 180 days in advance.

Obviously, I’m really good at pointing out all of the negatives of the Disney Dining Plan. I really would like to make it clear though, that despite all of the crummy things I’ve mentioned, the plan certainly can save people money. People that know how to maximize their dining credits. People that book their vacation far enough ahead to reserve higher priced, one credit restaurants. People that only use their table-service credits on dinner. People that eat breakfast in their room instead of wasting a quick-service credit. People that know you can ask for a cup of water from any quick-service restaurant for free instead of using a snack credit on a bottle of water.

If the convenience of the plan is what draws you to it, know that with a little simple budgeting and purchasing a Disney gift card, you could basically be doing the same thing as the Dining Plan but cutting out the middle man. Plus, how many of you current users of the plan would actually eat one sit-down meal a day if you weren’t using a meal plan? You could save yourself some money by doing a little “reality check” homework before you decide to opt for a Dining Plan.

Disney has done a really great job of getting their guests hooked on a well-rounded, money saving plan (back when it was almost always economical), only to make drastic changes that their guests have to cope with. People love the convenience of the plan and ability to dine at restaurants they normally wouldn’t when on vacation at Disney World. However, because of the Disney Dining Plan, it’s now so much more work just to find out if you’re making the most economical choice for you and your traveling companions.

When will guests say enough is enough? How long will it take before guests choose not to pay for the Disney Dining Plan or participate in Free Dining?

Let’s hear your take on this. Are any of you out there done with the Disney Dining Plan? How many of you still find it to be a savings for your family? Let me know in the comment section!


Posted on July 17, 2012

154 Responses to “The Disney Dining Plan: Exposed”

  • DDP…the debate continues…
    My husband and I took advantage of the Free Dining Plan last November (I too would never pay for the dining plan). We stayed 3 nights at the Pop Century and got the Quick Service Plan. We previously had a 30% discount but Free dining was a better deal. Some things that worked for us:
    – My husband is a bigger eater then me. He’d buy breakfast at the resort (least expensive meal of the day) while I had a breakfast bar I’d brought from home. One day he used one of my meal credits for breakfast since I had more than enough other food to eat.
    – In 2012, you still got 2 snack credits per day. This worked great at the Food & Wine Festival.
    – Don’t waste snack credits on drinks. We used refillable water bottles from home (plus we are not big soda drinkers). We used snack credits for the F&W Festival, Dole whips, etc.
    – One big win we found was Wolfgang Puck’s Express in DTD is considered quick service. We at there twice and our bill was roughly $50 each time. That more than paid for our “free” dining plan on those days.

    • I think you meant in 2011 you still got 2 snack credits. If you went in November that would have been last year. That’s actually why I chose not to get the Quick Service Free Dining when I went in March this year and stayed a Pop. Got a room discount instead. I saved up some money on a Disney gift card, ate at 3 table service meals on my 6 day trip and was able to use my gift card everywhere, so my meals were already paid for. Remember, if you aren’t a big eater, then you can always request not to get a side with a quick service meal, and that reduces the cost of the entree.

  • if what you are saying is accurate, than that means that you will be paying for a Deluxe Resort, Dinning, and Tickets all for less than $235 a day for one person? That doesn’t sound right to me.

  • Great article Stacey! This is a conversation I often have with people. I am of the opinion that people really create a self-fulfilling prophecy with the dining plan. They try to eat to maximize the value, so it in turn becomes a better value than if they had eaten the way they normally would.

    Personally I prefer lunch ADRs to Dinner ones, since it gives you a nice break in the middle of the day. The cheaper cost is nice too.

    The thing is, I want to eat where and what I want to eat when at WDW. I feel like on the dining plan it becomes, “what can I eat to make this worthwhile?” versus “what do I actually want to eat?”. I feel like the dining plan forces food on me that I do not want. Rarely does a counter service restaurant have a dessert that is worth getting. Also, with most meals I prefer an appetizer. The table service desserts are often good, but there are cases where I forego dessert and get something at a bakery or kiosk.

    I also find a full counter service AND a full table service in one day to be way too much food. One of the other things I like about booking mid-late afternoon lunches is that it allows me to snack more throughout the day and/or split a counter service meal later on. I would think many parents would do the same thing.
    The convenience thing I do not really understand either. In my experiences on the dining plan, it really functions the same as just paying by credit card. Although I suppose in a family where you have children that want to go off on their own, the DDP would be nice for them since parents are not likely to give them a credit card to use.

