Getting the Most Bang for Your Dining Plan Buck

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By Stephanie Rouse

We get lots of questions here at Magically Speaking. We love to answer those questions, so, hey, it’s a great fit! One of the most common questions we get asked is how to get the most ‘bang’ for your buck when enjoying the Disney Dining Plan.

First off, let me say, writing this article has been fun, but at times very painful! You see, when it is months (or years) until your next Walt Disney World vacation, looking at all of the menu selections the World has to offer, well, let’s just say it can make you really crave that next trip!

Since Disney debuted the Dining Plan way back in January of 2005, it has gained tremendous popularity with people traveling to Walt Disney World. One reason for that seems to be the appeal of having most meals paid for ahead of time. Another is that the dining plan can allow travelers to sample restaurants that, without the plan, they may not have budgeted into the trip. In this article we are going to look at some of the best ways to utilize the plan and get the most value out of it.

Let’s start with the facts. The dining plan allows each member of your party one snack, one counter service meal (a beverage, an entree or combo meal, and a dessert), and one table service meal (an appetizer, an entree, a dessert and a non-specialty beverage, plus tip). The cost for the plan runs approximately $40 per day for each adult (ages 10 and up) and around $12 per day per child (3-9). Now that we know our basic facts, let’s begin looking at our options!

Snack choices have become much better since the dining plan was first introduced. Now, it seems most items up to $4, with a few exceptions such as a slice of pizza, are covered under the plan. Snack items included in the plan are marked on the menus of carts and counter service establishments with a special DDP logo (which is actuallly the logo at the top of this article).

Snacks are really more of a bonus and won’t impact your savings on the Dining Plan by too much. However, if you are looking to maximize your snack purchases, go with the snacks that are at least over $3. Some people find that they don’t need all of the snacks on the plan, especially since there is a great deal of fool (and left overs) from the counter service and table service meals. Some choose to use the credits to purchase bottles of water or sodas. Another option is to use your snack credits for food to take with you on your return drive (or flight) home. The possibilities for this include bags of chips, cookies, and the always popular Mickey’s Crisp Rice Treat! In fact, guest can not only get the Mickey treats to go, they take them home to family and friends as a tasty souvenir.

Counter service locations are the next portion of the plan to consider. Again, you won’t find your biggest savings here, but there are some cost effective options to explore. In looking at these choices, it seems you will fare better at the locations that serve more than just burgers and fries. I chose a few counter service locations to use as examples not only because the food choices run a bit higher in price than your standard fast food fare, but also because they have options that you sometimes don’t find in theme park food.

Wolfgang Puck’s Express (Downtown Disney’s Marketplace) leads the pack in the most ‘bang’ for buck. Some places that have won our ‘honorable mention’ are Pizza Planet (MGM), where you can get a pizza combo consisting of a personal sized pizza and a salad along with your choice of dessert (cookies, Crisp Rice Treat) and your drink, and Tusker House (Animal Kingdom) which serves delicious rotisserie chicken, as well as salmon and various sandwiches. Tusker house even offers (kids don’t look!) vegetables to accompany your meal, a rarity among Disney’s counter service venues. Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe is another value conscious choice, where you can dine on BBQ ribs or even enjoy a Kosher meal.

Now we approach the part where the dining plan really shines: Disney’s many table service locations. Here is where you will get the most for your dining credits. Many times, once you figure what you would have paid for the dining plan, (again, approximately $40) you will find that your table service meal alone covers the cost. It’s like getting the counter service and snack options for free. I have looked over menus and found just a few examples of one table service meal priced at more that the $40 daily cost of the Dining Plan. For these examples, I used mostly “median” menu items, neither the lowest priced or the highest priced selections on the menu. I also included the tip, because it is figured in to the cost of the dining plan. For all of the drink options, I have chosen to use the base soft drink price of $2.19. In some locations you will actually have drinks available to you that are more expensive, but most guests tend to stick to including only soft drinks and iced tea.

