When you’re planning a Walt Disney World vacation there are four major areas of cost that you always have to consider: Travel, Resort, Park Tickets and Food. While there are many opinions on what resorts are the best, when and how to get to Orlando and how many days of park tickets are best for your vacation; rarely do any of these topics elicit such a hard stance from people on any social media platform as the Disney Dining Plan. It was even a topic of discussion on the Dreams Unlimited Travel show last year. Almost any thread on the Disboards where the topic is broached, you’ll get strong stances on how it’s a waste of money. Travel agents will strongly suggest that room discounts will save you money, especially for those who are on a budget. Still though, Free Dining is one of Disney’s most sought after offerings.
But does it make sense financially? It’s different for everyone, but let’s take a look for when it does make sense.
There are some aspects of the Disney Dining Plan that you can’t measure in actual value, like having the peace of mind that your food is already paid for, not having to anguish over menu items or running a tally of your daily expenses. These aspects hold different values for people and we can’t measure them. The point of this exercise is to discuss the monetary value that you can actually measure with your wallet. So let’s set them aside.
So when does the Disney Dining Plan make sense? There is a sweet spot when you are a family with young children and you’re not heading to Walt Disney World on a tight budget. It’s best to analyze these things when you can break it down to cost per day. So let’s do that.
Here are the costs for the 2018 Disney Dining Plan. For the sake of this article we’re going to use the cost of the Regular Dining Plan and a family of four with two adults and two children. Your cost per day is $202.48.
Free Dining vs. Discounted Room Rate
Our first analysis will be comparing this dollar amount to the room discounts you may find with various Disney Vacation Packages. If you didn’t know, when you purchase a free dining package you are paying rack rate for your room. (Rack rate is the non-discounted cost of the room.) Room discounts range anywhere from 10% to 30% off the rack rate. It’s incredibly difficult to actually nail down a comparative number because discounts fluctuate season to season. Not only that, they vary within the Value, Moderate and Deluxe tiers. So we’re going to have to do some estimating when coming up with a number to compare to the dining plan cost. If you’re using this article to decide between free dining or a room discount make sure you use exact numbers from the resort you’re considering! We’re going to use current summer discount offerings with standard rooms. Room rates vary a lot, for 2018 you’ll see rates that can be $40-60 higher than listed below during holidays or other events.
- For value resorts you’re typically looking at around $145 per night. With a 15% discount you’ll save $21.75 per night.
- For moderate resorts you’re typically looking at around $260 per night. With a 10% discount you’ll save $26.00 per night.
- For a deluxe resort like Animal Kingdom Lodge you’re typically looking at around $450 per night. With a 20% discount you’ll save $90.00 per night.
- For a deluxe resort like the Polynesian you’re typically looking at around $600 per night. With a 10% discount you’ll save $60.00 per night.
These savings numbers are very rough, but they are just to get an idea. Let’s compare the monetary value of the two deals: If you’re booking at a value or moderate resort you’re getting a Quick Service Plan which is $148.48; you can upgrade to the Regular Dining Plan at the cost of $54.00. This means you’re getting $94.48 per day in value from Disney. If you’re booking a deluxe resort you’re getting the Regular Dining Plan so consider the value at the full cost of $202.48.
Comparing the two, you’re looking at two or three times the value from Disney going with a Regular Dining Plan.
Cost of Food vs. the Regular Dining Plan
The second analysis is really the crux of the argument. Does your family really need all that food? If you’re asking that question, the answer is probably not. You can certainly get by every day with a significantly smaller food bill. There are a myriad of ways to save on the cost of food, from getting groceries delivered to your room, eating at Cosmic Rays or just budgeting out your meals ahead of time. The point of this article, however, is to maximize your entertainment for the dollars you’re spending. Whether it’s visiting parks, swimming in the pools or having a great dining experience, you’ll want to have the most fun possible.
Let’s discuss costs of dining out of pocket and the list price of the dining plan.
If you’re planning your trip well in advance, it’s a great exercise to actually see what you might spend if you do all your dining on Disney property. Head over to WDWInfo’s Dining page and you’ll find all the pricing on food items you would need. Put together an imaginary meal and total up the costs. Quick service meals may run you $8-18 per adult and $6-14 per child depending on snacks, sharing, and drinks.
For the family of four, you can easily spend only $40-60 for lunch or dinner. Please note we’re talking children here, not teenagers that consume all the food in front of them. With a light breakfast you’re looking at half the cost of the Regular Dining Plan. Even adding in a special breakfast at Be Our Guest or a sit down meal one night during your stay, you’re still saving significant money by not doing the dining plan. This is what everyone will tell you — you’re better off taking the room discount and budgeting your own meals.
Not so fast. Disney World is about shared experiences with friends and family. Remember that sweet spot where the dining plan makes sense? It makes sense when you start considering the fun and cost of character meals — breakfast at the Tusker House is $108.00, Chef Mickey’s costs this family of four $128.00 for lunch, dinner at The Crystal Palace costs $150.00. If you’re booking a character meal for the majority of your days at Walt Disney World, the dining plan begins to make a lot more sense.
The character dining experience is amazing for young children. Your kids will get one-on-one time with their favorite characters and they will go crazy for them. You’ll have access to an all-you-can-eat buffet, so worrying about quantity isn’t an issue (though quality may be at some locations). When coming up with your daily plan of attack for each park, it’s highly recommended to plan downtime, a time where you can get off your feet, relax, catch your breath, and get out of the heat. Character meals are some of the best ways to do this. If you want to get the most value out of your time, character meals offer both fun experiences and food.
Let’s just analyze the scenario of dining plan vs. out of pocket for lunch at Chef Mickey’s. After that meal, you’re looking at spending $72.54 to break even with the dining plan costs. Can you make it work? If you eat at Cosmic Rays, sure you can do it. Are you buying an ice cream for the family? Starbucks from Main Street? It’s getting harder. Remember we’re assuming you are not at the Magic Kingdom on a tight budget.
If you are taking advantage of the dining plan and availing yourself of the different experiences you can have with things like character meals, the first analysis is pretty clear. You’re gaining either $94.48 or $202.48 per day in value from Disney. You will never make up those kind of savings from room discounts alone. The key to this is maximizing what the dining plan has to offer, and that doesn’t mean just ordering the most expensive thing on the menu. That’s where we have to consider the second analysis
The second analysis is the trickier and depends on people’s appetites, eating habits and whether or not their kids love meeting Mickey and Minnie and watching them while they’re eating. Paying out of pocket, you can easily spend $130 on lunch at Chef Mickey’s, $50 for dinner at Pecos Bill’s and end up spending $30-40 throughout the day on coffee, ice cream and other snacks. With the dining plan, that’s all covered. If you can (or want to) replicate this nearly every day with some kind of character dining experience, you’re in that sweet spot where the Disney Dining Plan makes sense for you and your family financially. How to plan it out so you can do this is a subject for another article.
I am a 37 year old father of three from NJ with the Disney Bug. Disney is all about family and I write with the family perspective in mind.