Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Disney Dining Plan: Is It Worth It?

Welcome to this month's Blogorail Orange Loop. Today we are sharing parts of a Disney vacation that people often ask, is it worth it?

I like to eat.

In fact, as I thought about how to start this post, my mind immediately went to some of my favorite restaurant and dining experiences at Walt Disney World.

Cosmic Ray's Starlight Café. Pecos Bill's Tall Tale Inn. Be Our Guest Restaurant. The Electric Umbrella. Yak and Yeti.
One of my favorite quick-service restaurants, located at Epcot!

My mouth is literally salivating just thinking about the chicken fingers and fries that I always get from the quick service restaurants.

But the problem is that with as expensive as a vacation to Walt Disney World is, one's dining experiences often suffers. Does our family really need to go to a character meal or eat at the Be Our Guest if we are purchasing a three day Park Hopper for each member of our family of five, as well as staying at Port Orleans Resort: Riverside? Maybe we should just stick to PopTarts each morning for a late breakfast and a quick service meal for dinner...

The nice thing is that this is a decision that you don't have to make!

Instead, you can choose the Disney Dining Plan!

The Disney Dining Plan has different levels guests can purchase to add to their vacation package (as long as they stay at a Disney resort hotel and purchase theme park tickets), tailored to their vacation budget and the type and number of meals they would like to partake in during their trip.

There are three levels to the Disney Dining Plan (all prices are based on a five night trip for a family of four, added on to the price of your resort and park ticket prices):
-The Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Service Dining ($691.83) gives guests access to two quick service dining meals per person per night, two snacks per person per night, and one insulated drink mug that can be refilled at your resort hotel.
-The Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining ($943.06) gives guests access to one quick service meal per person per night, one table service meal per person per night, two snacks per person per night, and one insulated drink mug that can be refilled at your resort hotel.
-The Magic Your Way Package Plus Deluxe Dining ($1,454.26) gives guests access to three meals per person per night from any category per night, two snacks per person per night, and one insulated drink mug that can be refilled at your resort hotel.

To really understand what you get when you purchase the Disney Dining Plans, we probably need to define the different levels of dining experience one can experience:

  • Quick Service is also known as counter service and is similar to fast food restaurants. This is a dining location, usually in the parks but also including resort food courts and a few locations at Disney Springs, where you stand in line to order your food, pick it up at the window, and find an empty table at to enjoy your meal. These dining locations usually have limited menus, featuring on average no more than five or six options to choose from. Meals at a quick service dining location usually run anywhere from $8-$14 dollars per person. Some of my favorite quick service locations are Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe and Pecos Bill's Tall Tale Inn in the Magic Kingdom, the Electric Umbrella at Epcot, the Backlot Express at Disney's Hollywood Studios, the Yak and Yeti Local Foods Cafe at Animal Kingdom, and Wolfgang Puck Express at Disney Springs, as well as the numerous resort food courts. 
  • A Table Service meal is a (sometimes) more laid back experience. Upon checking in, a host or hostess walks you to your table, where they give you a menu to order from. This is a full-service dining experience, where patrons can order soft drinks, alcoholic beverages (not covered by the Dining Plan), appetizers, salads, entrees, and desserts. Because you are at Disney World, these table service meals are usually themed and sometimes feature entertainment. Meals at a table service dining location can run anywhere from $14.99-$59.99 per person. Please remember that most of these table service dining locations require advanced dining reservations (ADRs) that can be made on Disney's website up to 180 days in advance. Some of my favorite table service locations include the Liberty Tree Tavern and the Be Our Guest Restaurant at the Magic Kingdom, the Coral Reef Restaurant at Epcot, the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and the Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe at Disney Springs. 
  • A snack is exactly what it sounds like. These small items can be redeemed at many locations throughout the Disney resorts and parks at locations including food courts, quick service locations, and even food kiosks. Some examples of what qualifies as a snack is a muffin, a piece of fruit, a box of popcorn, an ice cream bar, a bottle of soda, or even a cup of coffee.
Yummy Disney cookies (almost too cute to eat)!

