Now that Walt Disney World has a fully operational Fastpass+ system, it seems more clear than ever that the days of spontaneous character meet and greets are over. Instead of wandering up to park-goers on Main Street, characters meet with guests at specific locations, at specific times, with specifically designated lines. This translates into more planning, and, possibly, more waiting, to meet your favorite Disney icons.
Thankfully, character dining provides another opportunity to meet some of your favorites. As Brian McNichols outlined in a post here a few months ago, Walt Disney World offers a number of different dining experiences that feature visits with beloved characters to go along with your meal.
But is a character meal, which can approach $50 per adult at certain restaurants, a better value than waiting in line for a meet and greet (which has no cost other than Park admission and the time spent waiting)?
In this post, I’ll do my best to put values on character dining and on meet and greets so you can compare and decide how/where you’ll get a picture of little Suzie with Ariel. Read on for an explanation of how I made my calculations, or, if you prefer, skip right to some examples
The How and Why of Determining Value
On the Shoulders of Giants
A little over a year ago, the previously mentioned Brian McNichols attempted to determine value with The True Cost of Character Meals: Are they Worth it?. Brian used a formula that calculated a Leveraged Equity Number, or L.E.N., for a meal at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall and concluded that “[b]ased on the math, this particular character meal does not seem worth the time and money it costs.” Brian also came to this overall conclusion from his analysis:
So, is a character meal worth it? It’s hard to say definitively, but the evidence is that it is at least close enough to strongly consider skipping them. The convenience of a character meal versus the potential food quality and savings of the alternative is an argument that this lowly analyst could not possibly settle.
Time – An Alternative Approach
Though I respect Brian’s approach to value analysis, I wanted to incorporate some of the wait times data available here at TouringPlains.com for my own value analysis of character dining. After discussions with my editor, we decided that the most appropriate wait time to use for the meet and greets when calculating the value comparisons would be the mode of the various wait times for the given attraction on a day the TouringPlans Crowd Calendar classifies as level 5 attendance.
Unfortunately, some of the character meet and greet locations (e.g., the Alice and Mary Poppins meet and greets at Epcot’s United Kingdom Pavilion), are not tracked by the TouringPlans Crowd Calendar. For those, I used an observational estimate of 12 minutes per meet and greet. If you think another wait time is more appropriate, please feel free to substitute it when conducting your own analysis.
My analysis focuses on breakfasts, since it’s the most important meal of the day (and since I have found that character breakfasts, rather than lunches or dinners, provide the best value). If you plan to just have pop tarts at the hotel, you would obviosuly save both time and money, but I am assuming you intend to spend time with your group at breakfast. The control I used for comparison is the non-character breakfast buffet at Boma, which is $20 to $25 per adult, and $11 to $14 per child, depending on the season. For a family of four at mid-level pricing, it would cost $70 for breakfast, not including gratuity.
Selecting a Meal
Again, I will point you to the work of Brian McNichols, who recently posted How to Pick the Right Disney World Character Meal. This post provides a good summary of the character dining options available at Walt Disney World, and suggests good defaults if you are not sure where you might want to go. Additionally, please feel free to take to the comments on this article to give and receive suggestions on character dining options.
Example One: Princesses
For this example, let’s say that your child (or, let’s face it, you) really wants to meet Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, and Snow White. One dining option is, as Brian outlined, Akershus Royal Banquet Hall.
Prices for breakfast at Akershus vary from $40 to $47 per adult and from $24 to $28 per child, depending on the season. Before you are seated, your group will pose for a photograph with Belle, and during the meal, you’ll meet with a rotating cast of Princesses that may include Ariel, Aurora, Cinderella, Jasmine, and Snow White. For a family of four at our assumed mid-level pricing, the cost will be approximately $140 before gratuity, or nearly twice the price of a standard Walt Disney World breakfast buffet without characters.
Instead of a meal at Akershus, you could do the following
- Meet Ariel in her Grotto: Expected wait 28 minutes
- Meet Belle in her ball gown at Enchanted Tales with Belle: Expected wait 31 minutes (or in her blue dress and apron at the France Pavilion: Expected wait 12 minutes)
- Meet Cinderella at Princess Fairytale Hall: Expected wait 43 minutes
- Meet Snow White at the Town Square Theater Porch or the Wishing Well at the Germany Pavilion: Expected wait 12 minutes
for a total wait time of between 90 minutes and nearly two hours.
