Affordable Disney Vacations: Should I get the Disney Dining Plan?

One of the most hotly-discussed topics on any Disney blog, podcast or message board is the Disney Dining Plan…or to be more correct, the Disney Dining Plans, because there are several of them. Those who have purchased one, discuss the pros and cons, and try to decide which is the *best* deal. Those who have not want to know if they should get the Dining Plan. And those who are considering a Free Dining Plan want to know if it is worth it, which level they should get, and if they will save more money with room discounts instead.

Wow. Lots of questions out there about the Disney Dining Plans.

Today let’s talk about the most common thread running through most of these questions: Should I get the Dining Plan? And the answer….as with most Disney vacation planning….is a resounding and definitive…………it depends. 🙂

Sorry, but it does. It depends on a lot of variables, and I think that to really know if any of the Dining Plans are right for your family, you need to look at a number of things. Disney vacation planning is NOT one-size-fits-all: what is best for my family will not necessarily be best for yours. There are a lot of things to consider, whether paying for a Dining Plan or getting it for Free.

So to help you decide, I think it is important to honestly, and realistically, think about the following as they relate to your family:

  • Consider what everyone likes to eat, especially your children: Do your children (or you) have limited “likes” when it comes to food options? Would elaborate menu options be a waste if everyone is happiest with burgers, fries, and chicken nuggets? Do your family members enjoy trying new foods? Will your family want to try multiple character meals or some dinner shows? Or do you anticipate wanting to eat many meals off-site completely?
  • Consider if your little ones will want to sit for long meals: Many toddlers or preschoolers are just not going to be happy sitting for an hour at a table service meal. Thinking character meals or buffets? Then think about how your child is likely to feel with characters coming to visit them throughout a meal: some kids think this is fantastic, but others are completely overwhelmed by the procession of characters invading their dinner space. I have seen children spend an entire breakfast at Chef Mickey’s in tears because they are just not comfortable with the character interaction, which is NOT a magical way to spend your dining dollars.
  • Consider if you will want to take the time to sit for long meals: Will you be commando touring from sunrise to sunset, with only the briefest of breaks? Do you want to squeeze as many attractions and rides out of each Disney day as you possibly can? If so, then don’t get a Dining Plan that includes table service meals, as you may not want to take the time to eat them!
  • Do you consider food to be an attraction all by itself? Are you a “foodie”? Do you get hungry just looking at pictures of different Disney dishes, mentally adding different choices to your “must eat” list? You know who you are…..and at least the basic Disney Dining Plan may be for you.
  • Consider how much you typically eat, including your children: If you had to pay out of pocket, would you buy this much food? Really? Most of the Dining Plans offer a lot of food…and some of them offer vast quantities of food. Significant quantities of food not eaten…and thrown away….is not, in my book at least, a great use of my money. There are lots of ways to make those food choices work best for you, but you need to honestly think about how much you really like to eat. If this is clearly more food than your family is comfortable with, the Dining Plans are not for you.

OK, now having said all of that, what about the Free Dining promotions…since Disney has decided that this is going to be an option for a good portion of 2011? To decide if Free Dining is right for you, consider all of the above plus:

  • Which Dining Plan will be offered for your accommodation choice? For example, if you will be staying at a Value resort, but want the Basic Plan, you will need to pay the difference: is it still cost effective for you? Does the Free Plan that comes with your accommodations “match” the Plan that is best for you?
  • Are there any other promotions that could potentially save you dollars instead? Any room discounts that might end up costing you less than Free Dining, even if you have to pay for food? This is clearly a job for you and your calculator. You will need to do the math and make comparisons. Budget Planning Worksheets can help you figure it all out.

I think the most important part of this is to make sure that the Dining Plan you are planning to buy (or get for Free) truly matches your family’s eating personality. I know when there are Free Dining promotions being offered all over the place, it can be tempting to just jump on it. And it might be best for you! But it might not too. Before you book, consider some of the other expenses/aspects of your Disney trip, such as airfare, crowds, school vacations etc. to see if, all things being considered, it is just better for you to go at another time. Yes, you may pay more for food….but if you are paying less for airfare, who knows, that may just be more of a savings. Do the math to see!

Now having said all of that, *for our family* of 3 foodie adults, the basic Disney Dining Plan is absolutely the most affordable choice for us. Since we enjoy a table service meal each night, our family has purchased the basic Dining Plan on each of our last several trips and it is a huge saving for us. We use the counter service meal for lunch, the table service meal for dinner, and we use the snack credits for either breakfast…or eat light in our room. For us, it is usually way more food than we can usually eat, and so we often get our dessert at dinner “to go” since we are so full. Other times we choose fruit and/or muffins for our lunch or dinner desserts and use these for snacks later or breakfast. We have experimented with the plan a number of different ways, and no matter how we do it, we eat very well, have food left over to bring home (snack credits purchase great edible “souvenirs”), and we spend less money/day buying the Basic Plan than we would  if we were paying out of pocket for the same meals. For us, it’s a no brainer.

But that will not necessarily be the case for you, and for many, many folks, there are other, better ways to spend…and save…their Disney Dining dollars.

So, take an honest and realistic look at what your family will truly enjoy when it comes to food at Disney, use that calculator to compare your options, and then make the right choice for you.

Nancy, her husband and college-age daughter live in the Baltimore MD area, but consider Walt Disney World their second “home”. She started her site, The Affordable Mouse, as a way to share ideas about how to plan affordable Disney vacations. Her favorite things at Disney World (in no particular order) are Soarin’, most of the food in World Showcase, Illuminations…and that special “Disney magic” found in the most unexpected places.

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