A common “first timer” question that I have gotten from many different kinds of people relates to Character Dining. Deciding whether or not to commit your group to a character dining experience can be a difficult one, especially when you don’t know what you are getting into. This article is not intended to review or rate any specific Character Dining experience. There are lots of other places on the web where you can do that, and some of them are referenced below. This article is meant to give you general information to help you decide if it’s something that would be worth your time to do.
Generally, Character Dining means that you are going to a specific restaurant with the intent of having a meal, while a specific group of characters rotates through the restaurant. You would be making an Advance Dining Reservation (A.D.R.) for most of these meals, and sometimes failure to adhere to Disney’s guidelines regarding that reservation can result in you being charged some kind of fee, so that can be intimidating as well. Every character will come to your table. They have a set path that they take to insure that by the time you are done, you will have had the opportunity for your group to interact, one on one, with each character.
The interactions are wonderful for the most part. I think that the “face” characters give the best interactions, obviously, because they will also talk to you as well as maintain the character they are portraying. This is much more important, in my opinion, than the simple autograph and obligatory posed picture. You will notice in some of the pictures posted with the article that the characters get down to the child’s level. They usually take the time to talk directly to them, ask about their trip, and make comments that directly relate to the character. If your child, depending on their age, is not overwhelmed or intimidated, and actually can speak back to the character, or ask questions, it makes the interaction with them much more interesting, and memorable. You have to compare this to waiting in a long line, get pushed in for your turn to stand with someone in the costume, have your picture taken, autograph book signed, and move on.
I remember reading in Ron Schneider’s book, From Dreamer to Dreamfinder a section where he discusses his time playing the Dreamfinder in Epcot. He talks about the importance of character and child interaction, and how it should be a memorable experience for the child. He goes on to describe different examples of how he would take time with each child, and not allow the parents to rush them through the process in some kind of assembly line style. That small section of the book really sticks with me, and makes me judge characters, and how they interact with my child, much differently. Unfortunately, it also gives me very high expectations for character interactions that are not always met. I do believe that a Character Dining experience allows the opportunity for more of these types of interactions to occur. However, just because the opportunity is there does not mean that they will happen for sure, it really comes down to the character.
In my opinion, the most important factor in deciding on if you should, then where you should, have a character meal is how strong your group’s desire to interact with characters is. If you are part of a group that can live without interacting with “The Princesses”, Disney Junior Characters, some of the “Big 5”, the Marry Poppins/Alice/Pooh group at Grand Floridian, or any number of other groups of characters then Character dining is definitely not for you, so that makes it an easy decision.
When we start to discuss Character Dining, assuming that you do want to interact with characters, I feel that there are two big deterrents that come into play. How these factors affect your group are really up to the group to decide.
- The food will not be worth the amount of money you pay for the meal. I am very sorry to inform you, but you will not feel that the food is worth the cost. It just won’t. Some of the locations are better than others, for example, the meal served at Ariel’s Grotto is not bad. In fact, it was pretty good on the times I have been there, but is it worth the money if we were just there for the food? Definitely not; not even with the acceptance of the inflated Disney food prices. While some of the meals are sit down, or some kind of split between sit down and buffet (like Akerhaus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot’s Norway Pavilion) a lot of them tend to be Buffets, and in my experience, while the food is ok, again, the buffets alone are definitely not worth the price.
- In theory, it’s not worth your time. If you calculate out your costs using any number of available models, or by creating your own system, you will discover that in theory, you generally find that you can save money by waiting in line to see characters without purchasing the privilege to meet them at the character dining meal. Again, this is a theory, and speaks in very general terms. It also requires that you compare the cost of the Character to a Quick Service meal that you would eat to replace it.
- Many people have come up with systems that they use to analyze the value of their vacation dollars. I am sure that many of us have also come up with our one ways to determine the per-hour average cost that we are incurring by being part of a group that is going to Disney. A nice example of this type of system was created by the guys at Mighty Men of Mouse. They call it a L.E.N. value (Leveraged Equity Number).
- In its simplest form, L.E.N. takes the total cost of your vacation, less food and souvenirs since they are a controllable expenditure, and divides it by the amount of “Active Time” you will spend in the parks. This results in a cost per hour number that you can use to calculate the cost of your time in the parks.
- A great article that also talks about Character Dining, but also spends a good portion of its time on the L.E.N. value, and how they use that value to determine a character dining decision can be found at The True Value of Character Meals: Are They Really Worth It? By Brian McNichols for www.touringplans.com.
Having said that, at this point in my life the Princess Character Dining experiences are a wonderful opportunity that my group cannot imagine going without. This has nothing to do with my personal desire to meet princesses, this has to do with my desire to not stand in line to meet princesses. Having a 5 year old girl generally dictates that we are going to see princesses. If I can combine that fact, with a sit down meal in an air conditioned restaurant, while also usually getting some kind of picture, or keepsake to take home, I’m all for it. The extra cost, to me, is worth the value provided by the entire experience. The meal itself is only one part of that.
Often times, we have had a character dining experience included as part of our vacation package. The last two times we booked trips to Disneyland, we went through Costco. After comparing the prices, they were the same whether we went through a travel agent, directly through Disney, or through Costco, and Costco included a character dining experience as well as a small gift card, and several other perks that Disney travel did not. We have also used our dining credits to attend character dining at Disney World. I know that the discussion of “Is the Disney Dining Plan Worth It?” is a whole separate issue, and I do have a separate article discussing that. If I can use a table service credit to have a character dining experience, meet some other expectations, like eating in a different hotel to check it out, or make sure my family gets to see characters they want to, then that’s a consideration to be made.
Keep in mind that Character Dining is not just about Princesses either. While my experiences do generally focus on Princess (Because that’s the best use of our time, as those are the characters that our group wants to see the most), character dining comes in many different forms, and the options for Character Dining have increased dramatically over the years. I have also experienced several types of Character Dining experiences on both coasts with generally good results. Whether it’s a fit for your group or not has to do with the characters that you are expected to meet, your desire to meet those specific characters, the locations of the restaurants, and how that works into your plans. Information can be found on Disney’s vacation planning website directly, or from any number of other non-official review sites like The Disney Food Blog regarding the menu, costs, and characters that are usually available.
Overall, I do recommend Character Dining if you have members of your group that love meeting characters. The interactions that you get, one on one directly at your table, make for great pictures and long lasting memories. We also generally like to have a sit down lunch during the day to slow down and take a break, so making one of those lunch meals at a princess dining location is a good fit for our group at this point in our lives. We have also booked a late breakfast/brunch gone to the parks early, hit a few attractions, and then made it back to the A.D.R. for a character Brunch before a hotel rest or pool time. Another trick that I have heard is that you make a very early breakfast A.D.R. for an in-park location, like Cinderella’s Royal Table, or The Crystal Palace, then using that A.D.R. to gain early access to the parks, in addition to experiencing breakfast early in the parks with some of your favorite characters.
I have been to the parks plenty of times without having a character muss my hair while I am trying to eat my eggs in peace. I am just fine without that. However, as I have gotten older, and the demographic of my travel party has changed (i.e. we take our kid with us now that we have one), the way we travel, and what we experience as a group changes as well. I am sure that at some point, we will change again and stop going to them, when the Kid is grown and gone. However, I have a feeling we will complete the circle many years from now, and return to character dining, when/if we return with Grandkids.
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