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Our Disney Dining Plan Experience

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Winnie the Pooh joins Family for LunchLast week my wife and I went to Disney World in Orlando Florida to celebrate our one year anniversary and, for the first time, opted for the Disney Dining Plan. You can only include the Disney Dining Plan if you are booking a vacation package with Disney, in our case I booked a five-day Magic Your Way Package, with lodging at the Port Orleans Riverside resort, and included the standard Dining package.

Overall, we were pleased with the Dining Plan and felt that it was a great deal. There was only one downside, it was too much food!

How the Disney Dining Plan Works:

Each person is given a certain number of “entitlements” each day for one of three categories. The three food categories are:

  • Snacks: By definition, snacks are things that are single serve and under $4 a piece. There are a few exceptions (caramel apples coated in chocolate are considered snacks by the computer but cost around $4.19) but the general rule is that anything that is a single serving and under $4 can be spent as a snack.
  • Quick Service Meals: There are no dollar amount rules but if you serve yourself and find your own table, it’s quick service. With quick service meals you get an entrée, a non-alcoholic beverage, and a dessert. In the cases where dessert isn’t served, such as at breakfast, you can get two drinks.
  • Table Service Meals: Again, no dollar amount rule but if you have table service then it’s using one of your table service “entitlements.” It includes your entrée, a dessert, and a non-alcoholic beverage.

There are five dining packages, but only three are truly just about meals:

  • Quick-Service Dining – $29.99 per person per day, includes one snack and two quick service meals.
  • Dining (Standard) – $39.99 per person per day, includes one snack, one quick service, and one table service meal.
  • Deluxe Dining – $71.99 per person per day, includes three table service meals and two snacks per person.

There is a Premium Dining Plan and Platinum Dining plan but they start getting crazy. The premium includes refillable drink mugs, tickets to a Cirque du Soleil show (La Nouba), etc. The Platinum includes fireworks cruises, in-room babysitting, spa treatments, etc. By the way, the Premium costs $159 per person per day and the Platinum costs $209 per person per day!

How We Fared

Having gone to Disney before, we knew we enjoyed eating at several places already – Marrakesh, the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot, and Biergärten, the German buffet at Epcot. We discovered another new favorite on this trip, Kona Café in the Polynesian Resort, that we probably wouldn’t have tried without the meal plan (maybe we would’ve, who knows!?).

Since we knew we were going to eat out every meal and we weren’t going the frugal route, the dining plan seemed to make sense. On the whole we “spent” approximately $551.86 across the five days, or $55.19 per person per day. Considering the package cost us only $39.99 per person per day, we came out ahead about $15 each per day. In theory, we thus saved $151.96 by going with the package.

But wait… there’s a huge caveat – We got more food than we could handle! Having the dining plan changed how we would’ve normally ordered food. The most notable change was in desserts. I never order dessert because I don’t have a big sweet tooth! If anything, my wife and I share a dessert. Never in my life have I ordered dessert for five meals straight, which we did on the meal plan because it was included. I also almost never order soda with dinner because I’m concerned the caffeine would affect my sleep. Cut out one soda and one dessert and you’re already talking $7-8 a day, cutting half our savings! We probably wouldn’t have bought chips or dessert with our lunches either, another $5-6 in savings at lunch, thus negating almost all of our savings! (in the case of lunch, we would ask for bottled water or give the dessert to some kid who wasn’t hyper enough)

Want another caveat? We were left with two snacks we had to use at the end of the trip – we bought some fudge and a caramel nut apple to take home. That’s $8 we probably wouldn’t have spent if we didn’t have to.

Your savings are really in those “extras” – the side of chips, the desserts at dinner, a soda with every meal, etc. I normally don’t get those and my wife normally doesn’t either, so had we behaved “normally,” we probably would’ve saved more by not getting the plan.

Best Values

The best snack, in terms of value and maybe nutrition, in any park has to be the pretzel – which ranges in price from $4.04 to $4.20. I was surprised to see different prices, sometimes within the same park, but they do vary (though I don’t think the pretzel size changes). We would routinely split a pretzel as a snack during the day. Another good snack, though not particularly healthy, is a candied apple – the caramel and nuts coated apple at about $4.24.

The best quick service meal, hands down, is the #1 Combo Rib & Chicken at Cosmic Ray’s in Magic Kingdom. After you add in a soda and a desert (they won’t give you bottled water there!), the price for that meal rockets to a stunning $21.37, nearly twice the average price of any other quick service meal. It’s definitely enough food for two, but since we were both on the meal plan, it made no sense to “save” because we would have to spend it later anyway.

Best Hacks

Ask for bottled water instead of dessert: I don’t know many people who eat dessert with lunch but I do know a lot of people who would enjoy a nice bottle of ice cold water as they wandered around a theme park in the heat of Florida. Some places will let you do it, some won’t, it never hurts to ask!

