Could the Disney Dining Plan Save You Money?

by on October 2, 2012 107 Comments

Filed under: Dining, Test, Walt Disney World (FL)

Back in July, I wrote an article for the blog about the history of the Disney Dining Plan, the 2013 changes for the plan, and a break down of the plan and how it often times does not save families money.

In the past I have stated that I believe the 2013 Disney Dining Plan is only truly economical for families that can stretch the plan’s savings and get the biggest bang for their buck. There are many ways to do this and those in the know can pull tricks out of their sleeves to ensure that they are not on the losing end of the deal.

I have decided to examine three different family prototypes using the Disney Dining Plan. I tried to keep the three families varied enough to spawn different results in savings. The first family, Family A, includes just two adults. Family B includes two adults and two children. Family C is a larger family. They have two adults, two children over the age of ten, and two children under ten years old. That means they are technically paying for four adults and two children on the plan. Keep in mind that my prototype families maximized the plan and chose higher priced options off menus. They also have eaten breakfast at their resort before heading to the parks to save money. Let us see how each family works out at a day on the Basic Dining Plan in the Magic Kingdom.

Family A – 2 Adults

Columbia Harbour House
Person 1:  Salmon, Apple Crisp, Water = $16.28
Person 2:  Fried Shrimp, Chocolate Cake, Water = $16.08
Total Including Tax:  $34.46

Crystal Palace Dinner
$39.40 per adult = $78.80 (including tax)
+ 18% gratuity = $92.98

Aloha Isle
2 Dole Whip Floats at $4.49 each = $8.98, plus tax = $9.56 (including tax)

  • Disney Dining Plan covered $122.82 worth of food.
  • Family A paid $14.18 in gratuity.
  • Family A paid $125.36 total (price of Disney Dining Plan and gratuity) to use the plan.
  • If Family A purchased the same food off of the Disney Dining Plan, they would have paid $137.00.
  • By using the Disney Dining Plan, Family A saved $11.64.

The small amount of savings for Family A scares me a little bit. As I said before, what they ate is a best case scenario. That tells me that if they chose Crystal Palace breakfast instead of dinner, they would have lost money. If they let their snack credits go to waste and ordered less expensive counter-service options, they would have lost money. Who knows how Family A would fare at Disney’s Hollywood Studios where table-service restaurants are generally less expensive? I would guess they would probably have a hard time finding value in a meal plan at that point.

Family B – 2 Adults, 2 Children

Columbia Harbour House
Adult 1:  Salmon, Apple Crisp, Water = $16.28
Adult 2:  Fried Shrimp, Chocolate Cake, Water = $16.08
Child 1:  Kids Meal = $5.49
Child 2:  Kids 
Meal = $5.49
Total Including Tax = $46.15

Crystal Palace Dinner
2 Adults at $39.40 each + 2 Children at $19.16 each = $117.12 (including tax)
+ 18% gratuity = $138.20

Aloha Isle
4 Dole Whip Floats at $4.49 each = $19.13 (including tax)

  • Disney Dining Plan covered $182.40 worth of food.
  • Family B paid $21.08 in gratuity.
  • Family B paid $166.58 total (Disney Dining Plan cost plus gratuity)
  • If Family B purchased the same food off the Disney Dining Plan, they would have paid $203.48.
  • By using the Disney Dining Plan, Family B saved $36.90.

Family B, much like Family A, did not save a huge amount of money by using the Disney Dining Plan. In their situation, they could have not used their snack credits for the day and still saved money.  Where Family B could potentially lose money is when dining at a table-service restaurant. I had them choose probably the best deal found in the Magic Kingdom. However, if they had eaten at Liberty Tree Tavern or The Plaza Restaurant, they might not have saved money at all on the Disney Dining Plan.

