Here's how it works. Under this plan you get a refillable mug good for use at your resort, two quick-service meals, and two snacks per person per each night of your stay. Your quick service meal includes an entree, non-alcoholic drink, and a dessert. Snacks cover a wide variety of options, from drinks to baked goods. The plan costs $34.99 for guests ages 10 and up. Now, I've said before that I like the dining plan not so much because I save money but because of the convenience: I love not having to think about money on my vacation. But I also like to save. So can you save on this plan?
This is a tough one, and one reason why I, as a travel agent, sometimes hesitate to sell this plan. I think you have to try hard to get your money's worth on the quick service plan. Let me just say, only half-jokingly, that when someone who makes a commission off of something tells you that don't think it's necessarily a good deal and that you might want to skip it, you should probably listen! The problem lies in the dessert, which artificially pumps up the value of the plan. Chances are good, you wouldn't buy this dessert, or at least not buy it twice in one day, if it wasn't free on the plan. But when you see that receipt, you see a total that probably approaches $15 or $16 per adult, possibly more. Times that by two and add two snacks and a mug, and that plan looks pretty good.
Just to give you a general idea, here's what I would spend on a typical day, not including items I would buy off the plan:
- Breakfast, The Mara: Adult breakfast platter plus orange juice, $9.99
- Snack, Starring Rolls: Cupcake, $4.00
- Snack, Lunching Pad: Diet Coke, $2.39
- Dinner, Cosmic Ray's: 1/2 Chicken with sides, and a soft drink: $13.00
My total comes to $29.38, which is more than $5 under my $34.99 total that I spent on the dining plan that day. Unless I refill my mug several times that day (and I'm not usually at the resort long enough to do that), then I'm paying $5 more for my meals than I should by using the dining plan. That doesn't make any sense, particularly when you factor in the number of people in your group over a period of days.
A lot of people like this plan and I do sell it, but I like to make sure people go in well-informed. You can make it work for you with a few adjustments. Take my sample day, for example:
- Breakfast, The Mara: Breakfast bounty platter plus orange juice, $11.49
- Snack, Starring Rolls: Cupcake, $4.00
- Snack, Lunching Pad: Cream cheese pretzel, $4.29
- Dinner, Cosmic Ray's: 1/2 Chicken and ribs combo with sides, and a soft drink: $17.00
Now my total is $36.74 with just a few changes and I've more than covered my cost of the dining plan without even considering the value of the refillable mug or the desserts.
The nice thing about the plan is that it does give you some options if you're on a strict budget. If you're not on the plan, you might fall into the routine of eating a burger every day for lunch to save a few dollars. That can get really old. On the plan, you can go to the most expensive quick-service restaurant and choose whatever item you like. This means that your budget won't take a hit at more expensive locations like Flame Tree Barbecue or Wolfgang Puck's Express. It also means more variety. But if you find that you're the type who's going to choose the burger and fries over the rotisserie chicken every time regardless of cost, you might want to think about not buying this plan.
I find that I don't have any trouble justifying the base plan financially. I always come out ahead unless I mess up and miss an ADR and can't figure out a way to get a new one (this has happened to me, sadly). The quick-service plan requires me to think a little bit more about what I buy, but it still offers me the convenience of having a plan. However, even if I can break even or do better on the plan, it still leaves me with one glaring problem: Too much fast food. This is a complaint I hear from a lot of clients who use this plan. Unless you choose your restaurants carefully, you can find yourself ordering from the same type of menu over and over again.
There's a lot of variety in Disney quick service locations, but you have to look. Each park has at least one quick service location that offers healthy options. Some are quite exotic, such as in the World Showcase at Epcot. Just about everyone loves Sunshine Seasons, also in Epcot, where you'll find good salads, noodle dishes, roast chicken, and the old standbys; even the desserts in this eatery are worth a look. Bakeries sell good sandwiches. And the best restaurant in Animal Kingdom is actually a quick service location, Flame Tree Barbecue. I generally like the quick service locations in the resorts even more than in the parks, so don't be afraid to check those out. And of course, everyone loves Wolfgang Puck's Express and Earl of Sandwich in Downtown Disney, both good buys on your meal plan. You can also do what many guests do and add a couple of table service restaurants for more variety, if you wish.
If you still want to try a meal plan but you think the quick service plan is too limited, keep in mind that you can upgrade to the base plan for an additional $11 per adult (no charge for kids 9 and under) per day. You'll lose a snack and a quick service meal, but you'll gain access to dozens of table-service restaurants that can really add to your experience.
A lot of people find that the meal plans don't work for them but they still want to keep a close eye on their food budget. I know that I find when I'm not on a plan, my receipts add up to a lot more than I wanted to spend going into the trip and it can stress me out. You might want to try this: Put all the money you would spend on your meal plan on a Disney gift card and use that for every food item that you would buy. You can do this as if you were on a dining plan and only buy items you would buy on the plan (for the sake of comparison) or you can do it for your entire food budget. At the end of your trip, you can see if you would have saved money or not. Some guests do this just to compare with a meal plan; they enjoy seeing if they can beat it. Others, like me, find if less stressful to have items like food and snacks paid for ahead of time--there's nothing worse than being on a vacation where you're worried about money.
Food at Disney World can be wonderful. It can also be expensive. Knowing this ahead of time and taking control of it, no matter what that means to you, will make your vacation less stressful, whether you're on a meal plan or not.