Is Disney Dining Worth It? You decide
Disney World’s Dining Plan is available in 3 tiers, with prices starting at $52.50 per night. This post offers tips for saving money with these meal plans (and “Free Dining”), what each Disney Dining Plan includes, our reviews of the different Dining Plans, and pricing info for both 2019. (Last updated February 24, 2019.)
When it comes to Walt Disney World’s meal plans, the number one question is always: “When is Free Dining available?” We answer that question in detail here. Suffice to say, Free Dining is not currently available for booking, but could be later this spring or summer for Fall 2019 travel dates. If you’d like to be notified about the Free Dining for 2019 or 2020, sign up here for our FREE Disney newsletter here. We’ll keep subscribers updated on future Free Dining news and rumors.
Aside from Free Dining, the biggest recent change was the addition of alcoholic drinks to all tiers of the Disney Dining Plans, which also came with a price increase last year. While this is a definite perk for even casual drinkers, it certainly has its downsides. For 2019, there are no significant changes to any of the Dining Plans, and that includes pricing. This is despite several menu price increases around Walt Disney World, most notably a pretty significant spike in snack prices last fall.
As for the 2019 Disney Dining Plan, adult prices did not increase at all and there was only a slight bump to child prices. As the last couple of years have seen a dramatic spike in the number of restaurants at Walt Disney World (thanks primarily to Disney Springs), there’s arguably a surplus of restaurants. This has already led to seasonal discounts for Annual Passholders and Cast Members, and might next lead to further discounting of Dining Plans (it seems unlikely we’ll see a price decrease, as that’s not Walt Disney World’s style) to help drive demand.
Before we get to dollars and cents, let’s cover some basics. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Disney Dining Plan is a prepaid meal plan offered at Walt Disney World so guests can budget their dining costs in advance and (potentially) save money.
The various plans provide guests with a set number of credits that may be redeemed for snacks, counter service (Disney-speak for fast food) meals, table service meals, or signature dining (Disney-speak for fine dining) meals. These credits are stored on the guest’s MagicBand, with the receipt provided after redeeming the credits indicating how many credits remain.
Walt Disney World guests purchasing a vacation package with a room and tickets through Disney are eligible to buy the Disney Dining Plan. This means that if you want the Disney Dining Plan, you cannot save money by staying off-site or by purchasing discount Walt Disney World tickets through a Disney-authorized ticket seller. Disney Vacation Club members staying on points are also eligible to add-on the Disney Dining Plan, without the purchase of park tickets through Disney (as many of them either have Annual Passes or prefer purchasing discounted tickets through authorized third parties).
Let’s get more into the nitty-gritty of the Disney Dining Plan, starting with the basics: prices and what each plan includes…
For the purposes of the Disney Dining Plan, a “counter service meal” consists of a combo meal (entree plus side) and beverage, including alcoholic beverages for adults (where available). It no longer includes a dessert. Also as of this date, a counter service meal may also consist of 3 snack items (defined below) in a single transaction.
A “table service meal” consists of an entree, dessert, and beverage, including alcoholic beverages for adults. As part of Disney’s healthy living initiative, the dessert in the table service meal may also be substituted for a side salad, cup of soup, or fruit plate.
A “snack” includes items sold at snack carts around the park or in quick service restaurants. The definition of a snack has been expanded to include any single serving side item, which means more items will now be considered snacks (snacks were previously determined on a case-by-case basis with the DDP symbol (the purple thing above) denoting what was a snack). A snack now includes every side item, hand-scooped ice cream, and many other items that previously did not qualify as snacks.
Tax is always included, but guests pay for tips out of pocket. Two table service meal credits may be used for one Signature Meal, Dinner Shows, Pizza Delivery or Room Service Meal. Children under 3 eat free from an adult’s plate.
The following prices and details of the Disney Dining Plan are valid for arrivals January 1 through December 31, 2019.
Quick Service Disney Dining Plan
This is the lowest tier of the Disney Dining Plan. This is the tier of the Disney Dining Plan that is typically included with Free Dining at the Value Resorts.
For each person on the room reservation, the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan includes:
two counter-service meals (per night)two snacks (per night)a refillable drink mug (per stay)
The per night price of the Quick Service Plan is $52.50 per adult and $23.78 per child ages 3-9.
