Analysis and recommendations on the Disneyland and Disney World Dining Programs
When traveling to either one of the resorts, food is going to be an obvious concern. Everyone has to eat. This time, we are going to discuss the Disney Dining Plan (D.D.P.) I will consider the usefulness, value, and convenience of the plan options you have.
Right up front, we have to accept that the prices are inflated everywhere you go at Disney. There are some good values out there, however, the general population of people would look at the prices of meals at Disney restaurants and become outraged at those prices as compared to what you can get off site. I, like most of you, know this and accept it. To me, it is part of the price you pay to be in the Disney parks.
I remember accepting this truth very early on in my Disney life. On the first trip that my wife and I took together, our honeymoon, we were having a nice meal at one of the sit down restaurants. As we were sitting there, enjoying our meal, we overheard a family near us. They were obviously tired, and it looked like they had a long day. At this point, over the quiet murmurs in the restaurant, we clearly heard the father of this family yelling, literally, at his child “I paid $10 for this cheeseburger, and we are going to sit here until you eat all of it!” At that point, my wife and I looked at each other, and made a verbal agreement, that we were never going to be that parent, and to this day, we have not. This is part of the reason that I see a benefit to having the D.D.P., but we’ll get to that in a bit.
My family enjoys going out to eat, as a lot of families do. This is not something that we do all the time, but when we do go out, we like to think of it as more of an event. That being said, we are not food snobs, but we do enjoy trying new foods, and eating at new restaurants. I don’t want to call us “foodies” but we are close. When we are at Disney, we always have a couple of places that we have to go to for one reason or another, mostly for nostalgia or tradition. In addition, we always like to try a few of the new ones, or older ones that we had not been to before, but have heard about and want to try. With the number of restaurant options available to you at any Disney Park, Disney World especially, there are always enough choices available to make it difficult to make some decisions.
Disney World and Disneyland are quite different when it comes to the Dining Plans they offer. The majority of this article will focus on the Disney World Dining Plan. That is because the Disneyland dining plan is a complete joke, and I would never, ever, recommend it to anyone.
At Disneyland, their dining plan (at least at the time this was written) boarders on being a rip-off. This is because you are basically purchasing gift certificates for restaurants only. They refer to them as vouchers, and you are paying dollar for dollar prices to get these vouchers. You do not get any discounts on them at all. Not only that, but not every vendor takes them. Vouchers are only good at restaurants but not every restaurant accepts the vouchers and the restaurants will not give you change for the vouchers. For example, if your meal is $25, and you use one of your $30 vouchers, you do not get the $5 back in cash, or in voucher form. Also, the vouchers are not refundable for cash, so if you do not use them, you lose them, unless you return to the resort before they expire.
The only way to think of this in a positive light is that it’s a savings plan for you to budget your money. However, I feel that if this is of concern to you, and you see value in the idea of pre-paying for meals, you are much better off purchasing a pre-paid Visa, or even official Disney gift cards, and loading them up with your food budget for the trip. This would allow you to use them at any restaurant or store, or snack stand that accepts credit cards, and you won’t get stuck with expired vouchers that you did not use.
Disney World is an entirely different entity with many more options for you to choose from. The list of 2014 plans can be found on the Disney World site here. I have read many number based sets of analytics on the value of the plan as compared to paying out of pocket. The determination of the true dollar value of the plan really comes down to how your family would eat if you were not on the plan. Also, there are times of the year when Disney offers “Free” dining. Free dining is never free. On a package where free dining is offered, you end up paying more for the room, and the plan is usually the quick service only plan. If you want to compare packages side by side, you have to compare packages where you pay rack rates (Full Price) but get “Free” dining vs. discounted room rates and paying for dining. Most of the time they are going to be about the same, so you’re never really saving that much one way or the other, and that’s also why you never really get “Free” dining. Also, just because you get offered “Free” dining, you don’t have to take it. For some people, depending on their behavior in the park, it is not a value at all. That goes back to how you would eat in the park if you were paying out of pocket.
The time of year you vacation is really the only determining factor when it comes to variances in major Disney offered discounts; however, the “off season” continually grows shorter and shorter. I predict that within the next couple of years, there will be no off season due to the increase in the number of international travelers. That being said, we are looking at the Dining Plan itself. After reading through this article, you should either have a few factors to think about to determine if you should purchase the D.D.P. with your vacation package, also, if you choose to use it, you should have information on how to maximize the value of the plan.
When considering accepting or purchasing the dining plan, there are a number of determining factors you need to use to make your decision on. Here are a few:
- If you are paying out of pocket, what percentage of your meals would be at table service vs. quick service? The higher percentage of quick service restaurants you would eat at, the less likely you would be to gain actual dollar value from the plan
- When you do have a sit down, table service meal, assuming you were paying out of pocket, how likely would you be to order an appetizer and/or dessert with your entrée? The less often you would order these, the less likely you would be to gain actual dollar value from the plan.
- When you go to a table service restaurant, would you typically be ordering more expensive items, or would you be more likely to consistently order the less expensive items? The cheaper your average entrée, the less likely you would be to gain actual dollar value from the plan.
