NOTE: This article concerns the 2012 Disney Dining Plan. For details about the 2013 Disney Dining Plan information, click here.
With dates for Walt Disney World’s Free Dining Plan Promotion for late Summer 2012 and Fall 2012, now is a great time to read an overview and review of the Disney Dining Plan to determine if this promotion is worth it for you. To read about Free Dining as compared to other Walt Disney World discounts, visit our comprehensive 2012 Disney World Discounts page.
If you are considering booking the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion, it’s important to realize there is no such thing as a truly “Free” Dining Plan. If you’re getting the Dining Plan for “free” you are paying rack rate for your room and full price for a minimum number of tickets. Since there are almost always Room-Only or other discounts available, Free Dining is an alternate discount. In other words, you give up a different discount to receive “free” dining. Sometimes there are no alternative discounts available, in which case it actually is (basically) “free.” For many people, Free Dining is absolutely the best discount that Disney offers. It varies based upon party size and resort tier, so do the math and compare the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion to other available discounts.
When planning your Walt Disney World trip, it is most important to read restaurant reviews. For reviews of some of our favorite Disney restaurants, visit our Disney Restaurant Reviews page.
Also make sure to consult our list of Disney Table Service restaurants that offer the best bang for your buck on the Dining Plan (list is based upon and includes median meal prices). Together, these are your best resources for planning where to eat at Walt Disney World, visiting the best restaurants, and saving the most money. Other resources for maximizing your savings on the Disney Dining Plan can be found at the very end of this post.
If you’re going to use the Disney Dining Plan, you definitely want to eat at the restaurants on the above linked-to lists that offer the best value on the plan. Restaurants like Coral Reef, Whispering Canyon Cafe, Le Cellier (Lunch only), The Wave, and Kona Cafe become great options. You’ll want to plan in advance if you want to hit these restaurants, as Disney meal plan veterans often snatch up most of the reservations months in advance.
We cannot reiterate this enough: dining is one of the most important elements of your Walt Disney World trip that you should plan. However, it’s not the only element you need to plan for your Disney trip. You also need to plan what time of year to visit to avoid crowds and see certain seasonal events, what type of Disney tickets to purchase, whether you should rent a car or rely on Disney transportation on your trip, at which hotel to stay, and what to pack, among other things! The amount of fun you have on a Disney World trip can vary widely depending on how much planning you do, and with a little planning, you can have a lot more fun. Dining is just one element of the trip you should think about planning. Click on the links throughout this paragraph for our planning trips for other aspects of your trip.
That said, to determine whether the Free Disney Dining Plan offer is for you, or if you’re considering purchasing the Dining Plan, here is our summary and review of the Disney Dining Plan.
The Disney Dining Plan can be confusing. This is both because there are multiple tiers of the Plan, and what’s offered on the Disney Dining Plan changes yearly (usually for the worse). For the purposes of the Disney Dining Plan, a “counter service meal” means an combo meal (typically an entree plus a side), a dessert, a non-alcoholic beverage, and tax. A “table service meal” means an entree, a dessert, a non-alcoholic beverage, and tax, but not tip. A “snack” includes items sold at snack carts around the park or in quick service restaurants. These items vary widely, but a good rule of thumb is that if it’s under $4.50, it’s probably a snack. An even easier rule of thumb is that if it has the “DDP” symbol next to it on the menu, it’s a snack. Two table service meal credits may be used for one Signature Meal or Room Service Meal. I’ve done the math, and these are rarely good deals.
The following prices and details of the Disney Dining Plan take affect for arrivals beginning January 1, 2012.
Quick Service Disney Dining Plan
This is the lowest tier of the Disney Dining Plan, and what’s typically included with “Free” Dining at the Value Resorts. Each day, the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan includes:
The daily price of the Quick Service Plan is $34.99 per adult and $11.99 per child ages 3-9.
*Beginning in 2012, the Quick Service Plan will offer only one snack per person per night.
