My family and I tried out the dining plan for the first time on our recent trip to Disney World. For us, I think it was a mixed bag. A big part of any vacation for me is the food and fortunately, there's a lot of great food in Disney World. On the plus side, I loved paying for everything ahead of time. It's mainly a psychological thing, because you've already "paid" in one way or another prior to your trip, but it certainly made those $100 plus lunches seem more palatable, if you'll pardon the pun. Another plus is that you're able to try a lot of different restaurants on your trip; in fact, to get your money's worth, you're going to have to do this. Unfortunately, that's also the downside of the dining plan.
Here's a brief run-down of the dining plan for those who haven't used it before. On the basic dining plan, which is available only to resort guests, each individual on the plan gets once snack credit, one counter service credit, and one sit-down meal credit per day. The number of days on your meal plan corresponds with the number of nights of your stay and expires at midnight the day of check out. Everyone age three and over who is on your resort reservation will have to be on the plan. So if you're staying for seven nights and you have four people on your reservation, you'll have 28 snack credits, 28 counter service credits, and 28 credits for sit down meals for the entire trip. There's no obligation to use a certain number of credits per day; in theory, you could use all your snack credits on the last day. Every time you pay, your credits are automatically deducted and you'll see your total credits remaining for that type of meal at the bottom of your receipt. In my experience, the cast members are great at explaining to you what's left on your plan and what's available to you.
Both counter and table service credits give you an entree, drink and dessert. From time to time, what's available on the plan will change slightly. A message board like Disboards or Passporter is an excellent place to get up to date, in-depth information about these changes before your trip. It's also a good place to find out how to best maximize the value of the plan so that you know what to pay cash for and what to use your credits for. Some snack credits, for example, are a better deal than others. I found that it was cheaper to just buy my kids a carton of milk than it was to use a snack credit. Also, be aware of the ever-changing rule on kids' counter service meals. Right now, Disney doesn't differentiate between adult and children's counter service meals. This has caused some confusion; you can read more about it here.
One of the biggest complaints about the dining plan is that it's just too much food. I actually disagree. It's not too much food; it's too much of the wrong kind of food. I love dessert, but it's not necessary at every sit-down and counter-service meal. I would have much rather had the option choosing between an appetizer or a dessert. At some places you could get fruit or yogurt as your dessert, but this wasn't the norm and often at counter service restaurants, your dessert choice was some sort of fossilized cake in a plastic container. My kids wouldn't even eat that. Obviously, the addition of dessert makes the dining plan seem like a better deal. You are, after all, getting this huge meal. But if you wouldn't normally buy that dessert to begin with, how much of a bargain is it?
So does the dining plan save you money? Well, yes and no. Obviously, if you get the dining plan for free, it's a good deal, although there's a lot of argument, best saved for another post, on whether or not the dining plan is a better or worse deal than Disney's resort discounts (you can't combine free dining with resort discounts). We probably saved around $300 by using the dining plan, but I think the bigger question for us is whether or not we have eaten all those meals in the first place? There were some restaurants I really wanted to try on this trip and truthfully, I'm not the kind of person who can happily vacation without a few good meals. If we hadn't been on the dining plan, we would have still kept four of the six sit-down restaurants we ended up eating at. Three of those meals would have been with the kids. Since our twins are under three, they ate free, which saved us a lot of money right there. If we hadn't been on the dining plan we would have been paying to feed two extra kids. There's also no question that we would have used the counter service meals anyway; it's just too convenient in the parks. In fact, despite the rather useless dessert option, I think the counter service meals were the best part of the plan as far as value was concerned.
The four sit down meals that we would have eaten regardless and the counter service meals roughly equaled what we spent on the dining plan, even when you consider that we wouldn't have ordered all those desserts without the plan. When I put together all the numbers, what the dining plan did for us was allow us to eat at two additional sit-down places for “free” and gave us snacks, also for “free.” So in that respect, it was worth it.
There's no question that you can eat more cheaply at Disney by not using the dining plan, particularly if you have access to a kitchen. Many people bring their own snacks and lunches into the parks and eat their dinner off site. Maybe they splurge on one big meal on site. It's not my personal preference because it seems like too much work, but at the end of their stay, they've saved a lot of money, no doubt.
I think the dining plan works best for those who plan on eating at multiple sit down restaurants, say four or more times during a week-long vacation. If this isn't how you normally vacation or if these types of scheduled breaks during the day aren't how you tour Disney, it's probably not going to work for you. I love having one relaxing meal per day, so in that respect, it made sense for us. Once you consider how many sit down meals you normally eat and then add in what you would normally pay for counter service meals and snacks, a number which can be shockingly high, you'll have a better idea of how the plan will work for you, at least from a cost perspective.
Even though the dining plan can be a good value, it can also feel like a sort of forced food march where your trip can start to feel like it's being ruled by your advanced dining reservations (ADRs). This was probably the biggest downside for us, particularly with smaller children. At one point, we found ourselves holding prized fastpasses for Toy Story Midway Mania that we had no intention of giving up but which also meant missing our lunch ADR. Fortunately, we were able to change it, but doing so meant spending a good 15 minutes on the phone with Disney Dining and if it had been a more desirable restaurant, we probably would have lost our ADR altogether. While anyone can make the dining plan work with a few adjustments, I think the it works best for those who are flexible and who take a more leisurely pace in the parks. For those who want to see and do everything, stopping to eat a sit down meal at a specific time in a specific place can really cut into your touring time.
Mention must be made about the availability of ADRs, which can be a problem on the plan. Make your ADRs as soon as you're allowed to by Disney (at this point, at the 180 day mark) even if you don't yet have the dining plan or even a resort reservation. Disney doesn't care if you make your resort reservation and ADRs six months out and then add the dining plan a week before your trip; it's all the same to them. If free dining becomes an option after you make your ADRs, check back with Disney or your travel agent to see if you can change your resort reservation to a package so that you can include it. If you're taking a spur of the moment trip, check on restaurant availability before you add the dining plan. There's nothing worse than getting the dining plan, particularly getting the dining plan for free as part of some promotion, and then realizing that the only place you can eat is Nine Dragons or that you can only eat at really odd hours. That is, without question, not going to be a bargain.
In closing, whether or not the Dining Plan is a good deal for you depends almost entirely on how you eat. I think the dining plan works best if you're the type of Disney guest who eats at sit-down restaurants at least half of the time on your trip. Further, it helps to have a reasonably flexible schedule. Finally, you need to be able to get most of the ADRs you want. Next time, I'll do better research; I certainly could have maximized our value if I'd been better informed. Since I loved how convenient it is, I think that we'll do the plan on our next long trip.
Please check out my latest offer, a free $50 Disney gift card when you book a new vacation package. This is in addition to current Disney discounts. Email me at ChrisW@pixievacations.com.