Walt Disney World’s Disney Dining Plan has become a popular pre-paid “eat what you want” meal plan that some people swear by. It’s especially popular during “Free Dining” season, when it’s offered as part of a package discount (unquestionably the most eagerly anticipated discount of the year for Disney enthusiasts). The Disney Dining Plan is easy to use and if you eat a certain way, or plan well, you can save a lot of money. There’s no question about this, and we even have a number of resources on our site devoted to helping people maximize their savings on the Disney Dining Plan.
What isn’t so clear is whether using the Disney Dining Plan saves you money versus paying out of pocket if you don’t eat the certain way it is designed. If you’re party consists of light eaters, or you are spontaneous, or are able to use the Tables in Wonderland card, is the Disney Dining Plan right for you? A lot of guests visiting Walt Disney World just assume the Disney Dining Plan will always save them money, which isn’t always true. In fact, a lot of times it will cost more money than paying out of pocket, and that’s the case even when the Disney Dining Plan is offered for “free.”
Rather than approaching this in the abstract, we decided to do a little “case study,” taking all of our receipts from our most recent 4-day trip to Walt Disney World, adding up our totals, and comparing our out of pocket costs to what we would have spent if we used the Disney Dining Plan. We’ll then examine free dining to explain why that doesn’t always save you money.
On our recent 4-day Walt Disney World trip, we visited a number of restaurants, both table service and counter service, and had a lot of snacks. Most of our plans for dining were made at the last minute shortly before the trip or on a whim the day of, which meant that we didn’t do the math in advance to determine whether the Disney Dining Plan would have been right for us. Had we booked the Disney Dining Plan in advance, our plans would have changed to better suit the Plan and “save” more money. That said, we ate exactly where and ordered exactly what we wanted while paying out of pocket on this trip.
We arrived mid-afternoon our first day and left mid-afternoon our last day. Here’s where we ate and how much we spent:
Flower & Garden Festival Kiosk – $13.11
Garden Grill – $73.62
Everything Pop Food Court – $7.01
San Angel Inn – $54.92
Flower & Garden Festival Kiosks – $6.92
Artist Point – $120.79
50s Prime Time Cafe – $63.20
Restaurantosaurus – $25.92
Auntie Gravity’s – $5.52
Landscape of Flavors – $10.80
Tusker House – $57.78
Animal Kingdom Snack – $4.25
What We Paid…
Tables in Wonderland Proportional Cost: $25
What We Would’ve Paid on the Disney Dining Plan…
Disney Dining Plan Cost: $333.54
Out of Pocket Cost: $253.50
Unused Credits: 0 Table Service, 3 Counter Service, 0 Snack
Okay, time for a little explanation. How much we spent at each location speaks is the total we paid, including tip (~18%) and less Tables in Wonderland discount. All of these amounts added together form the basis of the subtotal, which is $443.84. Now, since we benefited from a Tables in Wonderland discount, and since that card costs $100 and we take about 4 Walt Disney World trips per year, I’ve attributed $25 of the card’s cost to this trip. That brings the total we spent on food for this trip to $468.84. Follow so far?
Tracking the amount spent gets a little trickier on the Disney Dining Plan. If we were on the Disney Dining Plan, we would have spent $333.54 on the plan alone, which would have given us each 3 credits for table service meals, counter service meals, and snacks (since our trip was 3 nights long).
As for the out of pocket portion there, the Disney Dining Plan does not cover tips, nor does it cover some other things we ordered, like alcohol and appetizers. We also paid for two table service meals out of pocket, since we only had enough credits for 3 table service meals, and we ate 5 table service meals. Here, I made sure to apply the Disney Dining Plan credits in the most efficient manner (so in this hypothetical, I applied a snack credit to a $4.25 cupcake rather than a $2.19 coffee, etc.).