    I would say the biggest thing is folks just do not want to run the numbers and see what the better value actually is.

    • Joey, your reply is one of my favorites simply because you’re looking at it all from a realistic standpoint. For years I liked to keep my blinders on a little simply because I could. Simply because the plan was still really cost effective even if I knew I could probably eat cheaper off of the Disney Dining Plan. Now, the cost is beginning to outweigh the benefits.

      Realistically, I too enjoy lunch reservations. I also get full off of the entree and can’t finish my dessert a lot of the time. On top of that, off of the plan I don’t typically get a snack every single day. It’s a cupcake here and a pickle there.

      All of that being said, I did get addicted to eating at sit-down restaurants at Disney, something I never did before the Dining Plan. The experience is really fun and memorable. I love the ambiance of so many of the restaurants and the thought of not going to any at all really bums me out.

      Now, I’ve come to realize that to be both economical and feed my addiction to sit-down meals, I choose a couple of places to get reservations at every trip. If I’m on a 5 day trip I might pick 3 restaurants. I’ll do 2 lunches and 1 nicer dinner. In the long run, I save myself money. I am still pleasing myself with a little indulgence while also saving money. Plus, not having a reservation every day sure does free up about 2 or 3 hours of park time.

      • Agreed with filling up on dinner and not even needing a dessert. I say it all the time; I would rather have a giant steak with a huge baked potato than eat dessert.

      • I hear you Stacey. I love dining in Disney too. I have any and all Disney Food Blog posts delivered directly to my email.

        I really find that only one or two really nice places (e.g. Citricos) and the rest more casual make for a nice balance on a trip. Plus there are so many great affordable restaurants like Boatwright’s, Kona Cafe, The Plaza, etc. that you can often times just walk up to and get a table. While I do love table service places, sometimes it is nice to not have to worry about being somewhere at a certain time. Or if you decide you do not want to eat at a TS that day, you do not have to feel guily for holding an ADR someone else might want.

        I am definitely guilty of eating at least one snack every day. Although I tend to eat smaller meals because I know I cannot resist all the awesome Disney Parks snacks.

  • Great article! We’ve done the DDP for years, back to 2007 when the app and tip were included. I’ve kept careful track of what we eat and what it would have cost us, and we’ve always come out ahead in the end. We have paid for the DDP in exchange for a deep room discount on occasion. We enjoy a sit down meal each day and will stretch the counter service meals by sharing breakfasts and lunches.

    However, my daughter is turning 10 next month. While not a picky eater, she’s also not a HUGE eater. Having to pay an adult price for her not he DDP is just not an economical option, especially when she is mostly content to continue to eat off the children’s menu. And I find that sometimes we want an appetizer and no dessert, or even an appetizer for dinner, and then dessert.

    So, no more DDP for us. Even with the free offering, the PIN code Disney sent me for a room discount was the better option. While it is a nice perk, it’s significantly less of a perk than it used to be. I agree with others who say it’s best to run the numbers to see if it works for you.

  • We are going to Disney the last week of August (7 days/6 nights) and are taking advantage of the Free Dining Plan. I did the math and the difference between the discount rate at Port Orleans and the rack rate with free dining was $300 for 2 adults and 2 kids (ages 11, 16). Some of this was by shifting our vk by a few days to be eligible for free dining. Without the free dining I would have stuck with my original days to avoid missing first 2 days of school.

    We would definetely have spend more than $300 on food, especially since my daughter was adament about a Character Breakfast and my husband inisisted on the Hoop-De-Doo review ($200 for a family of 4). I also plan to extend our counter service portions by splitting meals with my daughter (neither of us will eat a full one by ourselves).

    For our table service meals I was thinking of having my son order off the children’s menu and paying cash for his meal, therefore saving a table service meal. If we do this twice, the night my husband I go out for our mom & dad dinner we’ll have enough table services credits remaining to cover our dinners. Do you know if this is allowed?

  • We crunched and crunched and crunched those numbers and discovered Free Dining was our best option. We were lucky to get a standard room at POR with free dining. If we had been forced to upgrade (because there were so few standard room allotments for the deal), I think it would have been a different story. We have young kids and do as many character meals as possible, so it is still worth it to us.