Standard Disney Dining Plan
This is the standard tier of the Disney Dining Plan (Disney refers to it as simply the “Disney Dining Plan.” To avoid confusion, we’ll call it the “Standard Disney Dining Plan”), and what’s typically included with “Free” Dining at the Moderate, Deluxe, and Deluxe Villa Resorts. For the price difference between the plans, you can upgrade from the Free Quick Service Dining Plan to this plan at the Value Resorts.
For each person on the room reservation, the Standard Disney Dining Plan includes:
one counter-service meal (per night)one sit-down meal (per night)two snacks (per night)a refillable drink mug (per stay)
The per night price of the Standard Disney Dining Plan is $75.49 per adult and $27.98 per child.
Deluxe Disney Dining Plan
Excepting the Premium Package or Platinum Dining (both over $200/night per person!) that are not recommended for anyone, this is the upper echelon of Disney Dining Plans. By default, no resort tier receives this package for Free Dining, but you can pay the difference to upgrade to it.
For each person on the room reservation, the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan includes:
three meals at your choice of counter service restaurants or table service restaurants (per night)two snacks (per night)one refillable drink mug (per stay)
The per-night price of the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan is $116.25 per adult and $43.49 per child during regular season, and more during peak season.
Those on the Deluxe Plan may officially mix their adult and child credits, meaning that child credits may be used for adult entrees. This has long been an unofficial loophole (and remains one for the lower tiers of the plans), but it’s now officially allowed on the Deluxe Plan.
If you have further questions that aren’t answered by these pages, check out Disney’s Dining Plan website. There are comprehensive and unnecessarily complicated PDF documents describing the various plans and their rules. Most importantly, the site has a list of participating restaurants (nearly every restaurant participates).
The credits don’t have a set dollar value, and how much they are “worth” widely varies based upon your dining preferences. For example, a table service credit may be redeemed at an inexpensive restaurant for a water, sandwich, and ice cream dessert that would normally cost $23 total. Alternatively, it can be redeemed at a nicer restaurant for a glass of wine, swordfish steak, and Copetta Sotto Bosco that would normally cost $62 total.
These are actual examples from Walt Disney World restaurants, demonstrating the big difference in value a credit may have depending upon at which restaurant and for which menu items it’s redeemed. You could get even less or even more value out of the Dining Plan, depending upon what you order. With that said, by analyzing the pricing of the Disney Dining Plans, we can reverse engineer an approximate value that Walt Disney World places on each meal type within the various plans.
Based upon our calculations, a table service meal is worth approximately $45, a counter service meal on the Disney Dining Plan is worth approximately $21, and a snack is worth approximately $5. (For the purposes of these calculations, we view the refillable mug as a throw-in, since its value could fluctuate widely depending upon length of stay.)
By comparing those dollar amounts to online menus available for Walt Disney World, you can get a pretty good idea of whether the Disney Dining Plan is right for your family. We write a long review below and also have resources for getting more value out of the Dining Plan, but ultimately it’s a personal thing. With those rough numbers, you can do the math for yourself and make an informed decision as to whether the DDP is right for you.
A lot of information exists about the Disney Dining Plan, with most focusing on how to best utilize these credits so you get better value out of the credits.
From time to time, the Disney Dining Plan is offered for free to Walt Disney World guests who purchase a vacation package (this is not offered to Disney Vacation Club members staying on points). Free Dining is offered for select dates in August through December.
This “Free Dining” promotion is incredibly popular with Disney fans. However, you need to remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If “Free Dining” is available, you forfeit another discount that might be available (for example, a percentage off discount on the hotel room and the ability to purchase discount Disney tickets).
Compare the “Free” Dining Plan to other discounts. With “Free Dining,” you pay rack rate for the hotel room and full price for a minimum number of tickets. Whether Free Dining is the best Walt Disney World discount available (read our Walt Disney World Discount Comparison post for more details) for you depends upon party size and resort tier. Do the math and compare the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion to other available discounts–if there are other available discounts.
Before even booking the Disney Dining Plan, you should determine where you want to eat and secure Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs). It should be easy to see which Disney Dining Plan best suits your needs, or if the Dining Plan is even necessary.
For a simple system, it’s surprisingly complex, so don’t feel bad if it takes some reading before you fully understand how the Disney Dining Plan works and whether it is a good fit for your party. If you only anticipate eating inexpensive meals or want to stay on a tight budget, the Dining Plan probably won’t make a lot of sense. But we’ll get to that…
We think the Dining Plan has its pros and its cons. Let’s take a look at some of them!
