Many people that visit Walt Disney World and stay on-property will spring for one of the popular dining plans. The plan is often touted as money-saving and convenient… but is it really? I decided to take some time to evaluate our recent Walt Disney World vacation and the money we spent on food and weigh it against the Dining Plan.
How we like to eat at Disney
Before I crunch the numbers, let me share that we do Disney primarily for the attractions and not the food. While we did make reservations at a couple very nice Disney restaurants (Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot’s Canada as well as Boma – Flavors of Africa in the Animal Kingdom Lodge), we generally don’t want to get stuck at a sit-down restaurant several times per day. We also did a character lunch on our 2011 Disneyland trip and decided it was something we could live without this time around.
We prefer to eat a quick, protein-rich breakfast on vacation, a “quick” service lunch, and a sit-down dinner (or switch that around for lunch and dinner). My husband and I often like to have a glass of wine with our dinner and we prefer to bring in our own snacks. We tend to choose water over soda, unless it’s included in the meal (we see it more as a treat). We rarely order dessert with a meal. Please keep this in mind as I share these reactions and figures with you. If you love eating dessert at every meal, enjoy at least a couple character meals at Disney, need your three square meals per day, don’t do alcohol, or generally eat different than we do – you might arrive at a completely different conclusion than me. And that’s OK. Fair enough?
Comparing Apples to Apples
It’s pretty tough comparing apples to apples when you’re deciding between a Disney Dining Plan or paying as you go. Here’s why:
- The Disney Dining Plan is ONLY good for those staying on-property. Therefore, you must factor in lodging costs (which are almost always higher on-property).
- There are three different Disney Dining Plans available.
- Disney Dining Plans include lots of extras like drinks and desserts, but exclude gratuity costs (for most dining locations), alcoholic beverages, and some specialty menu items.
To make my comparison as fair as possible, I calculated comparable lodging dates and then only dealt with the portion of the trip we spent in the park (5 days). Please also note that I’m looking at this strictly for Walt Disney World, NOT Disneyland.
Here’s how the lodging breaks down:
- We spent $215 using Hotwire for a 5-night stay in a condo with a kitchen
- The cheapest Disney hotel (All-Star Resort) would cost $553.70 for the same time-frame (barring any discounts) – note I did not select a campsite because that would not have been a comparable vacation
Remember, I would’ve needed to have stayed at a Disney property in order to have been eligible for the Dining Plan. I couldn’t have obtained that with the Hotwire condo we booked. (Sidebar: I’m pretty darn sure our kitchen & Jacuzzi equipped condo was MUCH more spacious and comfortable than the All-Star room would’ve been.)
Next, I looked at the meals we ate on the days we visited the parks. We ate breakfast in our hotels each morning, which I estimate cost us $10 each. We ate three “fancy” sit-down meals that were over $100, spent about $40 on alcohol in Epcot’s World Showcase (not going to lie… that was fun!), ate four “quick service” meals in the park and also dined off-site at places like Olive Garden, IHOP, and the T-Rex in Downtown Disney. Most of our snacks we picked up at a nearby grocery store. I estimate the total amount we spent on food for these five days was $850. Mind you, one could have done this for quite a bit less, but we’d planned for a couple of the splurge dinners (which accounted for nearly 40% of our total food cost).
While that sure sounds like a lot of money, would the Disney Dining Plan have saved us anything?
Going back to my hypothetical stay at the All-Star Music Resort, I reviewed the Disney Dining Plan options and determined that the standard Disney Dining Plan would’ve suited our needs best as it provides a credit for a quick-service meal, a table-service meal, a snack, and a refillable drink mug per person, per day. The cost of the plan for five days would’ve broken out to $775.40.
Aha! You say. That’s cheaper than $850! Not so fast! Remember that the Disney Dining Plan does not include gratuities or alcohol – both of which were included in my $850. Now, gratuities are likely only a concern at the table-service restaurants, but suppose that adds on $50. And don’t forget the $40 in alcohol we spent at Epcot’s World Showcase. This would not have been covered by the Disney Plan. (I’m pretty sure I also had a glass of wine at Olive Garden, but now I’m just being nit picky!) If selecting the Disney Dining Plan, you are now going to have to budget for these extras.
