The Disney Dining Plan, Walt Disney World, Orlando

We just returned from 11 days at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. (My family purchased a timeshare there last summer, so we’ll be returning most summers for a little over a week and dining around the parks. Some capsule writeups of various restaurants we tried this year are soon to come.)

We decided to try out the Disney Dining Plan this time around, to see whether it represented a good value for our family. We purchased the standard plan, which includes one quick-service meal, one table-service meal and one snack for each person staying in your room every day. There were 5 of us for the first week (my parents, my husband and I and our son). For the last 4 days, there were only the three of us–me, my husband and the boy.

Look below the cut to see what the plan includes and an overview of how we felt about trying it out…

A quick-service meal includes a drink, an entree or a combination meal, and a dessert from almost any place on property where you order from a counter. A table-service meal includes a drink, an entree and a dessert from almost any place on property where you sit at a table and order food from a server. (Table-service credits are also accepted at most AYCE buffets on property.) A snack credit covers a single drink, a piece of fruit, a small box of popcorn, any number of candy bars or small bags of snacks/cookies/trail mix, a soft pretzel, a frozen lemonade or smoothie, or any number of other small food or drink items from most of the kiosks, shops and counter-service restaurants on property.

We tried the plan because we didn’t like considering the cost of different entrees when deciding what to eat, we’d heard it was a good value and we thought it was worth a shot to see how the plan played out with the way we eat.

We usually eat breakfast in the room at our resort, a bowl of cereal and some fruit or yogurt usually. We planned to redeem counter service credits at lunch daily, and the table service credits at dinner. We splurged on dinner at California Grill one night; “signature” restaurants such as CA Grill require two table-service credits. In exchange, we ate off-property our first night in town.

Disney sells refillable mugs at the counter-service concession inside each hotel and resort. These mugs can be filled with soda, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, or lemonade from the fountain at any counter-service concession at any resort on property for the duration of the stay in which it was purchased. We always buy these mugs (about $13) when we check in and use it for coffee, diet soda and sugar-free lemonade throughout our trip. We also usually carry 2 large 1-L bottles of water with us to keep us hydrated in the parks. With these mugs and bottles, we found the beverage allowances weren’t a big deal to us. Sometimes we took a 20-oz bottled drink back to our room to save for the trip home when we redeemed a counter-service meal at a resort–we could fill the mugs with our lunch after all.

It was indeed liberating to be able to choose the entree I wanted to eat rather than choosing one of the cheaper options when eating out. I also liked being able to go almost anywhere on-property, which pushed us to explore some new dining options we hadn’t previously tried. Other than the night we spent 2 credits at CA Grill, I felt like we received good value for our investment–we always came out ahead on the plan.

My biggest problem with the dining plan was the main reason I didn’t want to try it in the first place: the emphasis on dessert. I’d rather order a salad or some soup instead of a big dessert with most of my meals, and I pretty much never eat a dessert after lunch. We ended up taking something like a cookie or a brownie as our lunch dessert, and then we’d eat the pastry in mid-afternoon as a snack. Then we wouldn’t be needing our snack credit for a mid-afternoon snack or drink (remember the mugs we had in tow), so we had extra snack credits to spare at the end of our trip. A couple of times, we ordered fresh fruit rather than a dessert off the menu after dinner–servers were happy to accommodate this request.

We did start spending more credits on things like fruit in order to have healthier foods around. We also picked up a lot of snacks and such to bring home with extra snack credits at the end of the trip–Goofy’s Candy Company provided a motherlode of snacks and goodies for the road. We spent 4 credits at Boulangerie Patisserie in the France part of Epcot to get breakfast pastries for our last morning in town.

I was displeased with the children’s offerings. We don’t normally feed our son a steady diet of chicken nuggets, burgers and pizza, but it was difficult to stray from these sorts of foods with his child credits. I was particularly offended that restaurants like Tangierine Cafe in the Morocco part of Epcot–where we were tucking into lamb shwarma and herb salad with hummus–he was restricted to fried chicken nuggets, while he ate an Uncrustables PBJ as we lunched on gravlox and egg on wholegrain bread in the Norway bakery. At least in Boulangerie Patisserie he was allowed the same things we were–and he loved the ham tartine they offered. (How typical that the French concession would make no compromises when offering food to the young.) Fortunately, we were able to pair things like carrots, grapes or unsweetened applesauce with these monotonous children’s entrees, and I appreciated not having to constantly buy milk for the boy since he got milk with each meal credit we redeemed.

We were also generally displeased with counter service selection, especially in the parks. Other than Epcot, you’re stuck with adult versions of most of the kid foods at most kiosks. I’d like to see more freshly tossed salads and good sandwiches with fresh vegetables on multigrain breads at the parks. (Norway was a particularly surprising find–they offered a tossed salad and a sandwich on good hearty bread as a quick-service entree; nobody else included a salad OR had wholegrain bread that we discovered.)

I would prefer receiving two snack credits to getting dessert with lunch every day. And then I’d like to see greater availability of cut fruit, sorbets and low-calorie frozen drinks in the parks. Every park seems to have a single concession with cut fruit and no lightened versions of smoothies, milkshakes or frozen lemonades in sight. Sorbet used to be nonexistent in the parks, but the gelaterie in the Italian section of Epcot was revamped to include some granitas.

Our disillusionment with counter-service options ultimately led to us engineer our days around a lunchtime visit to Epcot (or to Downtown Disney to eat at Wolfgang Puck’s cafe). This is irritating when we’re in the middle of exploring a different park or would prefer to spend the late morning hours taking a dip in the pool.

I would also greatly prefer to be offered the option of a starter OR a dessert at table-service meals. If that’s not feasible, it should be possible to offer a choice of soup or salad OR a dessert at a table-service meal–soup, salad and dessert usually merit similar price points on menus, after all. We all felt like we gained weight on this trip despite the long walks in hot weather implied by a June vacation in Orlando.

Still, I do think it was an overall good deal and money saver. We’ll probably do it again next year, especially if they revamp the program to include better choices. (We heard from several servers that there have been discussions among management about making the sorts of changes I suggested above.) We saved a lot of money on food over the tab we’ve paid on the last few trips, and anything that gets us to explore new eateries has to be a good thing.


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