Disney Dining Plan, Is it Worth It?

Editor: Please welcome Chris Wood who will be sharing some of her valuable travel planning experience with us as a new guest author.

If you’re staying on property, one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is whether or not you should purchase the dining plan. While it’s certainly convenient to pre-pay for your meals, the dining plan, touted as a money-saving option, doesn’t work for everyone. Here are some things to consider before you add the plan to your vacation package.

The most popular plan is the base dining plan, which includes one table-service credit, one quick-service credit, one snack, and one refillable mug per person for each night of your stay. This means that a family of three staying four nights will have twelve quick and table-service credits and twelve snacks. There’s no order in which you have to use your credits; you just have to finish using them by midnight the day of check-out or you lose them. Credits aren’t even assigned directly to individuals on the reservation, just by age. This year, guests 10 years of age and up will pay $55.59 per night for the plan; those in the 3 – 9 age group will pay $17.16.

All dining plan credits are created equal, and this is the first place where you start to see the rationale of adding the dining plan fall apart. What this means is that whether you’re eating a $40 character meal or a $15 entrée, the “value” of your table-service credit stays the same. If you’re going to eat a lot of buffets or even if you’re just going to eat the most expensive entrée on the menu, this can work in your favor. But if you tend to eat less expensive meals, the plan isn’t a good option because you’ll never break even. Similarly, while families with kids in the 3 – 9 year age group can’t feed a child in the parks for less than $17.16 per day, making the plan an incredible bargain, a family with a picky ten-year old is forced to pay adult prices. It’s understandable that a parent might balk at having to shell out $55 a day on a kid who might eat $20 worth of food.

When you use the plan, you’re betting that you’ll actually be able to use it to the fullest extent. This means that no one gets sick and misses meals, that you don’t forget about a reservation, and that you don’t mind taking time out from touring to sit down and eat a meal at least once a day. I’ve had trips where one of my children got sick and half of his table-service credits went to waste. I’ve also missed reservations and not been able to make them up because every restaurant we called was full. In that case, I used a table-service credit to buy a quick-service meal; there’s no way I broke even on that trip.

Why does the plan work? Well, it’s a number of things, really, and not all of them come down to dollars and cents. If you’ve ever had a $200 check handed to you at the end of lunch at Walt Disney World, you know how unpleasant that is. There’s something about pre-paying that bill that makes it less painful. It’s not just an issue of convenience; it’s almost like your mind plays tricks on you—your giving Disney credits, not actual money. Why, it’s practically free! Likewise, having the plan allows you to pick more expensive items than you might normally try. I tend to find myself “cheaping out” when I pay out of pocket. Maybe I’ll go to Pecos Bills and have a burger instead of Be Our Guest for a turkey sandwich. But if it’s pre-paid and I can order anything? I don’t have to think about it.

Ultimately, whether or not the plan works for you depends on three things: 1) How you eat. If you’re a light eater, it’s rarely a good bet; 2) How you tour the parks. Theme park commandos might want to skip it; and 3) The make up of your group. The next time you book a vacation, don’t listen to the voice on the other end of the phone telling you how much you’ll save. Instead, think about how you vacation. That’s the key to understanding whether or not it will work for you.

11 thoughts on “Disney Dining Plan, Is it Worth It?”

  1. My wife and I have used the dining plan exactly once and have run into many of the same issues described here: difficulty with reservations and inability to use all the credits. On top of that, the plan today still requires you to leave a tip out of pocket. (There was a time this was covered on the dining plan.) Also, at the time, the plan covered both an appetizer, entree, and dessert per person. That was simply too much food for us.

    As someone who has been touring Walt Disney World both before and after the introduction of the dining plan and the “free dining” promotions in particular, I feel the plan has significantly hurt the quality of the dining experience at Disney.

    This has happened in ways both large and small:

    Getting a dining reservation requires MUCH more fore-planning. Day of reservations, at least for lunch, usued to be fairly easy. Now, you must pre-plan your park and dining touring weeks or even months in advance.

    When you get a reservation, the restaurants themselves are packed in much more tightly. They had to add capacity based on people trying to maximize their use of the dining plan. Chefs D France is an excellent example of a restaurant that has been filled elbow to elbow with tables. Dining in the parks had once been a quiet, intimate refuge. (Places like the Biergarten not withstanding.)