The other tricky part is that the Disney Dining Plan wouldn’t have really met our needs for breakfast (but the Deluxe Dining Plan would’ve been overkill for how we ate). Remember you’d be able to get a snack, quick-service meal, and table-service meal per day under the standard plan. This likely means you’d need to use your “snack” credit for breakfast. And I doubt you could use that for an omelet, bacon, and fresh produce like we had every day!
Crunching the Numbers
Granted, it’s still very difficult to make an exact comparison for all the previously mentioned reasons, but after doing as careful of a job as I could, here is how I estimate it all pans out. (Remember, this is a comparison of my trip, not necessarily the one you’d choose to take.)
Actual Trip – 5 Nights/5 Park Days
- Lodging: $215
- Food: $850
- Total: $1,065
Disney Plan Trip – 5 Nights/5 Park Days (comparable time of year)
- Lodging: $553
- Food: $775
- Gratuities: $50+
- Alcohol: $40+
- Possible additional meal costs (breakfasts?): $50+
- Total: $1,468
Even with the rental car cost and parking fees, we still came out ahead! I also want to mention, I think in general we just ate pretty well. We weren’t tempted to consume more sodas or desserts than we’d normally eat and we were able to cook up a healthy protein-rich breakfast each day instead of springing for something like a bagel using a snack credit.
But the Disney Dining Plan is Convenient!
So many people say the Dining Plan is helpful for budgeting or a convenient dining option. Well here’s an alternative: saving your money ahead of time and bringing it with you. Or hey, buying Disney Gift Cards ahead of time at Fred Meyer/Kroger (while earning fuel points!) in the amount you want to spend. Look! Now you have pre-paid food money to spend at Disney, and you can use it anywhere, anytime at Disney!
I truly feel that in some ways, it’s still more convenient and less stressful to use cash while dining at Disney:
- You never have to worry about what you can have or what you can’t.
- You can be spontaneous where and when you eat.
- You’re not letting your Dining Plan dictate that you need to eat… again.
- You won’t have a nagging guilt about not ordering the most expensive thing on the menu to “get your money’s worth.”
- You won’t feel like you have to eat dessert or soda to “get your money’s worth.”
- You won’t have to worry about making a reservation for every single day of your trip to use up your table service credits.
- You can discover wonderful places to eat off-property (and take advantage of kids eat free nights).
- You don’t have to have conversations with waiters or customer service reps if a certain food item qualifies for your plan or not.
- etc. etc. etc.
I think you see my point. I loved the flexibility we had when it came to using cash in the Parks and would go this route again.
Hey, Angela! Stop Hating on the Dining Plan already!
I know, I know, some of you probably really love the Dining Plan in spite of my critique. I recognize that everyone likes to do Disney their own way. Sometimes you can snag the Dining Plan for free with your on-property stay(again, just crunch the numbers on the lodging costs you’re paying!). There are times when it may work out to saving you more money than paying as you go.
If such a circumstance fits your trip or you just heart the Disney Dining Plan for some other reason, by all means – stick with the Dining Plan! But if you are planning a trip and wondering what it’s about and if it’s worth it my advice is to evaluate the way you normally eat on your vacation, crunch the numbers, and see if it adds up. You might be surprised to see that you can come ahead and eat better by paying cash.
PS if this post intrigues you, I highly recommend you read the post at DisneyTourist.com called Disney Dining Plan vs. Paying Out of Pocket. It prompted me to evaluate the cost of my own trip!
I also recommend:
- How we saved on our Walt Disney World Vacation (Part 1 of 2)
- How we saved on our Walt Disney World Vacation (Part 2 of 2)
- Get a FREE Disney Parks Planning DVD!
- How we saved 60% on our Walt Disney World area hotel booking
- How we earned enough air miles to essential fly for free to Orlando
- Six Things we did to save at Disneyland
Now it’s your turn: if you’ve done the Disney Dining Plan at Walt Disney World, what was your experience? Did you find you used all the food vouchers, or was it too much? Did you find you ate the way you normally would on vacation, or were you finding yourself in indulging in more desserts than usual? Sound off!