Under his L.E.N. based analysis, Brian questioned the value of a meal at Akershus. When I look at the combination of convenience and time saved with such a meal, however, I see a real value in spending the additional $70 in order to save myself from waiting in lines for almost two hours later in the day.
Example Two: Poppins and Pooh
In this example, let’s say the favorites are Pooh, Tigger, Mary Poppins, and Alice. For this meal, head to 1900 Park Fare.
Breakfast at 1900 Park Fare costs between $22 and $26 per adult, and $12 and $15 per child, depending on the season, with characters including Alice, the Mad Hatter, Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, and Tigger too. For a family of four, at mid-level pricing, 1900 Park Fare would cost approximately $75 before gratuity, or approximately $5 more than a standard character-less breakfast buffet. That’s $5 to have breakfast with Winnie the Pooh and get pictures like one below.
Alternatively, you could attend the following meet and greets:
- Alice at the United Kingdom Pavilion: Expected wait 12 minutes
- Mary Poppins at the United Kingdom Pavilion: Expected wait 12 minutes
- Tigger & Pooh at the United Kingdom Pavilion: Expected wait 12 minutes
Assuming you agree with our 12-minute estimate for these types of meet and greets, you are looking at a total wait of approximately 36 minutes to meet these four characters.
I look at the $5 it would cost to save that 36 minutes of waiting – not to mention the hassle of having to ensure I’m at the United Kingdom Pavilion at the right times for these characters (who are only out for 40 minute increments or so) – and I see a really good value in this character dining experience. If a waiter came up to me during my standard meal and said, “for $5, I will bring Mary Poppins, Alice, Pooh, and Tigger right to your table,” I would accept that offer in a heartbeat.
Example Three: Mickey & Company
In this final example, let’s say that you or your child really wants to meet Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy. To get all four of these characters in a single meal, we’ll head over to Chef Mickey’s.
Chef Mickey’s has prices of $33 to $38 per adult, and $18 to $21 per child, depending on the season. This works out to $110 for a family of four before gratuity, or approximately $40 more than a standard breakfast buffet, to meet Disney’s “Fab Five” of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto.
As you would imagine, there are a number of ways to meet the Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy outside of a meal. One approach to meeting them would be:
- Donald and Goofy at Pete’s Silly Sideshow: Expected wait 17 minutes
- Minnie (and a bonus picture with Daisy) at Pete’s Silly Sideshow: Expected wait 25 minutes
- Mickey at the Town Square Theater: Expected wait 16 minutes
which totals just under an hour of wait time.
The trade-off between $40 in extra meal cost and an extra hour of waiting in line is a closer call to me than the $70 for 2 hours of time savings that we discussed in Example One. Though one could argue that you are paying $35 per hour of savings in Example One, and $40 per hour of savings in Example Three, the additional hour of time saved in Example One makes a big difference (e.g., it could mean the difference between having enough time to take a break in Stormalong Bay or having to spend all day in the park to see everything you want to see.) I would lean toward not going the character dining route for this example.
If you have read the previously referenced article on character dining, you might have noticed that the a few names are not present, including: Anna, Elsa, Merida, and Tiana (Rapunzel has recently been spotted at Cinderella’s Royal Table, but it is unclear how frequently she is present.) If your goal is to visit these princesses (/queen if we’re discussing Elsa), then character dining is not going to help you. Unfortunately, the same goes for Pixar characters like Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Jessie.
My wife, who is a big fan of Disneybounding, felt that it was very important to add that many characters have different costumes depending on location. For example, you’ll meet mermaid Ariel in her Grotto, while she clearly has legs to walk around Cinderella’s Royal Table and Akershus. Belle, as noted above, sometimes wears her blue dress and apron, but definitely loves to put on her iconic ball gown.
Additionally, almost all character dining experiences come with the disclaimer that “character appearances and entertainment are subject to change.” Though there seems to be some consistency in which characters appear at which locations, there is also a chance that the one particular character you really want to see is unavailable on a given day.
Unlike Brian’s, my analysis indicates a good value in the character dining experiences available at Walt Disney World. Of course, as with most value analysis, the real answer comes from what you as a guest value the most. Is it worth the extra money in the morning to save you time in the afternoon? That really is a question only you can answer. I hope this post at least provides you with a framework and some motivation to make your own value determinations.
Who are your favorite characters to dine with? What other benefits to character dining do you like to enjoy (e.g., early access to the park, sometimes an hour before it opens)? Let us know in the comments.