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”

  • For the october free dining, I looked at changing my existing reservation, to add free dining. Now I have a group rate deal which I cannot add dining to. After calculating what it would cost to add free dining ( almost $2000 more), we decided that we will gladly pay the dining costs, keep our awesome group rate, and enjoy our vacation. Plus I will not have a mountain of brownies and rice krispie squares in my room. Plus we may upgrade a pass to an AP and get tables in wonderland and save even more.

    • Hi, Saundra! You’re not alone in discovering that Free Dining isn’t exactly as “free” as it sounds. I’m glad you did your homework and found the best option for your group. Have an awesome trip!

  • This is the key “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”

    Disney has watered down the plan. Let’s face it, that’s the Disney way. Hook you into a product, then give you less/and or increase price and hope you don’t check the facts.

  • For our upcoming trip (9/1 – 9/8), we are using the dinning plan. It is just me & my husband and we already have our ADRs in place. We have been to Disney several times and know how to maximize the plan by ordering more expensive items, hitting more expensive counter service options (like Cosmic Ray’s for chicken & ribs vs Casey’s Corner for hot dogs) and know to avoid using a snack credit to get a soda or water and save them for the bakery, Dole Whip, or Staring Roles cupcakes. We’ll be hitting a couple of the buffets and a couple of the more expensive restaurants this trip and did some quick calculations to see if we’re really going to save money (since we haven’t purchased the plan yet). We looked a the menus for all of the table service restaurants we are going to dine at and added up the cost. We typically don’t order an appetizer or desert (or share one if we do) so we didn’t include desert in our out of pocket cost even though it is included on the plan. We also just used an average for the counter service meals based on what we have paid on previous trips. We did not include the cost for any snacks. For this trip we will save money. The plan will be somewhat cheaper and since it will be cheaper than what we would pay out of pocket with no desert we are looking at the desert, one snack per day and the refillable mug as a bonus. As the price keeps going up each year, we will be doing the cost analysis more often to see if the dining plan continues to make sense for us. Based on the prices for next year, the standard plan will probably still save us money, but the deluxe plan (which we have used in the past) is most likely out of the question! I love the ease of having the meals paid for and knowing how much it’s going to cost us, but that’s not enough to make us keep using it if it no longer makes sense financially!

    • You’re handling the situation perfectly. It’s important to reevaluate your dining options every year that you travel. I’ve done multiple trips within one year and realized that for one trip, my goal was to save money no matter what that meant. I cut out virtually all table service restaurants and paid for my quick-service meals out of pocket. Months later, I chose to pay for the Disney Dining Plan because I had the extra money for it and could make it work to my advantage. Do I have to eat one table service meal a day? No! Do I like to if I can afford it? Yes!

  • Guilty. In 2005 my husband and I went to Disney pre-kids and used the Dining plan. We LOVED it. My husband certainly ate the $$$ meals and I did well myself (love seafood and fish!). Last year we went with our kids and did the meal plan. I saved each receipt and noted the cost of each meal for the 4 of us. We managed to do a little bit better than paying out of pocket. It was too much food for me in the end. I am in the beginning stages of our 2013 trip. I am thinking we will opt for gift cards after reading this and doing my own math.

    • I’m glad I could help you plan for 2013. If you’re paying for the plan, it’s imperative that you get the most out of it and if you’re running the risk of not getting top dollar one credit restaurants, you will almost definitely be losing in the end, no matter how convenient the plan.

  • I agree with you! I have always seen the Dining Plan as a huge waste of money. I understand people that see table service dining as a big part of their vacation experience. Frankly, for our family we come to WDW for the attractions and spending time in a restaurant takes away from that. We usually pay out of pocket for 2 character meals per 9 or 10 day stay (one chosen by our daughter, one by our son). Other than that, simple, easy, and quick…we’ve got another ride on Splash Mountain to get to!!

    • You make an excellent point, Jennifer! Not only is a dining plan a lot of work, it’s also a big time sucker for guests that like to always be on the go. It’s probably difficult for your family to imagine taking 2 hours out of each and every day just to eat a meal. It’s great that you know ahead of time that a dining plan would not work for your family.

      • Stacey, again thanks for another great post. I also felt like a ADR slave that had to plan everything around dining. This was my experience and boy did I learn the hard way. No one likes a good sit down meal more than me, but when you have a family I hated being the time keeper and pulling everyone away from the parks just to travel to the restaurant, wait for our names to be called,etc. Next trip, we will do what we want, when we want, and will grab food wherever we are.

  • by Brian Noble on July 17, 2012, at 3:54 pm EDT

    I have never, not once, spent as much out of pocket on what we want, where we want it as the appropriate dining plan would have cost. Usually, that’s because we don’t eat the “right” number of sit-down meals. Even when we do, we inevitably sprinkle in some less expensive ones over the course of the trip—not to save money, but just because that’s what we want. I’m convinced that this is true of most guests. There may be a segment out there for whom the plan would actually save money vs. what they’d do left to their own devices, but they are the exception. And, I bet they were even back in the “good old days.”

  • Doesn’t it simply boil down to this?: Disney wouldn’t offer it if they didn’t make money on it. The house always wins.

    While it may save some people money, I’m guessing the majority of folks that use it, lose money.

    • Thank you! Winner!

    • We have done the Disney Dining Plan at least once per year since it’s inception in 2005. We paid for it in 2005 and 2006 and have gotten free dining for every other trip since 2007. We are a family of 6 and now 3 of our 4 children are priced out as adults, so the Free Dining discount is the best thing/incentive that WDW can offer to keep us coming back year after year. The charactcer meals and our favorite WDW restaurants are part of the whole WDW vacation experience for us so, DDP or no DDP, we are always going to do at least 1 TS meal per day. We have stayed at all levels of resorts, everything from The Polynesian to Pop Century, but now that the kids are older we just don’t spend any time in the room, so we now just get 2 connecting rooms at a value resort. A decent room discount saves us about $630.00 off rack rates, whereas a free dining discount saves us over $1,200.00. In fact, free dining is the reason that we have not purchased DVC. We took the DVC tour and the minimum buy in for us was about $25,000.00, plus annual fees of over $1,000.00 per year. Well, we haven’t spent that in 6 years worth of WDW free dining vacations.

    • The “house” used to let their guests win a little more than they do now. It’s more about trickery and getting guests hooked back when the “plan” benefited most guests. Eventually, the price of the Disney Dining Plan will shoot up so high that no one will be saving money on it.

