Eating at Walt Disney World on a tight budget can be difficult. Most people immediately jump to the Disney Dining Plan when the topic of saving money on food comes up, but we’re going to take a different (better!) approach, with some tips for where to eat, where to avoid, and other ideas for “dining on a dime” at Walt Disney World.
Before we begin with the money-saving Walt Disney World dining tips, we have a couple of “rules” that we’ve imposed upon ourselves. The first is no spreadsheets. Budgeting can be done by loosing following common sense strategy and tips. Eating inexpensively does not require advanced analytics or being a master statistician.
Walt Disney World planning obsessives will probably consider this heresy, but I hate spreadsheets. I would not wish them upon my worst enemy–let alone people I’m trying to encourage to have “fun” on “vacation.” From my perspective, spreadsheets are antithetical to the core concept of vacationing. I understand others vehemently disagree, so to each their own. If you enjoy making spreadsheets, feel free to go nuts at it.
Second, we don’t dine off-site. Part of this is wanting to remain immersed in the Walt Disney World bubble. Another part is the practical reality that spending time and money to get off-site quickly eats away at any financial savings. Vacation time is valuable, and how much of it are you willing to “spend” to save ~$5 per person on a fast food entree?
Admittedly, ‘no off-site dining’ is one that’s getting more difficult to justify as a hard and fast rule for ourselves, especially with the Orlando area’s burgeoning dining scene. With that in mind, we’d refer you to Eater’s Essential 28 Restaurants in Orlando if you’re interested in venturing off-property.
The upside is that the restaurants on that list that we’ve tried are superlative–most are better than the best of Walt Disney World. The downside is that almost all are pretty far off-property. (If you are willing to venture off-site, the nearest exceptional option is the Kissimmee location of 4 Rivers Smokehouse; a different twist on 4 Rivers is also available at Disney Springs.)
With that in mind, here are our money-saving tips for dining at Walt Disney World…
EAT: Grocery Delivery for Breakfast – With a handful of exceptions, breakfast at Walt Disney World leaves a lot to be desired. Most counter service restaurants offer a limited selection of phoned in entrees with staples like powdered eggs and rubbery paper-bacon. Table service restaurants tend to do things better, but breakfast is still overpriced for what you get, time-consuming, and most items aren’t memorable.
Even for those who aren’t on a tight budget, we recommend grocery delivery for breakfast. (See our Tips for Grocery Delivery at Walt Disney World.) We tend to focus on things like fruits and vegetables, since those are overpriced at Walt Disney World and there’s not really anything to do in terms of preparation.
It’s a great opportunity to get healthy, nutrient-dense foods in order to give you energy and start your day on the right foot, save money and time…and make you feel a little less guilty about eating 4 cupcakes and 3 orders of ice cream later in the day. After all, you had carrots and oatmeal at breakfast!
EAT: Disney Springs Restaurants – When it comes to dining at Walt Disney World, your dollar goes much further at most Disney Springs restaurants than in-park ones. This is largely true because Disney Springs is (almost) on a level playing field with real world restaurants. It’s nearly as easy for on-site guests to dine off-site as it is to eat at Disney Springs, and it’s absolutely as convenient for locals (for the latter, Disney Springs is probably less convenient).
The main result of this is restaurants at Disney Springs charging premium pricing…but with significantly less mark-up than in-park dining options. The secondary result is that Disney Springs restaurants must compete on quality. Cuisine-wise, Disney Springs is the epicenter of Walt Disney World’s culinary scene. (Sorry, World Showcase, but it’s not even close.)
Some of our favorite value options on the counter service front include Blaze Pizza, Chicken Guy, and 4 Rivers Cantina Barbacoa Food Truck (the last is by far the best). For table service, try Boathouse, Morimoto Asia, Homecomin’, STK (lunch or happy hour), and Raglan Road. Note that every single one of these restaurants has a lengthy menu, with prices that are all over the place. To save money, you’ll (obviously) want to order from the lower end of the price spectrum.
EAT: Hotel Food Courts – Similar idea here as with Disney Springs; hotel guests are less of a captive audience. You’ll find prices that tend to be a few dollars cheaper per entree, and quality that tends to be better.
