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, be members of the military, or be part of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) to participate in the plan. Except for DVC members, a three-night minimum stay is sometimes 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 or a travel agent, in most cases you'll be able to add the dining plan at any time up through your check-in. (Note that Disney always allows military families who book room-only reservations to later add the dining plan, if they choose.)
Disney offers three separate dining plans. Each is described briefly below, with a chart summarizing each plan's components and costs.
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.
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 plan includes two counter-service meals and one snack per day, in addition to one refillable drink mug per person per package.
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.
|Deluxe||1||2||3 of either type||1||Adult: $104.94
Known in Disney-speak as “Seasonal Pricing,” Disney increases the cost of most plans when crowds are largest, typically during Presidents Day week, the two weeks around Easter, mid-June through mid-August, and the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Children under 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 (except breakfast, where Disney does not offer dessert)
- A nonalcoholic drink
A full-service sit-down meal includes:
- A main course or entree
- Dessert (except breakfast, where Disney does not offer dessert)
- A nonalcoholic drink
If you're dining at a buffet, the full-service meal includes the full buffet and a nonalcoholic drink. Tax is included in all parts of the dining plan's prices, but a gratuity is not. If you opt for the dining plan, assume you'll pay another 15 to 20% of the cost of your sit-down meals and buffets in tips.
Snacks include 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.
The refillable mug can only be used at the food courts and restaurants of your Disney hotel; you cannot refill mugs at the theme parks or water parks.
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 meals will be put into an individual "meal account" for each person in your group. 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 dining plans come with several other important rules:
- Everyone staying in the same resort room must participate in the plan.
- The same 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, nor can you get the standard plan for 2 nights and the quick-service plan for 3.
- 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.
- Gratuity is not included in for full-service meals.
- Unused meals are nonrefundable.
- The dining plan is occasionally unavailable when using certain room-only discounts.
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. This comment from an Oakville, Ontario reader is typical:
We used the dining plan, and I'm not sure if it was more expensive than purchasing all the meals separately, but it certainly was convenient. Even if I found out it was more expensive, I would use it again because of the convenience.
A reader from Danvers, MA is even more emphatic:
Get the dining plan! I cannot stress it enough. Yes, it is a lot of food, but it's worth it. You don’t have to bring money with you or debate whether to get the chicken or steak because of the cost. Disney is confusing to begin with and I don't want to think constantly about the cost of food and how much I'm spending. This is a vacation isn’t it?
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 four factors, which are described in detail below:
- The economics of the plan generally require you to eat a either a sit-down dinner or character meal every day 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 during summer and holidays—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, 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 a standard breakfast is a particularly bad deal. The average breakfast entree costs around $10 in Disney World, and the average breakfast drink is around $3. Thus, using a sit-down dining credit for a typical Disney breakfast means paying almost $31 for food everyone else buys for $13.
Lunch is another waste of money under the dining plan: The average lunch entree 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.
Tips are not included in the dining plan. At sit-down meals and buffets you'll still need to pay your server's gratuity out of your own pocket. An accountant and mother of three from Apex, NC writes:
I will NEVER do the standard dining plan again! The tips were $30-$40 per meal.
Having the meal plan 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 reader from Austin, Texas agrees:
It's TOO MUCH food! Maybe if we were sumo wrestlers. Yes, it was hassle free, and we didn't have to bother with budgeting for food while at WDW — but we could never eat it all.
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.
Another factor working against most families is 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 top restaurants are highly sought after and most popular dining times 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.
If you're still interested in the dining plan, book your restaurants as soon as possible, typically 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. A mom from Columbus, Ohio says:
We had the standard dining plan – 1 table, 1 counter, and 1 snack. We seemed to spend all our time eating meals or traveling to the meal. We would not use the dining plan again.
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 everyone to decide on the spot if they're up for something formal.