Family C – 2 Adults, 2 Children over 10, 2 Children under 10

Columbia Harbour House
Adult 1:  Salmon, Apple Crisp, Water = $16.28
Adult 2:  Fried Shrimp, Chocolate Cake, Water = $16.08
Adult Child 1: Salmon, Apple Crisp, Water = $16.28
Adult Child 2: Fried Shrimp, Chocolate Cake, Water = $16.08
Child 1: Kids Meal = $5.49
Child 2: Kids Meal = $5.49
Total Including Tax = $80.62

Crystal Palace Dinner
4 Adult Meals at $39.40 each + 2 Children at $19.16 each = $201.09
18% gratuity = $231.18

Aloha Isle
6 Dole Whip Floats at $4.49 each = $28.69 (including tax)

  • Disney Dining Plan covered $305.23 worth of food.
  • Family C paid $35.26 for gratuity.
  • Family C paid $291.94 total (cost of Disney Dining Plan and gratuity).
  • If Family C purchased the same amount of food while not using the Disney Dining Plan, they would have spent $340.49.
  • By using the Disney Dining Plan, Family C saved $48.55.

From what I can see, these results tell me that larger families have the biggest money saving potential. That makes sense. From these results, I can also assume that large families could potentially take the biggest hit from not maximizing the Disney Dining Plan to the best of their abilities.

Another option available to Passholders, Florida Residents, and Disney Vacation Club members, is Tables in Wonderland. For a small annual fee, a Tables in Wonderland card can be purchased which allows the card holder and their party of 10 or less to get 20% off of table-service restaurants on Disney World property. A big difference in Tables in Wonderland from the Disney Dining Plan is that a discount on alcohol is available. The vast majority of table-service restaurants on Disney property accept the card. I decided to run the math to see how my lovely prototype families would do with Tables in Wonderland instead of the Disney Dining Plan.

It turns out that Family C would still be better off with the Disney Dining Plan given that using the plan would save them $40 more than if they used Tables in Wonderland. Of course, Family C could potentially save more money with Tables in Wonderland if they did not order desserts at counter-service restaurants, shared a few counter-service meals between kids, or shared snacks. What I did discover is that Family A should skip the Disney Dining Plan and look into purchasing a Tables in Wonderland card since they could save at least $5 if they ate the exact same way using the 20% discount card. Multiply that savings by a week long trip and you can see it all add up. Plus, the Tables in Wonderland card gives a family more freedom to choose less expensive restaurants or save them self from over-indulging at every meal which often happens to people on the Disney Dining Plan.

Readers of the blog sent in an overwhelming amount of responses to my last article on the Disney Dining Plan. Many of you gave great tips of how you manage to make the Disney Dining Plan work for your family. A number of readers also surprised me with a statement I had not considered before… that some guests will continue to pay for the Disney Dining Plan for the convenience of it alone, even if they lose money by using it. While this is not something I personally would do, I can understand that for large families the Disney Dining Plan convenience is well worth the cost. I am curious, how many of you would in fact pay for the Disney Dining Plan even if the crunched numbers result in you losing money? How much would you be willing to pay for convenience?

Please share your thoughts on the Disney Dining Plan, if you travel to Disney World with a large or small traveling party, and if you plan to pay for the plan in 2013 and why.

Posted on October 2, 2012

107 Responses to “Could the Disney Dining Plan Save You Money?”

  • As I previously posted, we upgraded from the free Quick Service Dining Plan to the Deluxe Dining Plan in 2010 & 2011. Though I never crunched the numbers, I was quite pleased with the experience. But this discussion has made me curious, so I decided to run the numbers and see how much we might save. I was quite surprised.
    We are staying at the Art of Animation Resort, standard Little Mermaid room for 7 nights in December, with 8 day Park-Hopper tickets and upgraded from free QS Dining to Deluxe Dining.
    After deducting room and ticket costs, we are paying $104.00 per day for 2 adults.
    Dining is a big part of our vacation experience, due in part to the fact that we live in a small town and do no eat out often (and I enjoy cooking too). So we like to try lots of different dining experiences. And, yes, we love Character meals! Here’s my list for this year:
    Le Chefs de France (dinner)
    1900 Park Fare (breakfast)
    50’s Prime Time Cafe (lunch)
    Crystal Palace (breakfast and lunch)
    ‘Ohana (dinner)
    Chef Mickey’s (breakfast)
    La Hacienda de San Angel
    Rainforest Cafe’ Animal Kingdom (breakfast)
    Hoop-Dee-Doo (8:30 PM, category 1)
    Bongo’s (lunch)
    Raglan Road Pub
    Akershaus Royal Banquet Hall (breakfast)
    Le Cellier Candlelight Processional package (lunch)
    Via Napoli (dinner)
    Whispering Canyon Cafe’ (breakfast)
    I made menu choices based on what we will most likely order. For Character meals I choose the cheapest adult price. For the out-of-pocket total, I added taxes and gratuities (18-20%), where applicable. For the dining plan total, I added gratuities to the cost of the plan.

