Friday, January 13, 2012

The Ups and Downs of the Disney Dining Plan.

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and greens at 50s Primetime Cafe.
So good you'll be thinking about it for days.

My latest trip taught me a good lesson, one that I understood in theory but had yet to put into practice: If someone in your party gets sick and you've already pre-paid for food, you're potentially out a nice sum of money.  It took using the dining plan one time to make me a convert. I'll admit to not being sure about it ahead of time, but after getting home and running the numbers, I could see that it worked for us and the way we eat and tour the parks. Sure, it meant we had to stick to a schedule more than we might have otherwise, but the savings and the convenience of using the plan were worth it to me.  Since that trip I've always added the plan and this trip was no exception.  But in the back of my mind, I was worried about making the commitment. What if things didn't go according to plan?

Well, that's exactly what happened last month.  Our oldest child got sick during the last part of our trip, although it took us a while to figure out that it wasn't that he'd eaten too many sweets, but a raging fever that was making him beg to sit in the twins' stroller and complain about a stomach ache.  We got him settled into the room with my husband while I took the twins around the parks for the last two days of our trip.  I felt awful that he was missing out, but I also felt bad that I was losing two days of dining credits, both his and my husband's.  I did what most people do and paid for another guest's meals, but I had this nagging thought in the back of my mind: What if I'd paid out of pocket for our meals? Would I have saved money? Because really, the unexpected happens, even at Disney World.

I sat down a couple of days after we got home and figured out that we broke even using the plan. This is mainly because of the more expensive character buffets we did in the beginning of the trip, but also because we ended up using all of the quick-service and the snack credits, which together accounted for approximately 50% of the total $895 we paid for the dining plan (7 days, 2 adults, 3 kids).  Incidentally, that quick-service total doesn't include desserts, because we didn't eat them.  In fact, I think the cost of Disney's quick-service meals is one reason I love the base dining plan.  Let me explain.

Quick-service, in particular, will put a serious hole in your budget.  If you really want to save money on a Disney vacation, don't eat at the table-service locations. Done. You've saved about $30 per person per meal, often more than that. But how can you avoid quick-service meals? If you're spending more than a few hours in the parks, you have to eat, right? And yes, you can bring in your own food, but how fun is that?  You can also buy the least expensive item on the quick-service menus, but most often that will be a burger and fries, which gets really old fast.  Having the dining plan allows you to have the variety you want without the worry. 

That's not to say the plan is perfect or foolproof.  Like most things at Disney World, you'll need to put some planning into it.  You'll also need to stick to a schedule. Finally, if you're not doing some of the more expensive table-service locations, you may be paying too much. Some table-service locations, like 50s Primetime Cafe in Hollywood Studios, cost only slightly more than a more expensive quick-service meal.  So make sure you check out menus before you commit to the plan.

I would estimate about 90% of my clients get the dining plan, many of them under free dining promotions. The one thing more experienced guests tell me is that they care more about convenience than anything. Yes, we all want to save money, but what I'm also seeing is people wanting to make their trip as all-inclusive as possible. Taking the worry out of paying for your meals is one way to do that.

 As much as I like the dining plan, it's not for everyone.  Don't like to plan meals out in advance or take time off from touring the parks? It's probably not for you.  And if you don't plan on eating at least four table-service meals per week long trip, it might not be the best use of your money.  As I noted above, our quick-service meals and snacks came to around 50% of our total dining plan cost.  Add to that for our family of five, one breakfast at  Tusker House, and dinners at Ohana, Via Napoli, and Crystal Palace and we broke even. The other three meals were essentially "freebies" although in fairness we did lose several table-service credits due to illness.

And that's really the problem: You have to gamble that everything will go according to plan, or at least close to what you planned. Ultimately, we came out ahead even with some bumps. But if we'd had major issues, we wouldn't have had any recourse: We had already paid.  I think you have to be okay with that gamble.  

If you have unused credits at the end of your trip, you can try the following:

  • For snacks, buy items you can bring home. I had a few snack credits left at the end of this trip, so I went to Goofy's Candy Kitchen and bought stocking stuffers like candy coins with characters on them and Rice Krispy Mickey Ears. 
  • Offer to pay for a stranger's meals. It's Disney and it just feels easier to talk to a stranger here than in the outside world, but if that makes you uncomfortable, I've noticed that Lines subscribers sometimes post chat messages to fellow users if they have unused credits.  It's a nice way to meet fellow Disney fans.
  • You can freely use table-service credits for quick-service meals. At some locations, you can use your quick-service credits to buy snack items; this is a little trickier than the table service exchange for quick-service meals.

I'll admit that my faith in the plan was a little shaken at first by losing some of our dining credits, but after going through my receipts, I feel confident that I'll choose it again.


Anonymous said...

I have done it both ways, it is just to much food!! You will eat all of it most people feel that they have paid of it and damn it I going to eat it........ on a day trip to Disney we get desert maybe nights at the most...........

selehner said...

Thanks for sharing - I had some of these concerns for a trip we have in May and I am using the dining plan but we are also getting in a lot of the character dinners as well as the shows, like Hoop De Do so I think I will come out OK. :-)

Bunnyteef said...

I just got back from my first trip to DW, and we did the dining plan and I absolutely loved it. I loved not having to worry about money for food. I carried ziploc baggies in my backpack and I used those to put desserts that we didn't eat in for later. I loved being able to try the Dole Whip, the carrot cake cookie, the cream cheese stuffed pretzel without any guilt about cost. We all shared our desserts too so it worked out just fine. I wouldn't have done it any other way!