2012 Disney Dining Plan Coverage

by on February 9, 2012 86 Comments

Filed under: Dining, Trip Planning

Len’s Note: Below is a draft of our coverage of the Disney Dining Plan for the next edition of the Unofficial Guide.  I’d love to hear your comments and questions about the dining plan or our recommendations below.  If you’ve used the dining plan, what worked and didn’t work for you?  If you’re thinking about using the plan on an upcoming trip, what questions do you have?

Magic Your Way Dining Plans

Disney offers dining plans to accompany its Magic Your Way ticket system. They’re available to all Disney resort guests except those staying at the Swan, the Dolphin, the hotels of the Downtown Disney Resort Area, and Shades of Green, none of which are Disney-owned or -operated. Guests must also purchase a Magic Your Way package from Disney (not through an online reseller), have Annual Passes, or be members of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) to participate in the plan. Except for DVC members, a three-night minimum stay is typically also required. Overall cost is determined by the number of nights you stay at a Disney resort.

If you’re booking your trip through a third-party site such as Expedia, you must purchase a Disney package vacation – including the dining plan – at the time of your initial booking; Disney won’t let you add the plan later.  If you book through Disney, in most cases you’ll be able to add the dining plan at any time up through your check-in.

Magic Your Way Plus Dining Plan Disney’s standard dining plan provides, for each member of your group, for each night of your stay, one counter-service meal, one full-service meal, and one snack at participating Disney dining locations and restaurants, including room service at some Disney resorts (type “Disney Dining Plan Locations”, followed by the year of your visit, into your favorite Internet search engine to find sites with the entire list). The plan also includes one refillable drink mug per person, per package, but it can be filled only at Disney resort counter-service restaurants.  The prices for 2012 are:

Adults (ages 10 and up)                 $51.87/night off-peak and $53.54 summer and holidays

Children (ages 3-9)                        $15.02/night off-peak and $16.02 summer and holidays

Children younger than age 3 eat free from an adult’s plate.

A counter-service meal includes:

  • A main course (sandwich, dinner salad, pizza, or the like) or a complete combo meal (such as a burger and fries)
  • Dessert
  • A nonalcoholic drink

A full-service sit-down meal includes:

  • A main course
  • Dessert
  • A nonalcoholic drink

If you’re dining at a buffet, the full-service meal includes the buffet and a nonalcoholic drink.  Tax is included in the dining plan’s prices, so you won’t be asked to pay 6.75% of your meal when you’re finished eating.

The snack includes items normally sold from carts or small stands throughout the parks and resorts: ice cream, popcorn, soft drinks, fruit, chips, apple juice, and the like.

For instance, if you’re staying for three nights and four days, each member of your party will be credited with three counter-service meals, three full-service meals, and three snacks. All those credits will be put into a “meal account” for your entire party. Meals in your account can be used on any combination of days, so you’re not required to eat every meal every day. Thus, you can skip a full-service meal one day and have two on another day.  Your meal plan expires at midnight on the day you check out of the Disney resort.

Disney’s top-of-the-line restaurants (dubbed “Disney Signature” restaurants in the plan), along with Cinderella’s Royal Table, all the dinner shows, regular room service, and in-room pizza delivery, count as two full-service meals. If you dine at one of these locations, two full-service meals will be deducted from your account for each person dining.

In addition to the preceding, the standard dining plan comes with several other important rules:

  • Everyone staying in the same resort room must participate in the plan.
  • The plan must be purchased for every night of your stay.  You cannot, for example, pay for the meal plan on only 3 nights of a 5-night stay.
  • Children ages 3–9 must order from the kids’ menu, if one is available. This rule is occasionally not enforced at Disney’s counter-service restaurants, enabling older children to order from the regular (adult) menu.
  • Alcoholic beverages and some bottled nonalcoholic drinks are not included in the plan.
  • A full-service meal can be breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  It rarely makes financial sense to use your full-service meal credits for breakfast or lunch.
  • Unused meals are nonrefundable.
  • The dining plan is occasionally unavailable when using certain room-only discounts.

Quick-Service Dining Plan A less expensive version of the standard dining plan, this plan includes meals, snacks, and nonalcoholic drinks at most counter-service eateries in Walt Disney World, but no meals at sit-down restaurants. The cost (including tax) is $34.99 per day for guests age 10 and up, $11.99 per day for kids ages 3–9. The plan includes two counter-service meals and one snack per day, in addition to one refillable drink mug per person, per package (eligible for refills only at counter-service locations only in your Disney resort).

Magic Your Way Deluxe Dining Plan This plan offers a choice of full- or counter-service meals for three meals a day at any participating restaurant. In addition to the three meals a day, the plan also includes two snacks per day and a refillable drink mug. The Deluxe Plan costs $89.52 for adults and $25.79 for children for each night of your stay during peak season, $85.52 per adult and $23.79 per child off-peak (prices include tax). Cranking it up another notch, there are even more extravagant dining plans associated with Magic Your Way Premium and Platinum packages, both described a little later.

In addition to food, all the plans include deal sweeteners such as a free round of miniature golf, a certificate for a 5×10-inch print from Disney’s PhotoPass, a sort of two-for-one certificate for use of Sea Raycers watercraft, a “commemorative” luggage tag, and such.

Disney ceaselessly tinkers with the dining plans’ rules, meal definitions, and participating restaurants. For example, it’s possible (though not documented) to exchange a sit-down-meal credit for a counter-service meal, although doing this even once can negate any savings you get from using a plan in the first place.

Should You Get The Dining Plan?

The dining plan has been one of the most requested of Disney’s package add-ons since its introduction; families report that their favorite aspect is the peace of mind that comes from knowing their meals are paid for ahead of time, rather than having to keep track of a budget while they’re in the parks. Families also enjoy the communal aspect of sitting down together for a full meal, without having to worry about who’s picking up the food or doing the dishes.

In our survey of families who have purchased the standard dining plan, a little more than half (57%) would buy the plan again.  That being said, we think many families, if not most, should avoid the standard and deluxe dining plans and simply pay cash for their meals.

That conclusion is based on the following three factors, which are described in detail below:

  • The economics of the plan require you to eat a sit-down dinner (not breakfast or lunch) every night of your trip
  • You’ll pay adult prices for children ages 10 to 13, but most kids can be fed for a lot less
  • The average family cannot get dinner reservations at the best restaurants – there simply aren’t enough tables to go around
  • The potential savings are so small, on average, that missing a single dinner can mean the difference between saving and losing money

Regarding the economics of the plan, it’s illustrative to know how the $51.87 cost of one day on the standard dining plan is spent on each plan component, such as a snack or counter-service meal.  We’ll spare you the math (it’s a set of linear equations), but an approximate value for each item across every 2012 Disney dining plan is shown in the chart below:

To see how those prices stacked up against the food in the parks, in early 2012 we collected menus from every sit-down, and counter-service restaurant in Walt Disney World, plus every food stand, cart and kiosk on property.  We entered every menu item – more than 11,000 in all – into a database for our analysis.

That analysis showed that using your sit-down meal credits for breakfast is a particularly bad deal.  The average breakfast entrée costs around $10 in Disney World, the average breakfast drink is around $3 and the average breakfast “dessert,” such as a croissant or muffin, costs around $3.  Thus, using a sit-down dining credit for a typical Disney breakfast means paying almost $31 for food everyone else buys for $16.

Lunch is another waste of money under the dining plan: The average lunch entrée costs around $15, drinks are $3 (water is free) and dessert at lunch runs about $6.75.  Using a sit-down credit there means you’re paying about $6 per person more than everyone else for the same food.