Yummy cupcakes from the Boardwalk Bakery count as a snack!
There are often coolers in resorts' food courts filled with snack items.

And of course, my favorite Disney treat, the Dole Whip, counts as a snack credit, too! Yessssss!

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's look at some "disadvantages" that many see with purchasing the Disney Dining Plan:

1. First is obviously the price. The Disney Dining Plan must be paid for ahead of the trip at the time the entire package is paid in full. This amount may seem like a large cost to justify, especially months ahead of actually taking the trip. My wife and I have often had the "dialogue" about whether we could justify spending $700 on food for a five day trip.

2. The second argument against the Disney Dining Plan, honestly, doesn't make sense to me. A lot of people argue that they don't purchase the Dining Plan because of the quantity of food that you get with your meals. I don't see this as a problem, because as stated above, I like to eat. However, when visiting a table service or signature dining experience while on the Dining and Deluxe Dining plans, not only does your meal include a full entree with accompanying sides, but also a dessert. Now, again, I personally don't see this as a problem ("free" dessert with every sit down meal?) but some prefer to not eat such large, heavy meals while traipsing miles through crowded theme parks in central Florida.

"Free" Dessert???

Regardless of these two "disadvantages," I find that there are more advantages to the Disney Dining Plan that motivate me to purchase the plan when we book our vacation to Walt Disney World.

1. Refillable drink mugs. Included for each member of your party is an insulated drink mug that can be refilled an infinite number of times each day of your vacation at your resort. Because these plastic mugs are insulated, they can hold both hot and cold drinks. Therefore, you can refill your mug with soda, Joffrey's Coffee, water, and other drinks available at the resort food court or dining location. Now, not that I've ever done this, but I have "heard of people" who bring their refillable mugs when they resort hop (like riding the Monorail loop or go listen to YeHaa Bob over at Riverside) so they can take advantage of the soda fountains at the other resorts too. Disney's expectation, however, is that these mugs are only to be used at your home resort, but, I mean, it's not like there's anyone policing the soda machines...
My beautiful wife holding a refillable drink mug.

2. Ease and Freedom. The nice thing about the Disney Dining Plan is that it is linked right to your MyMagic+ account and your Magic Band or room key. After ordering at a quick service location or at the end of your meal at a table service location, Cast Members simply instruct you to tap your Magic Band or swipe your room key, automatically deducting your meal points from your account. No carrying around cash or a credit card, no fumbling in a bag or back pocket for your wallet required! No lifting of the sweatshirt tied around your waist, embarrassingly revealing your fanny pack, needed (again, not something I've done any time over the past five years...)!

Does anyone actually wear fanny packs anymore??? Because I don't...👀😐😶

3. Price of meals. Let's say that you decide to go with the Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Service Dining at a total price of $691.83 added to your five day trip. This is actually a discount on food if you "go big" at the quick service locations. "Why?" you ask? The Quick Service Dining Plan allows you to not only purchase your entree at the dining location, but also a soda. So let's say that you spend $14 per person at the quick service location for two meals a day (lunch and dinner) across your five day trip. That totals out to $700 spent on food during your trip. And that doesn't even include breakfast! So let's say you spend an additional $6 per person on breakfast each day...that brings your total up to $850! Rather than spend that money, using the Quick Service Dining Plan allows you to get your two counter service meals with drink, as well as eat a muffin or piece of fruit (or if you're like me...nectar from the gods--erm I mean coffee) for breakfast, using one of your two snack credits per day. In the end, you'll be saving $150!