    Because of the extra capacity and additional reservations, they tend to rush you through your meal. Turnover is hugely important to them and you can tell the servers are measured on their performance in this regard. Many times I have gotten the stink eye and a few times I have been challenged directly when I have refused to place my entree order until after I’ve had my appetizer.

    The number of menu options had dropped significantly. Today most of the menus are brought to you on a small card. There was a time when even the theme park restaurants brought you a full menu book. The card menu is full of items that are on the dining plan. There are rarely, if ever, any unique off-plan items any longer.

    If you do the math, the larger capacity and smaller selection means they are making larger and larger batches of the food they do serve. If you notice your food is coming out a lot faster lately, there’s a simple reason. They are no longer making it fresh for you. The only way to ensure they do make it fresh is to ask them to alter some part of the dish either because of taste or dietary restriction.

    Finally, and the most incipid to me, the menu prices have skyrocked. Disney has always been more expensive than average, I’ve come to expect that. But I’ve watched the same items on these small menus shoot up in price. I believe this has largely been to increase the sense of value someone gets from using the dining plan. Unfortunately, it means that those of us who dine off-plan pay more in real dollars.

    Despite all of these downsides to me as an off-plan consumer, I don’t expect Disney will stop the dining plan. From a financial perspective, it’s been hugely successful for them. Fewer people eat off-property keeping the dollars at Disney. If you buy the plan, they make a lot of money: They win when you don’t spend the full value. They win by a smaller margin if you “maximize” the value because they set what the apparent dollar values of the entrees are (likely much more than the actual total cost.)

    The good news is, there are still high-quality dining experience to be found on Disney property. They are in the restaurants that require two dining credits to visit such as Artist’s Point, Yachtsman Steakhouse, Jiko, and The California Grille. These places have always been a bit more upscale, but given the menu price inflation happening at the dining plan restaurants, the difference in price had become much less pronounced. I believe, if you’re not on the plan, just a little more money spent at one of these locations can increase the quality of your dining experience significantly.

    I know that comes off a bit curmudgeonly. I am disappointed in th changes. The truth is, if you visit Walt Disney World, you have to play by the house rules. If you plan well, can eat all the food, and can maximize it the dining plan is probably required if you want to spend the least amount of money at the World. This is especially true with the “free-dining” promotions. However, if value for your dollar matter more, you might consider dining off-plan at at some of the so-call “signature” dining locations.

    Hope that helps,

  2. Honestly, the best way to decide if the dining plan works is to do the math. Check online for the menus of the restaurants you would eat in and add up what it would cost for your family to dine there. Add in the tax. Is it more or less to go with the dining plan? It is definitely convenient and stress free to use, so you may not mind getting it even if you are paying slightly more for it. When we’ve used it, we definitely did either character meals or buffets for table service so it worked out nicely price-wise.

  3. The one thing that no one has brought up is that it’s an all or nothing kind of expense. Disney won’t allow one or two big eaters in the room to get it, and then pay out of pocket for smaller eaters in the party – everyone has to get it.

    You also have to look at the cost versus credit ratio – if you end up eating some place that is two dining credits, you are left with nothing for the following night, except maybe a skipped quick service. You can play the odds and pre-plan everything out, but then as my partner pointed out to me when we did it, that our vacation was very food-centric. Sure we ate well that time, but we missed out on the things that we really enjoy – fireworks or Mickey’s Not So Scary Parade because we were shackled to the meal plan. So I agree with Chris – look at how you vacation and look at how you eat before making the commitment.

    One other thing that I remember too, is that it was a lot of food. I found myself getting kids meals, which was still a burger, fries, drink and a desert and often I would try to search out a family to give my cookies too because we just were stuffed – only to hear from that family that they too were on the dining plan and found that they were wasting food too….

    “food for thought” pun intended.

