The Basics: A Cost Analysis of the Disney World Dining Plan

by on February 26, 2016 30 Comments

Filed under: Basics, Dining, discounts, Saving Money

This is a continuation of our Back to Basics Series. Scroll to the bottom to find links to our other Basics posts.

The first thing to understand about the Disney World Dining Plan is the transformation it has undergone since its introduction in 2005. At one time, the promotional material for the dining plan emphasized value, trumpeting savings of up to 40 percent. Today, the emphasis is on convenience. That’s because the potential savings of the Dining Plan is very dependent on how you use it. In fact, it’s fairly easy to lose money on the Dining Plan.

Disney Dining PlanDuring its debut, the Standard Dining Plan cost about $35 per day for adults and $10 for children. For this price, visitors would get the familiar offering of one table-service meal, one counter-service meal and one snack. The big difference from the original offering to today is in the table-service meal, which no longer includes appetizer or gratuity in the cost.

And, of course, that cost has gone up markedly as well. In 2016, the price per day of the Standard Dining Plan is $61.82 per adult and $20.98 per child (tax included). In addition to the table-service meal, counter-service meal and single snack per day, guests using this plan will get a refillable drink mug, valid for the length of stay.

The other dining plan options include the Quick-Service Plan, which includes two counter-service meals and one snack per day, along with the refillable drink mug. Per day, this package will run you $42.84 for adults and $17.47 for children (tax included). Then there’s the Deluxe Dining Plan, which offers a choice of 3 table- or counter-service meals per 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. Both child and adult credits can be used for adult meals, if desired, on the Deluxe Dining Plan. The cost per day is $111.73 for adults and $32.56 for children (tax included).

Read on to find out where you can find value in the Dining Plan and where you can fall short.

Finding value in the Dining Plan

Whether you save money using the Dining Plan depends a lot on how you eat and the number of children you have. Do you enjoy steak and seafood? There’s a good chance you’ll get your money’s worth on the Dining Plan. If you’re a family with young children, character buffets are the best way to find value on the Dining Plan.

The braised pork during lunch at Be Our Guest is a great use of a counter-service credit

The Braised Pork during lunch at Be Our Guest is a great use of a counter-service credit

To see where you can find value, let’s look at some examples.

An adult at the Magic Kingdom uses a snack credit at Aloha Isle for a Dole Whip Float ($5.29), has quick-service lunch at Be Our Guest, getting the Braised Pork ($14.99), a soft drink ($2.99) and the Master’s Cupcake for dessert ($4.59), then takes the Monorail over to ‘Ohana for table-service dinner ($38.20). The out of pocket cost, with tax added in, would be $70.35, well above the $61.82 cost of the Standard Dining Plan.

One item we didn’t figure was the value of the refillable mug included in the plan. Bought separately, the mug is $17.99 for the length of stay. For our purposes, let’s assume a 6-day stay, which would make the mug a $3 per day value. So adding in the value of the mug, you have more than $11 savings by using the Dining Plan — not bad.

Perhaps a late ADR at Chef Mickey's?

Chef Mickey’s, like other character buffets, is an outstanding value on the Disney Dining Plan.

As our other example, let’s take a family of four with two adults and two children. The total per-day cost for the Dining Plan is $165.60 for the family. Now consider that dinner for this family is at the character buffet Chef Mickey’s. With tax, the out-of-pocket cost for Chef Mickey’s would be $141.52 for this meal alone. Figure about $50 for this family’s counter service meal, $20 for their snacks and $12 value for their refillable mugs and you end up with more than $220 in value, making the Dining Plan a great deal in this instance.

The bottom line is that it’s important to know the prices of what you’re eating in order to figure out whether the Dining Plan makes sense financially. Figuring that your average counter service meal is going to be around $18 with drink and dessert, when you add in snack ($5) and mug ($3), and let’s figure that’s in the $26 range. Subtract that from your daily Dining Plan cost and you should make sure your total table service meal is around $35 to make sure you’re breaking even. Figure on about $11 to $12 for dessert and drink, and an entree of $22 will get you to even when you add in tax.