    I crunched numbers once on paying for the quick service plan and OUCH. I don’t think it’s possible to save money on that thing.

  • We had the delux DDP and did find it to be too much food. However we had four character meals. This made it worth it to me. We will continue to use DDP next year, but will back down to the standard DDP. We had counter service meals a couple of times anyway this year, so no use to pay for the TS meals.

    As for worrying about the time it takes to eat the meals and the transportation: We found it was good to have a nice air-conditioned meal if we were in the parks in early afternoons in July. We never had an issue of wasting time with transportation becasue we planned to visit the same park in which we were having a character meal (with exception to Chef Mickey, but we were at MK anyway that day)

  • estuve en enero 2012 con plan de comidas disney en mi paquete familiar y me resulto ventajoso, vovemos en enero 2013 con mi familia, y estamos esperando que salga el plan dining disney gratis, hasta el 08/08/2012 no salió, si sus valores pero no planes de comidas gratis

  • viajamos con mi familia enero 2012 a disney con plan dining gratis y fue ventajoso, estamos regreasando en enero 2013 y esperando plan dining gratis que a la fecha de hoy 08/08/2012 no salió, pero si sus valores.

  • I have plans on disney starting August 25th of 2013. I want to know if anyone knows what the crowd is like that time of year? the weather? T
    This topic on the dining plan is very interesting to me. I have been twice now using the plan with the one quick service and one table service. the problem i have with the plan is that i book things like the hoop de doo revue and the ohana show, and if you try to use two table service tickets for this you get second rate seating, no matter how far in advance you reserve. I have paid out of pocket for the shows for the past two visits and calling that 180 days in advance (early in the am) has always secured me the best seating. I am traveling with two adults and four children. I am weighing the fw cabins with two rooms at the POR resort, and its not easy.

  • The price is increasing and the food quality is decreasing. Prime Rib was included at the carving bars for Chef Mickey and Crystal Palace, removed. Replaced with a tough, died of old age piece of roast beef. Selections do not appear as numerous. Chicken Nuggetts that were on the kids bar not adult, now are. I understand price increases due to a cost increases, but not more for less. This is not what it was originally represented as anymore. High end restaurants with outstanding selections is just not there now. Will not be participating in any plan until see some positive changes. I don’t mind paying but expect quaility, and to get what I pay for.

  • My whole family are Disney addicts & we have been going there since 1985. We discovered the first “all inclusive plan” in 1989 when it was called (I think) the World Adventure Plan. It later became the Gold Key I think. It included EVERYTHING! Boats, water skiing, food galore (I had 2 teenage boys then so we were dealing with neverending appetites) All the meals included appetizer, entree, dessert & kids were cheaper but could order off the adult menu if they chose. We ate at the Empress Lily (now Fulton’s Crabhouse) AND Victoria & Albert’s was ON THE PLAN!! All tips were included. The value was incredible & I miss those days. We always kept our receipts and found we saved a ton of $$$. Now, however, I can’t eat that amount of food. Altho we’ve done the deluxe meal plan many times & I love eating at the special restaurants, it’s a lot of food. For our family the dining is a big part of the experience. We’ve found the menus are much more limited and the value is decreasing by leaps & bounds. I can’t eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, but still would like to eat in the Signature restaurants most nights. You can’t do that unless you get the deluxe plan, so it’s a big dilemma for me next time I go. I’ll have to rethink the whole thing & unfortunately may have to give up some of the restaurants that are my favorites. I miss the old days!!

    • I am confused as to why you said without the dinning plan you can’t eat in certain restaraunts. Is it that you can’t afford it or that you can not be admitted? someone else said that you couldn’t get into restaraunts without reservations, but we will be taking our very first disney vacation in April and while i was still on the fence about the delux dinning plan and choose not to add it to our package at the time of booking they still sent me over to dinning to reserve all of our meals. I have to say i was more than relieved that they brought up needing reservations for meals because that is something i wouldn’t have thought of thanks to them we now have reservations for 2 sit down meals a day 3 character meals and front row seats to the dinner show at the Poloniesian.