  4. Great post! I totally agree with your assessment of the DDP. My husband and I are light eaters, and our 3 boys (2 of whom are over age 10) are rather picky. The DDP is definitely NOT a good value for us. We have taken advantage of the free Dining Plan in the past, and loved it. However… I notice that this year’s Special Offers are geared more toward a % off your total vacation package, rather than offering up a free Dining Plan. I ran the numbers, and of course this works out in Disney World’s favor. We still love WDW, and will continue to visit as often as finances allow, but will certainly avoid the DDP!

  5. The dining plan has ruined a lot of the quality at WDW restaurants. Servers frequently get stiffed on tips, which is not fair- and the food has gone down hill because of the concessions Disney has made to make the DDP work for them.

  6. If you like to eat 3-course meals and lots of snacks the Dining Plan can be a good deal, especially if you gravitate towards expensive choices. But if you tend to just grab a bite before returning to the attractions, you will loose out. Whenever we have used the Dining Plan, we’ve ended up converting left-over meals into snacks and taking 40 Rice Krispie treats home with us. We tried donating some to the Shades of Green but couldn’t do that (Disney – that would be great PR!!). So I agree with the others – plan your vacation before you commit to the Dining Plan.

  7. The basic plan actually doesn’t come with the mug… thats only the quick or the deluxe plan. We have gotten the basic numerous times and like it when we can get it. Unfortunately it is only valid with Vacation Club or Disney package. If you try to do it all ale carte, the dinning plan is not valid.

    I have always wanted to get the deluxe or the premium and just go nuts at fancy restaurants and golfing, but it hasn’t happened yet!

    1. We had the basic dining plan last year and got the mugs. I was assured this time that we would also get mugs. By basic, you mean 1 table, 1 quick, and 1 snack, right? If I don’t get my mug someone’s gonna get cut ;)

  8. My family has done the dining plan twice now, and it’s been a mixed bag. When it came down to it, even with three of our four-member family being men (and my brother and I as two hearty-eating twenty-somethings), we couldn’t eat all the food we got from the plan. The way we tend to schedule our eating is a variation of: (a) big b-fast (usually w/characters)/afternoon snack/big dinner, (b) small b-fast/medium lunch/medium dinner, or (c) small b-fast/big mid-afternoon meal (Biergarten is great for this; just be seated in the last lunch seating, which is around 2:30-3pm, I believe), and snack/small dinner. What it means is that we end up wasting almost one meal or snack every day, per person. On the day we flew out on our most recent trip, we ended up buying our remaining six or seven light meals and six or seven snacks just before leaving for the airport. We managed to give a few away (there’s nothing that makes you feel more like a creepy dude than offering families with small children some of your food, so we switched tactics and let my mom do that instead), but were stuck with many of them.

    Overall, I’d say that unless you don’t plan on doing many buffets, the plan probably isn’t worth it.

    Oh, and the Dole Pineapple Freeze across from Swiss Family Treehouse in the MK is by far the most bang-for-your-dining-plan snack out there, and the most delicious, IMHO.

  9. I’d like to offer up a slightly different opinion. My partner and I got married three years ago and took our honeymoon in Disney World. When we booked our package, we booked the Platinum Plan (hey, you only get married the once, right?) The package itself came with a dining plan, and unlike the other dining plan options, it allowed a 1 for 1 on all the restaurants, including character dining, signature dining, etc.

    Outside of the other great benefits we experienced with the plan (the tours, the great seats at shows, the VIP trip planners, etc.) we were delighted with our dining options. For adults traveling alone and wanting to take their time- you can’t beat it. We had character breakfasts every morning, ate at all the great signature restaurants, and even indulged at Victoria and Albert’s because it was covered by our plan. There was no way we would have enjoyed as many wonderful meals if we hadn’t had the plan. The best part was, when we booked, we gave our planner the dates we wanted for each place, and she made it work to the best of her ability. We only switched around a few different days that we wanted specific restaurants. She even landed us dinner at Cinderella’s Royal Table.

    The entire time we were there the wait staff spoiled us. We were treated to little surprises like mini wedding cakes at our tables, and cards from the characters and staff. It was a wonderful time, and well worth the money. I have a few severe food allergies, and we were always accommodated wherever we went. If you’re an adult and traveling with just your spouse and like to take the time to enjoy your meals, it is a spectacular option. I would highly suggest it.

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