4. Cheating the system. After taking multiple trips to Walt Disney World on the Disney Dining Plan, my wife and I have found ways to "cheat the system." For example, let's say that you decide to go with the Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining. This package provides you a counter service meal and a table service meal each day, as well as two snacks per day. Table service meals at Walt Disney World range anywhere from $14.99 to $59.99 per person. Since Disney doesn't designate what table service restaurants you can or cannot use your dining credits at, you can choose to use your daily credit on a more expensive, exclusive, and/or "fancy" dining experience (although some table service restaurants require the use of two table service dining credits, so make sure to check into that ahead of time). This includes character dining experiences! My recommendation is that if you want the best "bang for your buck," visit Disney's website and go to their dining page. Here, you can look at the menus for each restaurant on property and can learn what restaurants take how many dining credits. For example, you can dine at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater at Hollywood Studios, where meals run for an average of $20 per entree. Or, you could choose to eat at Boma, located at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, which averages $45 per person. Both meals only take one table service credit! The Sci-Fi is a fun, immersive dining experience, but serves your basic theme park fare of burgers and fries, with a limited selection of other entrees. However, Boma provides patrons with an authentic African buffet dining experience, giving diners the options of salmon, turkey, ribs, striploin, and many other higher end foods flavored with an African palate. If you prefer a quieter, higher-end meal, by purchasing the Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining, you are getting more for your money by going to one of these higher-end options. Character meals are also only one table service credit on the Dining Plan. So if your little one wants to meet Mickey and Minnie or Cinderella and Belle, you can enjoy a meal with "character" at one of many dining locations (many of which would cost an average of $40 per person if you pay out-of-pocket). Some examples of this include Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot, the Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood and Vine at Hollywood Studios, the Tusker House Restaurant at Animal Kingdom, and Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary Resort.
Liberty Tree Tavern

The Crystal Palace
Another way my wife and I have figured out a way to "cheat the system" deals specifically with one of my favorite breakfast locations on Disney property: the Be Our Guest Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland. While this new(ish) restaurant is a deluxe and elegant table service restaurant at dinnertime, during breakfast and lunch the restaurant serves as a quick service dining location. This means that if you have purchased the Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Service Dining, you can still enjoy this wonderful and well-themed table service dining location using one of your quick service dining credits! Just be sure to secure an Advanced Dining Reservation ahead of time, as the stand-by wait to get into this restaurant can be quite lengthy without one.
Be Our Guest Restaurant
5. Budgeting. Disney vacations are friggen expensive. I don't think any of us would deny that fact. However, more often than not, when we book vacations, we only book the resort and park tickets ahead of time, meaning that we then have to come up with some sort of vacation budget for our trip. That means that we have to estimate approximately how much we will spend on things like meals, souvenirs, and entertainment (Characters in Flight? Mini golf? Water parks?) and set aside additional monies for them prior to our vacations. And unless we end up pulling extra money from somewhere else, this could lead to meals and/or experiences being cut out of the vacation should we exceed our budget. When you purchase the Disney Dining Plan, it is included in your total vacation cost that needs to be paid off before your vacation. This means you don't have to budget for meals ahead of time, but rather could choose where you want to eat when you get "rumbly in your tumbly."

6. Free dining. Who doesn't like free stuff? I mean, someone offers me free food? Holy cow. I would be in heaven. I mean, it's amazing enough if I'd be in Disney World, but having free food at Disney World? Where can I sign up??? No, this wish doesn't require pixie dust to grant the wish, just a little bit of planning and travel flexibility. Every year, Walt Disney World offers special vacation offers for free dining if guests travel during certain dates. This means that guests who travel to Walt Disney World during certain times of the year (usually the "slower" times of year) and stay at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel are eligible to have a free upgrade of the dining plan added to their vacation package. However, there are some stipulations. In addition to being required to visit during a certain date range, guests usually have to stay at a moderate or deluxe resort and purchase a certain number of theme park days on their ticket. The free dining plan is usually an upgrade to the Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Dining. Check on Walt Disney World's Special Offers page throughout the year for more information.

So what would a hypothetical day look like for my family on the Disney Dining Plan?