The difficulty here is making dinner at a hotel food court work within the context of your schedule. This either means leaving the park (which wastes time) or doing a late dinner, which may not be feasible. Regardless, it’s something to consider.
EAT: Hidden Gems – When a restaurant at Walt Disney World becomes popular, its prices rise and quality generally falls. It’s a tale as old as time that can be witnessed in several restaurants, with Le Cellier being the most foremost example of this ‘dining arc.’
However, the converse is also true. When a restaurant is less popular, there’s less of a reason to raise prices. Some of the restaurants we enjoy that fit into this include Katsura Grill, Yak & Yeti Local Foods Cafe, and Backlot Express. We’ve also become Pecos Bill regulars, albeit for a different reason. (There, it’s all about that toppings bar!)
AVOID: Disney Dining Plan – I’ll just get this one right out of the way, as I know it’s the one with which many of you will disagree. Whether the Disney Dining Plan is a good way to budget, saves most people money, or offers good value for money is a series of debates that’ll never be resolved.
However, none of those are the pertinent question here. We’re asking: is the Disney Dining Plan the least-expensive way to eat at Walt Disney World? Reframing the issue should make it less contentious. Save for Free Dining (and even then, only in some cases), the Disney Dining Plan is undoubtedly not the cheapest way to dine at Walt Disney World. It may offer good value, budgeting, etc., but following the other tips here to “dine on a dime” will produce cheaper results.
With the tips here, you can do two counter service meals per day for $24 (or less). Add $6 to that per day cost for breakfast groceries and snacks. That brings us to $30, which might be a conservative number, but it’s still over $20 per day cheaper than the lowest tier of the Disney Dining Plan. Even if you splurge on both meals with ~$15 entrees, you’re still coming out ahead.
AVOID: Epcot Festivals – We enjoy the various special events at Epcot, but “fun” and “value” are not the same concept. It’s not really any secret that the food items at Epcot’s festivals offer poor value for money. In reviewing almost every booth at these festivals over the last few years, I’ve probably written some variant of the line, “a fair price by regular Walt Disney World food standards” fewer than a dozen times.
Without exception, you will be better off spending the same money on a comparably-priced counter service entree, rather than the 2-3 snacks that would buy you at the Epcot Food & Wine Festival, or any of the other events throughout the year.
AVOID: Signature Restaurants – Pretty straightforward. Walt Disney World’s most expensive restaurants are its ‘Signature’ options, which are altogether incompatible with dining on a dime. This isn’t to say you can’t scour the menu for good values, but you can do the same at cheaper restaurants with better results.
To that end, consider Sanaa, Sebastian’s Bistro, Three Bridges Bar & Grill, one of the aforementioned Disney Springs restaurants, or something in Swan & Dolphin if you want to splurge a bit. Our favorite for this, by a wide margin, is Sanaa.
AVOID: Sides & Soda – We’ve been harping on these two things for a while, so regular readers will probably have their eyes glaze over at this point. It’s worth reiterating that ice water is free, and you can get your caffeine fix by packing coffee packets and making your own. (I can’t remember the last time I bought soda at Walt Disney World.)
The other big one is ordering “entree only” at Walt Disney World restaurants. This still works at some locations, but is less and less common. I’m not sure if it’s because the button has actually been removed on cash registers at these restaurants, or if newer Cast Members just don’t know how to do it. Either way, our success rate on this one has dropped to ~20%.
AVOID: Snacks – This one pains me to write. Snacking is a big part of the Walt Disney World experience for us, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone swear off snacks entirely for the sake of a budget.
However, it is worth noting that most snacks don’t offer commensurate nutritiousness and ‘filling-ness’ for their cost. Basically, be weary of snack costs, target the ones under $5, and be judicious with your snack expenditures–but don’t give them up completely.
A good example here is cupcakes, which are now $6 at most locations around Walt Disney World. Years ago, Disney cupcakes developed a strong following and have largely rested on their laurels since, increasing in price as they’ve decreased in size and quality. You could totally swear off cupcakes at Walt Disney World in favor of cheaper, better snacks.
Do you agree or disagree with our advice? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!