That also assumes that every person in your family can eat all the food Disney offers at every single meal.  The Unofficial Guide staff love to dine at Walt Disney World, but we can tell you from experience that it is incredibly difficult to eat all of the food Disney provides at every meal.  In fact, at the end of one five-day trip we had a whopping 16 unused sit-down credits available, and we’re professionals.  Most days we weren’t hungry enough to go to the trouble of a sit-down meal.  A St. Louis family of three agrees:

We purchased the dining plan and would never do it again. Far too expensive, far too much food, and then you have to tip on top of the expense. Additionally, table-service meals were hard to use for us, reservations hard to obtain. Much easier to purchase what you want, where and when you want. (Intended to use a counter-service meal at … Epcot for 12-year-old. Found out you had to get the nine-piece nuggets, the large fries, a large drink, and a McFlurry in order to use the counter-service meal. Most adults I know wouldn’t eat that much food, let alone a 12-year-old!) Food is a “gotcha” at Disney, but the dining plan proved to be a poor choice for us.

We don’t think the average 10- to 13-year old is going to be able to put away $51 worth of food every single day.  Our own ‘tweens and teenagers eat very well in Walt Disney World, and it almost always costs us less than $40 per day.  When we spend more, it’s usually because we’re staying out late and eating a second or third round of snacks in the parks.  While you can shift snack credits from one day to another, it means that you’ll end up with no snacks on some days of your trip.

The comments above also illustrate another factor working against most families: the limited availability of tables at Disney’s best restaurants, especially those in the theme parks.  For example, while approximately 30,000 people visit Epcot on an average day, fewer than 900 (3%) can get in to the popular and highly-rated Le Cellier steakhouse at the Canada pavilion.   Reservations at the top restaurants are highly sought after and most are usually taken months in advance.  The less popular restaurants still serve decent meals, but you have to ask yourself whether you’d choose to eat at those places if you were not on the dining plan.

Along similar lines, a Bethany, Connecticut, dad adds this:

We took the dining plan and were disappointed. It was a lot of work to coordinate. We made travel plans six weeks before departure and were unable to procure reservations in our favorite restaurants (or they were at inconvenient times—9:50 p.m. at Boma).

If you’re still interested in the dining plan, book your restaurants as soon as possible, typically 90–180 days before you visit. If you’re able to obtain reservations at your first-choice restaurants, then you can decide whether the plan makes economic sense.

Finally, note that skipping a single full-service dinner during a visit of five or fewer days can mean the difference between saving and losing money. In our experience, having a scheduled sit-down meal for every day of a weeklong vacation can be mentally exhausting, especially for kids and teens. One option might be to schedule a meal at a Disney Signature restaurant, which requires two full-service credits, and have no scheduled sit-down meal on another night in the middle of your trip, allowing your group to decide on the spot if it’s up for something formal.

Dining Plan Alternatives

One of the biggest selling points for Disney’s dining plan is that you’ve paid for your meals before you leave home.  It’s possible to get the same results by purchasing a pre-paid debit card and loading it with the same amount of money you’d pay for the Disney plan.  The big advantage to using your own debit card is that you get to keep any money left over at the end of your trip.  American Express, Visa and MasterCard all have pre-paid cards that can be ordered and loaded from your phone or computer.  (The American Express Prepaid Card, which has no activation or monthly fees, seems to be the best deal right now.)  We’re very interested in hearing from families who try this option.  Drop us a line if you do, and let us know how it worked.

If your peace of mind absolutely requires a Disney meal plan, the quick-service option is the best way to go for most families.  As with the standard dining plan, you’ll get the most savings using the quick-service meals for lunch and dinner.  Even if decide to splurge on a sit-down meal or two, you can use your saved quick-service meals for breakfasts without feeling like you’ve paid twice as much as everyone else for the same food.

Reader Comments

Readers who tried the Disney dining plan had varying experiences. A mother of two from Marshalltown, Iowa, volunteered the following:

The dining plan is great in theory, but it had way too much food and used too much valuable park time for the table-service meals. We won’t use it again.

From a Minnesota family of three:

We purchased the basic Disney Dining Plan, and my wife and I were almost overwhelmed by the amount of food we received. I skipped a counter-service meal one day, which allowed my son to use the meal credit for breakfast from the resort food court the next day.

A Toronto family says gratuities add up:

Families should be warned that tips in Disney table-service restaurants can add up quickly in a week. The tip for our party of five at Le Cellier alone was $45.

A father of two from Danbury, Connecticut, however, gave the plan a thumbs-up:

We had the dining plan, so all of our meals were on the property. We were pleasantly surprised at both the service and quality of food. The entertainment during the meals, especially at the 50’s Prime Time Cafe and Whispering Canyon, really added to the meals.

A Belmont, Massachusetts, dad is a fan of the Quick Service Dining Plan:

If you intend to eat Disney food, the counter-service meal plan is a good option. We didn’t want the full plan because the restaurants seemed overpriced, and the necessity of reservations months in advance seemed crazy and a bar to flexibility. You get two counter-service meals (entree/combo, dessert, drink) and two snacks (food item or drink) per person per day as part of the plan, and even though kids’ meals are cheaper, there’s no distinction when you order—kids can order [more-expensive] adult meals.

But a reader from The Woodlands, Texas, laments that the plan has altered the focus of her vacation:

For me, the Disney Dining Plan has taken a lot of the fun out of going to Disney World. No longer are we free to enjoy the parks and fit in meals as a secondary matter. Now, dining for each day must be planned months in advance unless one is to eat just hot dogs, pizza, and other walk-up items. As heretical as it may sound, I’m actually less inclined to go to WDW now. I want to have fun. I don’t want to be locked into a tight schedule, always worrying about where we need to be when it’s time to eat. I don’t want to eat when I’m not hungry just because I have a reservation somewhere. Eating has become the primary consideration at WDW, not the parks and entertainment.

A mom from Orland Park, Illinois, comments on the difficulty of getting Advance Reservations:

I purchased the dining plan for this trip and must say I will never do that again. It’s impossible to get table reservations anywhere good—the restaurants that are available are available for a reason. We found ourselves taking whatever was open and were unhappy with every sit-down meal we had, except for lunch at Liberty Tree Tavern. I don’t enjoy planning my day exclusively around eating at a certain restaurant at a certain time, but that is what you must do six months in advance if you want to eat at a good sit-down restaurant in Disney. That is ridiculous.

As this reader from San Jose, California, explains, guests who are not on the dining plan need to know how the plan has affected obtaining Advance Reservations:

The Disney Dining Plan has almost eliminated any chance of spontaneity when visiting any of the sit-down restaurants. When planning 90 days out for the off-season, I was told by the Disney rep to make all my priority-seating reservations then because the restaurants are booked by people on the dining plan. In fact, I was told that most of the sit-down restaurants don’t even take walk-ins anymore. Sure enough, even though I was well over 90 days away from my vacation, a lot of my restaurant choices were unavailable. I had to rearrange my entire schedule to fit the open slots at the restaurants I didn’t want to miss.

A family from Wilmington, Massachusetts, shared this:

We found the basic dining plan somewhat limiting, and it provided way too much food for us. Dessert came with both the counter-service and table-service meals. If you tell the server that you don’t want dessert at either of these meals, he or she will try hard to convince you that you are making a life-altering mistake because you aren’t getting your money’s worth. I understand that the dining plan is a great value for many people, but we aren’t a “strap on the feedbag” kind of group.

Pesky Technicalities and Administrative Problems

Readers report experiencing a host of problems with both understanding and using the Disney Dining Plan. A dad from Tonawanda, New York, opines:

The dining plan is great, but unfortunately, not enough guests actually read the literature about it and become confused, leading to long, slow lines at some counter-service locations.

A family of four from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, observes:

The impact of the Disney Dining Plan was amazing. It created longer lines at the registers because they were programmed to ring up each thing individually, or so it seemed. For instance, for a Mickey Meal, the checkout guy had to push buttons for chicken nuggets, applesauce, milk, and fries—not just one button for the entire meal. It took the guy about 7 minutes to figure it and process us. Meanwhile, people stood there gazing up at the menu trying to figure out how they could fit their meals into their dining plans. It was incredibly frustrating for those of us who paid with cash and had no interest in the overpriced plan. One mother did say that with her three boys, she was spending more time in the restaurants eating than on the rides, so hey—maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all!