    Total out-of-pocket cost: $1772.46
    Total dining pan cost: $987.00
    Savings: $785.46
    This includes 6 breakfasts (4 character), 6 lunches (Candlight Dining Package) and 7 dinners (1 dinner show & 1 signature restaurant).
    This does not include our 2 snack credits per person per day or the refillable mugs.

    So for us, this is a good deal. Better than I expected. I think even if we substitute a couple of Quick Service meals, we will not lose money. It might not be so good if we were not getting part of it free.
    Of course, vacations are as unique as individuals. What works for some will not work for others. We always do the headliners and have many classics that we will ride or see every visit. But since our children are grown there are some attractions we can skip and not really miss. This allows us time to enjoy the table service restaurants (and they do take time) and all the attractions we want.

    Thanks for such an interesting and thought-provoking topic.

  • NO, I would not normally order a dessert at a counter service. That being said, I would not normally eat at a buffet that cost $41 a person. The dining plan allows me to eat at those places and order the dessert without the guilt/sticker shock of the prices. I enjoy getting dessert. I LOVE character meals as do my children. When I go to the circus, I am the frugal mom that will not buy my kids the $15 slushy that lights up. I just won’t spend money that way. I know when it comes down to it, if I am not on the DDP, I will not order the dessert or go to those expensive character meals. Even if I “prepay” for the meals by putting money on a card to be used for meals, I will talk myself out of it so we can have the money later. The DDP allows me to enjoy my vacation without stress. I can eat what I like. We went to Magic Kingdom for one day this summer. It was my birthday and I prepaid for lunch at Cinderella’s Royal Table for myself and my daughter (she is 2 and therefore free). My husband and 2 boys had to fend for themselves because I was too tight (ON MY BIRTHDAY) to pay for all 5 of us to eat there. That is not how I want to think on my relaxing, staying on property, Disney trip that I have been planning for over a year.

  • Thank you so much for this post. You gave me a lot to think about. My family spent a week in New Orleans this summer. The restaurants and food there is amazing, but with a family of five it is just so expensive. So instead of spending the money, we opted for fast food. And I regret that we missed out on one of the best parts of NOLA. I had been on the fence about the dining plan, but I am going to add it now. I know that I would have backed out on so many great experiences because once there I would choose to save the money. So thanks again.

  • I love the dining plan, it helps us budget. But I totally love the dining options to, we don’t eat out much at home, so for us its definately a treat!!! Thanks for all the great info

  • I’m pretty sure that our four day trip for two adults and one child is a scenario where we would be unwise to get the dining plan, but I’ve still been crunching numbers to see. We will do 1-2 character meals and 2-4 other table service meals. So far it is really close, but the fact that we are vegetarian/vegan means our food usually costs less and I am not confident we will all be happy with the plan – I think we need to stay flexible. My current idea is to be your guinea pig with the prepaid card and save all my receipts to see for sure if we were wise to skip it. Will let you know in January.

  • Do you think we, two adults one child, should get the standard DP (1 cs, 1 ts, 1 sn) if we’re staying club level at beach club? I ran the numbers, and it looks like we’d have to spend $128 per day to make it worth the cost. Our typical day on past trips: breakfast a the hotel in the club lounge, and in the past 2 counter service lunches were plenty for the 3 of us, usually we eat 4 out of the 6 nights at either a 1 or 2 table service meal, but rarely get 2 desserts, sometimes one, and sometimes i just want a appetizer for dinner instead of a meal. We typically don’t buy snacks – we bring a piece of fruit or plain bagel from breakfast as a snack. We buy a lot of bottled water (but don’t want to use snack credits for that). Normally we do mornings in a park and afternoons by the pool, and dinners out. Im thinking we dont need the dining plan. (in the past we’ve had tons of leftover snack credits and a handful of CS meals, and I just don’t think it makes sense to buy 15 rice crispy treats on the last day to use them up.) Thoughts on this? Much appreciated..