Standard Disney Dining Plan
This is the middle tier of the Disney Dining Plan (Disney refers to this tier merely as the “Disney Dining Plan,” but to avoid confusion, we’ll call it the “Standard Disney Dining Plan”), and what’s typically included with “Free” Dining at the Moderate, Deluxe, and Deluxe Villa Resorts. For a fee, you can upgrade from the Free Quick Service Dining Plan to this plan. Each day, the Standard Disney Dining Plan includes:
As of January 1, 2012, the daily price of the Standard Disney Dining Plan is $51.54 per adult and $15.02 per child per child for most times of the year; and $53.54 per adult and $16.02 per child during peak season. Children under 3 eat free from an adult’s plate.
Deluxe Disney Dining Plan
This is the upper echelon, the creme-de-la-creme of Disney Dining Plans, and it’s never offered for Free Dining, but you can pay the difference to upgrade to it. Each day, the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan includes:
The daily price of the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan is $85.52 per adult and $23.79 per child during regular season, and $89.52 per adult and 25.79 per child during peak season.
There are about a thousand nuances to the Dining Plans not worth covering here, so if you have further questions, I refer you to Disney’s Dining Plan website, which includes comprehensive PDF documents describing the various plans and their “rules.”
We have used the Disney Dining Plan a few times, most recently on our Honeymoon in June 2010. Overall, we think the Disney Dining Plan can be good, but isn’t something that we’d use every trip. It all depends upon your circumstances. Like many things in life, there are pros and cons of the Disney Dining Plan. In this review, we’ll try to weigh the pros and cons and present a balanced take. We’ll start with the cons.
First, if you’re paying out of pocket for the Disney Dining Plan, as we always have, there’s the temptation to order the most expensive item on the menu to maximize your “value” of the plan. There were a number of times when a cheaper menu item looked more appealing to me, but there was that lingering thought in the back of my mind that if I didn’t order something more expensive, the Dining Plan would actually cost us more for that particular day than if we were to just pay out of pocket.
This is a common concern about the Disney Dining Plan, and the frequent response I’ve heard from people is that they don’t care about saving money, they just get the Disney Dining Plan for convenience, and so they don’t have to worry about money while on vacation. Sarah and I are frugal, so we’re always worried about money, but my response to this would be that if you don’t want to worry about money, purchase a Disney Gift Card before the trip. While I don’t advocate making that psychological disconnect between actual and “fake” money, if you really need to make it, go that route.
I’ll further add, in response to those folks who purchase the Disney Dining Plan because they want a more stress-free vacation, that you won’t necessarily get that through the Disney Dining Plan. The Dining Plan has a myriad of little rules and exceptions. Sarah and I are both reasonably intelligent, and there were occasions when the rules of the Dining Plan seemed unnecessarily complicated to us. By contrast, it’s incredibly simple to go into a restaurant, order the items you like on the menu, and pay with cash or a credit card. Nothing complicated about that, and it’s exactly what we do at any restaurant we visit at home. How people find the Disney Dining Plan less complicated than that is beyond me.
Next on our list of grievances with the Disney Dining Plan is that it often “forced” us to eat more than we wanted. While Sarah and I are both big eaters, at times, the Dining Plan was just too much. There were occasions when we otherwise would have eaten small counter service meals, but because we had the credits to use, we ate at Table Service restaurants. Not only did this result in over-consumption, but it also ate into valuable vacation time. If you have a short trip and want to experience as many attractions as possible, this is something to keep in mind.
Finally, while you can get value out of the Disney Dining Plan (Disney used to advertise savings of 20% or more, but I haven’t seen this on recent literature; in any case, I think savings of 25-30% aren’t out of the question if you do things right), like I said above, that savings requires a certain kind of consumption. You can save just as much, or more, by eating what you actually want.
You can save even more than that by eating what you want AND using the Tables in Wonderland card. Unfortunately, the Tables in Wonderland card is only available to Florida Residents and Annual Passholders, so you may want to look into an Annual Pass (only one person in your party would ned to get one) if it looks like the Tables in Wonderland card might work for you. In analyzing our receipts, I’ve found that we have saved significantly more by using Tables in Wonderland than we ever did by using the Disney Dining Plan. All of this is not to say there aren’t some benefits to the Disney Dining Plan, as there certainly are benefits.