      • We have a large family and only travel to WDW during Free Dining promos now, so as long as all of our food is “free” for our vacation we are still winning in this scenario. Free dining actually makes Disney one of the “cheaper” vacations we can take during the year. If Disney ever put an end to the free dining promo we would probably only go every other year, instead of once or twice per year, and would stay off-site and pay out-of-pocket for our food.

  • We too love the convenience of the Dining

  • I enjoy using the Deluxe Dining Plan which still includes the appetizer. Since we often stay at DVC resorts on points and have APs we are able to buy just the dining plan. We then of course, abuse it buy eating at all the finest TS restaurants throwing in a show or two.

    I liked the old system where you purchased meal tickets better. But WDW likes this system because the credit expire when your room key does. The old system tickets kept showing up on eBay.

  • Could someone please enlighten me on the disney gift card alternative? Thanks!

    • Basically skip the dining plan and put that money on a disney gift card available at disney stores and other places (like the parks) and maybe online somewhere.

      Purchase food as if you were using real money.
      Then instead of paying “cash” or with money, use the disney gift card (pre-paid money) to purchase the food.

      This method gives no “free dining” or gimmicks or extra bonuses. But it does allow non-savers to pre-commit spending money to their vacation. (It’s kind of like the concept of layaway.)

      • We used the gift-card method on our recent 11 night visit. For the most part,it worked great, but we were astonished at the number of places in the park that aren’t equipped to take a gift card! It worked at most, but we had enought trouble at vendor carts and even some quick service places that it was annoying. Won’t be doing that option again.

        • An alternative that I have used to the gift card option is to buy traveller’s checks. Yes, depending on your bank, you may have to pay a percentage of the total for the checks, but everywhere in Disney takes TCs, you get cash back as change if the cost of what you are buying is less than the TC, and you don’t have to worry about spending all the money in the park, so if you spend less than you thought you would you can either take them back to the bank and get cash, save them for another year, or spend them elsewhere.

          • I used TC’s on my recent trip the only time I had a problem was a cart at EPCOT, but everywhere else I had no issues at all.

  • I have to say that I am still a fan of the Free Dining Option, (although I would never purchase the DDP). My husband and two teenage sons like the moderate resorts because they now have Queen sized beds. We visit during the off season, when the free dining promotion is offered. My husband and I like to unwind after a day in the parks with a nice dinner. And most importantly, my husband doesn’t like to open his wallet to the tune of $50 to $100 for every meal. (Yes, there’s the gratuity.) Restaurant dining is a luxury we don’t allow ourselves unless we’re on vacation. I look at the package as an all-inclusive vacation and enjoy every perk and it works for our particular situation.

    • You still “pay” for the expensive meal. You just don’t “feel” like you’re paying.
      With no dining plan, just doing snacks / fast food / counter service is cheaper than getting a dining plan.

      If you don’t really feel comfortable paying for meal with cash at the time, then paying for the meal through use of a dining plan should really (from a rational perspective) preclude use of the dining plan.

      The question should be: “I know I want the family to table service dine every day. How do I best pay for that?”

      Not: I like to have the feeling of not paying for a meal, so I like the dining plan, because otherwise I wouldn’t have spent the money. Under a true analysis and examination, that thinking sucks people into spending the money.

      That’s why Disney does it!! It does suck a lot of people into the table service restaurants.

      • You’re very right, Ron. The Disney Dining Plan shouldn’t be looked at as a “convenience” but as an option that saves families money. If it’s not saving your family money, you can find an alternative that will be both convenient and economical.

      • I have considered doing a dining plan one day to force myself to sit down at some of the nicer restaurants and eat for exactly this reason. If you do it right, it can be cheaper than out of pocket, and I think that I have missed out on a lot of good food and ambience at WDW because I usually only eat counter service (and I often skip snacks). The thing is, even dieters need to eat snacks at WDW due to the number of calories they burn (it is always better to eat a healthy snack than to allow yourself to get so hungry that you overindulge at a meal), and also many of the healthier food options are only available at table service restaurants (although there are exceptions, such as The Land in Epcot).

  • I agree that if you take the time to plan and optimize every meal for value, a meal plan may be worth it on a spreadsheet. But the meal plan is nowhere close to our eating habits – way too much food. Also, a recent discovery for me is trying to combine a room discount with a meal plan is nearly impossible. That needs to added to the calculation. I’ve realized over time that packages and/or add-ons are only convenient and in no way any kind of cost savings.

  • continued…..We too love the convenience of the Dining Plan. Yes the price has increased, but who of us does not pay at least 20% – 30% more since 2005 when buying groceries?? I do agree it has come to the point that if you intend to eat in certain Table Service spots, you dont have a chance if you don’t book greater than 180 days in advance. I noticed that for the Free Dining this round it was already less than 180 days when it was posted. Anyone who did not act on it almost immediately did not have a chance for the most popular dining spots.

  • We are going in October and have got free dining and a discount. Total for room, tickets & dining $3280 for 14 nights for a studio at Saratoga. So have I been swizzed? I feel like I got a good deal… How much would the deal be with no dining? Any advice gratefully received as we’ll be booking our 2013 trip in the next few months.

    • Hi, Rach! If a room discount is or was available during the days of your vacation, you very well might be losing out. Always keep your eyes out for room discounts FIRST if you are staying at a deluxe resort. If a room discount isn’t available and you are going to be forced into paying rack rate for your room anyway, go ahead and add on the Free Dining because it’s not going to hurt your savings any.

    • How did you get a discount? I thought if you got the “free”
      Disney Dining, you had to pay full rack rates for hotel and tickets. Please let me know, I am paying about $2700 for room, tickets, food for 7 nights at POR. Sounds like a great deal – how do I get it?

      • Thanks for all the replies.

        I booked in the UK via the official Disney site. There was a money off deal and free dining – the brochure price was double what we paid (if you include the cost of the Dining & tickets) so we figured we’d got a very good deal.

        The choice of hotels is usually massively limited but I live in hope I will one day find a deal for the Polynesian or Wilderness Lodge! 8:o)

    • Your savings is going to depend on your family make-up and the ages and number of children you have.

    • Last year we did the same time of year, length of stay, Saratoga, 14 day park hopper tickets, but a one bedroom suite rather than studio, and I think it came to $4,000. Probably paid a bit over the odds because we booked well in advance as I couldn’t wait for last minute discounts as we needed a good deal on flights from UK. Had a great time, and 1br was loads of space for four of us.

      We really liked having ADR at the best restaurants, and it felt free as I wasn’t getting my wallet out for massive bills every meal – although I accept this is a bit false if I could have saved lots up front with room discounts. It meant we did character meals that I would have felt a bit ripped off by if we had to pay cash.

