This is the final installment of the 2019 edition of analysis about whether the Disney Dining Plan is worth it. If you haven’t read Part 1 or Part 2, you may want to do that before reading this article.
Let’s say you’ve run the numbers and it’s a close call, or it isn’t a close call but you’re still not sold on one course or the other. Here are a few things to keep in mind regarding the Disney Dining Plan that could have an impact upon your trip beyond your wallet:
Budgeting: This is by far the most frequent justification I hear for the Dining Plan, and there is certainly something to be said for knowing in advance that a substantial chunk of the food you’re going to have at Disney is already paid and accounted for before you ever set foot in the park. If you have the Quick Service plan, for example, you can pay up front and there will be very little need to reach into your wallet for food over the course of your trip. It’s convenient, and it helps a ton when it comes to budgeting your trip. I know several people for whom this alone is sufficient incentive to get it, even if it ends up not saving them money.
With that said, you should be aware that it likely won’t cover ALL of your food expense — you still have to pay gratuity on Table Service meals, and it would take significant restraint to shoehorn every morsel you consume into what you are allotted on the Disney Dining Plan. It will unquestionably minimize the amount of money you spend out of pocket on food while at Disney, but especially with the Regular and Deluxe Dining Plans, you’re still going to be reaching for your wallet at the end of each meal to cover gratuity and anything not covered by the plan.
Gratuities are worth special mention here. For any Table Service meal, expect to pay around 20% of the value of the meal to the server as a tip, same as you would if you were paying out of pocket. The higher the value of your meal, the more you’re going to be paying in gratuity. Accordingly, while ordering the most expensive items on the menu means you’ll get more value out of your dining credits, it also means that you’re going to be paying more in gratuities because you’re tipping on a higher value meal.
Tip: if you like the peace of mind of having paid in advance for most food but aren’t sure that the Dining Plan is for you, consider taking the money you would be spending on the Dining Plan and put it on a prepaid Visa gift card. You’ll still have the benefit of “paying” in advance for most of your food, but you’ll have the flexibility to eat whatever strikes you without consideration of whether you are getting sufficient value, and if you spend less on food than anticipated, that money remains yours to use for whatever you like.
Flexibility: One of the most significant issues I had with the Dining Plan the last time I used it is that I felt like dining controlled my schedule. Having ADRs will make your schedule somewhat rigid no matter what, but if your primary reason for using the Disney Dining Plan is to save money, you can’t simply punt on a Table Service meal if you’re not feeling it–you have to replace it with another Table Service meal to keep the value proposition balanced. As noted previously, without Character Dining or targeting high-cost items, the savings you’ll see on the Dining Plan is very modest — it comes in right around the actual cost of the food you’re getting. With that being the case, every credit matters, and wasting even a single credit can wipe away any savings you would have otherwise realized.
This is far less of an issue on the Quick Service Plan because it’s fairly easy to swap one Quick Service for another, but on the other plans, you either need to find another Table Service meal on short notice, or use your credit for a Quick Service meal where you are almost certain to lose value.
Similarly, if you’re on the Deluxe plan, you’re going to need to have a Table Service meal for all three meals for the duration of your trip to get maximum value out of it. For a group of adults on a food-focused trip, this may be exactly what you have in mind, but a lot of groups will likely find that to be more time eating than they’d care to spend.
Do You Eat This Way?: There is no question about it, the cost of the Disney Dining Plan is less than the cost of the food you could get with it if you eat at the most expensive places and order the most expensive items on the menu, as demonstrated in the previous installments of this article. With that said, if you have to alter the way you’re eating to make sure you’re sticking it to the Mouse and getting maximum value out of it, you’re not really saving money. For example, as noted earlier, getting a glass of wine is one of the quickest ways to realize value on the plan, but if you’re the sort of person that would typically just have water with your meals, a good chunk of your daily cost is going to something you wouldn’t be paying for anyway. You can have that drink to capture the value, but it’s not really a fair cost comparison if you wouldn’t otherwise be incurring a cost for alcoholic drinks at all. Similarly, desserts cost $9-10 at most places, but if you don’t typically have dessert with every Table Service meal, that’s another cost that you wouldn’t have. I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with families who spend their last day stocking up on treats to take home because they are awash with unused Snack Credits they are trying not to waste. (Though, let’s be honest, going home with a bunch of Disney treats is not the worst thing that could happen!) The point is, make sure that the Dining Plan actually matches the way that you would eat on vacation before committing to it.
I wanted to add a quick note about Disney’s extremely popular “Free Dining” promotion. From time to time, Disney will throw in the Dining Plan for free with a vacation package; the trade-off, however, is that it cannot be combined with other discounts, so you’re paying full rack rate for your room. In this respect, it’s not really “free,” it’s a discount in the amount of the cost of the dining plan off of your vacation package price. When Free Dining is available, it is common for Disney to run other promotions, like room-only discounts or other vacation deals where you’re getting a discount off of the price for your room, and by taking advantage of the Free Dining promotion, you’re foregoing those other available discounts. Just as with the Dining Plan itself, sometimes Free Dining is the better deal, and sometimes the other promotions save you more money. Make sure you compare the amount you’ll save with other available promotions and see if those savings exceed the cost of the Dining Plan — if so, you can always take advantage of that discount and then buy the Dining Plan separately if the Dining Plan would otherwise work out well for you.
So, is the Disney Dining Plan worth it? It really depends, and you need to run the numbers yourself to figure out whether it’s a good fit. Are you planning on doing a lot of character dining? Would you be ordering a drink anyway? Do you tend to gravitate towards the most expensive thing on the menu? It could well work out for you. Groups who don’t check those boxes, however, may find that they aren’t getting sufficient value from it to warrant using it.
Do you use the Dining Plan? What are your favorite ways to maximize value? Let us know in the comments!