Ah, the Disney Dining Plan — right up there with emotional support animals, taking your kids out of school to visit Disney, and double strollers in terms of its divisive potential in Disney circles. There are few topics that inspire such fierce debate among the Disney faithful as the relative worth of the Disney Dining Plan. The truth, however, is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and even from a purely economic standpoint, whether or not the Disney Dining Plan is “worth it” is dependent upon a variety of factors, including:
- The restaurants where you would be eating;
- How you eat at those restaurants;
- Whether you do character meals or other special dining experiences;
- Whether you would have an alcoholic beverage, an appetizer, and/or dessert with your meal.
I’m going to try here to break down, as objectively as possible, the circumstances where the Disney Dining Plan can save you money, and some Do’s and Don’ts for maximizing value for those of you that decide to use it. After years of being of questionable value except in very specific circumstances, recent additions to the Disney Dining Plan have added value and are starting to swing the pendulum back in the other direction and can save money for more people than in years past. With that said, it remains an individualized question, and whether or not it can save you money isn’t the only consideration.
First things first, let’s go over what the Disney Dining Plan is and what it covers. Generally speaking, the Disney Dining Plan is available to guests staying at Disney resorts and allows you to pay in advance, and then certain food during your trip is covered by credits that are linked to your Disney account. Is is NOT an all-you-can-eat, all-inclusive dining option — you’ll have a set number of credits which cover specific things, and you’ll be paying out of pocket for other food and drink that you would like. Here are the three variants of the Disney Dining Plan, and what they include:
|Cost (adult/kid)||Quick Service||Table Service||Appetizers||Snacks||Refillable Resort Mug|
|Deluxe||$116.25/$43.49||*||3*||up to 3**||2||1|
*The Deluxe meal credits can be used for Table Service or Quick Service meals.
**When using a Deluxe credit for a Table Service meal, you may also get one appetizer with that meal.
Each meal includes a beverage, which can include alcoholic beverages or specialty non-alcoholic beverages like the Shanghai Lemonade at Yak & Yeti. You can find more details on what the Disney Dining Plan is and how to use it here.
In the strictly empirical sense, whether or not the Disney Dining Plan is “worth it” is just a function of whether you would be spending more or less than the cost of the plan for the covered food you would be eating during your trip. To that end, an overview of costs are helpful:
|Average (without alcohol)||Average (with alcohol)|
|Quick Service (Kids)||$6.98||N/A|
|Table Service (Kids)||$16.26||N/A|
|Table Service, with app||$48.23||$52.18|
|Table Service, with app (Kids)||$18.02||N/A|
|Resort Refillable Mug Beverage||$4.15||N/A|
It is important to note that many of the nicer restaurants (i.e., the Signature Restaurants) and Dinner Shows require two Table Service dining credits. Room service at your resort is likewise 2 credits, even if you’re staying at a Value property.
The resort mug is a big wild card here, because you can’t opt out of it, and it could make up a lot or very little of the value you get out of the plan. Accordingly, I’m going to leave it out of the initial calculation. Doing the math, if you were to have average snacks, average Quick Service meals, and average Table Service meals, the value of the food you’re getting per day with each plan is as follows, not including the resort mug:
|Plan||Value (with alcohol)||Loss/Savings||Value (without alcohol)||Loss/Savings|
|Quick Service (Kids)||N/A||$22.40||-$1.38|
If you’re the sort of person that drinks a lot of soft drinks and will use it, the resort mug can save you a lot of money compared to paying out of pocket for drinks at Disney prices. Consider how much you’ll use it, and add about $4 per drink per day to the value of the plan. With that said, they can’t be refilled in the parks and can only be refilled in limited locations (like your resort Quick Service location), so if you’re not going to be in those locations, you may find that using it is more trouble than it’s worth. As with most everything at Disney, your mileage may vary.
So, at a glance, it would appear that neither the Quick Service nor the Regular Disney Dining Plan are a good value, resulting in a daily net loss of around $15 per person, while the Deluxe Dining Plan is a complete boon, saving you more than $35 per person, per day. That, however, would be an oversimplification of what is unfortunately a fairly complicated calculation. Depending upon where you eat and how you eat, it is very possible for the dining plans to make sense for you. For example, if you were to eat twice a day at Wolfgang Puck’s Express and order the most expensive things on the menu, you could realize as much as $82/day in value on the Quick Service plan. While I’m not recommending that as an approach, there are plenty of situations where the Quick Service and Regular plans can make good financial sense.
Similarly, while there is a lot of value to be realized in the Deluxe Dining Plan by comparing what you get with how much you pay, very few guests will actually use it to its fullest. To get the full value out of the Deluxe Dining Plan, you’re going to be having 3 Table Service Meals a day. It is, to be frank, a spectacular amount of food AND an incredible time suck. Unless you are going on a trip primarily devoted to dining (which, by the way, is an entirely legitimate approach to a Disney trip), you’re likely going to find that maximizing the value of the Deluxe Dining Plan comes at the expense of time spent touring the parks, and probably your own personal comfort as you waddle around in the wake of huge meal after huge meal.
A more realistic daily menu for most people would likely include one Quick Service meal and two Table Service meals, both of which include dessert (you’re on vacation, after all) and one of which is a relaxed affair with an appetizer. Including 3 drinks over the course of those meals and two snacks, the value comes in at $116.68 — very close to the $116.25 cost of the plan.
Thus leads to probably the most important point I’ll make here: don’t compare the cost of the Dining Plan to the cost of what you COULD get, compare the cost of the plan to what you WOULD get. If you’re the sort of person that would usually just grab a sandwich and go, you’re not really doing yourself any favors by force-feeding yourself a steak at every meal just to make sure you’re not leaving money on the table.
To really determine whether the Dining Plan will save you money, the most precise approach would be to review the menus at the restaurants where you plan to eat, add up the costs of the things you would order, and then compare that to the cost of the Dining Plan. That’s a lot of work, however, so we also have a handy calculator where you can input information about how you usually eat and it will run some numbers and offer some guidance as to which is the better course for you. With that said, the calculator is going to be based upon average values; you should give some consideration to the factors that drive value on the Disney Dining Plan to determine whether those numbers need to be adjusted up or down, as we’ll discuss in the next installment.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll look at some specific examples and weigh in on some factors that you will want to consider in your analysis of whether the dining plan makes sense for you.