Finally, the unused credits show what we didn’t use. We exceeded both our table service and snack credit allotments, but only had 3 counter service meals, so we would have had 3 credits remaining. Were we actually on the Disney Dining Plan, we would have used all of these credits, and not done one or two of the table service meals that we did. It’s also worth noting that for some meals we ordered appetizers and split desserts (or didn’t order dessert), which wouldn’t have been efficient on the Disney Dining Plan, but we ordered what we wanted since we didn’t have to consider the Plan.
Case Study Conclusion
I normally do this math (very roughly) before each trip based upon menus from places we’re dining to get an idea of whether we might want to use the Disney Dining Plan. The first thing I want to note here is how liberating it was to do things spontaneously and not do this degree of planning (of course, I ended up doing even more work after the fact for this blog post, but whatever) and just eat what and where we wanted to eat without thinking about credits or Disney Dining Plan efficiency.
To that end, I think it’s much more convenient to NOT use the Disney Dining Plan. I say this in our review of the Disney Dining Plan, and I know this flies in the face of why so many people use the Dining Plan, but I don’t possibly see how it’s more convenient to use the Dining Plan than to not use it. Unlike what some people say, you are not “just” paying the cost of the Plan and then forgetting about dining costs and “eating whatever you want.” You’re pre-paying a portion of the cost, then paying another (significant) cost at each meal in the form of tips. Oh, and you can only eat certain things and have to plan the types of meals that work with the Disney Dining Plan, otherwise you waste credits.
When paying out of pocket, you show up where you want, order what you want, and pay for what you ordered. Done. I’m not even going to address the “budgeting” argument, as without extensive pre-planning, you can’t completely budget dining costs with the Disney Dining Plan any more than you can when paying out of pocket. So that’s a wash. Our experience with both paying out of pocket and with using the Disney Dining Plan has been that paying out of pocket is unquestionably more convenient. Any convenience of the Disney Dining Plan is illusory.
More importantly, what about actual savings? Based on my numbers, we clearly saved more money by not using the Disney Dining Plan and instead paying out of pocket and using Tables in Wonderland (we would have saved more even without the Tables in Wonderland card). However, in fairness, those numbers are a bit misleading. As mentioned above, we didn’t eat in a manner that fit the “style” of the Disney Dining Plan, and we had a table service-heavy trip. Honestly, we could have changed our style pretty easily without negatively affecting our experience and that would have made the gap between out of pocket and the Disney Dining Plan a bit smaller. By that, I don’t mean trading Artist Point for a counter service meal (unless there’s an AMAZING counter service restaurant we’ve never heard of, that swap would have had a negative affect on our experience!), I mean not ordering appetizers and instead doing more desserts.
Something that would have negatively affected our experience, but would also have decreased BOTH totals would have been to eat 2 additional counter service meals and 2 fewer table service meals. Obviously, this would have decreased the Dining Plan total more than the out of pocket total since we had the unused counter service credits on the Dining Plan. In fact, my rough math shows that, had we done that, the totals would have been almost even.
My preference is eating whatever I want at any restaurant and dining at the two table service restaurants rather than adding 2 counter service restaurants to the plans, but the point remains. For the sake of fairness to the Disney Dining Plan, we’re showing that a change to our plans could have made a big difference in terms of costs. We don’t want to make it appear that paying out of pocket will always be considerably cheaper than using the Disney Dining Plan, because that’s simply not true. It was true on this one trip we took, but is definitely not always true, even for us. On other occasions, we’ve saved a lot of money by using the Disney Dining Plan! In fact, this article is sort of a “counter-point” to last year’s case study showing how we saved a lot of money on the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan. (Just to show we’re not biased one way or the other…)
This also shows that there is no single answer to the out of pocket versus Disney Dining Plan question in terms of savings. The results can substantially deviate based upon your personal dining reservations, plans, and eating habits. While my numbers illustrate this point, they offer little more than illustration, and are really little more than academic here. The real point is that both paying out of pocket and using the Disney Dining Plan can each be viable options worthy of consideration. In other words, don’t just rely on the numbers presented here–read past them and do your own math if saving money is something about which you really care.