      • Jackie,
        I’m just seeing this post now after several months….I hope your first Disney trip was a blast!! The reason that you need the Deluxe plan to do the more expensive restaurants every night is that they require 2 dining credits and you need to take some from breakfasts or lunches in order to have enough. So you need the very expensive Deluxe plan to do this. I love the “experience” of the Signature restaurants and as my kids got older they never minded the long, air-conditioned breaks in the day. (We always went the very end of Aug thru Labor Day since school always started the week after Labor Day and it was HOT!) As I’ve gotten older & don’t want to, and CAN’T eat as much, I think the plan will have to go. I no longer want to feel as though I need to order the most expensive thing on the menu to get my money’s worth. I also can’t eat desserts every night anymore, so the value of the plan doesn’t compute for me.
        The menu’s have definitely shrunk and the planning is much more cumbersome now. You used to be able to go to Spaceship Earth & make reservations in any Epcot restaurant for the same night! Because the tips were included, the waiters would offer extra stuff (probably not supposed to, but they did…) to get a bigger tip. I’m sounding very old & reminiscing on the “good ol’ days”….My grown children have memories that are priceless and that’s worth a lot. The plans can be a good value for some people with a great deal of planning ahead. Probably not worth it for me anymore. I’m still a hardcore Disney addict, but need to change how I enjoy the place. I hope your trip was a great success and you become an addict too!

  • Here is something the article did not touch upon and everyone should be aware of. This past Thanksgiving week (2012) we used the DDP for the first time. We have been to Disney World over a dozen times since our daughter was 5, and always paid as we went. I couldn’t help but noticing that once they knew you had the DDP, service got a little slower. Sometimes you would get the item you ordered off the menu; sometimes you would receive a cheaper cut of meat or if the entree had lobster in it; you might find one or two bites with lobster in it. Truth is, once the sit-down restaurants know they have your money, the motivation to please you stops. I suppose I could have sat there and complained each time (3 out of 4 sit-down meals) but who wants to spend their vacation doing that? The only sit-down my family and I enjoyed was Ohana’s and it is family style so everyone pretty much gets the same thing.

    • Quality of the food and service has certainly gone down hill as the Dining Plan’s existence continues. I have heard countless times from guests that while the quantity of the food on the Dining Plan is great, the quality is not up to snuff and therefore, not worth the cost. You are very right… once Disney has you in one of their restaurants, the rest is sort of a toss up as to whether or not it will be worth the price of your check at the end of the meal.

      • As my daughter whispered to me at Teppen Edo’s in Epcot. “That filet mignon I ordered looks an awful lot like sirloin when she put it on the grill”. I am guessing that the restaurants that participate in the plan might feel as though they are losing money, but that is hardly any excuse. I would never encourage anyone to partake in a “money up front and them trust us” deal from Disney again. Families pay enough to vacation there and this is just inexcusable. I sent them a two page e-mail about a week ago. Got confirmation that it was received but still no call or response. This is so they can properly “investigate”. Can you say “minimal damage control”?

  • I think it all comes down to your vacaction expectations. I don’t doubt that you can eat less expensively at Disney. But living on the west coast, my family so rarely makes it out to Florida. We want the experience of dining out every night and maximizing character meals. Without the dining plan, we would always be fretting over cost. Maybe I’m a bad parent, but I like being able to let my kids get what they want on vacation without worrying about saving money. I did a spreadsheet comparison of eating at all of the restaurants we wanted to eat at without ordering desssert, and I came within a $100 difference of dining plan vs. not. I also have a 10 year old, so that was taking into account 3 adults and one child. For us, the dining plan just made sense.

    • I have to say I am a little shocked by your outcome for our family of 4 the delux dinning would have cost us approx 620 a day. and that includes 3 adults because of my 12 year old and one child for my 9 year old. a character dinning is about 160 so if we have one of those a lunch that costs 100 and a light breakfast I am still WAY under what the delux plan would have cost us! Have i figured this wrong? is a character dinning 160 per person?

      • It depends on how you plan your meals for the day. We have a family of six going in October (4 adults and 2 children)and we based our choice of doing deluxe dining on what restaurants we want to go to. These are the approximate costs of meals for our family of 6 at the following: Hoop de Doo (D -$332), Cinderella’s Royal Table (D -$374), Spirit of Aloha (D -$314), Fulton’s Crab house (D -for 4 adults $350), Be Our Guest (D -$165), Tusker House (D – for 2 adults, 2 children $100), The Crystal Palace (B – $136), Princess Dining at Akershus ($227), Coral Reef (L-$193), etc. We actually went through menus to see what each of us would order (entrees for each and then 2 appetizers and 2 desserts to share) – so technically, less food than you get on the dining plan, and it ends up saving us about $20 on meals alone. The deluxe dining plan also allows for 2 snacks/person/day and a refillable mug/person – so it ends up being a better value. If you choose to eat at more affordable restaurants or don’t do dinner shows, it doesn’t make sense to do the deluxe plan.