      I would question whether we needed Dining Plan as we had a full kitchen in the room and one big meal a day out would have been enough. Also portions are really big in the US compared to UK, and we could have got by sharing three meals amongst four of us. We had a couple of days off-site at NASA and SeaWorld, and we had to use up those tokens on other days. At the end we had used everything except the snacks up.

  • We first used the dining plan in 2006 when everything was included and it was during a free dining promotion. That was also the first trip where we planned one table service meal/day. At that time, we thought it was a great deal and an opportunity to try some restaurants we hadn’t in the past. We purchased the dining plan for our family trip in 2008 and then tried deluxe dining in 2009. Again, we tried many places that were new to us, but found that we really didn’t save any money, mostly because we aren’t snack eaters and we had many credits left over the last day of our trip (and 3 counter service meals in 2008 when my mom and nieces skipped a meal). We could have used those credits for water, but it was already chilly and drinking anything wasn’t appealing. We now do our own dining plan using gift cards or cash, and find we can still choose our favorite places and save money over the cost of the dining plan. We rarely eat dinner, choosing instead to take the latest lunch seating as we normally have dinner around 4pm to accomodate evening activities. We also don’t eat desserts most meals. We have traveled to Disney numerous times and always choose one or two new places to try as well. We also don’t visit the parks every trip so with fewer options, the dining plans don’t make sense.

    • You’re doing what I do now when not using the Disney Dining Plan. I choose lunches over dinners and I can still allow myself to pick anything off of the menu since I never order an appetizer or dessert. I’ll treat myself to one really nice dinner every trip. I’m still getting great experiences dining even without using a dining plan. Thanks for writing in your tips!

  • I have always used a comparison spreadsheet to determine if the dining plan is good value or not. The spreadsheet is posted in the forums.

    Using this spreadsheet has shed new light on the dining plan vs out of pocket debate vs TIW debate.

  • by Keith LeLievre on July 17, 2012, at 4:47 pm EDT

    This October, taking a tip from the Brickers and tweaking it for our needs, my Fiancee and I are going out of pocket, but putting what we “think” we’ll have to spend on a Disney Gift Card, and using that to pay for food. With our Annual Passes, we’re able to purchase the Tables in Wonderland card which is 20% off at many restaurants and it includes alcohol.

    I know how much the Dining plan would cost, so we’ll see at the end of our trip if we saved any money or not. I’ll be keeping receipts, so math will be a cinch.

  • People don’t want to actually crunch the numbers!!

    A lot of these comments are justifications as to why their estimation of whether or not it is a good deal.

    Basically, it’s a good deal if you otherwise would have spent more money!!

    It’s a good purchase though sometimes even if you don’t save money because it allows for the ability to get more food for the same amount of money you would have spent.

    The problem is the unknown. One is a pre-purchase, the other is not.

  • We use the free dining for our fall break trip. For us, it is simply a wonderful way to not have to worry about a huge expense on vacation: food. We are Dave Ramsey folks who don’t believe in debt and its a treat to combine “free” food with budget conscious lodging choices. We choose the value season so that we can afford a moderate hotel (POR) and enjoy lighter attendance (short lines!). Free dining is a treat because we have done everything we can to make our park experience cheaper and less stressful. We have enjoyed character meals which produced pictures and memories we may have missed if we just saw characters in the parks (we don’t like to wait in line for them) AND we try to use our credits wisely (as you stated in the article) so that we get the most bang (and memory making) for our free buck. We bring breakfast from home. We bring snacks and waters from home. We eat an early counter lunch to avoid crowds, enjoy an afternoon snack or drink, and then eat a delicious table service meal in the evening as a family. Thanks for the information about what to consider when purchasing the plan which I don’t think we’ll ever do. For us free dining during the value season is a budget friendly choice that allows us to enjoy the World without racking up debt!

    • Amen, Lynn! I’m with you on the free dining. Provided we have ADR’s, it makes our trip less stressful.

  • by Larry & Glenora on July 17, 2012, at 5:21 pm EDT

    We love DDP! We always get the Fee Dining when it’s offered and upgrade to Deluxe. It is a lot of food, but as the blog said, we’re smart and maximize it to our advantage. I forget what it was called back then, but we had a similar dining package on our 1st visit WAY back in 1996. Each person in the party was given a certain dollar amount per day to spend on food. This of course was all done with the Key to the Kingdom card. Our receipts always showed a balance of what we had remaining, in dollar amounts for the length of our stay. This is when we got hooked on DDP and have loved it since.

  • My family of 3 went last month, & decided to pay out of pocket. We averaged about $20 per meal. We usually got one combo, one kids meal, & I ordered sandwich only. They don’t tell you that you can do that. We would have paid a lot more on the dining plan!

  • Love this article…I have been waiting on someone to write about this.

    My wife and I used the free dining for our honeymoon back in 2010. The only reason we did that is because my parents paid for our room and park passes as a wedding gift. So, we figured we had nothing to lose by getting the free dining. We ended up with extra snack credits and a plethora of cheap “Disney Parks” desserts. So for our follow-up trip in 2011, we decided to pay out of pocket. We found that because the portions of most counter service meals are gigantic, we were able to split most of our lunches. That saved us even more money. We realized how much we tried to stuff ourselves on our honeymoon just so we could maximize the value of the DDP.

    For a family that actually gives some thought to food budget, the DDP is a huge waste of money. If you want to do something extra, get a rewards credit card (any will work) and use that to pay for your meals (or put it as the charge card for your room) and you will earn rewards points or cash back on all of your meals.

    • If you are going to “share” meals or eat in your room or pack sack lunches for the parks, then no, the DDP is not for you, free or not. We have 4 kids, teens and pre-teens, who are active and can EAT. They would look at me like I had two heads if I told them we were going to split/share meals! I can just imagine the look on their faces 🙂 We eat every meal and use every snack so free dining is fantastic for us. Also, you don’t have to get the pre-packaged counter service deserts – you can get a piece of fruit or a bottle of water as a substitution.

      • However, if you choose a piece of fruit or a bottle of water as a substitution, you’re lessening your savings. If you’re paying for the Disney Dining Plan, you simply cannot afford to make these savings “mistakes” over and over. At that rate, you might as well be paying for everything out of pocket OFF the Disney Dining Plan.

        • The OP was talking about their Free Dining trip and we only go during Free Dining promos, so we did not lessen our savings – as all of our meals were free. I doubt we will ever “pay” for the Disney Dining Plan again.

