I love the dining reviews the team does on the DIS Unplugged podcast but for the most part, they are of high-end, table service locations with big price tags. I'm sure there are plenty of folks out there who can do an $80/person brunch, but that's not us. When we go to Walt Disney World, our food spending typically averages under $25/person/day, so about $70-75 daily for the 3 of us. How do we do it? Can you do it too? Maybe. I realize that some of this advice won't apply to everyone but hopefully everyone can find some helpful tips.
The first thing you should know is that we drive to WDW from New Jersey. It is just over 1,000 miles each way and takes about 17 hours. There are numerous benefits to driving versus flying but for the purpose of this article, I'll focus on the food aspect. Driving allows us to pack food from home. We bring a fair amount of non-perishable items like breakfast cereal, instant oatmeal, coffee, granola bars, shelf-stable fruit cups and applesauce, nuts, soda, and more. We also pack a cooler with juice, fresh fruit, cheese sticks, yogurt, and other things. Some of the food is to eat on the road but a lot of it is to eat while in Florida, either in our room or to take along for snacks during the day. By bringing it from home, we aren't stuck paying resort prices for all of it.
Speaking of the room, we do not stay at a Disney hotel. We rent a place offsite, either a condo, townhouse, pool house, or timeshare unit. We do that for several reasons but certainly one reason is that it gives us a full kitchen and full size refrigerator and freezer. We have somewhere to store food and prepare simple meals. The day we arrive, we always do a supermarket trip to the Publix at 192 and Orange Lake Blvd. We find their prices to be reasonable and they're far enough from Disney property to be a little less crazy than some of the closer markets. We'll pick up things that were too hard or perishable to transport like milk, orange juice, frozen items, and baked goods.
We always eat breakfast in our room. This alone saves us a ton of money. We are not big breakfast eaters so a glass of OJ and bowl of cereal and we're good to go having spent pennies per person and not wasting time and money in a restaurant. It also lets us get a quicker start to our day and get into the parks, which is after all, what we came for. We each pack some snacks to carry with us. That doesn't mean that we don't buy some favorite items once in the parks. What's a trip to Disney without a Dole Whip or a Mickey bar? Packing a few little things, though, helps us control hunger cravings and plan meal times for when it is most convenient. We also always carry water with us. No, not expensive bottled water. Good old free tap water. We have a sport bottle with an insulated holder and strap. We fill it partially at night and freeze it then fill it the rest of the way in the morning. The ice keeps it cold for most of the day and we refill it as needed with ice and water from restaurants, sinks, or fountains. Yes, I know some people say the Florida water tastes funny but none of us have an issue with it so instead of spending $3.50/bottle (or however much it is now) for water, we spend zero.
For lunch, we eat in the parks or wherever we happen to be, always at a counter service location. Unlike so many other amusement parks, the counter service food at Disney World is actually quite good and reasonably priced. You aren't relegated to burgers, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets. You can dine on Korean stir-fry barbecue chicken, a roasted vegetable couscous wrap, spice-rubbed ribs with papaya-carrot slaw, a chicken fajita platter with cilantro rice and black beans, New England clam chowder, or a lobster roll just to name a few options. Dinner in the parks is also done counter service. Don't forget the resort options either. Hop on the monorail and have dinner at Capt. Cook's at the Polynesian, for example, or take a drive (or bus) over to Art of Animation to eat at their great food court Landscape of Flavors.
There are a few specific budget tips I want to emphasize. Disney pushes combo meals on the menu boards. You don't have to buy things the way they are advertised. You can order things a la carte at a substantial savings. For example, skipping the french fries can save you $2. Getting the sandwich without the cheese might save you 50 cents. Getting a cup of water instead of a fountain drink will save you $3. This also lets you be flexible and share things since many portion sizes are large enough to easily split. I cringe when I see a mom, dad, and two young kids order four complete meals with appetizers, entrees, sides, dessert, and drinks. I know they've just dropped $75 or more and a significant amount of that food will end up in the trash. One order of fries is enough for two or even three people. One 20-ounce Coke is more than enough for two (especially children) if you want something other than water. You can choose to make a meal for two by getting one appetizer and one entree and splitting it. Some restaurants have toppings bars that are free and really help stretch your food dollar. I don't think we have ever gone to a Disney counter service location and gotten a full course meal for one person. We always order individual items or share sides or drinks because it is plenty of food and saves us a lot of money.
The other major tip is that as long as you have a car, even if you are staying onsite, don't limit yourself to onsite restaurants. The area immediately around Disney property is packed with affordable dining options including national chains, local favorites, and independent places. We always eat at least once at Sweet Tomatoes, for example, and always grab a meal at Flippers Pizzeria too. Sometimes we eat in a restaurant. Other times we just want to kick off our shoes and relax at our condo/house and we'll grab takeout and eat back in our room, escaping the crowds and hustle and bustle that is all around us at Disney. Nearby areas to check out are the Crossroads shopping center which is literally right across the street from Disney property on Route 535 opposite Hotel Plaza Blvd. and the stretch of Route 192 going west from I-4. If you exit property with Sherberth Road (turn left at the light before you enter Animal Kingdom Lodge) you will come out right in the heart of the commercial area. Turn right on 192 and you'll find endless options to suit any taste. That's also the way to get to the Publix I mentioned above or the Target which is across the street from that. A bit farther from property going east on 192 is the town of Celebration which has numerous casual and more upscale dining options. For fine dining, check out "restaurant row" on Sand Lake Road.
For those who find dining at Disney to be too expensive, I hope some of these tips will help you bring down the cost and make your Disney World vacations more affordable for you and your family.
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