Here are some sample meals that would cover the cost of the Dining Plan in one meal:

  • LeCellier (Epcot, World Showcase): Shrimp Cocktail ($9.99), Herb Crusted Prime Rib ($21.99), Raspberry Sorbet ($5.99) and regular soft drink ($2.19)
    Total for this meal: $47.39
  • Wolfgang Pucks (Downtown Disney): Spinach and Five Cheese Dip ($10.95), Wol-fredo Fettuccine ($18.95), Creme Brulee Sampler ($7.50), soft drink ($2.19)
    Total for this meal: $46.72
  • Coral Reef (Epcot, Future World) – Linguini with smoked fish sauce ($7.99), Grilled Mahi Mahi ($25.99), Cheesecake ($6.99), soft drink ($2.19)
    Total for this meal: $50.94
  • Capt’n Jack’s (Downtown Disney) – Spinach Artichoke Dip ($7.49), BBQ Pork Ribs ($21.99), White Raspberry Cheesecake ($4.29), soft drink ($2.19)
    Total for this meal: $42.33
  • Yacht Club Gallery (Disney’s Yacht Club Resort) – Gallery Crab Cakes ($8.19), Grilled Pork Chop ($18.49), Boston Creme Pie ($6.19), soft drink(2.19)
    Total for this meal: $41.37

Disney also allows you to trade two of your table service credits to attend either the Hoop Dee Doo Revue dinner show or Disney’s Spirit of Aloha dinner show. Beginning in 2007, Disney will “tier” the seating. Those using the dining plan will be seated in either Tier 2 or Tier 3. Unfortunately, the dinner shows didn’t quite fit the “most bang for your buck” criteria of this article. The prices are $50.22 per adult and $25.43 per child. While the children’s dining plan here would be a great deal (remember, you only pay $11 per child on the dining plan) the adult price isn’t consistent with our ‘rule’ that the table service location must be equal to or above the actual cost of the dining plan. Would I rule these out as choices? No way. Most people would agree that they are still very expensive, and the dining plan would allow some who wouldn’t otherwise want to budget these in to enjoy the shows!

We also have Disney’s Signature Dining locations to consider. These are the “creme of the crop” at Walt Disney World, the special restaurants that can make your vacation even more magical. They, like the dinner shows, require two table service credits to dine. Although, it is harder, again to follow the “rules” of this article, I wanted to list a couple that stand out as a good value.

  • Narcoossee’s (Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort) – Fried Calamari ($12.00), Pan Seared Scallops ($34), Apple-Cranberry Cobbler ($7.00), soft drink ($2.19)
    Total: $65.12
  • California Grill (Disney’s Contemporary Resort) – Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli($11), Oak Fired Beef Filet ($35), Blueberry Blast ($10), soft drink ($2.19)
    Total: $68.66

I couldn’t end this article without mentioning Disney’s Character Dining locations. Some families feel that they are not worth the credits. After all, your meal is all inclusive and prices range from $18 to $28 per adult (Cinderella’s Royal Table excluded). Sometimes this may really not be worth it to families. There are ways, however, this can work.

First of all, look at the places you would really like to dine. Are any of the character meal locations on that list? If yes, then you should definitely feel fine about using a credit on one of these wonderful meals.

The other thing to note is, if you have a child who is 10 years or older, they will be charged the adult price for the dining plan, which also means they are charged the adult price for any of the character meals. For me, personally, paying for the dining plan ahead of time takes some of the sting out of having to pay $28 for my 10 year old (okay, mine’s now 12) to dine at Chef Mickey’s.

And remember, even if you enjoy a character meal that is only worth $28, if you are striving to get “bang for your buck” at other meals, over the course of your vacation you will still be coming out ahead.

Although this article has highlighted some of the great values available on the Dining Plan, there are more to be had. One of the best things to do when deciding to purchase the Dining Plan, or where to eat if you have already purchased, is to check out some menus of Disney restaurants. By pricing out food options that fit your families tastes and appetites, you can really uncover some great values. It might take some number crunching, but the payoff will be worth a little effort.

Walt Disney World definitely has some of the best dining you can imagine. And, like Walt Disney World, the dining plan is always changing. New restaurants are added all of the time, and, unfortunately some of our old favorites may drop off the list. But one thing always seems to ring true: dining at Disney is an attraction in itself. We hope that with this article,we have given you some ideas so that you and your family can taste all that Walt Disney World has to offer.

Magically Speaking Featured Article
Library of Congress ISSN:1556-3863

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