  • I think the dining plan only works well for families with children under age 10 who plan to do a lot of character meals or buffets and who are willing to book a split stay. With a split stay, you can fit all of your character meals into just 2-3 days on the dining plan and then have until midnight the day you switch to stretch out your counter service and snack credits. (2 adults can share a counter service meal when a large buffet dinner is looming). Personally, we don’t use the dining plan…Tables in Wonderland and sharing entrees occasionally works much better for us. We now avoid the wildly expensive buffets. If you’ve got 3 children under 10 and are planning to eat dinners at Akershus and Crystal Palace, getting the dining plan for 2 days could save a good deal. Dinner at Akershus currently costs $6 more per child than a full day of the 2013 standard dining plan.

    • The Tables in Wonderland card is only for AP holders and DVC members, so it’s not really a viable discount for most of the population. And actually our 4 kids are all Disney adults, so it’s an even bigger savings with a free dining discount. I can’t imagine we would ever split or share meals. That’s a $257.00 discount per night – there isn’t another discount that Disney puts out that can touch that.

  • I was really debating getting the dining plan or not. We do like to have 1 sit down meal a day; however we sometimes don’t want to eat at the most expensive places (e.g. Sci-Fi Diner). We felt we always had to go somewhere expensive so we’re not wasting our credits.

    With the surcharge for the prix fixe items (even though the total OOP is less than the most expensive item), Le Cellier being 2 credits for lunch (they need to dramatically upgrade their lunch time prices to be worth it), and the apparent exclusion of Fantasmic (special dining excluded) it doesn’t seem worth it anymore; especially since we don’t like dessert.

    My daughter will be 9 when we go, so still a child, but she got tired last year at Disney World of the child menu items. Even she can handle only so many chicken nuggets and pizzas. There were times when she would have much rather ordered an appetizer but couldn’t.

    I figured it out over 9 days, and while for 1 or 2 days it might be cheaper on the dining plan, it isn’t for the whole trip. One can only eat so many steaks as the most expensive item. It was nice however not to have to worry about ordering the most expensive item. Now I know that it will be cheaper to pay OOP a couple of times for the priciest menu item and sometimes have something that I would enjoy for less without worrying about wasting my credits.

    If on the dining plan, I would probably have more table dinners rather than lunches. On the other-hand having a break at lunch when the parks are crazy is kind of nice too; especially when it is hot out. It gives us time to relax before touring the park again. We can grab some fast-passes right before lunch and be ready to ride when we are done eating.

    Getting the TIW card for me is now a way better value. We have 6 people so the automatic 18% gratuity doesn’t bother me and it is what I would tip anyway.

    • Way to think about it, Charlene! Not every family eats the same way and you definitely determined what will work best for you. You’re rational about your thinking in that you know off of the Disney Dining Plan you wouldn’t eat that much food. We can all try and justify a reason that a dining plan works for us but we have to also think about the reasons that it’s not realistic as well.

  • What most people forget, or simply don’t know, is that a Disney vacation takes a lot more thought and planning than any other vacation. Simply walking into a park on a random day will get you hot and tired in a hurry and you’ll end up eating nothing but Mickey ice creams and burgers the whole trip. Using the dining plan (cost not withstanding) forces us to eat much healthier and gives us some great opportunities for family time while planning and eating the meals. The dining plan is just one more way for the company to ensure that they have your money before you leave. If paying a bit more than out if pocket gives us some great memories and some well prepared food than so be it.

    • My question for you, Matt, is what if I told you that if you did everything the same exact way (ordered the same food at the same expensive restaurants) you’d come out even with the Disney Dining Plan? What if come 2014, you’d most definitely LOSE money no matter what you did? Would you still choose “convenience” over being economical?

      • I’m sorry, I meant, what if I told you that paying out of pocket would result in you coming out even with the Disney Dining Plan? That’s what it’s coming to here in 2013 and certainly will be more so true in 2014.

        • If you look realistically, EVERYTHING at Disney is a loss of money. We try to budget things so we can enjoy it more often and justify multiple trips. The DVC is a rip off compared to staying at a value resort for each trip but again, we are forced to go because we have purchased it. For my planning purposes a loss of a hundred dollars when talking about a multi thousand dollar vacation is worth the fun and family time we get from the planning and enjoying of the meal. I know it’s not for everyone but places like whispering canyon and Boma and yachtsmans steak house would be less utilized were it not for the dining plan. I enjoy the freedom it gives and one of the comments mentioned that while the prices are going up for the dining plan so are the menu prices. It’s a very good debate to have but the lack of worrying about menu prices and being able to eat where I want without checking my credit card balance is well worth it in my opinion.

  • My family of 4 (2A and 2C under 10yo) is a bunch of foodies! We enjoy eating out and do so at least 2x/week at home if not more often. Dining out is always a big part of our vacations wherever we go. (It’s not just Disney — even though we stay in a house with full kitchen when we go to the beach, we still usually go out for lunch and dinner almost every day! We go to the OBX and there are a lot of great restaurants to enjoy! Going to our old favorites and trying some new places is part of the fun of vacation for us.)

    We have gone to Disney twice and done the Deluxe meal plan both times. The first time went during a HOT peak period and having 3 TS meals per day was GREAT! We really enjoyed getting a guaranteed air-conditioned sit-down break in the middle of the day and not having to wait in long lines at the CS restaurants. We also have young kids so doing those breakfast buffets is a great way to save time standing in line to get the character meetings crossed off the list. The second year we went during an off-peak period, so I will admit we did feel a bit more boxed in by having so many TS meals (and a little boxed in by having my daughters forced to choose off the kids’ menu), but I did the math and we still came out well ahead using the Deluxe plan, even having some CS meals in the mix.

    So, now the Great Price Hike of 2013 has taken place. I did the math again. Using what we did last year, we come out basically even on the DxDP not counting any snacks at all (and assuming no menu price increases over last year), so once you roll snacks in, we would come about ahead. But just barely. With less wiggle room. We will probably still go ahead and do DxDP this next trip just because we do enjoy the convenience of having everything paid in advance and not having to think about the costs of anything on the menu. But there is certainly little or no “savings” to be found with the plan as Disney advertises.

    I feel the primary reason we can still save is because we do a lot of the character buffets. If we were not doing those breakfast buffets, I’m not sure there’s any way to come out ahead on DxDP, and it would be pretty tough to even make it close to even, paying a slight fee for the prepaid convenience.

    Oh, one other thing — we stayed at the Poly, with a 35% room discount. We initially booked free dining but switched over to the room discount when it was offered. We saved maybe $45 or so by switching to the room discount. But in a couple years when my under-10s are suddenly being charged the adult price for the meal plan? Free dining will definitely be a much bigger savings for us, even at a deluxe.