Many readers report that Disney cast members are more knowledgeable about the dining plan these days. A Washington, D.C.–area couple writes:

The kinks are worked out, and everyone at the parks we talked to seemed to get it, but we still spent $40 or more at most sit-down dinners on drinks and tips.

Many families purchase the dining plan without understanding how limited the menu choices are for kids age 9 and under. First from a West Chester, Ohio, mom:

All three of our girls are under 9 and had to choose “Kid’s Picks” wherever offered.  … They were so sick of mac-and-cheese and chicken nuggets after day two that going out to eat wasn’t that exciting for them. We were given a hard time by food-service workers when we asked about substituting something different, and we were turned down 50% of the time. On our last day, a sympathetic employee told us we could get any counter-service food we wanted and just not tell the cashier that it was for a child (apparently, for counter service, Disney doesn’t keep track of whether it’s for an adult or child). It did work for us on that last day, but I wish we would’ve known that sooner. Hope this info will help some families with young kids.

From a Midwestern reader:

We could almost relate our dining experience to that of a person who receives food stamps—very restricted and always at the mercy of someone else for food selection. We spent close to $1,000 on food and were extremely frustrated with the entire experience.

From a Wisconsin father of two:

On the last day of our visit, we were still learning about acceptable substitutions. For example, at breakfast you can have two drinks (coffee and OJ). You can also do this for lunch, but you have to give up your dessert. In the 90-degree heat, I would’ve gladly given up my fattening dessert to have a bottle of cold water to bring along.

The dining plan left a family of five from Nashville, Tennessee, similarly dazed and confused:

What was annoying was the inconsistency. You can get a 16-ounce chocolate milk on the kids’ plan, but only 8 ounces of white milk at many places. At the Earl of Sandwich, you can get 16 ounces of either kind. A pint of milk would count as a snack (price $1.52), but they wouldn’t count a quart of milk (price $1.79) because it wasn’t a single serving. However, in Animal Kingdom, my husband bought a water-bottle holder (price $3.75) and used a snack credit.

Readers also report difficulties in keeping their accounts straight. A Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, father of three says you have to watch vendors like a hawk:

We had a problem with a vendor who charged us meal service for each of the ice-cream bars we purchased. This became evident at our final sit-down meal, when we didn’t have any meal vouchers left. Check the receipts after every purchase! You could save yourself a lot of hassles.

A Havre de Grace, Maryland, mom had a similar experience:

I did want to tell you that we used the dining plan and found it to be not at all user-friendly. There was a lot of confusion on how many meals were on which card, and each place charged differently. It was very frustrating to use. Anyone else using this plan should make sure they put the correct number of meals on the correct cards.

Reader Tips for Getting the Most Out of the Plan

A mom from Radford, Virginia, shares the following tip:

Warn people to eat lunch early if they have dinner reservations before 7 p.m. Disney doesn’t skimp on food—if you eat a late lunch (where, by the way, they feed you the same ungodly amount of food), you WILL NOT be hungry for dinner.

A mom from Brick Township, New Jersey, found that the dining plan streamlined her touring:

We truly enjoyed our Disney trip, and this time we purchased the Dining Plan. This was great for the kids because we did a character-dining experience every day. This helped us in the parks because we didn’t have to wait in line to see the characters. Instead, we got all of our autographs during our meals.

From a Missouri family of four:

Regarding dining, we found the Dining Plan worthwhile but probably not a fantastic bargain. I felt pressure to spend all of our credits—we went crazy our last day there! It was particularly hard to spend the kids’ counter-service credits. We wouldn’t have been likely to order many desserts, but they come with the meals—leaving the cost of the desserts off, we probably didn’t save much money.

Finally, a Brooklyn family of four warns that the plan doesn’t always eliminate the need to use cash:

We ate dinner at Jiko—we each ordered a salad and a main course and skipped dessert—and while the food was good, we ended up leaving annoyed by Disney’s cheapness. We were on the dining plan and were told that our meals would be two points each. This translates to about $80 apiece. Fine. But when the check came, we were not only charged the two points each, we were charged $12 each for the salads. Plus tips. I asked why we had been charged extra, and I was told that dessert was included in the meal plan but not first courses. It is pretty annoying to pay $80 per person for a one-course dinner and STILL have to put down more cash.

Posted on February 9, 2012

86 Responses to “2012 Disney Dining Plan Coverage”

  • “For instance, if you’re staying for three nights and four nights”

    Assume you mean four days

  • Len, great post and preview for the next guide. Just to let you know, I’ve had several of your unofficial guides and we’ve used them for several WDW trips successfully. I also like how you blend in some wit and humor to make reading the guide fun. I’ve recommended it to several friends and family (and the touringplans DO WORK!!!)

    On our past three trips (2007, 2008, 2010), we have had the dining plan. Each trip was roughly a week for 2 adults and two kids under 9. Each time, we were able to take advantage of the “Free Dining” promotion. My perspective on the dining plan (and my wife’s) is that it is a great add-on to your vacation package. Even with the free dining, we kept totals of all the food we would have spent, and we ended up saving roughly 20% if we had paid out of pocket. Now granted, we probably wouldn’t have gotten drinks and dessert all the time, but the savings can still be found. Disney food prices are expensive almost anywhere, so getting a chicken/rib combo at one place is going to be equally as expensive as getting a dinner at a sit down restaurant.

    Several of the comments above talk about problems with planning restaurants and reservations. I do have to agree. However, people should be realistic in what a Disney World vacation is now. It’s the #1 theme park destination, so there are bound to be lots of people and lot’s of people who want to eat. Once a family makes the decision to go to WDW, then planning restaurant reservations as early as possible is a requirement. I know that for people who want to take a last minute trip, it can be difficult to get reservations at certain restaurants, but it’s the world we live in now. For families planning a few months out in advance, make reservations as soon as possible — it’s now one of the cardinal rules of planning a WDW vacation.

    One other comment. Comments on having to plan making the vacation less fun and spontaneous, I have to disagree. I think having those items planned in advance, MAKES the vacation more fun and spontaneous. It’s one less thing you don’t have to worry about.

    Keep up the good work. Love the guide and I’m planning on getting a new one this year!

  • We just got back from a 5-night trip to Disney for our son’s birthday. We booked during one of the specials and the dining plan was offered free to us when we booked. WE LOVED IT! I loved the fact that we could go to any restaurant and not have to look at the price. Pretty stress free – We just ordered and waited for our food. Yes, it did require a little extra planning due to the advanced dinner reservations but it was totally worth it and we had a fantastic trip. We had a couple of quick service meals left on our last day so we went back to our resort before the drive home and asked them to box up some dinners to go.
    The snacks were great because, as every parent knows, kids will beg for any kind of special treat they see. When my son spotted a popsicle on Main Street, I handed him my card and let him go get one. Normally I would have been the mean mommy and said no! Refillable mugs were awesome too – we’d always end our day with a trip to the resort restaurant so we could enjoy a cold drink and talk about our daily adventures!
    Even though our plan was free, I would definitely consider paying for it if we go back at a time when free dining is not a special.

  • We were there the week after thanksgiving and had the deluxe dinning plan. It was great!! We didn’t have problems getting into restaurants without reservations and I was worried about that I didn’t want to ruin any spontanaity of our trip. I will admitt be prepared for the tips!! Another secret that I found is that anything “on the menu” that is less the $4.00 can be considered a snack!!

  • “the standard dining plan comes with several other important rules:”

    I wonder if it makes sense to mention those silly blinking light drinks that they try to upsell as not being part of the dining plan.

    For the chart, I think you should say how many days/nights this represents (unless you assume 3night/4day from the example above) because you’re amortizing the cost of the mug. It’s daily cost is cheaper the more days you are there.

    I would be interested in a discussion of buffet dining (especially character breakfasts) and how it compares to using your dining credits for dinner to get the most value.