PROS AND CONS
Savings – You can save on the Disney Dining Plan, but you have to be a certain type of eater and not waste any credits. If you are a big eater who likes steak and would like to order it at every meal, you can save money with the Disney Dining Plan. This requires that everyone in your party is a big eater, and that all of you use all of your counter service and snack credits wisely (don’t use them at the last minute to take rice krispie treat snacks back home!).
If your teens are human garbage disposals and the adults in your party love steak, the Dining Plan can offer some savings. As soon as anyone in your party starts ordering chicken or pasta, those savings disappear to the point that you start losing money on the Disney Dining Plan. No matter what they order, a vegetarian will lose money by using the Disney Dining Plan–without exception.
With the addition of alcohol to the Disney Dining Plan, anyone who enjoys a drink or two per day will also come out ahead. The cost of drinks at Walt Disney World restaurants average around $8-14, which is larger than the price increase of the Dining Plans this year. If you get two glasses of wine per day, you’re looking at around $20-25/person more in value every day.
Conversely, if you’re non-drinkers or using the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan and spend most of your time in Magic Kingdom (where alcohol isn’t served at counter service restaurants), you come out behind. Alcohol is the huge new wildcard to the Disney Dining Plan, and can really swing the pendulum of value. Whether that’s in your favor or out of your favor depends almost entirely upon how many alcoholic drinks you enjoy per day.
Speaking of wine, the Disney Dining Plan is potentially very valuable for those who visit during Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival or any other Epcot festival (basically, any month except summer). The good news is that taking advantage of this value does not require drinking–this is all about snacking!
Some of the best snacks at the Epcot festivals can cost as much as $10 and can be purchased using snack credits. This is effectively double the value that Disney ascribes to the snack credits. We highly recommend stockpiling snack credits and using them during your Epcot days, as not only are these festival snacks a great use of credits, but the Epcot festivals are a ton of fun, and this is a way to avoid the sticker shock of paying out of pocket.
The Deluxe Dining Plan can be utilized well if you follow the strategy of eating breakfast (or an early lunch) at a Table Service restaurant (character breakfasts like Akershus are great for this) and dinner at a Signature Table Service Restaurant, plus snacks whenever. This really maximizes the value of this plan.
You could eat three table service meals to get great value, but for mortals, it’s simply too difficult to eat three Table Service meals per day. A few years ago, we tried doing an early table service lunch and a late signature restaurant dinner and we saved over 50% by using the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan!. In other words, saving a good chunk of money on the Disney Dining Plan is possible, but it requires either a family of big-eating carnivores, or “normal” eaters who put serious effort (see below) into it.
With that said, prices have risen fairly dramatically for the Disney Dining Plan since it was introduced, meaning that just because you used it on your last trip a few years ago and found it to be a good value, does not mean it’s still a good value. The appetizer and tip were cut several years ago, and prices have increased.
Interestingly, though, the biggest of the price increases occurred several years ago, and prices have not climbed much since then. It would seem that Walt Disney World has reached its price ceiling (or close to it) with the Disney Dining Plan. Prices for 2019 are not really up much at all, and that has been true for the last couple of years.
Last year, Disney Dining Plan prices were up 7-10% each for the adult version of each plan, while child pricing barely increased. However, that’s also when alcohol was added, and the ‘value’ of alcohol is arguably far more than 10% (at least, for drinkers). Conversely, the adult pricing for the 2019 Disney Dining Plans did not increase at all, while there were slight bumps for children.
By contrast, table service menu prices have steadily increased since the introduction of the Disney Dining Plan (one big reason why many people hate the Dining Plan even though they don’t use it). This is likely to add to the perception that the Dining Plan is a better value, but that’s not the major significance of the increased menu prices for our analysis.
Menu prices have increased at a higher rate (~15%) than the Disney Dining Plan, meaning that the relative value of the Dining Plan versus paying out of pocket actually improved. With more and more restaurants being added to Disney Springs that are having trouble filling their tables, we’d expect this trend to reverse itself at some point in 2019. There have already been steep, targeted discounts for select restaurants to help with this problem.
Effort – If value is your main concern and you aren’t a steak-addict, it can take a lot of pre-planning to save money by using the Disney Dining Plan. Because the margin of savings can be so low, in many cases the Dining Plan causes guests to order the most expensive item on the menu to get “value” out of the plan.