    • The Deluxe Dining Plan is a whole other ball field in my eyes. While I LOVE dining at Disney World just as much as the next person, I could never justify the cost of the Deluxe Plan for my family simply because I would never eat that way if I paid out of pocket. On top of that, I like to put my money elsewhere, like tours or hard ticket events.

      However, if your family doesn’t mind taking time out of a day at the park to enjoy 3 sit-down meals, go for it! It’s always a good idea to reevaluate changes in the plan and changes in your eating habits each time you travel, though. Great job in making the Disney Dining Plan work for you!

      • Well, like I said, we would eat that way whether we were on the dining plan or not. We spend $175-$200 per day when we go on our beach week, and that’s generally just lunch and dinner out each day at restaurants that aren’t crazy Disney price inflated, so $250/day for the deluxe plan at Disney, which includes breakfast and snacks really isn’t out of line with what I expect to spend on dining out while on vacation.

  • One thing to add to my above post is that typically we go for only 4-5 nights and have a lot of favorite TS restaurants that we want to revisit — so we are generally using most of our meals to try to get to all our favorite TS restaurants! If we were doing a longer stay like 10-14 days as many people do, I think we would be more amenable to using a plan with more CS credits.

    I for one would love a plan that had 2TS credits + 1 CS credit per day. Or just 2TS credits per day.

  • by Meredith McCutcheon on July 17, 2012, at 6:29 pm EDT

    I think Kristen makes an important point: do the math. We are going to Disney World next month (there are 5 of us), and I sat down with a piece of paper, decided which restaurants we were going to eat at, and estimated how much we would spend each day at these restaurants as well as any snacks we would eat throughout the day. It ended up being SLIGHTLY cheaper for us to us the dining plan (and when I say slightly, I mean maybe $50 total for the whole week–even a slight change of plans could mean that we will lose a little money). We ended up deciding to go with the DDP because we feel that, since we are basically breaking even, the convenience is worth it. We do a lot of character meals, so this works for us. But you have to do the math.

  • It’s definitely important to do the math. My friend and I are going in early September and staying at a Value resort. There’s a 20% room only discount available as well as “free” quick service dining. For us, the 20% room discount amounts to about $25/night. We’re both clearly going to spend more than $25 a day on food so the free quick service dining is a much better deal for us. I looked at some of the counter service places we’re planning on eating and we’ll each probably spend around $30/person for 2 meals and a snack (not counting dessert) if we did things out of pocket.

    It came down to $25/night off with a room discount or a savings of about $35/day for the free dining (both of us combined) so for us dining was worth it.

    But if staying at a moderate or deluxe, we would have done the room discount (since we’re not planning on doing more than 1 or 2 table service).

    • You said it! In terms of “Free Dining,” you tend to break even at a moderate (provided you maximize the plan) and you’ll almost always lose out if booking a deluxe resort. Value resorts don’t get great room discounts so as long as you’re cool with eating quick-service meals during your trip, the Free Dining promotion is a good deal.

      • I think that’s a bit extreme — and incorrect — to say “you’ll almost always lose out if booking a deluxe resort.” It really depends on 1) the size of the room discount being offered, 2) the season you are traveling (the same percentage discount will be worth less in value season than in peak season), and 3) the age makeup of your family.

        Staying at the Poly during value season this year we had the option of either a 35% room discount or free dining. With my family of 2A + 2C (under 10), the room discount was better by a fairly negligible amount, something like $30 over the course of our trip. If the discount had been lower (the current fall room discount for the monorail resorts is only 20%), free dining would have saved us much more money. And if my children were 10+, free dining would be even more of a savings.

        You really have to do the math based on your family makeup and the value of the various offers available for your travel dates. Don’t just buy into thinking a room discount is always better or free dining always being better.

  • We do the free Quick Service dining plan in late August. Staying at Pop Century for 7 nights and going to the parks for 6 days(no hopper) – it is just over $1,800 for the 4 of us (3 adult and 1 child admin) So, for the convenience I feel it is a good deal. We could probably do it for less but I have to admit it is part of the magic for me. I’m so frugal every where else in my life, it is so nice to just order what I want and not think about what it costs 🙂

    • You’re actually doing the economical thing, Tara! If you priced it out, it’s likely that a room discount wouldn’t save you any more than booking the Free Dining promotion and that’s simply because you’re staying at a Value resort where the room discount would be less significant.

  • I don’t think I would pay out of pocket for the dining plan. However, the free dining that we receive during the end of August at a value resort is totally worth it. Even if I got 30 percent off a room, I would only be saving about 30 dollars per day. Our family of four cannot eat for cheaper then that per day at the parks.

    • I agree! I am going to stay at POR for 5 nights during the last week in August, and the ‘free dining’ rate was only ~$75 more than the same package WITHOUT dining using the later-released room-only discount. We will only be a party of two but we will spend WAY more than $75 on food for the whole week! I think this can still be a good discount for people if you do your homework. Our whole vacation came out to like $800 each including tickets with hopper, dining and the room. I think if you are strategic and flexible about when you go, it doesn’t have to be a rip off!

  • I’ll echo the “let’s be honest” sentiment…. MOST visitors who are using The Plan are NOT on internet forums, making comparisons, carefully plotting and charting their days…

    they feel accomplished enough to navigate the *painful* Dining Reservation pages to book a few restaurants for their table service meals. They will end up with extra meals that they waste on at-the-register crap “for the trip home” or bottles of soda, OR, end up having to pay for a few $50 meals out of pocket.

    The truth is that there are those of us PASSIONATE about this company and getting the most from our experiences, and THAT is what keeps us going back…others are content to simply “go” and those are the individuals who get the short end of this Deal.

    • Jacob, I couldn’t agree more. It’s those folks that don’t know any better that are getting screwed over. That was my inspiration for writing this article. I hate imagining guests not crunching numbers and just accepting whatever is thrown at them without really thinking about it logically.

  • A few notes on fairness…
    Yes the dining plan is not as good of a deal as it used to be. But that does not mean that it is still not a good deal. Yes you have to crunch the numbers, but comparing it to days gone by is not particularly helpful.

    Second, you are comparing the 2013 dining plan to 2012 menu prices. It is a bit of apples to oranges. If Disney tacks on and extra $.25 per drink, $1.00 per combo meal, etc then the value for the dining plan could be very in line with the value of the plan this year.

    Again, you have to crunch the numbers. Adults generally come out even, kids generally come out ahead. If you choose steak and seafood over pasta and sandwiches, you will come out ahead. If you prefer Ohana over the Plaza you will come out ahead. The plan can absolultley work if you work it. If you don’t know what you are doing, you need to ask for help!