Dining Plan pitfalls

Are you a vegetarian? Do you have children age 10 or over? Do you tend to be a light eater? Have you waited until the last minute to book your advance dining reservations? The Dining Plan may not save you money. Here are ways that you can be tripped up and end up spending more on the Dining Plan than you would have spent out of pocket.

As we stated earlier, the plan works well for those who prefer steaks and other high-priced entrees or buffets. You might feel that this restricts your options because you don’t want to lose money. Maybe you enjoy getting a lower-priced item, like a burger at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater or meat loaf at 50s Prime Time Cafe. And for those kids that are 10 or older, you’re paying adult prices, even though their preference is still chicken nuggets.

The Bread Service at Sanaa is a highlight, but as an appetizer, it's not covered by the Disney Dining Plan.

The Bread Service at Sanaa is a highlight, but as an appetizer, it’s not covered by the Disney Dining Plan.

Some feel constrained by the Dining Plan, especially because it doesn’t include appetizers. If you really want to get the Bread Service at Sanaa, you’ll have to pay out of pocket for it. Likewise, you might feel constrained by having to use two table service credits to eat at Signature Restaurants. You’ll need to spend about $70 to meet the value of those credits.

One sure way to lose value in the dining plan is to be late making your advanced dining reservations. The Dining Plan is about enjoying your favorite meals without worrying about cost. But if you’re unable to get into your favorite restaurants, do you really want to pay a premium for that experience?

It’s important to remember that the dining plan does not include your tips. A typical family of four should count on budgeting around $25 per table service meal for gratuities. Over the course of a week, that’s more than $150 you’ll need to add to your dining budget.

Beyond the table-service credits, you’ll want to maximize the value of your counter-service and snack credits. Take a look at the counter-service menus to find the ones that will provide maximum value. Be Our Guest, mentioned earlier, is one. Another is Wolfgang Puck Express in Disney Springs. And be sure to spread out the use of your snack credits during the week on high-value items. One good strategy is to use those snack credits to purchase baked goods for breakfast. It’s a shame to end up with a bunch of snack credits that you use for bottled water on your last day at Disney.

But this speaks to another factor – the Dining Plan tends to be a lot of food. As much as you might love dessert, there’s a chance you’ll be sick of having dessert with every meal. If you’re throwing away a good portion of the food you’ve paid for, is that really a value?

The final verdict

Like we said, these days, the Disney World Dining Plan is more about the convenience of knowing in advance how much you’ll be spending on dining and being able to order the most expensive entree on the menu without worry. Whether it makes financial sense for you is very dependent on your family and your dining habits. It will require some advance research and number crunching

If you want the convenience, but you’re unsure about the expense, you can take an alternative route. You can purchase Disney gift cards in the amount you would pay for the Dining Plan. Then, use the gift cards to pay for your meals, or if you’re staying at a Disney resort, use your Magic Bands to pay and use the gift cards to settle those expenses at your resort. You just might find that you have enough money leftover for souvenirs as well.

Finally, we’ve talked mainly about cost, but we haven’t discussed the factor of time. Between waiting for a table and the dining experience, a table-service meal will often take at least an hour and a half. Factor in more time if you’re going to a restaurant at a resort outside the parks. While some look forward to a meal as welcome break and time to recharge, others might see it as something that takes away time from rides and attractions.

The Dining Plan is a great option for some, but not for everyone. Only you can assess whether it works for your you and your family.

 

Additional Back to Basics Posts

Posted on February 26, 2016

30 Responses to “The Basics: A Cost Analysis of the Disney World Dining Plan”

  • On our last trip with my sister’s family they were on the dining plan. I just made sure we had enough $$ as if we were on the dining plan, but did cash instead of Disney cards since if there was money left over we weren’t locked into using it at Disney. I also told my son that he had $5 a day for snacks and whatever he didn’t use each day I would give him in cash at the end of the trip. This helped him not to just eat something just because he had to have a snack. We did have $$ left over after the trip, which went right in the hopper for our next trip!