- Are you going to buy snacks in the parks during your trip? The maximum value of a snack credit is about $5, so if you are getting a bag of chips, or bottle of water, you are not maximizing your snack value. The less you maximize your snack value, the less likely you would be to gain actual dollar value from the plan.
I know that there are people out there that could eat a cheeseburger every day for every meal and not care. If you are one of those people, or you want to have quick service for almost every meal, then the dining plan is probably not for you, although Disney does offer a quick service only plan. You also have to keep in mind that quick service is not just cheeseburgers. There are lots of choices for quick service restaurants that are not typical American faire. For example, the food court in Art of Animation, Be Our Guest (quick service at Lunch only) in the Magic Kingdom, Katsura Grill and La Cantina de San Angel in Epcot just to name a few. If you are going to eat mainly quick service, especially if you get to the point where you are sharing meals, you definitely do not want to use the D.D.P. You will save money by paying out of pocket.
So far, I have been talking about actual dollar value. To me, this is the actual cost of your food when paying out of pocket as compared to the cost of the D.D.P. I have never thought that the D.D.P. was an extremely good value. I look at a lot of the benefits of D.D.P. as being more intangible. At the same time, the intangible benefits have to add enough value, in your own personal opinion, to the actual cost of the plan vs. the out of pocket food costs you would have, to make being on the D.D.P worth the price you are paying for it.
So, when I talk about intangible benefits, I am referring to the following:
- Pre-paying for your meals: By committing to the D.D.P. you must pay for your vacation package months before the actual trip. I get some sense of comfort knowing that I have already set aside/budgeted that money in advance. I don’t have to worry about the additional cost of meals when on property.
- Less concern about the cost of food: This goes back directly to my story of the Father yelling about a cheeseburger. If my kid does not eat everything on their plate, it bothers me a lot less for some reason. Yes, I know that I am still paying for that meal credit, but not having to take actual cash out of my wallet, or having to sign for a credit card, makes it much more bearable. In addition, we already spoke about the inflated costs of food on site, so this allows me to relax more in the restaurant knowing that the price of the entrée really doesn’t matter, it’s all covered under the plan.
- Sit down lunches provide an air conditioned rest during the day: Especially with a younger child, the ability to have a sit down lunch in the middle of the day in a nice air conditioned restaurant is a great break. This does not substitute for a mid-day nap all the time, but most of the time it’s a good way to relax and re-charge for the rest of the day. If I was paying out of pocket, we would be more likely to eat quick service, so we would not have that more relaxed dining experience.
- Being on the D.D.P. I’m more likely to try new or unusual foods: Again, this is more of a mental thing relating to not having to take actual money out of your wallet. If I had to pay actual cash money, I may not have ordered the escargot when we ate at the table service restaurant at the France pavilion in Epcot. However, I am glad that I did, they were delicious.
When I start to look at the dining plans, and the way that my family likes to travel, the restaurants are an important part of the trip. We are the kind of people who are planning months ahead of time as to what restaurant we want to eat at based on the park that we plan to be in that day. I know that it’s not spontaneous, but when you only go every so often, and with the overall price of the trip, I don’t want to leave everything to chance. I am a planner. I am not a minute by minute planner like some, and I don’t do Advance Dining Reservations for every meal, but I do have A.D.R. for about 75% of our meals. I do intentionally leave some open spots to have some flexibility, and I know that most (not all) restaurants on property save a certain percentage of their tables to accommodate walk-ins. This is why we will generally go with the Disney Deluxe Dining Plan. Again, all the plans can be found here.
The Deluxe Plan gives each member of your party 3 quick service or table service credits per night of your stay. Each adult or child table-service meal includes: 1 appetizer (lunch and dinner only), 1 entrée and 1 dessert (lunch and dinner only) and 1 single-serving, non-alcoholic beverage, or 1 full buffet. Each quick-service meal includes: 1 entrée or 1 complete combo meal, 1 dessert (lunch and dinner only) 1 single-serving, non-alcoholic beverage. You also get 2 snack credits per person per night of stay, and the re-fillable resort mug. I don’t care about the mug a whole lot. It usually seems to be more hassle than it’s worth to drag it around, but that’s a different article.
So, in a nutshell, you get 3 meal credits, and 2 snack credits per night of your stay. They bank these credits, and you can track them on your receipt, so you always know how many your group has in the bank. No one says you have to use 3 per day. Keep in mind that some meals are 2 credits per person, so you have to pick and choose, and give up a meal here or there to make those work. Here’s how the D.D.P. is an effective value for my family. Also, keep in mind that we typically drive to the parks, so we can bring more stuff with us, and we have more flexibility when we are on property, and more control on when we arrive and leave, but that does not mean you have to drive to the parks to make the D.D.P. work.