    • We know the history of the plan. While menu prices gradually rise, they do not rise nearly as fast as the Dining plan prices. Historically, Disney has been raising the price of the dining plan about 8-12% per year. Examining menus over the years, menu prices typically are only going up about 2-3% per year. (with many menu prices unchanged for years at a time). Character meals tend to go up dramatically.
      Under the most recent pricing — Children will typically break even at regular TS/CS meals, but will save pretty significantly at character buffets.
      Adults: For character dinners, save money. For character breakfasts/lunches — lose money. For adults at regular TS restaurants — Lose money, unless ordering the most expensive items on the menu. Signature restaurants — almost always lose money, except for a few super expensive entrees at a couple of restaurants.

      For adults — You will save money if your CS is above $17 (not breakfast, must be lunch/dinner, with dessert and an expensive entree), AND your TS is at least $35 (so a $35+ character dinner, or an entree that is over $25.)

      • Disney does not increase every menus price every year. When they do, it’s certainly not when a new year rolls around. Menus can and do change at any time of the year without any warning.

        Adam, you stated my point exactly. Disney will increase the price of the Disney Dining Plan significantly while many of the menus increase at a much slower rate. The menus that do get raised in price are often buffets that guests choose when on the Dining Plan. It’s only to “prove” that you’re saving money still even though Disney raised the price of your meal plan.

  • I think there is some value to the dining plan for families with young children under 10. For our most recent June trip, our son turned 10 — so he’s a Disney “adult”. In December at Ohana, he ate 2 chicken wings. Not exactly an adult appetite. So for this trip we used a Tables in Wonderland card. This was an great option and really saved us money. We purchased what we wanted and didn’t have to “maximize” the meal plan to get value.

    One of our favorites is to use TIW at Via Napoli. You can eat a great meal and with the TIW discount spend less than $40 to $80 plus tip for a family of 4!

    We did one night of the quick service meal plan and ate both of our entitlements at Wolfgang Puck Express — a great value in our opinion, but there’s nothing of that value in any of the parks that qualifies for the quick service meal plan.

    Our days of the meal plan are probably over. I’ve also been suspicious that Disney raises the food prices to make people feel like they’re getting a good value.

    • This is always a heated topic. Our family of 5 (me, wife, 5yo, 2yo, 2mo), goes to WDW yearly, using the “Free” Dining every year since inception. Since we have young kids and love the character meals, there’s not a lot of wiggle room in the price of buffet meals. (right?) While I long for the FD of 2005, the recent offers generally still save us a few bucks, though less savings each year. If we were not doing the buffets, I think we would opt for the room discounts. I do wish that we could agree on shades of gray. I dislike that some folks make a black & white statement to deem it superior or a no-value gimmick for everyone in every situation. Each of us is different in tolerance and percetion of value, but I think we all agree that the value has diminished over the years.
      ~ Have a Magical Day! 🙂

  • After I went on my Honeymoon last year I sat down and figured out what I spent on food versus the Dining Plan and found I had SAVED money by outright spending my out-of-pocket money on meals.

    Because of this article I sat down to figure it out. I found that if you are a couple going alone, that USING the Dining Plan you lose money. If you are going with children you SAVE using the Dining Plan. And that using the Quick Service Plan (2 QS and a snack) saved you money over the Dining Plus (1 QS, 1 TS and a snack). So you are better off (with children) doing the Quick Service Plan and paying out-of-your pocket for any Table Service.

    Just my research, but I’ll never pay for a plan until I have kids.

  • I know that to PAY for the Dining plan would never be a good idea for us. We rarely do sit-down meals so a regular or deluxe plan wouldn’t be for us. And even with the QS plan…we rarely order dessert with meals. We’ve done the dining plan just once when it was free. Whether we had done free dining or not, we would have been paying the exact same amount for our room…so we figured, why not? It wasn’t bad. But it was kind of a annoying to have to think more about what to order. Normally I just like to order whatever sounds good and not really think much about the price. With the plan, I did feel like I needed to use my credits on more expensive things and pay out of pocket for the cheap stuff. It made vacation slightly less relaxing but it did help us save a few hundred dollars. I would definitely do the plan again if my trip was during free dining. But paying for it would be pointless for us.

  • While many seem to feel that the DDP is worth the $$$, I look at the change in food quality, choice, and price over the last few years. We used the DDP back in 2006, and arguably, it was a huge savings for what and where we ate, although we ate way too much and every one of us gained 10+ pounds on that trip. There was also huge varitions in menus from restaurant to restaurant back then. We continue to enjoy TS restaurants each trip, but have noticed that menu choices seem to have been streamlined over the years and it is getting harder to distinguish the food from locale to locale. The quality of the food has diminished too. Meanwhile, prices in many of these establishments has skyrocketed. We ate at Le Cellier last year and were shocked at the sticker price. Even with TiW, the meal, although delicious, did not match the prices charged. I suspect that the prices are artificially high to get guests to purchase the DDP. My suggestion to those thinking about the DDP is to really study the menus, think about what you’d normally eat (when paying out of pocket-would you really get two desserts?…etc) and then look at the costs, then decide what’s best for your wallet and your waistline. In my opinion, TiW reduces the costs of a TS at WDW to what they are actually worth. Sadly, if you don’t fit into the TiW profile (AP holder or DVC member) you’re stuck with the inflated Disney prices. Maybe split your WDW vacation into two parts, do DDP the first few days-and go BIG, then OOP the last few days and eat normally.

  • Okay, so panicked, I just looked everything up because I JUST signed up for the dining plan last week for myself, hubby, and kids (6-4-2) and wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting ripped off. But I think for us it will be fine. We are going April 2013, for 4 nights, 3 whole days and 2 half days (due to flights)

    Without the dining plan it would be $1704.78 for All-star music, base tickets, and preferred room.

    WITH the dining plan it is $2286.78 This is a difference of $582

    I totaled breakfast meals at Akershush and Crystal palace, which I plan on booking when possible, and a lunch AND dinner at Coral Reef (I know, I know, you people hate Coral Reef, but it was our favorite and most delicious meal last year!) These four meals totaled to $464 (not including tip)

    That only leaves $118 difference and I am certain that our 4 quick service meals and 4 snacks for 4 people will at least get us to the $118 mark. So for us, it will definitely save us money 🙂

  • Here’s another perspective: I have stopped comparing the cost savings of DP vs. OOP and instead look at what I am getting with the DP. Disclaimer – count me among those who only get the free DP, and would never pay for it.
    When I first contemplated the Free Dining 2 years ago, I did do a price comparison. And I think we were either going to break even (give or take) given my wife and I (it’s just the two of us) and how we normally eat when OOP.

