I know — the Disney Dining Plan is a hot-button topic. There are people who swear by it, and there are others who are not swayed by its charms. No matter which side of the divide you stand on, one thing’s for sure: you have to eat at Disney. So how do you know if the dining plan is a good value for you and your family?
We used to be dining plan devotees. On our first three trips to Walt Disney World, we either purchased at an additional cost, or got the free version of the Regular Dining Plan which included one quick service meal, one table service meal, two snacks, and one refillable mug per person per night. We loved the convenience of having our meals pre-paid prior to our vacation. It was about as close to an all-inclusive experience you could have at Disney. With the exception of souvenirs, tips, and adult beverages, there was little need to budget for any extras on our trips. When we left for vacation, money was not something we needed to really think about. We could dine as we wanted without looking at menu prices. It felt like we could splurge at mealtimes without any of the sticker shock when the check came. The dining plan made vacation feel carefree and indulgent.
Unfortunately, there were downsides to the dining plan for us as well. Mainly, we felt tethered to our dining reservations. Meals became the central hub of our park and resort time. We had to fit everything around them, which made our vacations feel overly structured and less impulsive. Also, we found ourselves eating more on vacation than we typically do at home, solely because we had a fixed number of meals “banked.”
It should also be noted that the amount of food you typically get at a sit down/table service restaurant is very generous. More often than not, we found ourselves unable to finish all the components of our meal. (Dessert was included in the dining plan we purchased.) It felt gluttonous and wasteful. Finally, at the end of our vacations, we almost always had an abundance of leftover food credits that we had to rush around to use. It seemed like we became hyper-focused on choosing the most expensive items so we could get the most bang for our buck.
This year we decided to skip the dining plan. We wanted to see if we could save money by paying for all our snacks, drinks, and meals out of pocket. It was very intimidating at first. We had never traveled to Disney World and needed to whip out our wallet for food before.
Soon, we realized it was easier to purchase one of the special Food and Wine gift cards that you could wear on your wrist, which made future purchases a breeze (and also enabled us to set a food budget for ourselves). Every Dole Whip, every Mickey ice cream bar, each food kiosk at Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival, the breakfast at Whispering Canyon Cafe, and the dinner at Trail’s End all came with a receipt that I tucked away for later. (I was serious about crunching the numbers to see if there really was a cost savings with ditching the dining plan.)
I immediately noticed something. After we became accustomed to paying out of pocket for our food and drinks, we also started to pay less attention to food in general, and spent more time enjoying our vacation. We ate what and where we wanted when we were hungry, but we didn’t feel obligated to eat at structured mealtimes. With the exception of two or three advanced dining reservations for our must-have meals, we simply went with the flow. Instead of eating only at restaurants, we were able to try new things at the food kiosks. It was liberating! But was it saving us any money?
When we got home I took out my pile of receipts and did the math. Not surprisingly, our family of three (2 adults, 1 child) saved quite a lot of money by skipping the dining plan. We didn’t feel as though we were missing out on anything. We were never hungry during our vacation, and since we did more snacking than relying on traditional meals we were able to dabble in a variety of foods we had never had before.
While foregoing the dining plan saved our family money, it is important to note that everyone has a different situation, and the best way to decide if it is a good option for your next vacation is to crunch the numbers yourself prior to your next trip. Also keep in mind that if you skip the Disney Dining Plan, there are still many other dining discounts available such as Tables in Wonderland, Annual Passholder discounts, and Chase Disney Visa discount. With or without the dining plan, you will still have a great time dining at Disney!