Skip breakfast: In terms of value, breakfast is clearly the least valuable of all the quick service meals. My wife and I usually opted to share a pretzel for breakfast and just wait it out until our lunch.

Try to get substitutions: It’s not always clear what counts as what, so if you are in doubt ask. In one case, the attendant didn’t know if a caramel nut apple counted as a snack until she tried it in the machine and it worked. Be courteous and you never know!

Don’t try to maximize value all the time: Remember, the goal of a meal is to be fed and to be happy – not to maximize the dollar amount of what you’re getting for your entitlement! Nowhere is this more true than at a buffet, don’t stuff yourself so full that you’re sick and can’t ride Buzz Lightyear at Magic Kingdom afterwards. Eat until you’re satisfied, then go out and ride some rides so you’re happy and satisfied. How much you dented the restaurant’s bottom line won’t matter!

Snacks convert well into souvenirs: We left with a candied apple and a square of fudge, but you can always get popcorn balls or some other neat Disney snack souvenir you can give a friend when you get home.

Overall Impressions:

Looking back, we probably won’t get the dining plan again though we were by no means displeased with our experience. I felt the whole experience was a wash financially, though we did discover a really awesome restaurant we didn’t know about before. I don’t know how the experience would’ve skewed had we had kids, whose plans are $8.99, $10.99, and $20.99, but that’s something to worry about down the road.

(Photo: ckramer)

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23 Responses to “Our Disney Dining Plan Experience”

  1. Our family has been to Disney a few times now and it is amazing how much the food costs are once you are inside the park. I would probably be apprehensive about purchasing a “Food Package” but after you compare the costs, it really seems to be the way to go. Especially if you count in all the other extras. Of course I guess it just depends on your eating habits. I know that our vacation eating habits are completely out-of-control compared to our normal day-to-day eating.

  2. Dave says:

    Thanks for the breakdown!

    I’ve never gotten the meal plan either, but I was once at the ESPN zone in Disney watching a football game, and the people at the table next to us had gotten the meal plan. Their ENTIRE table was covered with food and kept asking us if we wanted anything – they felt that since they were able to get an appetizer, meal, and desert each, that they should – even if they couldn’t eat it all. They had gotten the deluxe meal plan, with the three full meals a day, which was WAY too much for any normal person to eat…

    I was actually thinking that when my wife and I go back to Disney with our daughter, that we’d get the mealplans – is there a rule where you can’t split food? I was thinking of maybe just getting one Standard meal plan, and one Kid meal plan for the three of us, and just split the food…

    • Jim says:

      I can’t even imagine how much food the deluxe package is, we were on the standard one and even that was way too much for us. We were giving away all our lunch desserts whenever they wouldn’t give us bottled water, it was just crazy.

      There is a rule, everyone has to get the same thing.

      • Jason says:

        Yes you can split the meals, but only at the counter service meals. We took two of our kids last year and they split the counter meals each time as there was plenty of food. The table service meals cannot be split but are usually a more relaxed meal and they tended to eat more.

  3. John says:

    I was just at Disney last week and we decided not to do the meal plan for the reasons you mentioned. We also went with 4 kids, and 2 of them had dairy allergies, so we had to be really picky about what food we ate.

    I am also trying to watch my weight, so the thought of all that food coming to me is not a good one!

  4. Anthony Nguyen says:

    When my family and I went to Disney, we didn’t get the meal plan. We broke down the costs, realized that it’s more food than we would eat, and found an alternative.

    Since we stayed in a condo, we made an larger-than-usual breakfast every morning. While at the parks, we had pre-made sandwiches to hold us off. Generally, we have two smaller portion lunches. We’d make it home late at night, but we always managed to squeeze in some dinner, either cooked at the condo or spent at a night out.

    We never averaged more than $40/day doing this.

  5. I’m at Disney right now, although not staying at the resorts. We’ve been considering staying at one of the disney resorts and using one of these meal plans, so this is good information. thanks! Feeling sunburned today after walking around the Magic Kingdom all day yesterday!

  6. Patrick says:

    My fiancee and I went a few years back and went to the same hotel as you Jim and got the meal package plan. We both were completely satisfied with the plan and never felt hungry. I agree with you that it might have been too much food for us as well. For how much stuff costs at Disney, we felt it was a decent deal and we got to eat at such a variety of restaurants every night. If we go again, we are not sure if we would stay at the resorts again, but I’m not sure when we would go back yet.

  7. Shawn says:

    The question I have about the meal plan is how the cost/extra food issues weigh against going into the park with a fixed cost? The knowledge of how much your food will be per day, and hence being able to be budget that much more efficiently, seems like a big plus.