    But it ended up being somewhat of an apples vs. oranges comparison. First off, if we were OOP, we would never attend Hoop-De-Doo, and never go to the Yachtsman Steakhouse, as I could not justify spending that much money on vacation (although unless it was a very special occasion – maybe). We also make a trip to Walmart to get stuff to eat breakfast in the room, and even make and take lunches into the park. We eat a lot at Denny’s (having a car helps) as well as several of the other restaurants in the off-property area. What we learned on the DP is that we eat a big breakfast with a CS, then that will keep us until dinner. Using the 2 TS credits for HDD and YS (as well as the Candlelight Processional) frees up meals for us to take with either CS or go off site.
    But what we also realized (and this has been covered elsewhere in other posts/comments) is that the DP gives us a sense of “all-inclusive”-ness with our vacation. No more constant “where do you want to eat”. We get to eat at places we wouldn’t normally eat at, and it makes our trip that much more enjoyable. The way I look at it, I could definitely save a ton of money by going OOP. But I budget a certain amount for my annual trip and as long as I stay within that budget, the cost argument of DP vs. OOP disappears.

    • Thanks, Ben! That’s definitely a different way to think about it and I absolutely see where in your situation you can make sense of it. It does work very well for you.

      The only way that you’d end up on the losing end is if you’re staying at a deluxe resort where you could have taken advantage of a room only discount. Those are often steep discounts that can save you much more than the Free Dining promotion.

      • But, if all of your children are priced out as Disney adults, over 10 year, even if you get a 40% off discount at a deluxe, a free dining discount is still going to save you more money. For instance if you get 40% off a standard room at The Polynesian, that would save you about $176.00 per night. A free dining discount for a family of 4, with 2 kids over the age of 10, would save you $205.00 per night.

        • In Ben’s situation he doesn’t have children so that’s sort of besides the point.

          • I think Tiffany is just trying to make sure that other readers who see commenters repeating the mantra that a room discount will always be the best savings at a deluxe hotel don’t take that at face value — everyone needs to do the math to take into account the value of the offers available for their particular family makeup and trip style.

    • I agree with what Ben is saying here. As I have said before, I’ve done the math repeatedly, and my family absolutely saves money on the plan compared to the price of purchasing the same things OOP.

      But also, if I weren’t on the plan, I probably wouldn’t choose to do as many of the special experiences that I take advantage because they are included in the plan price. If I were looking at it as “$200 for dinner at the castle AND $200 for the luau show AND $125 for breakfast with the princesses” etc. I would probably decide NOT to do some of those great experiences not because I can’t afford it or because I don’t want to spend the money, but because the individual ticket prices would seem excessive to me. But when I consider it a part of my vacation package I just find it more palatable to think of the total number I’ll be spending on food and pay for it that way. Do I spend more by choosing the plan and taking advantages of it than I would if I paid for it all OOP? Maybe…but I also get a lot more of the experiences that make the trip extra-special for my family.

      I could also save money by staying at a value vs. a deluxe — but then I wouldn’t get the experience of taking the boat the MK every day, which is part of what makes the trip magical for me. And in times when I had less money available for a trip, that’s the choice I’ve made. But if I have the budget available, I stay at the Poly because I love it and it’s worth it to me. I see doing the dining plan and getting all the great meals as akin to that (and I am paying less on the plan that I would OOP for the same experience).

      • Kristen —
        I very much agree with you. For our next trip to Disney, we are doing the budget route and bringing a lot of our own food.

        However, for our first trip, we did the DDP and it was great. I did not do the penny for penny comparison, but our reasons for using the plan were more about the experience.

        We had about every character meal experience you could possibly have! We got reservations at all the wonderful restaurants. I know we paid dearly for it, but the point – for us – was that we prepaid in advance, so it FELT free. If we were dipping into the wallet for each meal, we would have felt too “carefree” and too guilty about it! We wouldn’t have spent that money.

        As it was, we went from restaurant to restaurant and enjoyed every meal. On the day of our departure, we had so many points left, we went through the food court and bought groceries for the trip home! (Lots of tiny milk cartons, snacks, and fruit.)

        For that trip, the dining plan was great for us. This time around, we’ll try a more frugal approach!


  • Two things: First, the dining plan does work out to be a good value if you have small children. We have three kids under 9 and could never feed them all and get each of them a snack for less than the dining plan costs for them. Second, free dining is a great discount for people who stay in moderates. 30% off of rack rate for a moderate can not compare to the savings of the free dining plan for a family of five like ours. We’re staying at PORS in a 5 person room this fall with free dining. The free dining is a tremendous discount for us.

  • When it is argued that the dining plan may be a rip-off, people shouldn’t get defensive about free dining. Certainly, free dining can still save families quite a bit. And it is often better than room discounts.
    The question is whether the dining plan is worth paying for.
    In 2006… The dining plan was a good deal for most people, but not everyone.
    Now it’s the opposite — it’s a bad deal for most families, though still good for a few.

    Personally.. I like dining on a “deluxe” level. A lot of signature meals, appetizers, etc. But I don’t always order the most expensive items on the menu, often skip dessert. I can easily eat my own deluxe style dining for under $100 (the new nightly price of the deluxe plan).

    • “Free Dining” is disliked by people who hold FL resident season passes (which are the price of about a general public 4 day park hopper)…

      These “locals” (and some out of towners using quasi-legal methods to obtain FL state id cards) lament the affect on the restaurant quality, availability, cash prices and portions.

      Since “free” dining was implemented, demand for the table service restaurants has soared and the quality, portions, availability, and cash price have gotten worse during the “free dining” periods.

      If Disney would just reserve half the restaurant to standby only, then people wouldn’t be so upset about the lack of ability to get a reservation.

      That’s why there is defensiveness against “free” dining. The people who can’t get any benefit from it are ticked that it probably has affected them negatively.

      I say, get over it, because a FL resident season pass is still about the cost of a 4 day park hopper for the general public. Give up the dining thing to out of towners who will be suckers for the “free” dining.

      • I understand why locals find it frustrating that free dining — and the popularity of the dining plan in general — means they can’t get into their restaurants of choice when they want to take spur-of-the-moment trips without planning to the Nth degree like out-of-staters planning a year in advance. But I think it’s a bit silly to call people “suckers” for taking advantage of free dining.