  • On the Quick Service Dining plan, usually we start with using our snack credits for breakfast. We might use our credit to get a muffin or piece of fruit or carrots and hummus. We wouldn't need a beverage with our breakfast, because we could just bring our refillable mugs with us to the dining hall and fill those at the coffee percolators or soda fountains instead. For lunch and dinner, we would choose a quick service dining location located where we planned on spending our day. For example, if we are hanging out in the eastern half of the Magic Kingdom, we may decide to eat at Pinocchio's Village Haus or Cosmic Ray's depending on how busy the restaurants at that time. Or if we decide to spend an evening riding the Monorail around the resort loop, we might decide to disembark at the Contemporary to eat at the Contempo Cafe. The Quick Service dining plan gives you the flexibility and ease of deciding where to eat without having to budget or plan ahead with Advanced Dining Reservations. It allows for a truly spontaneous vacation experience.
Casey's Corner

The Riverside Mill Food Court at Disney's Port Orleans: Riverside Resort
  • If my wife and I decided to purchase the Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining plan, we would likely start the day off the same way, redeeming our snack credit for breakfast. One big difference between the Quick Service and table service dining plans, however, is the necessity of making advanced dining reservations, which requires guests to make daily plans up to two months in advance. For example, during our last trip, we decided to have breakfast at the Be Our Guest Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. Because of the popularity of this restaurant, even though it is considered Quick Service at breakfast, we had to make advanced reservations, and were lucky enough to score an ADR at 8:15 in the morning. This meant that when we finished our meal around 9:00, we were able to hop on some of the more popular Fantasyland attractions just as the Magic Kingdom was opening. Because we ate at the Be Our Guest, that determined ahead of time that we would be spending the day at the Magic Kingdom. In the scenario where we got our snack for breakfast, we might spend our day at Epcot and get a quick service meal at La Cantina de San Angel, located across from the Mexico Pavilion (can you say "churros"???). This would maximize our park time during the peak of the day's activity. However, after the sun goes down and things start to become calmer and more peaceful at Epcot, we might decide to have a romantic table service meal at the Coral Reef (read my review of the Coral Reef as an idea romantic meal). Again, the necessity of having an ADR for the Coral Reef required us to plan our day around Epcot two months in advance, meaning that this was the day we had to book our Epcot FastPass+ reservations, as well. Purchasing the Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining requires more planning ahead of time and less spontaneity, so make sure you account for that.
My dad and I at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater

Tony's Town Square Restaurant on Main Street, USA
The Coral Reef Restaurant at Epcot

While the Disney Dining Plan can potentially be a large amount of money to have to shell out prior to your Disney vacation, I do believe that it is well worth your money in the end. It provides a less stressful experience while on your vacation and allows you instead to enjoy the magic of Walt Disney World on a moment-to-moment basis.

For more opinions on what is & isn't worth the splurge at Disney, check out the other great posts from the Blogorail!

Here is the map of our Magical Blogorail Orange | Is It Worth It? Loop:


  1. We don't go this route because we don't eat at regular intervals and don't want to be tied down to reservations. Have you ever found it inconvenient to have to be at a certain restaurant when you would rather be finishing up with a parade or character experience? - Lee Beatens

    1. Having ADRs can be inconvenient, but what I often find is that when we plan out our trip, if we want to see parades or characters, we either plan our experience around the reservation or plan our reservation around what we want to do. For instance, if we know we want to see the 3 o'clock parade at MK and we know it will be done around 4, we would make our reservations after the fact. That, or maybe that's the day we do a character meal for breakfast or a lunch at Liberty Tree. While I see your perspective that having reservations may limit the spontaneity of the trip, it actually just takes a little more advanced planning instead. At least for us. :)

  2. My name is Heidi and I approve of this blog post!

    Seriously, though, I 100% agree with everything you said in this post. We are firm believers in the benefits of the Disney Dining Plan, and it's allowed us to experience some restaurants we never would have gone to without it.

    Great post, Andy!

  3. Nice tips! I've yet to use the Disney Dining Plan but you're right, dessert included & I'm IN! Also, I totally own a WDW fanny pack and I wear it in the parks :)

  4. Interesting post with one problem. ADRs are made 180 days out, not 60 days out. Anyone trying to book a Be Our Guest ARD 60 days out (or any of the more popular restaurants) will probably found themselves without any availability. (60 days out is for FastPass + if you are WDW resort guest).

  5. I'm so excited we will have the dining plan on our next vacation! Last time we ate quick service gets old after a couple days. We also wanted to try Be Our Guest but had so many other table service restaurants we wanted to try. We made a lunch ADR for Be Our Guest so we could still eat there but not use up a table service credit. I can't wait to eat there!