  • great post.
    We first got the dining plan when it was “free”. Now we are rather hooked on it. I like it for emotional reasons: 1) When I look at the menu, I do not feel I need to pick the least costly items because we have already paid for entrees anyway. 2) I do not feel we should find a cheap fast food place off Disney to save money, again because the money is already spent. 3) We can pick almost any Disney table service restaurant, not look for the least expensive one. In short, I do not worry about the money while on vacation! That is very liberating!

  • As long as you’re not losing money on it (or forcing yourself to eat what you don’t want just to get “value”) the dining plan provides that “all inclusive” psychological value of just being part of the vacation you already booked and paid for, and not having to worry at all about dollars and cents.

    That said, the price increases over the years of the dining plans do make it harder to save money using it, so you do have to gameplan it a bit to make sure it makes sense for your specific situation.

    As for the hard math, I have a forum post (http://forum.touringplans.com/t/dining-plan-math-2016-edition/15326/10) that breaks down the dining plan costs and assigns a cost per credit you can use for your comparisons.

  • We used the DDP once. never again. Especially if it’s a choice between “free” dining and a room-only discount. For our family, the room discount always make more sense. (I realize that isn’t the case for some, but for us it does.)
    We go the “buy gift cards and use them to pay for food” route. Our family very much enjoys appetizers, soups, and salads. If we get dessert, it would be one to split between the four of us. We are not fast food fans, either. So you can see how the DDP is not a good fit, even with the newest changes.
    We find that the gift card strategy provides us the same feeling of freedom from worry on vacation. The money is spent, the reservations are secured, there’s no big credit card bill afterward, but we also can order wherever, and get whatever. Wanna get a few apps and a dessert for dinner, fine. nbd. We don’t feel obligated to eat steak all week to make it “worth it”.

  • I get what @calcprof is saying – there is value in paying ahead and not worrying about your budget while on vacation.

    We learned after one trip on the dining plan that it was not for us – we are lucky enough to have access to the Tables in Wonderland discount and find this is a much better deal for us than the dining plan ever was.

  • Consider also the volume of food that you will be buying on the Disney dining plan. Those entrees are huge! When we went with 3 adults and 2 (small) children, we often split a couple of counter service adult meals, bought a kids meal and then maybe tried a snack later in the day. If we had the Dining Plan, we would have paid for a volume of food that we just didn’t need.

  • To me, the proper way to calculate whether the dining plan is a deal isn’t comparing what you are allowed to order on the plan verses paying cash, it’s comparing the cost of how you WANT to eat without the plan verses the plan’s cost.

    For example, when you are on the plan, going to places like sci-fi diner or beaches and cream would be a waste. We’re more of an appetizer and main course family, and rarely order desserts.

    Eating the way we like, I spend around $150 to $175 per day on food for myself and three teenage kids using Tables in Wonderland. The dining plan would cost me $247.28 for the plan, plus tips, alcoholic drinks, appetizers etc. Over $100 more per day.

  • I used to think the Dining plan was a great idea, and back when tips were included, I might still think it. Now however, we stick to using a tables in wonderland card. The problem with the dining plan was I always found myself ordering the most expensive thing on the menu whether I wanted it or not in order to stick it to mouse, but it is way to much food and trucking around the parks bloated turned out to be a bad time. Last 3 years we’ve been using tables in wonderland and have come out way ahead of the game.

  • Great article! My family of four has gone to Disney every year for the last 12 years and we have never even tried the dining plan. While I can appreciate the idea of relaxing knowing the trip is all pre paid, I find it too much work to keep track of credits and what I’m allowed to order and what costs extra. (I like the gift card idea and may try that) Although we hardly ever eat desserts, we do like wine and appetizers, so I feel the plans wouldn’t benefit us. So, thank you for helping me stop wondering if I should give the plan a try. It truly is a personal choice based on each traveler.

  • We use the dining plan for the first time on our last trip. We did a character meal everyday for the kids and I thought we came out ahead. The character meals were expensive and the kids constantly wanted snacks during our trip. I had every single meal planned on our trip, including the quick service stops. I think its worth it if you have kids under 10 and are planning lots of character meals. If your kids are older and you plan on eating at a variety of restaurants, especially the signature, I think you would lose out.