Here are the pros of using the Disney Dining Plan. The first of which is that it does force you to enjoy all of the various wonderful foods at Walt Disney World. And there is a lot of wonderful food there! In the hustle and bustle of wanting to visit as many attractions as possible, sometimes the Dining Plan is a good “reminder” to slow down, stop, and enjoy the wonderful cuisine. Now, this is something we definitely should be self-disciplined-enough to do on our own, but I’ve found we are definitely better about it when using the Dining Plan.
Another benefit to the Disney Dining Plan is that it won’t scare you away from expensive menu items. If you love filets or New York strip steaks, which are frequently the two most expensive menu items at Walt Disney World, but would shy away from ordering them when you see the price, the Dining Plan might work well for you. Plus, if you like these items and would order them if the price field were blank, you’re probably not going to run into the problem of ordering the most expensive item because of the Dining Plan (like I discussed above in my first point), and you will most likely save a lot of money on the Disney Dining Plan.
The Disney Dining Plan is also great for those who can eat a lot and really enjoy Disney snacks. Snack credits are best used during Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival, when some of the best snacks can cost as much as $7! Check out our list of the top Epcot Food & Wine Festival snacks if you’re heading to Walt Disney World in the fall and are considering the Disney Dining Plan.
There are also great uses for the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan and the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan. The Quick Service Plan is best during Food & Wine Festival, when, as mentioned above, snack credits (only one per person per day starting in 2012) can be used for more expensive items at the various kiosks. This is a great use of these credits, and given that you’ll probably be sampling Food & Wine Festival food anyway, it’s good during these trips to not have as many Table Service meals. Wandering around Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival is a lot of fun, and there have actually been full days in Epcot when we haven’t even eaten a meal because we’ve so enjoyed trying the various snacks. Our tip for visiting Epcot on the Quick Service Plan is to use on Quick Service credit in the morning for breakfast at Sunshine Seasons, then use a stockpile of snack credits throughout the day at the kiosks. On a subsequent day when you visit one of the other parks, have three Quick Service meals since you’ll have used up your other snack credits, but will have an extra Quick Service credit. It’s just too bad you can’t use Disney Dining Plan credits for the popular Drinking Around the World activity in Epcot’s World Showcase!
The Deluxe Dining Plan can be utilized well any time of year, if you’re willing to follow the strategy of eating breakfast at a Table Service restaurant, lunch of a snack (there’s more “value” in eating lunch at a Table Service restaurant, but in reality, can you eat two large meals like this that close together? If so, adopt that strategy–I doubt we could do it!), and dinner at a Signature Table Service Restaurant. This really maximizes the value of this plan, but you are almost required to utilize the plan in this manner to make it worthwhile. It’s simply too difficult to eat three Table Service meals per day, so this strategy presents a less-challenging value maximization method. We recently tried doing an early table service lunch and a late signature restaurant dinner and we saved over 50% by using the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan!
Overall, whether the Disney Dining Plan is right for you is a highly personal decision based on all of these, and other, variables. I can’t (nor can anyone else) say whether the Disney Dining Plan is right for your particular circumstances, but hopefully the considerations I’ve discussed above can help you make the decision. If you do decide to purchase the Disney Dining Plan for your vacation, make sure you do your homework to determine where you should eat. I highly recommend The Unofficial Guide Walt Disney World 2012, which is a comprehensive resource for eating at Disney and trip planning in general. Given the incredible expense of dining at Walt Disney World, this book is definitely a great resource to have with you on your Disney vacation! Also make sure to check out our Dining Reviews Index Page for reviews of some of our favorite Disney restaurants and tons of mouth-watering food photos from Walt Disney World and Disneyland restaurants!
Additional Disney Dining Plan Resources
For more details on each of the plans, visit the following pages:
If you plan on getting the Disney Dining Plan check out these other Walt Disney World food posts to maximize your Disney Dining Plan value:
I would love to hear what your thoughts are about the Disney Dining Plan, and how it works–or doesn’t work–for you, in the comments! We’re constantly re-evaluating my “Disney Practices,” so who knows, maybe you’ll change our minds!