  • Appreciate the post. Family of 5 – kids are 10,8 & 3. Did DDP last trip in Feb. for the first time. Only reason we did was it was free. We enjoyed not having to think about food cost, but we did make choices that we would not normally have made otherwise (most notably we ate a LOT more dessert) and often paid out of pocket for appetizers and an occasional beer or glass of wine.
    Planning trip for next November – priced out DDP and what we would normally order at restaurants we will likely book. Savings on DDP came out to approximately $300 ($1700 vs. $1400 for 7 nights), but again would have us alter our food choices – if I’m on DDP I’ll likely eat more dessert and less appetizers. If I’m paying out of pocket it would be the opposite. In some cases my wife and I might split meal, etc.
    So, I have decided I am not doing DDP next trip and I’m going to try to “pre-pay” buy saving money on an Amex prepaid reloadable card. I’m planning on putting $500 on now, then automatically transferring $100 each month between now and next Nov. 1.

    • This is so helpful. we have 5 kids from 2-12 and taking or first trip this April, we are so conflicted about which dining plan, maybe we should preload a card 🙂

  • This will be our visit family WDW vacation (9 park days). We have six children, 13, 10, 7, 5, 3, & 8 mos. I’m not sure if the DDP is for us. With our family size, we are also paying a tip on the ‘cost’ of what the meal is. We are currently booked for the Old Key West villas (paying cash not DVC). I was thinking of lunch at the parks and dinner at the villa.

  • My family is going going in July and we are doing Disney for 4 days, Universal for 2 days, and Sea World for 1 day. We are a family of 5 3 adults and 2 children eleven years old.
    My questions are:
    1)Should we stay at a Disney Resort? I know we would get extra hours, but would also cost us extra for room and transportation to Universal and Sea World.
    2)Should we get the dinning plan? I know that Universal and Disney both offer them. I am just not sure if I should only get one of them, both of them, or neither…

    This will be our first trip and I am a little bit overwhelmed!

    • 1. Staying on property is your choice. I prefer on property because I like being in the Disney bubble. Will you have a car? It might be less expensive to rent a car then paying for cabs the 3 times you go off property. Really, it is a personal preference about staying on property, although it is usually more expensive. Do you want more than one room? There are few choices on property for families of 5 that are very economical.
      2. You need to look up the rules for the dining plans. Disney’s is only available to guests on property. I don’t know about Universal. Then you need to decide where you would like to eat. It is always a good deal for us because I love character meals and they really add up.

  • My family (2 adults, 1 child – 11…so 3 adults price-wise) has been to WDW 11 times since we bought into the DVC club in 2005. Back then, we very enthusiastically bought the Dining Plan, as we saved a ton of money. I think the table service at the time included the appetizer and gratuity, if I’m not mistaken. However, we’ve watched the value of the Dining Plan shrink over the years, and we will not get the Dining Plan on our upcoming vacation. We have determined that we can save money buy simply bringing in snacks like we normally do in our backpack, skipping desserts, which we wouldn’t eat anyway if it wasn’t prepaid, and having breakfast in the room, which we do anyway. Even if we have a couple of character meals, a couple of other table meals, and quick serve meals, we’ll come out ahead. Thanks for this very interesting and informative breakdown and conversation!

    • We are going for the first time and with 2 adults and our children being 12,11,7,6,and 2 we are so nervous to make the wrong choices!

      • Samantha,

        Our first visit with kids too! There are so many choices!
        Our kids are 13, 10, 7, 5, 3, & 8mos. We decided against the DDP. With our nine day park vacation, I ran the numbers based off what I thought our family would eat in the parks (using the menus available) and came out $500 better by not choosing the DDP. Full disclosure, we don’t drink soda or eat too many desserts. We are planning on eating some of the dinners back at the resort (OKW-2 bed villa) to save even more.

  • Just back from 4 days, two adults and one child. I made a spreadsheet, but I’m not sure exactly how to tally it all up! We would have spent almost identical amounts, but our behavior would have had to alter pretty radically from what we did. If anyone wants to see it:

    Hitting the end of our trip, we woud have been 3TS and 2QS credits down. We would also have been 4 snacks over.

    Eating as we did, the food we ate that would actually have been included was worth $400. We would have paid $513.

