Is the Disney Dining Plan worth it? Over the years this is probably the number one question we’ve received regarding Walt Disney World vacation planning. I wish the answer were a simple yes or no. However, the issue is complicated, and the answer is usually, “it depends.” As with most choices when it comes to planning a trip to Walt Disney World, there are a number of questions you must first ask before making an informed decision.
Disney offers guests staying in a Walt Disney World hotel three package options for dining; Quick Service, Deluxe Dining and the standard dining plan. All three allow guests to pay for their dining in full at the start of the vacation and then provide a set number of credits per person per night to be used for food throughout the parks, resorts and other on property locations. Please note that credits are based on the number of nights, not days you’ll be staying on property. Also, credits expire at midnight the day you check out. You can continue to use credits after checking out until the end of that day.
The Quick Service plan includes two quick service meals and two snacks per night. The standard dining plan includes one quick/counter service meal, one table service meal and two snacks per night. Finally, the Deluxe Dining plan consists of three meals per day, either quick service or table service, and two snacks. All plans also include a refillable resort mug for each person in the room.
When most people ask this question, what they are really asking is, “will the dining plan save me money.” Again, the answer to that question isn’t black and white. Saving money on food expenses isn’t the only reason to get the dining plan, but the short answer is most people will probably save some money if they choose the right plan and use it correctly. I’ve asked myself this question many times, and as a business minded person with an affection for spreadsheets, I decided to analyze the question.
I ran the numbers in two different ways. First, I looked at it from the standpoint of being on the dining plan and comparing what we would pay for the same food out of pocket. I planned out our week, chose restaurants and then we looked at menus and chose our food for each meal as well as our snacks based on what was included in the meal plan. In one column I totaled each and every purchase along with tax, tips, etc. I then compared that to the cost of the dining plan and the automatic 18% gratuity. In this case, the dining plan definitely saves you money.
However, what if you wouldn’t normally order the same items? For example, we only order dessert occasionally. We also like an appetizer or an adult beverage at most meals (which you pay for out of pocket if you’re on a dining plan). On the second spreadsheet I started the same way; planned out the week and decided where we would eat our meals. However, this time we went through the menus and chose our food based merely on what we would typically order regardless of what was on the meal plan. Our family of five prefers a blend of counter service and table service. We usually share an appetizer or two and split a dessert or two. For our family, we would order less on our own than on the dining plan. However, the dining plan still saved us money, although much less than under scenario #1.
So is a Disney Dining Plan right for your family? Here are some things to think about and considerations beyond just saving money.
1 – Do you have a bunch of big eaters or rabbit food fans?
Be warned, you get a lot of food when you’re on the dining plan. If your party consist of a bunch of light eaters, it’s going to be hard to make the dining plan worth it.
2 – Do you want to hit some of the nicer table service restaurants or are you a hamburger and hot dog people?
No wrong answer to this question, but you need to consider how often you’ll want to eat at table service restaurants. If you want at least one table service meal a day, the dining plan is probably right for you. If you plan to go as fast and inexpensive as possible, you should consider the counter service plan.
3 – How Much of a planner are you?
For all but the least popular dining locations, you should be planning and making reservations ahead anyway. However, to make the dining plan work, this becomes a necessity. Also, keep in mind that dining reservations will also lock you into specific parks on specific days. You are allowed to make changes on your trip, but you will be at the mercy of the locations and times still available. Especially during busier times, if you want to play it entirely by ear, a dining plan including table service won’t be a good choice.
NOTE: When planning your meals, you do not need to use strictly one table service and one quick service credit per day. You have a pool of credits to use throughout your vacation so feel free to use two table service in one day, and two counter service credits the next. We’ve even made an entire meal out of snack credits at the Food & Wine Festival.
4 – Are you a “set it and forget it” kind of person?
I think the greatest benefit of the dining plan is the ability to pay once and then stop worrying about money. The number one way to kill the fun of a trip to Disney World is worrying about having enough in the budget to make it to check out day. For added stress, designate someone in your party to be the designated complainer about “how much this is all costing.” The dining plan allows you the budgeting help of knowing pretty much exactly what you will spend on food before you go. It also gives you the freedom to get the steak instead of the sandwich and enjoy every bite.
5 – How much time do you want to dedicate to eating versus playing?
Keep in mind that between getting to the restaurant, waiting for your table and the actual ordering and eating most table service meals are going to burn around 90 minutes. If that’s too much time not riding It’s a Small World, then skip the dining plan or opt for the quick service plan.
6 – Avoid the Deluxe Dining Plan
Unless priorities 1 through 3 are eating, eating and eating, skip the Deluxe Dining Plan. To make the Deluxe Dining Plan make economic sense, you need to be eating virtually all of your three daily meals at table service locations. There are two problems with this. First, that is a ton of food. It may be fine the first couple days, but by the end of the week, you will be sick of eating. I’m on the blacklist at buffets around the country, and I felt this way on the standard dining plan. Keep in mind you also get two snack credits. Ugh!
The second problem this presents is time. As mentioned in question #5, a table service meal takes up a lot of time. Multiply this by three meals a day, and you will find your entire vacation comprised of traveling from one meal to the next.
7 – Are you a breakfast person?
If you are, avoid using counter service credits for breakfast as this tends to be a very poor value compared to lunch/dinner. It’s better to pay for breakfast out of pocket (not including character dining). Another option is to use your snack credits. Many breakfast type items around Disney World can be had for a snack credit.
8 – Is Disney offering free dining?
This may seem obvious, but if they are offering dining for free go ahead and say yes. There is usually a room only discount, but free dining is most often a better value.
So, is a Disney Dining Plan worth it? I tend to believe that for most people the answer is yes. It will save most people some amount of money and allow you maximum enjoyment, minimal stress during your vacation and will even open the door to treating yourself a little better than you may normally.
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