  • My wife and I dont have kids, and she is a notorious planner. So the dining plan works out great for us. Part of the fun of a WDW vacation for us is reading through all the different menus to decide where to book reservations.

    Also, the more you go to WDW, the easier it is to take time out the end of your day to travel to specific restaurants, instead of trying to shoehorn in a park-specific restaurant. For example, we can plan to spend the day in the Magic Kingdom, but we dont mind leaving a little early to take the monorail to the Polynesian to go to Kona Cafe, because we’ve been to the Magic Kingdom enough that we dont have to cram every single ride and attraction in (even though we usually can before 5pm anyway).

    But the comments in this article are very true, and I tell anyone who asks me this: the dining plan is not for everyone. If one of your primary goals is to save money where you can, and you have kids, or want to be more spontaneous with meals, you’re going to wind up in the red as far as dining plan value goes.

  • Given that “free” DDP is one of the most popular discounts Disney pushes on people, I’d discuss that. Otherwise people will view it as something that’s truly free rather than a discount. As with all discounts, to receive the “free” DDP discount, you’re foregoing an alternate discount if you choose free dining.

    • I agree. There is no such thing as a “free” DDP. You have to do the math. My husband and I took a short 3 night trip last fall. We stayed at the Pop Century and took the “free” quick service DDP over the room discount (I think it was 20%). While we did pay full price for the room (roughly $100 per night), it was less expensive than the discounted room rate ($100 less the 20%) plus the food we would have bought out of pocket. We basically got the quick service DDP for $10 per person per day.
      I will honestly say that I will never pay for the dining plan. I just don’t think it is worth the price per day for each person in the party.

      • One more thing, make sure to ask what items are considered snacks. I was really suprised of how many things that were included at Everything Pop. Another big win was Wolfgang Puck’s Express in DTD (it counts as Quick Service dining). We easily paid for our plan with what we ate there.

      • This is exactly what happened to us. We had four adults and we each ending up paying $50 for 8 days of food on the ‘free’ DDP. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but it worked for us.

        As for DDP in general, I would only recommend Quick Service, although with the down grade of two snacks to one, even that loses value. But I just can’t justify eating a sit down meal everyday. Too much time sitting and not touring!

  • In your list of what the full service sit-down meals entitles you to you list both a main course and an entree – are these not the same thing or is that something that is lost in translation (I’m from the UK!) I thought it was an entree, dessert and a drink?

    McDonalds in Epcot? I don’t know if there used to be one but I certainly don’t remember ever seeing one recently. If you’re going to use readers letters they should be a little more current as a lot of these seem incredibly outdated and some are obviously from when dining plans first started so the points they raise are perhaps out of date.

    • by Laurel Stewart on February 9, 2012, at 4:36 pm EST

      The counter service between Canada and the entrance to Future World (currently Refreshment Port) served McDonald’s food until McDonald’s and Disney ended their partnership in the last couple of years.

      • Oh wow, I had completely forgotten the kiosk with McD’s fries and drinks. I only went for the first time in 2007, and I think it was gone the 2nd time I went in 2008.

    • Ah, the “main course” and “entree” thing are typos. Sorry.

  • Overall nice job, but I think that the reader comment about booking everything at once is misleading (and not accurate). If you are not an AP holder or DVC member, you do need a package with tickets included to get the dining plan. HOWEVER, it is not required that you do that all at once on the first booking. You can make changes to the reservations, and change a room only to a package by adding park tickets and dining. You can also have a ticket/room package and add dining later. Disney is very nice about letting you add components to a package or about changing room-only to a package because that way, you get to pay them more quickly (and more if you add that dining plan) than if you have room-only 🙂

  • Great write-up. One minor nitpick – the bullets for the elements of the full-service plan include both a “main course” and an “entree.” I think it’s just one. Your views fully echo my thoughts on the plan, by the way. We did it the very first year it was offered, when it was $40 per adult, and included an appetizer and gratuity. That was a good deal. With the price hikes and cutbacks, now it just doesn’t make any sense.

  • When my husband and I go, we often share out counter service meals – places like Sunshine Seasons has huge meals that are easy to split, plus water is free, so we always get that as well. This helps stretch our number of meals during the trip.

    • Ah, this is a good tip, Kimberly. If you share counter-service meals *and* you’re on the dining plan, do you find that you have extra counter-service meals at the end of your trip?

      • My husband, kids and I shared a breakfast platter at our resort one morning and it was a great start to the day. Most of our table service meals were character/buffet style so we ate so much at those times and didn’t use all of our quick meals. But, we take some food home and exhausted our remaining snacks on rice crispy treats for the kids. No wasted meals in this household!

      • I’ll take a stab at that one 🙂 We’ve done both the regular dining plan and the quick service.

        With the quick service, no matter what I planned, we still had left over credits. And that’s when there were two snacks. It may be better with just the one snack credit but I don’t plan on trying it again.

        For the regular dining plan, we did something very similar to Kimberly. For breakfast, it was one quick service, two snacks and a refill mug of coffee for three people. That was more than enough for breakfast. Then we’d treat the dessert from lunch as a snack and take the dessert to go.

        For us, we’ll be using some form of the dining plan, even if it’s just acting like we have one and booking table service meals. I understand folks who complain about making reservations and having to plan your day out months in advanced.

        This last trip (just this past weekend) we did it without a dining plan. And we weren’t eating. As in skipping meals. It became a hassle to think about where to go to eat and what to do. To understand the problem – I have medical issues. I must eat on a regular schedule and I certainly can’t be skipping meals. I was so messed up by Saturday, I wanted to cry. Every meal was becoming a pain in terms of where to eat, what to eat, what it would cost, etc. By Saturday night I changed it around, made reservations for at least one sit down meal a day and pre-planned the other meals. Sunday and Monday were much better with this planning.

        • doh – I didn’t answer your direct question Len. Did we have any counter-service credits left on the last day? No. We had three extra snack credits (from 3 people over six days) on the last day. Not bad considering we started with 18. We used all the counter service meals with no problems, all our sit-down meals. (And yes, we did breakfast buffets with them, the least cost efficient option – but we got to meet all the characters!!)

  • When discussing the value of the dining plan particularly in relation to kids in the 10-13 age range (I have two of those now), you might want to consider the buffet factor. If you like buffets, the DDP might be more worth it to you than if you don’t. A 10 year old can order a kid’s meal at Kona or LeCellier or California Grill, so for tweens kids who prefer kid foods, the DDP might not be worth it for you in that case. But if the tween is eating at a buffet, they’re charged the full adult price regardless of what they eat.

    We do not get the DDP these days because I don’t think it’s worth it for what my kids eat, even at a sit-down meal. However, if we were planning several buffets or character meals, I’d consider it because you’re stuck paying crazy Disney inflated Disney adult food prices for those tweens anyway regardless of whether they eat a lot or just chow down on bread (as my almost 13 year old does).

  • I think it can be confusing to your newer readers when you publish reader comments that are out of date or misleading. Just in this section alone someone writes about ordering McDonald’s at Epcot and another complains about no kids pizza at Pizzafari. There hasn’t been McDonald’s in Epcot in years and there is now kids pizza at Pizzafari. The opening reader comment about not being able to add the dining plan to their resort reservation is misleading to others that don’t understand the difference because a room only booking and a package booking.

  • I think the DDP is an essential and I recommend it to anyone who asks. Our last 6 trips have included the dining plan and couldn’t imagine going with out it.

    Having the DDP helps prevent analysis paralysis. Because we’ve booked our dining reservations months in advance, we don’t sit around having the following conversation, “Where do you want to eat?”…”I don’t care, where do you want to go?” When you have a party of 11 or more like we usually do, that’s a bad situation.

    The DDP allows us to eat at places we’d never go eat at and we don’t feel guilty about ordering what ever we want. We’ve been to Callifornia Grill, Le Cellier, ‘Ohana, Flying Fish, Cinderella’s Royal Table, and just about everywhere else using the DDP. If we had to pay out of pocket for those meals, I doubt we would have ever been to those places.