When The Dining Plan Makes Sense
Our blog readers are experts at figuring out when the dining plan makes economic sense. The most common scenarios they mention include:
- Dining at several character meal buffets per trip
- Splitting some sit-down meals between two people and using the saved credits at a Disney Signature restaurant
- Your group consists of adults willing to set aside ample time for dining at upscale restaurants
Most character meal breakfast buffets cost $13 to $20 per child and $15 to $23 for dinner. As a mom on our blog writes, that one meal is more expensive than an entire day on the standard dining plan:
If you are planning to eat multiple character meals or buffet dinners during your trip, the dining plan can be very cost effective. Dinner at Akershus alone is $23 per child â€“ almost twice the cost of one day of the [Standard] Dining Plan. Some of us only get to Walt Disney World once every three or four years, and 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.
A father from Chicago added:
We used the dining plan and loaded up on character meals – four breakfasts and one dinner. This was the best thing we did. Our son got one-on-one attention from the characters, a photo and an autograph at a time when we would have been eating anyway. This saved TONS of time in the parks.
A reader from New Albany, Ohio, though, figured out the character meal system better than anyone:
I understood from the book that Restaurant Akershus is an all-you-care-to-eat restaurant, so my wife and I had always intended to order two entrees. So once I finished my first entree, I said to the server that it was my understanding that I could order a second entree. He said this was technically correct, but that I would have to order quickly before the next seating group arrived. We ordered two more entrees and enjoyed these too.
Several blog readers suggested splitting Disney's huge sit-down meals in order to save credits for an upscale experience at a Disney Signature restaurant. An Adrian, Michigan reader saw this at Epcot's Le Cellier Steakhouse:
My wife observed a family of 2 adults and 2 children who were on the dining plan but who only used 1 adult meal and 2 kids' meals. The mother asked for an extra plate and ate off the two children's meals, which was more than enough food. Later they got 4 spoons to split the three desserts that dad and the 2 kids received via the meal plan.
Finally, if your group consists mostly of adults for whom a steak dinner and dessert is an integral part of the Disney experience, the economics (and slower pace) of the dining plan may work out better for you.
There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Disney occasionally offers one of the dining plans for "free" for guests who book vacation packages when crowds are low, such as late summer and early fall. The catch is that you'll pay the full rack rate for your hotel room instead of getting a discount. Whether that tradeoff makes sense depends on which hotel you choose, how many people are in your room, and their ages.
For example, we recently priced a 5-night stay at Disney's Polynesian Resort in mid-August, including hotel and theme park tickets, first using a "free dining plan" discount offer and then using a common Disney "30% off" room-only discount. With the free dining plan, the package cost $2,970.70, while the room-only discount totaled $2,098 — a difference of $872, or $174 per night. If you thought you could feed your family for less than $174 per night, you were better off using the room-only discount than the "free dining" offer.
When Disney offers free dining, it usually provides the Quick Service plan for value resorts and the standard plan for stays at moderate and deluxe resorts. Families of at least 3 adults who stay at a value or moderate resort will most likely be the ones to find the "free" dining offer competitive with other discounts. Smaller groups, especially those staying at deluxe resorts, will probably not save enough on food to offset the cost of paying rack rate for their room.
Alternatives to the Dining Plan
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 around.) 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, consider the quick-service option. 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.
Readers who tried the Disney dining plan had varying experiences. A reader from Houston, Texas experienced both positives and negatives:
We chose the Deluxe Dining Plan and there was WAY too much food to eat. But let me be clear – the food at Disney was very tasty! We enjoyed eating our way through Disney!
A reader from Pittsburgh was surprised at the variety of healthy food options:
The food court had delicious, nutritious salads, hummus, olive tapenade and other choices for the health-conscious or vegetarians. They were very patient in explaining the dining plan rules and making substitutions. The food was of a much higher quality than I’d expected.
And a wife from Arlington, Virginia had both unexpected benefits and costs:
Our hidden dining plan secret: order the pizza, which is 1 table-service credit each, and it comes with a 2 liter soda! We did it one night and had soda for a week! But we still spent $40 or more at most sit-down dinners on drinks and tip.