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Universal Orlando Dining Plans

Universal has replaced its all-you-care-to-eat fast-food Meal Deals with a Quick Service Universal Dining Plan that provides one quick service meal (including an entree platter and soft drink), another soft drink, and one snack. The cost is $19.99 (plus tax) for adults and $12.99 for kids age 9 and younger, plus tax. It’s valid at most quick-service eateries in both parks (including Three Broomsticks at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, The Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, and Fast Food Boulevard in Springfield U.S.A.) and a smattering at Universal CityWalk, but not at any hotel eateries.

Virtually every entree at participating venues can be purchase with a quick service meal credit, even combo platters that include a side salad or milkshake. A few of the most expensive items, like whole pizzas, aren't covered. For your non-alcoholic beverages, you can choose from a regular-sized fountain soda; bottled water, juice, or sports drink; or coffee, cocoa, or tea (including tall Starbucks brews). Eligible snacks include churros, pretzels, popcorn, ice cream (regular-sized cup or cone, or novelty bar), funnel cakes, cookies, and pastries. Some larger items from snack vendors, like turkey legs and hot dogs, count as a quick service meal. Credits can even be used inside the Wizarding Worlds, though the Universal Dining eligibility logo doesn't appear on Potter menus for thematic reasons. However, signature beverages like Butterbeer will count as a snack, not drink.

If two sodas a day isn't enough for you, a souvenir Coca-Cola Freestyle cup can be added to any quick service dining plan for an additional $6, which includes unlimited refills from the Freestyle machines found around the parks (see below).

Universal claims the plan can save you up to 30%, but unless you use all your credits and order carefully, you’ll probably do as well or better buying a la carte with an Annual Pass or AAA discount (which cannot be applied to purchasing the plan). We're also not big fans in principal of pre-paying for meals, but thankfully Universal doesn't tie you down by forcing you to book it for every day of your vacation, or every member of your party. It is possible to purchase the quick service dining plan in advance when reserving your vacation, but there's really no need to. Instead, take advantage of your ability to buy into the plan on a day-by-day at any participating restaurant after you’ve already made your menu selection. If your entree and drink add up to at least $15 before tax, and you aren't eligible for any discounts, it's probably in your best interest to ask the cashier to sell you a quick service plan. The extra few dollars will net another beverage (worth about $3) and snack (worth $3-$6) for the afternoon, saving you on balance between one and four bucks. Order a ribs platter and soda with a dining plan, and your second drink and snack are essentially free. On the other hand, if you are order an $8 cheese pizza and $3 bag of chips, you'll lose about $3 on the deal. The dining plan cards aren't tied to a particular person, so they can be traded among family members, and they don't expire at the end of the day – unused credits hold their value as long as you hold onto the card.

A Table Service Universal Dining Plan is also offered to on-site hotel guests buying vacation packages, but it’s an even worse bargain. The full-service plan costs $51.99 per adult per day ($17.99 for kids) and includes everything the quick service plan does, plus one table service meal (entree, soft drink, and select dessert; gratuity not included) per day. Unfortunately, there are less than a dozen participating restaurants on property, none of which are in the resort hotels – which is strange, since the only way to buy the table service dining plan is a part of a Universal Orlando Vacations hotel package. The table service plan probably wouldn't be a great deal even if Universal gave it away “free,” like Disney does with their dining plan; at full price, you're basically throwing money away.

Refillable Drinks and Popcorn

One smart way to cut snacking costs – if not calories – around the Universal Orlando is by investing in refillable souvenir containers. Souvenir cups never expire, and can be brought back to the park months or years in the future.

Universal sells two different types of refillable soft drink cups. The standard collectible souvenir cup costs $8.99, including your first fill-up, and can be refilled at almost any soda fountain in the parks or CityWalk for 99 cents. It can only be refilled for that price with regular fountain flavors – Coke, diet Coke, Sprite, root beer, Hi-C – and not with any specialty drinks. However, you do get a modest discount when using a souvenir cup to purchase an ICEE, lemon slush, and some other specialty drinks. Pricier character cups (shaped like Transformers or Minions) and specialty souvenir cups (like Butterbeer mugs) can also be refilled with sodas for the same price, but you only get as much drink for your dollar as those sometimes skimpy cups can contain.

In addition to the standard souvenir soda cups, Universal also sells Coca-Cola Freestyle souvenir cups at dining locations with Freestyle soda machines. These massive red marvels can mix dozens of different drink brands and additional flavorings together to dispense over 100 soft drink combinations; you haven't lived until you've had an Orange Coke. The self-service Freestyle fountains can only be activated by the RFID computer chip on the base of the cup, and is valid for unlimited refills (with a 10 minute pause in between pours) for the entire day. Freestyle cups cost $11.99 ($6 if purchased with a quick service dining plan at participating in-park locations) and can be reactivated for an additional $5.99 per day; rinse and repeat for as many days as you like. Freestyle cups can not be refilled at regular soda fountains, and Freestyle machines aren't yet ubiquitous, with only a half-dozen or so dispensers in each park.

Even if you don't pay to activate a cup, you can still dispense free ice and water from any Freestyle machine; it's chilled, filtered, and tastes much better than the sulfurous lukewarm liquid flowing from the parks' drinking fountains.

A related program is the Sonic Fill Drink Package souvenir cup exclusively sold at Cabana Bay Beach Resort. This cup costs $8.99 for one day of use, $11.99 for two days, $14.99 for three days, or $17.99 for the entire length of your stay at Cabana Bay. A day is considered a calendar day and ends at midnight. Sonic Fill mugs can be refilled at the regular soda stations in the Bayliner Diner seating area, as well as the Coke Freestyle machines located in the diner and at Galaxy Bowl upstairs. The cup is only compatible with the Freestyle machines at Cabana Bay, and can't be used inside the parks; neither can the parks' Freestyle cups be used at Cabana Bay.

The break-even point for the refillable mug program seems to be around 3 visits on the 1-day plan; 4 visits on the 2-day plan; 5 on the 3-day plan; and 6 visits for stays of 4 or more days. Keep in mind that if you buy a regular $3 fountain soda at any meal, you get unlimited refills during that meal. So for the refillable mug program to make sense, you'll need to drink soda with at least 3 separate meals on the 1-day plan, or 5 separate meals on the 2-day plan. In those cases, it would be hard to get too far from a bathroom, let alone all the way to the parks.

Lastly, street cart vendors in Universal's parks sell fresh popcorn in either $3.49 single servings, or $5.99 souvenir popcorn buckets that can be refilled as often as your sodium level can stand for only $1.29. The refill offer is only good on regular popcorn (not flavored varieties like caramel or cheese), but like the soda cups, buckets can be brought back on future trips.

Last updated by Seth Kubersky on February 4, 2015