    Since we’ve utilized the DDP so much we have found a stategy that works well for us. We use our snack for breakfast, the quick service for lunch, and the table service for dinner. Often my wife & I will share a meal while our three kids will share two adult counter services at lunch. This strategy allows us to use a quick service meal for a breakfast or mid-day snack during our trip.

    We’ve found that by the time you conquer a park for the day, a nice relaxing meal at Kona Cafe or Kouzzina is the perfect way to end it.

    During each trip we track how much we spend at just the table services and find we’re coming out ahead each time. Some of this depends on where you’re eating at. If you use if for buffets, breakfast, and lunches, you won’t get the full benefit of the plan.

    My advice, get the DDP, do your research, and learn how to “abuse the DDP”.

  • We’ve gotten the free dining plan the last two times we went to Disney and it was great – especially for getting character autographs without having to stand in line! Next time we may just go for the quick serve instead and maybe add a sit down out of pocket. It is nice to not have to be somewhere for a meal reservation every day of your vacation. The one thing we found out this year was that quick serve meals on your plan aren’t slated specifically for child or adult, so if you have a small child 3 or older who can share off your quick serve meal then you could potentially use those extra meals for your third meal each day. Oh, and extra sit down meal credits can be used for quick serve. Yes, and definitely find out what is considered a snack. My sister was telling us about some amazing brownie sundae at Mrs Potts (I think) that was a snack. She was REALLY excited about that one! 🙂

    • The character meals are a good point, Neula. I may quote you on this.

      • Go ahead. 🙂 The first time we went in 2009 we actually paid for the dining plan so it was much easier to get into the more popular restaurants than when it’s free. We were able to get Garden Grill, Tusker House, Crystal Palace and Hollywood and Vine. I think the only character we got twice was Mickey. We did miss Minnie that year, but we were able to get her the next time at Cape May.

  • I went in 2010 with the free Quick Service Dining and just got back in January from another free QS Dining. I think I did the math this last time and even if I booked everything separately instead of the package to get the free dining, the difference was only going to be 20 dollars a night for the dining with the package. It was a pretty good deal for me. I already knew the ropes from doing it a few years ago, so it didn’t feel so awkward.

    I don’t think I would ever want to do the Counter Service plan though. I don’t want to “waste” that much time when I could be out touring. I have previously “meal planned” myself by budgeting my food money into an envelope and just paid for things out of that envelope. It works out pretty well, as long as you know how much you are going to eat and spend at the parks.

  • My husband, our two sons and I just returned from a weeklong trip and we booked a 7-night package at the Caribbean Beach Resort with the “free” dining package. We probably would have spent less money if we’d booked with 25% off the rack rate at the resort (which – I think – is another promotion they offered for days we visited), but for this trip, we wanted to try out the dining plan. It worked out pretty well. With my boys being young (ages 5 and 3), we ended up eating at two character breakfasts and a two other buffets that we otherwise would not have wanted to pay out of pocket for, and that was great. It took some planning (I had made nearly all our ADRs 180 days in advance), but I like to plan, so I didn’t mind that. However, we spend a lot more time in restaurants than we would have otherwise. It was a bit of shock to see that we had around $130 charged to our room for all the gratuities. On the other hand, we were able to use our credits such that we didn’t pay a penny for any other food for the entire week (sharing some counter service meals on days when we did sit-down buffets, using some snack credits for lunch/breakfast, getting fruit for counter-service desserts and eating that for breakfast the next day, etc.). It was fun to do just this once and be able to have a different type of Disney experience, but I don’t think I’d do it again, and certainly wouldn’t pay out-of-pocket for the dining plan. I did like being able to experience restaurants we probably wouldn’t have gone to without the dining plan, and now I have a much better idea of where we’d like to eat again, and which restaurants we’d skip. Next time we go, I’d rather spend less time eating and more time enjoying the parks and resort, and spend my restaurant time in spots that are truly worth the time and money.

  • I go back and forth on the value of it all. In the past two years we’ve done the deluxe, regular and no dining plan and I think the deluxe is the best because of the flexibility – but you have to be smart about it. We use our credits at a lot of buffets and signature restaurants to get maximum value. Consider the value added too – get your character pictures and signatures while you eat and it’s always fun to visit the different resorts. Plus the counter service food is just plain TERRIBLE so I will try to avoid them at all costs! It does take a lot of planning but planning ahead is half the fun of the vacation in my opinion.

  • There are a LOT of reader comments. I admit that tl;dr. But, do all of them add something, or are you just beating the reader about the head? (Remember: the book is already long….)

    I also agree with the suggestion about addressing “free” dining here, at least a little bit.

  • • With a military room only reservation you always have the option of adding the Dining Plan later.
    • It’s false for any one to say (or Disney to claim) that the meal is already paid for – tip and ANY extras you might want are not included…. like a side salad, glass of wine and soup….. so you still (at a sit down non buffet family of four meal) could pay on the spot 50 bucks or more
    • I don’t like that my kids HAVE to order from the kids menu at a table service meal. The choices are so limited it’s like counter service food.
    • I disagree that the average family can’t get reservations at the good restaurants. The credit card hold on the signature and some buffets have greatly freed up lots of spots. Also, we never had issues (even during the summer or spring break) in getting a reservation. (we are a family of 4)
    • I agree that you get too much food. We always had too much food on the counter service meals and not enough (like appetizers and sides) at the table service meals. (we were on the regular plan)
    • Please stop telling people 90 days out. NO restaurant does this… they are all 180 days out now.

    A father of two from Danbury, Connecticut, however, gave the plan a thumbs-up: This guy speaks NOTHING to the cost of the plan but how much he liked the restaurants on property. This quote is not helpful and quite confusing. It seems to me that some people thing you HAVE to have the plan to eat on property…. which you don’t.

    I do agree that it creates long lines and confusion with ordering. There should be DDP lines and NON-DDP lines to check out!

    Does the trick of ordering off the adult menu but using a kids credit at counter service still work? I swear I just read something that said they changed that. Also you can’t substitute OJ as the dessert at breakfast any more.

    • Julia, I don’t think the quote says it’s a 90-day window. The reader says that they were more than 90 days from their trip (i.e., they started their planning a little more than 3 months from their trip). It’s a coincidence that their 90-day comment aligns with Disney’s old policy, I think.

    • And I’ll check on the substitution of a drink for dessert at lunch. Thanks!

  • While I agree that it is important to stress that the Dining Plan is not a good deal for everyone, I think you are missing a sentence or two about the families for whom the Dining Plan IS a good deal. For example, if you are planning to eat multiple Character Meals or buffet dinners during your trip, the Dining Plan can be very cost effective. Dinner in Akershus alone is $25 for each child – almost twice the cost of one day’s worth of the Dining Plan. For those of us who only get to Walt Disney World once every three or four years, the opportunity to eat with the characters is a major highlight of the trip, but the cost to do so out of pocket is becoming prohibitive.

    • I second this sentiment! We only go to WDW every couple of years and love to do the character meals with our kiddos. The dining plan makes this really affordable! On our upcoming 5-night trip in June, we are using the dining plan once again and will be doing dinner at Chef Mickey’s and Crystal Palace and lunch at Tusker House (which is now a character meal). (Our other table meals will be Biergarten and Whispering Canyon.) We have 3 kids ages 2, 6, and 8 so for now, the plan is a good bargain for our family. Once we have to start paying adult prices for the oldest, the dining plan will probably not be worth it.

    • Ah, I like the way you said this Trudie!

  • We have gotten the regular dining plan twice because it was free. We like to spend most of our time enjoying the parks and minimal time eating, so the time spent at sit down meals feels wasteful (though it did force us to rest a little). The first time on the dining plan we felt like we HAD to get the dessert with every meal, but since we were full we saved it for later. I ended up walking around the parks with my backpack filled with pieces of cake in plastic containers. We even ended up bringing some cake home! (Note: apple pie does not travel well in a styrofoam container.) We did enjoy trying restaurants that we would not have otherwise gone to, but overall I find the regular dining plan too stressful (requires too much planning ahead of time) and wasteful and will probably not use it again even if it is free. I definitely would not pay it.

