This is a continuation of our Back to Basics Series. Scroll to the bottom to find links to our other Basics posts.
The first thing to understand about the Disney World Dining Plan is the transformation it has undergone since its introduction in 2005. At one time, the promotional material for the dining plan emphasized value, trumpeting savings of up to 40 percent. Today, the emphasis is on convenience. That’s because the potential savings of the Dining Plan is very dependent on how you use it. In fact, it’s fairly easy to lose money on the Dining Plan.
During its debut, the Standard Dining Plan cost about $35 per day for adults and $10 for children. For this price, visitors would get the familiar offering of one table-service meal, one counter-service meal and one snack. The big difference from the original offering to today is in the table-service meal, which no longer includes appetizer or gratuity in the cost.
And, of course, that cost has gone up markedly as well. In 2016, the price per day of the Standard Dining Plan is $61.82 per adult and $20.98 per child (tax included). In addition to the table-service meal, counter-service meal and single snack per day, guests using this plan will get a refillable drink mug, valid for the length of stay.
The other dining plan options include the Quick-Service Plan, which includes two counter-service meals and one snack per day, along with the refillable drink mug. Per day, this package will run you $42.84 for adults and $17.47 for children (tax included). Then there’s the Deluxe Dining Plan, which offers a choice of 3 table- or counter-service meals per 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. Both child and adult credits can be used for adult meals, if desired, on the Deluxe Dining Plan. The cost per day is $111.73 for adults and $32.56 for children (tax included).
Read on to find out where you can find value in the Dining Plan and where you can fall short.
Finding value in the Dining Plan
Whether you save money using the Dining Plan depends a lot on how you eat and the number of children you have. Do you enjoy steak and seafood? There’s a good chance you’ll get your money’s worth on the Dining Plan. If you’re a family with young children, character buffets are the best way to find value on the Dining Plan.
To see where you can find value, let’s look at some examples.
An adult at the Magic Kingdom uses a snack credit at Aloha Isle for a Dole Whip Float ($5.29), has quick-service lunch at Be Our Guest, getting the Braised Pork ($14.99), a soft drink ($2.99) and the Master’s Cupcake for dessert ($4.59), then takes the Monorail over to ‘Ohana for table-service dinner ($38.20). The out of pocket cost, with tax added in, would be $70.35, well above the $61.82 cost of the Standard Dining Plan.
One item we didn’t figure was the value of the refillable mug included in the plan. Bought separately, the mug is $17.99 for the length of stay. For our purposes, let’s assume a 6-day stay, which would make the mug a $3 per day value. So adding in the value of the mug, you have more than $11 savings by using the Dining Plan — not bad.
As our other example, let’s take a family of four with two adults and two children. The total per-day cost for the Dining Plan is $165.60 for the family. Now consider that dinner for this family is at the character buffet Chef Mickey’s. With tax, the out-of-pocket cost for Chef Mickey’s would be $141.52 for this meal alone. Figure about $50 for this family’s counter service meal, $20 for their snacks and $12 value for their refillable mugs and you end up with more than $220 in value, making the Dining Plan a great deal in this instance.
The bottom line is that it’s important to know the prices of what you’re eating in order to figure out whether the Dining Plan makes sense financially. Figuring that your average counter service meal is going to be around $18 with drink and dessert, when you add in snack ($5) and mug ($3), and let’s figure that’s in the $26 range. Subtract that from your daily Dining Plan cost and you should make sure your total table service meal is around $35 to make sure you’re breaking even. Figure on about $11 to $12 for dessert and drink, and an entree of $22 will get you to even when you add in tax.
Dining Plan pitfalls
Are you a vegetarian? Do you have children age 10 or over? Do you tend to be a light eater? Have you waited until the last minute to book your advance dining reservations? The Dining Plan may not save you money. Here are ways that you can be tripped up and end up spending more on the Dining Plan than you would have spent out of pocket.
As we stated earlier, the plan works well for those who prefer steaks and other high-priced entrees or buffets. You might feel that this restricts your options because you don’t want to lose money. Maybe you enjoy getting a lower-priced item, like a burger at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater or meat loaf at 50s Prime Time Cafe. And for those kids that are 10 or older, you’re paying adult prices, even though their preference is still chicken nuggets.
Some feel constrained by the Dining Plan, especially because it doesn’t include appetizers. If you really want to get the Bread Service at Sanaa, you’ll have to pay out of pocket for it. Likewise, you might feel constrained by having to use two table service credits to eat at Signature Restaurants. You’ll need to spend about $70 to meet the value of those credits.
One sure way to lose value in the dining plan is to be late making your advanced dining reservations. The Dining Plan is about enjoying your favorite meals without worrying about cost. But if you’re unable to get into your favorite restaurants, do you really want to pay a premium for that experience?
It’s important to remember that the dining plan does not include your tips. A typical family of four should count on budgeting around $25 per table service meal for gratuities. Over the course of a week, that’s more than $150 you’ll need to add to your dining budget.
Beyond the table-service credits, you’ll want to maximize the value of your counter-service and snack credits. Take a look at the counter-service menus to find the ones that will provide maximum value. Be Our Guest, mentioned earlier, is one. Another is Wolfgang Puck Express in Disney Springs. And be sure to spread out the use of your snack credits during the week on high-value items. One good strategy is to use those snack credits to purchase baked goods for breakfast. It’s a shame to end up with a bunch of snack credits that you use for bottled water on your last day at Disney.
But this speaks to another factor – the Dining Plan tends to be a lot of food. As much as you might love dessert, there’s a chance you’ll be sick of having dessert with every meal. If you’re throwing away a good portion of the food you’ve paid for, is that really a value?
The final verdict
Like we said, these days, the Disney World Dining Plan is more about the convenience of knowing in advance how much you’ll be spending on dining and being able to order the most expensive entree on the menu without worry. Whether it makes financial sense for you is very dependent on your family and your dining habits. It will require some advance research and number crunching
If you want the convenience, but you’re unsure about the expense, you can take an alternative route. You can purchase Disney gift cards in the amount you would pay for the Dining Plan. Then, use the gift cards to pay for your meals, or if you’re staying at a Disney resort, use your Magic Bands to pay and use the gift cards to settle those expenses at your resort. You just might find that you have enough money leftover for souvenirs as well.
Finally, we’ve talked mainly about cost, but we haven’t discussed the factor of time. Between waiting for a table and the dining experience, a table-service meal will often take at least an hour and a half. Factor in more time if you’re going to a restaurant at a resort outside the parks. While some look forward to a meal as welcome break and time to recharge, others might see it as something that takes away time from rides and attractions.
The Dining Plan is a great option for some, but not for everyone. Only you can assess whether it works for your you and your family.