  • This is great reading and right before I am getting ready to make final plans for the Big Family Trip. I have two adults and 2 children heading to Disney in Nov. 2013. I have been trying to decide what to do with the meals. My son likes to snack on food every two hours..he is a feeding machine and there is my daughter who is content with tomatoe soup for lunch along with puff popcorn as her side. I am more the grazing type…I eat when I get hungry and it is never a lot at one time. We are planning two Character meals (total for this would be right at $270). I am trying to figure out if it would be better to get a plan or just pay for it as we graze through the Parks!!! Help anyone!

    • I would think that you are most likely better off without the DDP. I tend to be more of a grazer also. If I eat a table service meal during the day, I never eat a full quick service meal as well. I usually grab a bagel or something light in the morning, and snack until my ADR. Or I will split lunch with someone. Even without my Tables in Wonderland discount, I still would not come close to eating the amount of food I’d pay for on the DDP.

      I suppose another option might be to consider if it would be worthwhile to just get the DDP for one or two of you, but not the whole family.

      • I don’t think you can get the DDP for just some in your party. It is my understanding that it is an all or nothing thing. I’m not 100% sure on this however.

        • The only way to do it would be if you had two separate rooms and did separate bookings. Even then it only goes so far, since most restaurants would charge a split plate fee if you share a table service meal. I still think in most cases the DDP is not worth the cost.

          I know many folks use the pre pay = peace of mind argument, but since tip is not included and appetizers and other things are not covered I am sure many people still spend more money after the “pre paid” amount.

  • Stacey, this is a great article. We, however, no matter how the numbers crunch, will ALWAYS go to Disney with a dining plan. Convenience wins over $$ for us. We typically stay at a moderate in late August, so FD is a much better deal than any typical room discount. We are more appetizer people than dessert people, but oh well. We’ve only paid OOP for one appetizer and never felt like we were missing anything. In fact, by being “forced” to order dessert, we got to sample some truly delicious things we never would have ordered otherwise.
    I do think we maximize the DDP well, but we don’t fret about it. We ALWAYS make our TS reservations for dinner because a) we like nice dinners b) don’t like big breakfasts c) the idea of eating a heavy lunch when it’s 90 degrees out is SO unappealing. We make rope drop every morning of our trip and eat granola bars for breakfast before leaving the room. We use our QS for lunch (usually on the early side since we eat breakfast so early) and snacks usually after lunch. We try to use the snacks for things like Dole Whips or carrot cake cookies or Main Street Bakery treats, but if my boyfriend wants a cup of coffee, we don’t stress about “wasting a credit.” Eating dinner at a nice/fun sit down restaurant is part of vacationing for us, whether we go to Disney or not. I’ve never felt overly stuffed or felt like it was an outrageous amount of food. The DDP is worth it for us. I’m really excited about the refillable mug add-on for 2013, too!

  • I have enjoyed the DDP. We have used it every visit since 2009. We are big planners and definitely make good use of the plan for our family of 5. That being said, I like to do my planning before vacation. This is probably my favorite aspect of the DDP–I don’t have to make financial decisions (at least concerning food)when on vacation! Also we got a very nice promotion on our upcoming trip. It was 25% off the entire booking (room, tickets and DDP). The Disney agent that helped me apply the discount to our already booked trip was even surprised at what a great deal we were getting. So I have no qualms that the DDP is a good deal for us this time! Thanks for the well written article!