Same goes for choosing more expensive restaurants. There have times on the Dining Plan when a cheaper menu item sounded good, but there was that lingering thought in the back of my mind that if I didn’t order something more expensive, the Dining Plan would actually cost us more than paying out of pocket. Saving money on the Disney Dining Plan requires a good amount of pre-planning or knowledge of how to work the system if you’re just a normal eater.
It’s good to pre-plan where you want to eat at Walt Disney World regardless of whether you’re on the plan (not all restaurants are equal and you’ll need ADRs for some), so that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but using the Dining Plan increases the amount of pre-planning that’s necessary–if you care about saving money. We’ve found that we normally save more with the Tables in Wonderland card than the Dining Plan, and the former requires no pre-planning maximization effort.
Amount of Food – One common complaint is that the Disney Dining Plan often “forces” guests to eat more than they want. If a guest has extra credits they may use them to purchase more food than needed.
If you have a short trip and want to experience as many attractions as possible, this is something to keep in mind. While you can get value out of the Disney Dining Plan, that savings requires sitting down for longer meals and eating a lot of food. If you don’t normally eat as much food as the Disney Dining Plan provides, you aren’t actually saving money–the savings are illusory. You’re over-consuming in the name of (false) savings.
Convenience – Many visitors argue that the Disney Dining Plan is about convenience. We contend that it is not convenient. In terms of convenience, look at it this way: you’re reading an in-depth article about using the Disney Dining Plan, and you’ll probably read other such articles.
How many articles have you read titled “Paying for Meals with Cash Info & Tips”? Hopefully none. A convoluted credit system cannot possibly be more convenient than the universal standard of paying money for a billed amount. It just can’t.
Budgeting – This is probably the most contentious point. In addition to supposedly being convenient, a lot of its fans advocate the Disney Dining Plan because it helps them stay on a budget and avoid thinking about money on vacation. Again, this doesn’t pass the smell test.
In most cases, when people try to stay on a vacation budget, it’s because there is a need for that budget. Overspending might cause financial strain. Viewed in that light, the Disney Dining Plan doesn’t help with a budget, it helps with predictability. Meals cost the same amount every night, regardless of what’s consumed.
If you’re on a tight budget and you’d normally spend $35 per person per night on food if you paid out of pocket, but you end up spending ~$60+ per person per night on food with the DDP, isn’t that predictability doing you more harm than good?
The Disney Dining Plan allows you to fall back on this predictability and ‘turn off’ your brain with regard to how much dining costs on vacation. If you don’t want to worry about money, purchase (discounted!) Disney Gift Cards before the trip. While we don’t advocate making that psychological disconnect between actual and “fake” money, if you really don’t want to think about money, go that route.
We will be blunt: if you are too lazy to make a dining budget before your trip, chances are you’re too lazy to figure out where to dine to maximize your value. Given that, you’ll probably end up saving more money with the gift card method.
Sticker Shock – Even if you’re not on a tight budget, menu prices at Walt Disney World can be a bit…shocking. The psychological disconnect we mentioned above isn’t always a bad thing, particularly if you want to splurge or have financial means, but can’t bring yourself to order certain items when directly paying menu prices.
The Disney Dining Plan won’t scare you away from expensive menu items. If you love filet mignon, but would shy away from ordering it upon seeing the menu price, the Disney Dining Plan might be for you. However, you might have some sticker shock when you see the nightly prices of the Dining Plan, in the first place…
Overall, whether the Disney Dining Plan is right for you is a highly personal decision based on a lot of variables. We estimate that for the majority of guests, it is not a good value, and only offers psychological comfort–but how much is ‘comfort’ worth when you’re ultimately paying more? I can’t say whether the Disney Dining Plan is right for your particular circumstances, but hopefully the considerations above can help with your decision. If you use the Disney Dining Plan for your vacation, make sure you do your homework and PLAN!
If you are still unsure of whether the Disney Dining Plan might be right for you–or need personalized help with any aspect of your trip from hotels to the Disney Dining Plan and more–we recommend contacting a travel agent to get a quote and to help you plan.
With regard to the Disney Dining Plan and restaurants in general, this article is just a jumping off point. First-time Walt Disney World visitors often underestimate the importance of planning (especially for restaurants, many of which are booked solid months in advance) and have a bad time because they didn’t plan enough. Want more dining recommendations? Check out our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews.
What is your experience with the Disney Dining Plan? Thinking about using it? I would love to hear what your thoughts are about the Disney Dining Plan, and how it works–or doesn’t work–for you, in the comments! If you have any questions please contact me.