  • I consider the Magic Your Way with Dining package to be an “all inclusive” vacation. Having everything but drinks, tips and souvenirs paid for before we arrive, reduces the stress I would normally have to endure watching my husband grimace and sigh every time he opened his wallet. 🙂

    I would be hard pressed to pay for the dining plan, but I love the Free Dining Promotion because it gives my husband and I a chance to do some fine dining with our teen boys without choking on the check.

    If you like signature or character meals, I think that’s the only purpose for the Deluxe Dining Plan.

  • by Kathy in Texas on February 9, 2012, at 9:27 pm EST

    We took advantage of free dining last December and loved the convenience of it. No stress, no fuss – we just chose from the menu and didn’t worry about a thing. Knew about tips coming in, so planned for it. I believe we would now choose the dining plus plan even if not free. I will admit I was petrified about counter service meals, as it seems many find them horrible, but my husband, both kids and I were extremely happy with them – especially the gigantic salads. Good grief, we pay almost as much for popcorn and drinks at the movies back home! We give 8 thumbs up to the dining plan whether it saves us 5 bucks a day or 40!

  • We’ve used the dining plan twice and plan to use it again when we go this year. For us, it’s more about convenience and lower stress than strict dollar value. When i vacation, i want to be going and doing and take as little time as possible to eat. However, my husband needs to have that sit-down meal; eating in nice restaurants is part of what makes it a vacation for him. So, we compromise. One sit-down a day, and the dining plan lets us choose places we would otherwise never even THINK about going because of the pricing. Also, we’ve never had that much of a problem with the ADRs. We’ve gone at medium-level times, so i’m sure that helped, but got into Le Cellier both trips. (Last time, we could have even gotten two ADRs there!)

    On our last trip, on our last day we had one last table service credit left, and no ADR. We headed into MK at about 4pm (i think it was about a crowd calendar 6) and as my husband parked the car, i pulled out my iPhone and checked Disney’s web site for MK ADRs. There was one in Liberty Square and one at the Plaza. We picked the Plaza because the time was better for us. By the time we walked into the park, we had our ADR ready. It was awesome. When it works, it’s incredibly convenient.

    The part I don’t care for is the thought that part of your day has to revolve around where you’ll be eating; at times it’s been very inconvenient to really want to be in Epcot, say, with a Crystal Palace ADR and you have to leave NOW. By and large, though, the pluses outweigh the negatives for us. I think after this trip, we may re-evaluate; my older daughter will be 9 before we get back again and i’m not sure it’ll make sense to pay adult prices for her.

  • I’ve done the dining plan in the past and have enjoyed it but those trips were paid for in part by my grandmother so cost wasn’t a huge factor. We are planning on going for 7 days and my husband and I are paying for everything this time. We will have a 5 and 3 year old when we go and all the analysis I have done shows me that the DDP will be more than worth it for our situation. Our meal choices seem to be a lot of buffets and the kids come out to be quite a bargin on the DDP. I think it is an analysis that needs to be done family by family based on restaurant choices. The daily kids price of the DDP can payoff with just one meal.

  • In the first paragraph…
    Disney STRONGLY prefers that you add dining atleast 5 days prior to check in before they turn things over to the resort. Also, any changes inside 2 weeks of check in will result in an additional fee (9.95, I believe) even if you are “upgrading”, so add it as soon as you kow you want it.

    Also, as mentioned, families with children 3-9 see substantial savings using the dining plan. With one buffet meal costing almost as much as the cost of the plan for the day, the savings can add up very quickly!

  • I will echo the commenter who said the new credit card guarantee requirement has made ADRs more available. Just don’t book a character or signature experience so far out that you forget about it. The $10 per person no show penalty could be painful in the wallet.

  • Not only is spending a TS credit at breakfast a bad deal, spending a CS credit is a poor deal as well. At our resort, we used to be told that you could not get a dessert with breakfast but could get an extra drink to compensate. This year the extra drink was done away with, as well.

    We tried the CS dining plan this year. While it was a considerable savings not to have to pay for tips, and certainly easier to not have to worry about making ADRs, what we found was that the eating quickly became monotonous. Even though each park has a variety of CS options, we found that we only liked the food at about one per park, resulting in us eating at the same ones repeatedly over the course of the week (on the up side, we have now sampled every conceivable offering at Columbia Harbor House.)

    If I could construct a dining plan, I’d take one with 3-5 snacks/per day–using it during the Food and Wine Festival would allow for a lot of variety and good value/redemption. Alternatively, the best method we’ve found for the standard plan is for two people to share one CS for breakfast, one for lunch, and then one Signature dining for dinner (as permitted.)

  • Good points about children 3-9 and character meal buffets. I’ll add a section in on that!

  • I would think your analysis would also show that using two meal credits at a “signature resturant” is also a bad deal. $61.44 for main course, dessert and drink seems high on average even for the most expensive places.

  • by Debbie from Chicago on February 10, 2012, at 10:24 am EST

    We’ve used the plan for the last 3 years and I’ve found it to be extremely convenient and saved about 15%. But, not sure that I will use it this year because when we first started out, adult cost was $40, now it’s nearly $52. The reason why it worked for us is that I have a 6 year old and I know that we will do a lot of character meals. We almost always do dinners. I don’t have any problems with ADRs as I am one of those people who books 180 days out, so I am able to book exactly what I want. Even when free DD is available, I always do a room discount because the savings is always better for a family of three. For QS instead of dessert we can almost always get water instead and we often split QS since the system does not determine adult from child meals. Like I said earlier it worked for us, but now it more $.

  • by Debbie from Chicago on February 10, 2012, at 10:33 am EST

    Just a thought, you may want to use the term quick service, instead of counter service since that’s the term Disney uses.

  • Great post Len, and I agree completely with everything. I am a proponent of the put the money on a debit card and you will end up ahead of the game. Couple of things I saw though:

    In one place you mention the peak price first and the off peak price second, then down below you reverse it. You might want to put them in the same order to help prevent confusion.

    Also where you mention your 5 day trip having 16 leftover table credits, you do not say how many people you had or which plan you were on. A big difference here if you had 10 people or 4 and deluxe or standard.

  • I’d add that your analysis is based on average prices, and that the average is within a very wide range. Yes, if you’re inclined to get the cheapest entrees at cheaper restaurants (e.g., a burger at Sci-Fi Dine-In), you’ll wastemoney by getting the DDP. On the other hand, a meal at Tutto Italia for an adult can cost as much as a full day of DDP. Similarly, the best way to give money back to Disney is to spend snack credits on $2 Cokes rather than, say, a $4.50 pastry at Starring Rolls.

    As a general guideline, I’d say:

    1) Recommend if:
    a) You have multiple kids ages 3-9, for whom it’s an amazing deal (particularly for character meals), or
    b) Your party of adults is inclined to eat full table service meals with desserts throughout your trip, and wants to go to more expensive restaurants like Tutto Italia, Coral Reef, Raglan Road, or similar. Particularly if you prefer steak to chicken 🙂

    2) Do not recommend if:
    a) You have multiple kids ages 10-14 who won’t eat a lot, or
    b) You prefer not to spend time at table service restaurants, don’t want dessert at most meals, or don’t want fancier 1 credit TS restaurants.

  • My son was 4 weeks from turning 10 years old on our first trip. Because I told Disney Travel he was 9, he had to eat from the kid’s menu (burgers, cheese pizza, hot dogs, etc) and we ended up ordering more food to satisfy his hunger. We should have told Disney he was 10. Keep this in mind if you have a hungry child on the cusp of turning 10.

    • Just remember with hungry 9 year olds, the price difference is over $35 a day and I would think that will also change the price you are paying within the package for their ticket.