  • My family of four will be going to WDW this October for a 7day/6night vacation, along with my parents – so 4 adults and 2 children (ages 4 and 5 at time of travel). We are doing the Deluxe Dining Plan and will use the reservation system to make our reservations as soon as possible. I did the math after reading this article based on how we plan to eat – a character breakfast almost every day, lunch only one day, and 5 of our dinners require 2 credits each – so based on what we would actually order if paying out of pocket (2 appetizers for the table, entrees of each of our choosing, 4 desserts, and 2 kids meals)we would save about $20 using the plan vs out of pocket. This amount DOES NOT take into consideration the additional value of 2 snacks per person/day and the refillable drink mug we each get on the DDP – so it really does just depend on how you plan to spend your money. We elected to do our vacation this way because 1) my 5 yo has food allergies, and sit down restaurants are so much easier to accommodate her, 2) we don’t plan on going to WDW as a regular vacation and want to maximize the girls’ experience, and 3) our girls are awake and hungry at 6am – we can feed them before we leave the room a snack and then make late breakfast reservations so it works more as ‘brunch’ and then supplement with ‘safe’ snacks from home during the day.

  • We plan on going to Disneyworld in September 2013. We are waiting ot hear if they will have free meal plan this fall. If they don’t will they offter better resort discounts. Have been to Disney before. Had meal plan. It is nice to have meals paid for before you go. Anybody else going this fall? Are the crowds lower less kids? How about weather?

    • We go in either fall (Sept-Oct), between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or mid-late January… always on free dining (FD). we have 3 kids 6 and under so we always do character meals. In 2005 or 2006 (I forget), we used FD for the first time and the value was much higher and the crowd levels were much lower. Over the past few years, the Dining Plan (DP) value has eroded and the crowd levels have increased (good for Disney / bad for us). The crowd levels are still lower than I remember from July of 1996 (last visit during a busier season). For planning and when to start looking for new discounts, you can use MouseSavers as a historical reference of discount release dates and details: On a positive note, I would expect a FD offer for this fall and winter.

  • I bet if Disney stopped offering so many people free dining, the cost of the dining plan for the rest of us average people would decrease.

  • We are big fans of the Disney dining plan, but the non-included gratuity has been a big negative in recent years. My personal “grassy knoll” theory is that the menu prices are intentionally jacked up so a European-typical tip percentage is still decent, while those of us from the US wind up wondering why we paid a $30-50.00 tip for a one hour, average meal (if you stick to the 15-20 percent norm).

  • While I do agree with your article, my family of 4 loves the dining plan. We are the “typical” family unit from your example and we almost always lodge at a value resort(not during peak season). We dine at the finer table service restaurants i.e. le cellier(lunch),sanaa,Boma…always with ADRs of course. My husband does in fact appreciate ordering the most expensive item such as filet mignon,so we don’t mind splurging a little while on vacation. At the same time we save $30-$50 buck off the bill due to DDP. You are correct though. It never works if you don’t maximize. Making the most of the DDP happens to work well for my family.

  • On the free meal plan you didn’t say anything about the free mugs you get at the resorts when you have meal plans. (Kids have mugs to take home from Disney) For us Coffee drinkers, tea drinkers, Pepsi drinkers it is a plus. To buy I think it is $14.95 per person. You didn’t add that to the cost out of pocket. Save family of 4 over $50.00. Going to Disney in September 2013. Free meal plan. It works for us.

  • My family and I first used the DDP in 2005. As the article states, at that time gratuity and appetizers were included. We got it on a promotion so it was included “free” with our package. The adult price at the time was about $35/night if you paid for it. That was a very good deal and was easy to maximize your value. The appetizer and gratuity exclusions have significantly lowered the over all value. I agree with the feeling of having to order the most expensive items from the most expensive restaurants and with the idea that if your not on the plan, you’re probably taking it easy on the shear volume of food (i.e. dessert with lunch, big lunch/big dinner every single night). We went Thanksgiving 2012 and had opted for the “free” DP. We had a great time and made it work. We’ve never actually paid for the DDP. I don’t think that I ever would. It’s my opinion that you really do have to go overboard to get good value. And the actual savings…….I’m a pretty good number cruncher. I’m one of these planners months and months in advance. I think the savings is marginal when you consider the fact that you have to pay for DDP well in advance when purchasing the package. I’ve never seen any mention of this in the many articles I have read. This is probably the best one I have seen. Well written from a critical standpoint. We are getting ready to book a room only discount for mid-January 2014. One night’s cost is all I will part with right now. If I want, I can wait to pay for everything else until we arrive(tix, and pay for meals as we go). I have until 5 days prior to our arrival to cancel the room with a full refund. That’s pretty good value and I don’t have to part with a great deal of $ in advance.

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