  • I don’t know if this has been mentioned, but except for buffets and dining “experiences” like Candlelight Processional and Fantasmic! Dinner Package, there’s no problem splitting meals on the DDP — counter or table. Our last trip, it was just DD11 and me, and she eats like a bird, so there was no way that she’d eat all her food. We were able to have a number of 2-credit meals plus some breakfasts (that we don’t normally use dining plan credits for) by sharing.

    • Absolutely! We split counter service meals on DP so that we get 1TS and 2QS per day. Some portions are smaller so we can’t split every QS, though.

  • We usually stay at a value resort during free dining. I have 2 tips for everyone using the DDP. First a counter service does not have to be a childs. You can get an adult meal and split it. My son and I split breakfast and lunch. Also, if you are getting free dining, I would not feel compelled to get dessert, don’t forget that it drives up the total for your meal and in the end the tip.

    • I think this used to be true but they started to crack-down on this for “Free” Dining. I’ve heard mixed experiences regarding a child getting an adult QS over the past year. Anyone dobe this or been denied doing it?

      • *done

      • My understanding is that unlike TS credits, QS credits aren’t coded as “adult” and “child” in the system. If you have a family with some adults and some children in your package, your TS credits will be segregated by adult/child, but QS credits are pooled for the whole party and are the same for adult/child.

  • I just went through a lot of headaches to get the free dining plan with an upgrade to plus dining. Overall this change in reservations cost me 300.00 for a five day trip. The thing is that for every day of the trip, I have a character meal planned. Overall, I believe this will save me approximately 300.00 overall. It also gets the money out of my wife’s hands so it is there when we arrive. The dining plan seems like a very good deal to me.

  • Something you should consider if you are an AP holder or a DVC member is the Tables In Wonderland Card. It is good for 13 months and costs $75.00 and gives your entire party a 20% discount on food and drinks (alcoholic ones, too). We found this to be quite a savings vs. the Dining Plan. If you want to go to a resort for a meal, you also get free valet parking.

  • I love this article. The comparisons are nice to see, I too have compared myself. Thing is, most of us don’t eat dessert at every meal, so there’s one point. The biggest thing I wanted to point out is in your first comparison you show the snack being dole floats for $4.49, when we used the dining plan in 2010 we were told that snacks had to be $3.99 or less to be used, so I’m not sure how one would get these on the dining plan? Or if the CM that told us that was wrong?

    • Currently, there are select items that are over $4 that qualify as snack credits. If you pay attentino to the menus, you’ll see a little “DDP” symbol next to a menu item so you know it’ll work asa credit. For a while there was a general “under $4” rule but right now it’s not set in stone. A great use of the snack credit is during Food and Wine Festival where many menu items are about $5 or $6.

  • Here’s the simple math as to why the “old way” was costing Disney too much money. In 2007, my wife and I had dinner at Tony’s Town Square. Obviously, no alcohol was involved. The dinner bill came to over $100 (appetizers + entrees + desserts + beverages + tip). We were on the dining plan and used our table service option. We didn’t come close to paying $100 for our dining plan that day. So not only did we save major $$$ on dinner, we got breakfast and lunch for free that day.

  • Great post, Stacey. The Dining Plan started as a good deal like you say, but it’s turned into a profit-making machine for Disney. It’s way beyond offering a good value and forces visitors to alter their plans to eat more meals than they want to justify the price. I’m glad you pointed out the problems with the Free Dining promotion. Disney is consistently offering 25-40% discounts on rooms, and that usually covers more than the Dining. I also dislike the fact that it’s lessened the experiences at restaurants and caused Disney to simplify the menus.

  • Our family learned the hard way that another risk of pre-paying for your food is the chance that things do not go according to plan and you don’t actually get to eat what you planned on eating! I did the pre-requisite spreadsheet and calculated a savings of about 15% using the dining plan based on the restaurants we made plans to eat at, etc, but unfortunately our 2-year old caught a nasty stomach bug, and it ended up going right down the line through our other two kids and my wife and I (less so). We didn’t end up making many of the table service meals that we had planned on going to (skipping several meals altogether) and most definitely wasted a good bit of money on that trip. I also found it a little trying to maximize the value of snacks and make sure we found things that could count as snacks on the plan – when the kids really only wanted popcorn each day. We are going again in December for a “re-do” without the dining plan.

    As all parents are fully aware – expect the unexpected. Trying to plan anything with small children can be very difficult.

    • Wow. This is a really good point! In fact, the last time my family went to WDW, my wife & son took turns being sick. We managed to get to the parks, but they didn’t want to eat much. That would definitely not be cool having paid for meals you can’t use by the time you leave!

      Again, this confirms my case for why Disney does this… there are likely many credits that go unused. So for the families that do get to use ALL their credits – sure Disney lost some money there – but they’ll make that back in the many more families that leave credits unused.

  • There is a current offer for Free Dining Plan for certain dates by the end of this year. I checked out the prices. Here’s what I found in my example:

    Resort: Port Orleans River Side – Garden View Room
    Dates: 12/10/2012 – 12/16/2012
    Guests: 2 Adults, 2 children (3 & 9)
    Package Includes: Room + 7day Magic Your Way Base Ticket
    Room & Tickets Package Rate: $2534.14
    Room & Tickets + Dining Plan: $3233.86
    Cost of Dining Plan: $699.72 ($116.62/day)

    So by going with this Free Dining Plan offer, I guess no matter where you stayed, you’d be eating for free – saving about $700 for the 7day/6night stay. That’s a pretty good deal – since it is FREE!

    If it weren’t free, I think I’d have a hard time spending $700 for my family over the same period if I were paying out of pocket for each meal & snack. We wouldn’t normally go to a TS restaurant every day. The only reason we’d do that is if we had a DP to use at those restaurants. So using the DP would cause us to go to places we wouldn’t normally go. I’m not sure that is a good thing or not.

    • Yes, but there might end up being a dscount on your room, that is when you should look and see if the savings is more than $700 on your room. Then go with the best deal.

      • We’ve been to WDW 3 times with the free dining plan during the off-season time, early December. Right now there isn’t a room discount being offered so the DDP is actually FREE. I suppose if they come out with a room offer before we pay the balance we can see which is the better deal and adjust our reservation. As long as it’s truly free it’s a great deal! Even if we don’t use all of the CS meals.

        We are vegetarians and have 2 young daughters (5 & 7). I don’t like eating CS meals all of the time because it doesn’t seem as healthy to me. We don’t eat at fast food restaurants at home and I don’t like to on vacation. There are some great CS options out there, but the TS meals have better veggie options. And of course the atmosphere is much nicer. We like to use the TS for lunch or an early dinner and it gives us a nice break in the day with the kids.