  • I’m a huge fan of DDP, especially now that all you have to do is swipe your wristband, so you need not carry a single thing with you. It’s a lot easier to tell the teen kids to have fun and meet us at X time for dinner. We always manage to get more out of it than we pay. (Yes, tips are extra, but we’d have to pay those anyhow.)

    Something that’s not mentioned here, and is of better value to those who drive and can arrive at rope drop of their first day and stay to the goodnight kiss of the last day, is that dining plan is per night of stay.

    I think for those of us in this boat staying five days or more, this makes DDP a real value. We’ve learned to put our eat-from-the-menu sit-down meals at the beginning of the trip, bringing take home boxes to our room. We also try to do the counter service meals such that three people can eat two meals or two can maybe do one plus a snack. Then at some point after the middle of the trip there’s a resort day when we eat the leftovers and maybe one counter service meal from the resort to fill in whatever gaps there may be. In that way, we’ve managed to get enough to eat even though DDP covers one day less of food than we are on the property.

    (As a point of reference for those unfamiliar with portion sizes at the counter service restaurants, my husband and I were down there for our anniversary over the summer and went to a couple of parks with our daughter who’s there on the College Program. We got two meals at Pizzafari one day, and we barely ate everything between the three of us.)

  • We used the full dining plan a few years back. I kept the receipts to tally at the very end of our stay and we saved no money by buying the plan. And that is when we ate meat and dairy.

    We got a free dining plan a couple of years ago. Again if we had paid for it, we would have lost money. We just cannot eat the volume of food necessary for the plan to pay for itself.

  • My husband and I used the dining plan on our first 2 trips, back in 2007 and 2009. It was a good value back then, particularly on the first trip, when an appetizer was included with the table service meal. However, we were spending a lot of time at table-service meals and eating way more than we normally would in order to maximize “value”. We have been much happier skipping the dining plan. We book 2 table-service meals for a 5 day trip, order kid’s meals at quick service places, and split dessert at table-service meals. We eat however we want to and that works well for us.

  • I liked it when it was the “Food and Fun” plan. That included a set number of coupons for a meal– not tied to a day or Breakfast, lunch, dinner. And a number of entertainment coupons. Which could be used to rent watercraft (even the breathless), parasailing, or horseback riding etc.
    No way that’s coming back. But it was great while it lasted.

  • Hello ess wondering if it would be cheaper to eat like two meals out of the park and eat one in the park

    • This is something you have to carefully balance. Yes, food is cheaper off site, but it’s also a minimum 2-3 hour commitment of time away from the park. At $100 per day per person for park tickets, that’s about $20/person you’re adding to the cost of that meal.

      If you’re staying off site and plan to eat before you get to the park and after you leave, it would be worth considering, but once on the property for the day, I would not leave until I was leaving for the day.

      Another option would be to bring your own food to the park you’re visiting, leave it at the lockers near the front gates, and plan to go back to that area at meal times.

      • This is something you have to carefully balance. Yes, food is cheaper off site, but it’s also a minimum 2-3 hour commitment of time away from the park. At $100 per day per person for park tickets, that’s as much as $20/person you’re adding to the cost of that meal.

        If you’re staying off site and plan to eat before you get to the park and after you leave, it would be worth considering, but once on the property for the day, I would not leave until I was leaving for the day.

        Another option would be to bring your own food to the park you’re visiting, leave it at the lockers near the front gates, and plan to go back to that area at meal times.

  • We have done the DDP in the past. Now it is not really worth the price for our family. We don’t need dessert at every meal and we can sometimes share. We still eat at table service places, but just eat what we want. We have decided to try to use our Disney Visa reward dollars for our meals. We already did this for a two day trip. We ate at Artist Point, Hollywood Brown Derby (lunch apps only), Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, Pepper Market breakfast as well as a couple snacks. Our Visa rewards that I budgeted not only paid for the food and tips, we had enough left to use for souvenirs too. That is the way we will try to go from now on.