    Then we would have gone 3 TS credits over because we had a spur of the moment, highly enjoyable poolside “private dining” experience on our check-out day. It only cost about $40, but would have been 2 TS credits each! Ridiculous. We would have had to skip most of our lovely pool time and go use up our 3 leftover TS or 2 leftover QS credits at lunch.

    We did the Dessert Party ($75) and we also spent about $65 on food items that wouldn’t have been included.

    So I think the big message for us was that we might have spent the same amount of money but we would have entirely lost our flexibility. The Desert Party was our favorite thing, which we would have had to pay for out of pocket. And I can’t even tell you how often we saw families huddled around receipts or cashiers trying to work out what they had left and what they should do about it and blah blah blah. It looked like a whole lot of energy spent on food! Going forward, we will continue to preload a gift card as we did this time. It came out the same but we had a lot more fun.

    • Such a great idea, preloaded card. It gives you the benefits of having the meals “already paid for” when you get there but you don’t have to work around your meal reservations schedule. We did the Disney Dining plan in 2009 and 2011. We are going back in March. We have opted not to do it. It always felt that we were rushed to our reservations and we had to use so much time getting to the restaurants. Not worth it to us anymore. Plus, we did eat more than we would have otherwise. Dessert at every meal is just way too much. Even if you are on vacation. And even when we did make our reservations, we still had to wait anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour from our reservation time. That being said, Disney is the best place for our family vacations. We wouldn’t go elsewhere!!!

  • We are going to WDW in a couple of months with one child, age 4. We are debating if the dining plan is for us. We are staying at the new Art & Animation resort and usually eat small a breakfast, which we plan on doing in the room. When we travel to WDW we usually have a larger lunch and a smaller dinner. Our 4 year old does not eat a lot so that just makes me wonder if I should continue to just pay for the meals?

  • This is what we are planning to do as well- Disney, Universal & Sea World and I’m trying to figure out the easiest way to do it. I am hoping to go later this month. 2 adults, 2 kids. I’m not sure how to best do it- on property or off, etc.


    • My 18 year old daughter and I are heading for Orlando after she graduates in late May. We’ll do 4-5 days in the Disney parks and a couple at Universal. We’re driving, so that influences some things, but after thinking about it for a bit I decided we do benefit from the Extra Magic Hours and all the transportation options we use staying on property with Park Hopper Passes. Might lose out on the benefits of free parking at Universal versus were staying there, but better to pay a couple of days of Universal parking than 4-5 days of Disney parking. That’s one angle. The other is the Disney Dining Plan. I’ve used and it loved it after you embraced it and got past the frustrations at times. So I was on the fence… But since the DDP tracks to your RESORT Nights, not your PARK days, that means we’d be paying for a couple of extra days that we wouldn’t be in Disney Parks to use it, making it much more difficult to get the value. So I’m going to opt out this go round. However, someone please let me know about how to get the pre-loaded card to use for meals… Any benefit other than pre-paying your meals versus using the credit card where I’d get miles but having the post-Disney hangover bills to pay?

  • This is the first time I’m taking my 3 kids (and my mother in law is coming) and my husband and I decided to get the dining plan just to get the cost out of the way…I never want to get a bill for $100 for lunch or $200 for dinner while I may not be saving money in the long run I don’t have to have that kind of money every day twice a day for a week it will already be paid for.

  • I’m one of the people that will continue to pay for the deluxe dining plan without worrying too much about if I’m saving money. I like it because I pay for all the food I’m going to want months before I go. There’s no temptation to get a cheap entrée I don’t really want, because everything costs the same. I love that it makes our vacation a bit more all-inclusive, and I’m not concerned about spending every credit because the money is already gone, I can just focus on enjoying my vacation 🙂

  • I love the deluxe dining plan. Disney is the only place that my daughters and I can eat food, lots of it, and desserts that are gluten free and I don’t worry about cross contamination. The chefs at Disney honestly seem to understand the issues that are present with preparing foods for people with food intolerances such as my family that have been diagnosed with celiac disease. The food is fantastic and I have no problems spending the money to give us that one luxury year after year. Part of the experience of Disney is eating at their restaurants. Vacationers don’t know what they are missing out on.