  8. Shawn says:

    The question I have about the meal plan is how the cost/extra food issues weigh against going into the park with a fixed cost? The knowledge of how much your food will be per day, and hence being able to be budget that much more efficiently, seems like a big plus.
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

  9. Travis says:

    I did the meal plan for my wife and myself our 2 year old son ate off our plates. As far as a bargain I agree that we saved minimal and maybe spend a little more than we would have. But the convenience of only having to carry my room key to the parks added to the “deal”. I could buy items say the Pluto stuffed dog for my son and then walk over and use my snack for whatever i wanted and only use one card. There are heathly snacks you just have to look a little harder. My son an I shared melon or pineapple a lot. I do agree that the savings is a little inflated i do think the meal plan is worth it.

  10. Seasongs says:

    I would LOVE to try to meal plan! I think Disney has delightful parks, and it just takes the burden of food planning off – another way to enjoy more of the day. It sounds like a fun adventure if you budget for it.

    Do you know if the California parks offer a food plan? You probably have to stay at one of their hotels, though. We always do a Priceline room when we visit Disneyland/California Adventure. We have never had a bad experience, and we get great rooms at a great rate.

    Enjoyed your post very much.

  11. Bob says:

    Do they allow you to pack and take back the dinner leftover ? My wife,kid and I will be traveling there in April and we also bought the meal plan and so am curious to find out what others experienced…

  12. Lynn says:

    We are going in August 2009 with the “free” dining plan for 7 days family of 4 (one who is under three and one who is 5). I have read on various websites that we can order an “adult” counter service for my daughter? Can anyone explain as the Official Disney brochure says they have order off the kids’ menu -if available?

    thanks.

  13. Gayle says:

    We went to Disney the first week of May, stayed at Pop Century and got the quick service plan. There were 4 adults, 3 teenagers and 1 toddler. One breakfast at the resort let us know that we had made the right choice. We were allotted two meals and two snacks a day. The nice thing was while you were in the park you could get an ice cream or something and it was a snack.
    I think that if you throw diets out the window and go with older kids, the meal plan is the way to go. We had a lot of snacks left so we got some snacks for the plane. I will always use the meal plan.

  14. Whitney says:

    While I completely understand that it seems that it may be cheaper not to get the meal plan, I have bought it the last 3 times I have been. When thinking about the cost of the meal plan, it makes you think, well if I eat a big breakfast in the room, and pack a sandwich every day, then maybe get a quick service dinner, I will save big! However, the downside of this is that you are really cutting out one of the best parts of the Disney experience, the great food! Also, this is counting in getting a bigger room with a good kitchen/kitchenette, and grocery shopping on vacation, which is unneccessary. Not only does the dining plan give you the option to eat at any one of their 100+ restaurants, but it is also giving you a huge amount of relaxation which is priceless. When planning for the trip, it is so much easier to do the standard dining plan where you make all of your reservations for dinner and it is taken care of. You simply have to give your key for your meals and snacks. Personally, one of the best parts about this is that once you are on the trip you don’t have to be pulling money out and keeping track of spending and keeping within budget. It is all paid for, and to me, that makes it wonderful. Another benefit is simply sitting down and enjoying the company of your family, because when you are on the go all day, it is nice just to reflect in the comfort of air conditioning. I completely understand the argument that you get much more food than you would have otherwise ordered, but when you think about it, even if you went to these restaurants and ordered what you honestly want for a meal, it would end up costing about the same. So essentially, as you said, the extras are where the savings are. But think of it this way, it is like going to dinner, ordering whatever you want on the menu for a meal, and getting a drink, and then getting dessert, a quick service lunch, and a snack for free! When you go to these restaurants, the meals are usually atleast $20-30, so you are also getting quality. I know I have gone on forever, but I don’t have enough good things to say about the meal plan. But lastly, as far as nutrition goes, all of the restaurants do have low-fat options that are still delicious, and they have low-fat desserts as well. So to anyone considering the meal plan, it is worth it. You may find that you cannot eat everything you get, but the fact that you can order anything off of the menu and it costs the same to you, you get a break from the craziness of the parks, and you get awesome dining experiences with characters, it is absolutely priceless. And if you break down the costs, I bet you will see the benefits in price as well.

  15. Trisha says:

    It’s been 15 years since I went to Disney World. I was 17 and went with my family. My parents were on a SUPER TIGHT budget, and the food was so expensive. So for the entire vacation we ordered kids meals – either a burger or chicken nuggets, neither of which were good. And we were starving!! It was a real downer for the vacation. I don’t care if the dining plan is the best deal or not – I want to be able to order whatever I want – I want it to be delicious and I don’t want to be hungry! :-)
    Nevertheless, really helpful info! Thanks!


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