This post was written by Joe Bouchard, a long time Disney fan who has visited Walt Disney World over 30 times. He and his wife (also a Disney lover) do a weekly YouTube show called See Ya Reel Soon.
One of the largest expenses when it comes to planning our Walt Disney World vacations has always been food. The cost for a family to eat at The World for a week can easily reach into the thousands of dollars. The sticker shock at each meal can even be an unpleasant experience to many guests. Balancing the cost with the enjoyment that dining out while on vacation can bring is often a challenge.
In 2005 Walt Disney World introduced its Dining Plan, an option that allowed guests to prepay a set amount in exchange for “credits” to be used at dining establishments throughout Walt Disney World property. The Disney Dining Plans have undergone many changes throughout the years and as the costs continue to rise many people, myself included, have started to question if it is the best option for them.
In 2009 after graduating college I planned my first trip to Walt Disney World as the primary planner, no longer tagging along with my parents. The planning was overwhelming to say the least. Whether it was when to go, where to stay, or how much to plan for each day it was a lot to digest. One way I found to ease some of the stress was to purchase the Disney Dining Plan. It made it easy for me to budget and let me focus more on planning the rest of our vacation. In the end it was a wonderful 2 weeks where I asked my now-wife to marry me during Wishes.
The next year as we were planning our Disneymoon, for the sake of saving time and minimizing stress I decided once again to get the Disney Dining Plan, after all this time we were offered “Free Dining”! It was great to order whatever we wanted on the menu, not worry about eating at more expensive restaurants and think to myself, “Wow this is free!” When the bill would come and I would see $70 for just the two of us it even made me feel like I was getting away with something.
It was in 2011 when we planned our next trip that I started to seriously budget. This time, I was more familiar with the costs of dining and started running the numbers, as I’m sure many others have. I mapped out where we planned to eat, looked at the menus, made some estimates and came out with a number quite a bit lower than what the Disney Dining Plan would cost. This got me thinking. Maybe the Disney Dining Plan wasn’t a good idea for us after all. Maybe we could save money by paying out of pocket for our meals.
Ever since then we have decided against the Disney Dining Plan. It just doesn’t mathematically work out for us. We are just 2 adults with no kids and we rarely eat dessert. This got me curious as to who the Disney Dining Plan benefits the most. To help me figure this out I started building a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel. It started out simple, but to be able to figure out as many variables as I wanted, the spreadsheet grew into thousands of complex formulas. The end result was a simple, user friendly spreadsheet that can be tailored specifically to each individual that uses it.
The calculator is quite simple to use. All you need to do is input the number of Adults and Children in your party along with where you plan to eat each meal. After that you choose from a few options such as how often you order drinks or desserts and what percentage you typically leave as a gratuity. After that, the boxes below will populate with estimated costs for you based on each of the 3 primary Disney Dining Plans as well as using no Dining Plan or if you qualify, using Tables in Wonderland.
A second tab of the spreadsheet will show you a list of your planned meals in descending order of expected costs, that way if you have more meals planned than you have credits to use, you know which are less expensive and you are therefore better paying for out of pocket.
The third and final tab is to benefit those who go during a time of the year when Walt Disney World offers “Free Dining”. It can often be tempting to take that offer but in order to get “Free Dining” you would have to pay rack rate for your hotel room and pass up any potential room discounts. This tab will help you decide which of those is more likely to save you the most money based on your specific itinerary.
Those who would like to test out this calculator, it is available to download for free on my website http://www.seeyareelsoon.wix.com/seeyareelsoon and there is also a video there that will walk you step by step through the entire process of using each tab.
So who, through my personal experiences, does the Disney Dining Plan benefit the most? The more children under age 10 that you have, the more the Disney Dining Plan starts to save you money. The Dining Plans are usually a great deal for kids. The cost for the plan is low for kids and the costs of many character meals and buffets are high. Also, those who eat Table Service meals for Dinner instead of Lunch can benefit, remember Dinner is often more expensive than Lunch, while requiring the same amount of credits.
Of course, there is also something to be said about it being prepaid. For many people, not having to look at the prices on the menu will allow them to be more relaxed and more carefree. If the Dining Plan doesn’t save money or even if it costs more money, the peace of mind while on vacation may be worth it. Dining at Walt Disney World can be an experience in and of itself. If you’re anything like me, some meals may be something you remember for years to come, whether it is the food, the atmosphere or both. Bon appétit!