      • VERY good point, Leah. I should have clarified that I would have “upgraded” my 9 year old to an adult ticket if we were using the the Free Dining Promotion, knowing that his park ticket would cost a bit more. That would have saved us a nightly trip to the resort food court each night because he was still hungry. 🙂

  • Dearest Len,
    Pie charts ROCK!
    Thank you from the bottom of my visually oriented heart 🙂
    Otherwise, I agree that there should be a note on how the value of “free” dining changes depending on individual circumstances.
    We mindlessly took the free dining 2x (staying WL) and found that we hit food overload by day 5 of a 14 day trip both times.
    Then, after hearing your advice on WDW today, we did the math and found much better savings the past 2 years with room discounts at the Poly (and because our girls don’t eat like truckers). We budgeted liberally for food and really enjoyed the freedom of ordering app’s some nights instead of entree’s etc, but did tend to avoid character buffets on principal.
    This year however, we wanted to get a 2 week vacation on the cheap (relatively speaking). We’re staying at Port Orleans Riverside with free dining and the savings are significantly better than taking a room discount anywhere/ any way I crunch the numbers. I think the key is having 4 “adults” in a moderate room and the length of stay. We also know how to work the plan now and how to avoid over-indulging, and we’re looking forward to eating at Boma and not feeling sick over the $200 bill at the end when our 11yo eats some carrot soup, a roll and a zebra- dome. That said, if we upgraded to the WL again we’d barely break even with free DDP and would probably prefer the room discount.
    I don’t know how you can write about the free dining conundrum eloquently in the book with out going in circles like I just did, but I’ll enjoy reading it when you do!

    • Hey Katherine-

      Great point, and I may quote you on this. “Free Dining” works when you’re not at a deluxe and you’ve got a decent number of adults in the room. I’ll look at Tom Bricker’s old article on this to see exactly where the break-even is. Thanks!


  • Many of the comments in the article and comments added talked about the table service meals taking away from touring. We never found that to be the case. Many places open an hour before the park. Book your meal then and hit the park full. A late lunch is a great way to take a mid-day break and refresh the kids. Dinner at night is another great way to take a break and get the kids (and parents) that second wind to make it through to park closing.

    Also, to us and the kids, many of the places we eat add to the Disney experience. I can’t go down the street and eat a place like SciFi, Akershus, Coral Reef, or others.

  • Hi,
    The UK version of the QSDP still has 2 snack credits per day for 2012.

  • The dining plan debate! 🙂 We are a family of six. Only one is consider a child. We have fun with the dining plan. Always go over cost and enjoy ordering the most expensive items. Including the kids. Your pie graph only averaged out costs. This was some examples of the amounts last trip for 1 person/1 meal: (TABLE) Akershus- $46.85 Chefs de France-$40.15 Tony’s Town Square(We did have a great meal there!)-$39.67 (COUNTER SERVICE) Columbia House-$16.08 Cosmic Ray’s-$16.87 Tangierine Cafe-$18.98 This is still not including snacks. We always save and have fun going over the amount. With such a large family we enjoy being able to have one time to really indulge. I guess you have to think about like a cruise price with the meals included. And during free dining we make out like bandits! Definitely out ways any room discount. I tell people if you definitely will eat all that is offered it will save you money. Maybe be a little more balanced in your opinion for some families it will benefit. Thank you for all the work you all do! Really love the touring plans!

  • Len and Fellow Disney Freaks,

    Last month, January, we signed up for the Disney Dining Plan when we booked our stay in advance. We asked for a MK/Lake view room at The Polynesian Resort. At check-in, we were pleasantly surprised that we had been upgraded to Club Level with Concierge Service – Standard Room with Theme Park View. With it came lounge access. Had we known about the lounge access and the snacks and beverages available there, we probably didn’t need the DDP. It was difficult to use all the credits. Even an over-weight guy like me gets tired of eating that often and that much.
    Thank you to everyone that contributes with your thoughts and experiences.
    Len, thank you for your great service to us Disney nuts.

  • How is the tip calculated when using the dining plan at a table service? Based on the cost of the dining plan or what you order? I understand that certain things are not included (adult beverages, etc) and will be an additional charge. Am I also right that at certain restaurants the dining plan does not include the full menu?

    • Karen,

      If memory serves, two suggested tips of either 18% or 20% is on the bottom of the guest check. And, I’m quite certain that those amounts is based on what you bought at that time. (Side note: Why? Why? are we expected to pay the employees in service industries directly through tips? I wish the employer would pay their employees direct and if we were pleased with their exceptional service, then leave something appropriate. Yes, I’d like to pay the full amount due.)

      • Tipping is better for all parties.
        1. The restaurant saves money by not having to pay the servers as much as regular waged employees. Better service (see below).
        2. The server makes more money. If I have just three tables and make just $5 each off those tables that is much better than paid $10 an hour. Ask those servers at La Cellier if they want to pay by the hour or tips?!
        3. The customers food cost less because pay is kept low (think dining is expensive now). They also receive better service – good servers work hard hoping to earn a good tip. If a server knew what he would make after a shift they would probably not work as hard and it would also be very difficult for restaurants to retain good servers for such a difficult job. Plus the customer can control the cost – tip 15% or 20% or 25% – your choice.

  • Two comments…
    First, you don’t mention tips until about 1/2 way in & it is in a reader comment. I would think that should be pulled out & maybe mentioned sooner. Maybe where you talk about tax being included?
    Because even with paying for the meals in advance you still need $$ in your pocket for tips each meal.

    Second at the beginning where it says “(not through an online reseller)” I’m not sure what that is? I assumed Expedia but you mention them later. I know it isn’t the on line Disney travel agencies since I’ve used those & booked trips with the dining plan. Just curious what that means?

  • In the quotes, a guest mentions getting two drinks with breakfast. I believe they’ve discontinued this option. I think only one drink with breakfast now. Juice OR coffee, not both.

  • Our first trip was in 2005, the dining plan was new and a great value. It included just about everything, appetizer, entrée, desert, non-alcoholic beverage, even the tip. I don’t think it was supposed to be included, but we had a party of 7 and the tip was automatically included in the bill. The whole thing was so new most cast members didn’t really know what they were doing). On our next trip in 2008 we opted to go with the dining plan again, Disney had put a great thing out there, gotten people hooked, and then started reeling in the costs (a.k.a. raising the prices and reducing the benefits). We still thought it was worth the cost. We worked it to get the most value out of the plan and never got to the end of the trip with more than 2-3 snack credits to use up, but that was an easy way to pick up some food to have on Magical Express and while waiting for our flight home at the airport.

    Our next trip we decided to venture into “free” dining. That took a lot of number crunching and room discount trading for our party of six (3 adults, 2 children, 1 infant). Staying at the Poly for 7 nights we loaded 2 adults and 2 children on one room reservation at rack rate and took the “free” dining and saved a few hundred dollars. Taking the room discount on the second room for my mom and infant daughter was a better deal than the “free” dining for one adult. (I tried to book one room with 5 people on the “free” dining plan, but that left the second room booked under our 1yr old’s name.)

    The last trip we took in 2010 we decided to forgo the dining plan and pay cash. Turned out that we paid slightly more or broke even with the price of the dining plan. Because of our kids ages and our touring/dining habits, which were established on our very first trip and guided by the fact that we had the dining plan, we usually have a counter service breakfast (Captain Cooks), hit the park for rope drop, snack along the way back to our resort at mid-day, then have an early (5:00PM) sit-down dinner and then back to a park. We never viewed having to make ADRs as ruining the spontaneity of our tip. We looked forward to our evening meals together and got the kids going and energized again after our afternoon nap/downtime. We hit the character meal buffets (agreed, not the best value, but traded off for the character interaction time, and some great kid memories). We also were not shy to use two dining credits for a dinner show (Hoop-De-Do and Spirit of Aloha) and swap out snack credits for a breakfast in order to use a counter service for dinner one night.

