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)
- A nonalcoholic drink
A full-service sit-down meal includes:
- A main course
- 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.
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.