  • This is one part of Disney I just don’t understand: the focus on food. I’ll admit I’m not a foodie and am perfectly fine with making my own meals in an off-site condo and packing snack foods to get me through the day and eating while in line for the next attraction. But with the plethora of posts and responses about Disney food in this blog, I’m likely in the minority.

  • I put together a group of 7 adults for my last trip and we loved using the dining plan. We would separate most days because we liked different activities in the parks, but then all come back together for dinner. We also did a signature meal at the California Grill (let me tell you, the dining plan was worth the cost of that dinner alone!) and then split entrees at 2 other dinners in Epcot to make up for the 2 credits used. It worked very well, and we were able to take turns paying for the tips at dinner instead of trying to balance paying for an entire meal. The tips came out pretty evenly, but the dinners would not have.

  • In 2014 we priced out the difference between taking a room discount or taking a “free” DDP, and the DDP was the hands-down winner, but in 2016 the price difference was significantly less for a room-only discount. I kept receipts and in the end, we spent $300 less by not doing a DDP, even though we actually went to two table restaurants on two of our vacation days. We do not have TIW, but we did use a Disney Visa, and we got discounts at a couple of places that were not even listed as a card member benefit (one I remember is Cape May Cafe character breakfast). I am still open to a DDP, but I believe in making the decision only after doing some math. If you won’t do the math, you may spend more than you need to!

  • No one put the time value of money or the cancellation factor.

    It’s always cheaper to spend your money art tinge of service

  • I LOVED your post about Meal Dining Plans!! I think that lots of time travelers underestimate the greatness of them! Sometimes they might seem to be a waste of money, but when you actually add up the cost of the food (like $10 for a cup of rice) you are out a serious amount of cash in no time! The Meal Plans and Dining Plans are an excellent way to not only save money, but they also allow you to get all of your meals and experience them in a great Disney way! They are totally worth it in my book!

  • No one spoke to time value of $. Always more expensive to prepay. And cancellation/risk of not going. Disney is a risk free vacation plan when driving, room only, and you don’t have tix yet.

    Packages and flights have a cancellation risk.

    Emotionally, if u have $$, I like knowing I have not committed to dining every day. Just pay for what u want.

    It’s a bad vacation to be constantly worried about getting best value.

    What isn’t a debate is how the dining plan has “ruined” wdw restaurant menus and procedures.
    .

  • OK, let me break down why we use Disney Gift Cards / cash with two adults, a 16 year old, and a 9 year old (from now on referred to as “the baby”). We will compare it to Deluxe Dining, since with the GC you can eat anywhere, and I’ll even add meals that I know the baby won’t eat just to be fair. OK, we’ll start every day (which will not happen, we will do lil’ bites and coffee most of the time, but for sake of argument) at Kona Cafe. We will order a kids breakfast, an order of Tonga toast for the two people that actually eat breakfast to split (it’s huge), a pot of coffee, and juices. Total cost for breakfast $30.46. For lunch, we decide to go to Sunshine Seasons in The Land Pavilion in Epcot (which is excellent, by the way). We get a kids lunch (all kids lunches come with drink and dessert) Rotisserie chicken and flatbread sandwiches with potato salad for the adults to split, and waters (hydrate!) Lunch cost: $35.27. Now for Dinner, we love to eat so we go to the places we love, like The Wave Of American Flavors in Disney’s Contemporary Resort. We have Cheese and Charcuterie Board, two chicken breast, I have Lamb Shank, the baby her chicken strips, and the two adults have wine flights to go with this incredible meal. Total: 114.43. That means for the day (and that’s a LOT of eating for us) we spent $180.16 (and we will never eat like this every day). We are going for five days: Total food cost (we’ll throw in $150 for snacks and adult drinks over the week) $1,050.80. Deluxe Dining plan for 5 days for 3 adults and a kid? $1,839.55.

    I guess the extra $788.75 is for those refillable mugs?

  • Two other factors that can help make the DDP worth the cost, now it is acceptable to order adult counter service using a childs credit and breakfast at Be Our Guest is an expensive counter service meal that can get you MK park before rope drop.