When you do the math, don’t base your calculations on what the Disney Dining Plan provides. Base your numbers on what you’d actually like to eat on your vacation. If you don’t do much snacking at Walt Disney World, but would take home a bunch of bags of Disney candy with unused snack credits if you had to, don’t factor that candy into your calculations. It’s not something you really want, and just because you would use snack credits on the candy (instead of letting the credits go to waste), doesn’t mean those credits are “worth” $4.19 each. Spending more money to “save” more money isn’t really saving money at all–it’s wasting money.
What About “Free” Dining?
I mentioned Free Dining above, and the same principle that the Dining Plan–even when “free”–doesn’t always save you more money. This is something I’ve harped on in the past, and it’s worth sounding like an ornery nag for the sake of hammering home, because many people still don’t seem to understand this: FREE DINING IS NOT FREE.
Walt Disney World almost always has discounts. The place is like the Kohl’s of vacation destinations. No one is paying full price at either place, making full price/rack rates almost meaningless. Since the statement that Free Dining isn’t really free seems to confuse a lot of guests, let’s go through it point by point. Walt Disney World almost always offers discounts on vacations. If you book with one discount, you cannot book with another discount (at least guests from the US can’t). Free Dining is one discount that Disney offers. A room-only discount of 20%/25%/30%/35%/40% off is another discount Disney offers.
It thus becomes a question of opportunity cost. Do YOU save more money paying with free dining and a full priced room and tickets than you do with a room discount and paying out of pocket for food (and with potentially discounted tickets)?
If Free Dining were offered during our visit (it wasn’t), it would have been a far better offer because room-only discounts were meager. Then again, meager room-only discounts partly explain why free dining wasn’t offered. If discounts are meager they are meager across the board, and they are meager because Disney doesn’t need to use them to “persuade” more guests to visit (this is why summer break discounts are so rare). When Free Dining is offered, it’s usually offered in off-seasons when room-only discounts are also usually much more substantial.
It’s frequently true that Free Dining is the best discount. If you have a family of 4 staying in one room, no matter the resort, that’s usually the case. However, if you have a couple staying in a more expensive room, it’s often not the case. Sarah and I frequently staying at Disney’s BoardWalk Inn, which often has a 30% room-only discount or Free Dining when we stay there.
With a 30% off discount at BoardWalk Inn, we save around $125 per night with a 30% off room-only discount during our annual Epcot Food & Wine Festival trip. This is more than the average daily amount that we spend on food, which is why we book the room-only discount at BoardWalk if both discounts are offered. If there were 2 more people staying in the room with us, that would tip the scale in favor of Free Dining. Likewise, a family of 4 staying at a non-Deluxe resort, such as Disney’s Coronado Springs, is probably going to find that they save much more with Free Dining than they do with a room-only discount. I know everyone hates math, but the point, once again, is that you have to do the math for your circumstances to know for sure. Better to suffer through a little math and save some money than just assume based on marketing buzzwords like “free,” be wrong, and end up paying more.
Our example illustrates why it’s important to do some advance planning when it comes to dining at Walt Disney World. You vets out there already know this, but if you’re a first-time visitor or are only really familiar with Disneyland, you may not realize this. Planning your dining is almost as important as booking your airfare. A lot of Walt Disney World restaurants book up months in advance, and the difference in experience between a good and a bad restaurant is like night and day. We highly recommend reading some of our restaurant reviews and checking out menus online before before making your Advance Dining Reservations. Not only will they give you an idea of what restaurants to book, but they’ll help you do the math and figure out whether the Disney Dining Plan or paying out of pocket is right for you!
For updates, news, and Disney tips, sign up for our monthly newsletter!
Do you typically use the Disney Dining Plan or do you pay out of pocket? What works best for you? I would love to hear what your thoughts are about the Disney Dining Plan, and how it works–or doesn’t work–for you. Share your thoughts in the comments!