- We don’t use the meal credits for breakfast. Ok, well we may do one or maybe two breakfasts, especially if one is a character breakfast, but it’s usually pretty rare. We tend to eat in the room as we are getting ready for the day. We stop at a local grocery store before we check in, and we buy breakfast foods. The rooms we stay in almost always have a fridge, or we have made sure that we reserved a fridge if it does not. Even if there is no fridge, we use a cooler, and re-stock it with hotel ice. I am not talking about anything fancy here, not even foods you have to heat up, even though a lot of the rooms have microwaves now. I am talking about granola bars, muffins, fruit, juice, maybe milk and cereal. Simple and easy things. Remember, Disney does not look at the credits as breakfast, lunch and dinner, they just see them all as meal credits, and don’t care when you use them.
- Sometimes, we use snack credits for breakfast. It’s usually easy in the parks to find foods that you can bring back to the room, or eat in the park, that are only the cost of one snack credit. With some quick research online, you can find extensive lists of foods that are only the cost of one snack credit. Also, since we will generally be eating two full sit down meals a day (Lunch and Dinner) we don’t need a large breakfast, and a snack and a beverage are just enough to get you to lunch.
- We commit time to eating sit down lunches. We feel that the dining experience is an important part of the overall vacation, so we don’t mind spending an hour eating lunch. Other families would balk at the idea of spending that long not waiting in lines for attractions and are fine grabbing a corndog on the run, but that’s usually not what we are in the mood for. This also gives us more opportunity to try locations that we have not been to before that we really want to go try. There are just so many restaurants to choose from.
- We order “expensive”. By this I mean that I will order what I want, but usually what I want tends to be the most expensive items on the menu. There are just three of us, 2 adults and 1 child, but I can easily see some of our sit down lunches being well over $100 out of pocket (with no alcohol), and if I was paying that, every day, for every lunch, my wallet would really feel the pain. We also like to get dessert when we normally never do when eating out at home. We’re on vacation, its part of the fun, and the dessert sizes tend to be small, but just the right amount to finish the meal. The argument is easily made that we are paying it anyway by adding the D.D.P. to the package, but again, I refer to the intangible benefits of being on the plan.
- Since we don’t use credits for breakfast, we apply some to Signature Dining. Not only do we do one, or two signature dining experiences during the week at one of the nicer restaurants on property, or make our best attempt to get a reservation at Cindy’s Royal Table, we will usually do in room dining (room service) once, and that’s 2 credits. That only applies if we are staying at a resort that offers in room dining, not just pizza delivery. If you come back for a late nap, then order in room dining before returning to the parks to close one of them down, especially if you coordinate it with an extra magic hour, it can be quite convenient. Also, the food available for the in room dining experiences has usually been very good.
- Since we drive, we can leave whenever we want on the day we check out. This means that we usually can budget our meals to have one or two meals left on the day we check out. We’re not jumping right on the bus and back to the airport first thing in the morning. The way that I understand it, and in my experience, those meal and snack credits are valid up until midnight on the day you check out. Usually, we arrive in Orlando the day before we check into a Disney hotel. This gives us time to rest up for the Disney park time. For example, if we do a 5 night stay on property, starting on Sunday, we arrive sometime on Saturday and stay at a reasonably priced hotel close to Disney property. We arrive at our Disney resort early on Sunday and check in, knowing that our room will not be ready. However, our park tickets and meal credits are available. We will go to the parks in the morning, return in the late afternoon and settle in to the room, and then return to the parks at night. Check out would be on Friday morning. So I am taking 5 nights worth of meal credits (5 nights X 3 meal credits per night) and spreading those 15 meal credits across 6 days (Sunday morning to Friday evening).
- You never know when unexpected surprises can happen when you are at a sit down restaurant. One time at Flying Fish, I was asking the waiter about options on the menu that I could get that came directly from Epcot. I had a small, silly goal, to eat something that came from The Land Pavilion. The restaurant was not that busy, and after speaking to the chef, and relaying what he knew, the waiter brought out a small amuse bouche created just for us by the chef made entirely of ingredients from The Land. Another time we were eating at Yak and Yeti in Animal Kingdom. It was a hot rainy day (imagine that, in Florida) and we got a window seat upstairs. Little did we know that completely by accident we had a direct view of the parade route. It basically came right in front of us. Our waitress took the time to inform us that the parade would be passing by soon, and told us that there was no rush as there was no wait, at that time, to get into the restaurant. As we were finishing our desserts, we were able to watch the parade in air-conditioned comfort. Not only that, but the characters could see into the windows. We are sure (at least we really, really, think so) that Mickey looked right at our daughter, who had her face to the glass the whole time, and waived directly to her.
To summarize, if there are just a couple of you, and you are going to eat quick service, or are very light eaters, like basically snacking all day, or if you are staying off site, the D.D.P. is not going to be of any value to you. However, because of my family, and the way we travel, and the enjoyment we get from the dining experiences on property, we prefer to travel with the D.D.P Deluxe Package most of the time. I am not saying that anyone for sure actually saves money on it, but I do think my family comes out slightly ahead on the plan. What I am saying is that I also get an additional, intangible, perceived value from using the plan, and it makes my trip more enjoyable, and that’s really what counts.
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What do you think about the Dining Plan? Does it work for your group? Do you have any additional suggestions or comments to add? Please feel free to post below.