    It did take a lot of thinking about meal credits and what we were getting in order to maximize the value of the dining plan when we purchased it, however, when we didn’t purchase it we still needed ADRs, and we watched what we spent in order to maximize the value we got for our meal money and time. When we purchased the dining plan I never felt that we left money on the table at the end of the trip by not getting the value out of the plan. My problem with the current incarnation of the plan is the mounting cost and amount of additional out of pocket spend that’s necessary to fill in the voids in the plan.

    Now that our family demographic has changed (our oldest daughter is a Disney “Adult” at age 11) we won’t be purchasing the dining plan any time soon. I could rationalize to myself that I was maybe eating $34 worth of food for dinner, but I know that I can feed my 11yr old for much less, and probably, for that matter, our 8yr old and 4yr old will eat for much less than the child’s dining plan costs. It does make me sad that we are thinking twice about the buffet restaurant offerings, and therefore character meals which we enjoy. Having to pay adult prices for an 11 yr old at Boma, ‘Ohana, or Crystal Palace hurts.

    So, is the Disney Dining Plan worth it? It can be, but it depends on the individual Disney guest and their circumstances.

  • Late to the party, here, but hopefully not too late. I have one more instance where your reader quote is somewhat misleading (or maybe out of date). It’s from A Havre de Grace, Maryland, mom, with her comment about getting the correct number of meals charged to each card. That’s only a problem with multiple rooms–for a family sharing one room, the DP credits are all pooled and the server can just use one card to deduct the credits for everyone. As the quote reads now, it looks like there’s an accounting hassle at every meal.

  • I must say we used the dining plan and loved it. I didn’t do the calculations and completely trust yours but we still loved it. We were sucessful in booking all thr restaurants we wanted and never felt rushed. In fact, it was a nice time to sit down in the middle of a busy day of touring. In addition, I think we saved time because we did a lot of character meals and got so much attention and photos we didn’t need to stand in any character lines in the parks. We were celebrating our sons 4th birthday and every meal was a unique and special little celebration. In fact some of the meals were highlights of our vacation. Financially we didn’t have to worry about a food budget and that was a huge load off of us. I do, when planning the vacation, research all the prices of the meals we want and plan accordingly to get the best deal. I do almost all sit down meals for dinner and pick a couple dinner shows so we are not doing a sitdown meal every day. I really think it worked out for us and will do it again.

  • by nathalie green on February 29, 2012, at 4:39 pm EST

    As a single mom with tweens on a budget, the dining plan didn’t make sense for us. I packed/brought a breakfast & a lunch from home for us for each day, & only spent money at WDW on dinner each night. Way cheaper than the dining plan, and no restrictions or limitations. Plus we got the discounted room rate, so it all worked out great.

  • I’m VERY late to this–I’ve had this saved for a LONG time to read. But the one thing I really have to wonder is when did it become that you can add the dining plan up until check-in? I know up till at least a year ago, it had to be added at least 72 hours prior to your check-in day. If it hasn’t changed, that can lead to a BIG disappointment to someone (not me since the dining plan doesn’t fit the way we eat and has always cost us more than paying out pocket without penny pinching).

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  • My partner and I are both analytical nerds who are also foodies, so the dining plan totally worked for the two of us. As others mentioned, we got great pleasure out of researching and planning ahead of time – it was a bit of a game. Pre-planning and reserving where to eat was part of the fun before the trip, and it allowed us to enjoy the parks and know where to eat during the trip.

    (It should be noted that you need to make reservations ahead of time if you want to eat at nicer restaurants. So dining plan or not, if you want a nice meal experience you’ll need to stick to a schedule.)

    We kept all our receipts and tracked the total at the end of our trip on the flight home. We saved about 20% with the dining plan vs. had we paid cash. We may have only eaten about 60%-70% of the food we ordered, but we loved the variety of options the plan afforded us. Disney food is hit or miss, but with meals spread across 3 courses, we nearly always had at least one great dish in every meal.

    I disagree with the notion that breakfast is the cheapest meal of the day. Buffet meals require the use of a sit-down meal voucher, and we had buffet for breakfast nearly everyday. Boma was the best, but the buffets at the Contemporary Resort and Akershus Royal Banquet Hall were also fantastic. Each of these provided the best selection and some of the tastiest food – and with pricing between $30 and $45 – they provided one of the best values on our plan. Additionally, as the first meal of day, it became invaluable for us to sit down each morning fully recharged and plan for the day’s activities in a relaxed dining environment. I would fully recommend you plan on spending sit-down credits on nice buffet breakfasts.

    Should you not use want to use your sit-down meals for breakfast (or lunch buffets, for that matter), you can combine two sit-down credits for either a dinner show (Spirit of Aloha, Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, or Mickey’s Backyard Barbeque). We saw the Aloha show and were underwhelmed by the show, but the food was pretty good and included unlimited beer (!) with our meal credit – so can’t complain.

    We did end up with unused snacks at the end of the trip, but we simply redeemed them for bags of candy and caramel apples in the gift shop at the hotel to take back to friends and family. We found the best value for our snack vouchers was at the World Emporium during the Epcot Food and Wine Festival. We used snack vouchers for escargot. Yes, really.

    Best of all, was the no stress. At the start of the trip (in fact, months before the trip), we could sit down and say “this is how much we want to spend on food and this is the kind of food we can eat to meet that budget” and *poof* done. I never had to worry about whether I wanted to splurge for the lobster or the hamburger, or whether or not we had budgeted for an ice cream cone. I had already made all those calculations (and budgeted likewise) months prior, so I could just let all my inhibitions about cost go, and simply enjoy the meal and trip. That alone made it all worthwhile, and ensured we will purchase a plan for each trip.

    The only true caveat (as others mentioned) is the added expense of tipping. We got the Deluxe plan (3 sit down meals + 2 snacks per day). In order to truly maximize that plan, you really need to commit to eating only sit-down meals – where tipping is expected.

    Additionally, we did find that that nearly all of the nicest restaurants are at the hotels and at Epcot (however Magic Kingdom will soon have the new “Be Our Guest” restaurant), so if you want consistently great food and want to truly maximize your credits, you’ll need to park (and hotel) hop.

  • While I generally believe that the dining plans are a trap for the unwary, I do believe it’s possible to drive value out of at least the deluxe plan under certain circumstances.

    Specifically, we’ve found that you can get your money’s worth out of the deluxe plan (at least prior to the 2013 price increase) by using one of your three daily table service credits for either a breakfast buffet or table service lunch and then using the other two credits for a signature dinner.

    This assumes you’re not traveling with a 10-14 year old who is not a voracious eater (for that matter, it assumes that everyone in your party over the age of 10 has a reasonably healthy appetite).

    In addition, the timing and selection of the reservations is very important. For example, when we choose to use a meal credit on a breakfast buffet, we generally try to get an early, pre-park opening reservation, so as not to miss prime touring time. When we choose to use a meal credit on a table service lunch, we also generally try for an earlier reservation time, so as to space lunch and dinner far enough apart.

    Keep in mind that we typically make our reservations 180 days in advance. Moreover, our vacation style is such that we’re usually done with the parks by the early afternoon. So we have no problem devoting a good portion of our evening to a nice dinner in a signature restaurant (indeed, we enjoy these meals almost as much, if not more, than our time spent in the parks).

    Used as described above, I believe the deluxe plan is the easiest of the three plans to drive savings from. The mistake most people make with this plan is assuming that they’ll be hungry enough for three table service meals per day. This is simply too much food for the vast majority and typically results in several unused meal credits.

    Finally, I’d note that, in general, the dining plans aren’t about saving money any more (Disney’s marketing literature notwithstanding). To the contrary, they’re about paying a premium for having an all-inclusive vacation feel, knowing that all of your meals have been paid for in advance. If this psycological aspect is important to you, then purchasing a dining plan may still be worth it. But, unless used as described above, you probably won’t be saving much (if any) money.

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