Food is one of the biggest expenses of a Walt Disney World vacation, so eating on a budget can be difficult. Here we’ll share money-saving tips on recommended restaurants, what to eat & avoid, hacks for cutting your dining expenses, and ideas for “dining on a dime” at WDW. (Updated February 23, 2023.)
With the ‘Free’ Disney Dining Card Discount at Walt Disney World for Summer through Fall 2023, it’s a great time to revisit this list to think of ways to stretch those dining cards even further. These dining cards are not all-inclusive–not that regular Free Dining was, but most people got more food than they could possibly eat with it! You’re likely to have out of pocket dining expenses as a result if you don’t plan accordingly. With the advice here, you can reduce your Walt Disney World dining budget, spending less out of pocket as a result.
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 loosely 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 spreadsheets 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. Not only that, but visiting Walt Disney World is already complicated and stressful enough without introducing even more ‘rules’ and planning parameters to the mix. I understand others vehemently disagree, so to each their own. If you enjoy making spreadsheets, feel free to go nuts at it.
You can use the principles here to create the same kind of comprehensive lists that Disney Dining Plan diehards used to make when planning where–and what–to eat to maximize their value on that. Thankfully, the new Disney Dining Card promo is much more laid back and straightforward than that.
Second, we seldom 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 our List of Great Restaurants Near Walt Disney World 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: Hype-less 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 classic ‘dining downfall’ arc.
However, the converse is also true. When a restaurant is less popular, there’s less of a reason to raise prices. Not only that, but restaurants that are less popular generally have to try harder to attract and maintain an audience, and the culinary teams are given more freedom to experiment and try new things.
EAT: Groceries 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.
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, one of the aforementioned Disney Springs restaurants, or something in Swan & Dolphin if you want to splurge a bit. It’s also worth considering Three Bridges Bar & Grill or Toledo – Tapas, Steak & Seafood, two new restaurants at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort (the latter is the rooftop restaurant in Gran Destino Tower).
AVOID: Soda & Sides – 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 not spending extra on sides, or specifically ordering entrees that don’t come with them (pizza and salads, for example). Sides at counter service restaurants tend to be overpriced, meaning that you might pay an extra $5 for a small side of coleslaw or pickles. (Looking at you, Regal Eagle!)
This is also why we highly recommend doing grocery delivery and eating your daily servings of fruits and vegetables before even leaving your hotel room. Fruits and vegetables are important fuel, but they’re absurdly priced in restaurants and at snack stands throughout Walt Disney World. Also, there’s zero difference between oranges and carrots delivered to you by Walmart+ and those sold at Walt Disney World, save for the price. You’re not missing out on anything ‘fun’ by saving money on those.
AVOID: Overhyped Desserts – 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.
AVOID: Disney Dining Plan – Good news! It should be very easy to avoid the Disney Dining Plan in 2023, since it’s still not back. (See When Will the Disney Dining Plan Return?for our predicted timing of its comeback, as well as our rationale.)
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 $28 (or less). Add $7 to that per day cost for breakfast groceries and snacks. That brings us to $35, which might be a conservative number, but it’s still over $20 per day cheaper than the lowest tier of the Disney Dining Plan cost previously.
In a nutshell, that should explain how you can come out ahead by paying out of pocket for food and why it’s not the end of the world that the Disney Dining Plan still isn’t back. Who knows, after doing a vacation to Walt Disney World during which you pay as you go for meals, you may never want to return to the complex and convoluted Disney Dining Plan!
What’s your advice for saving money on food at Walt Disney World? Anything recommended here that you would not do? Anything you’d add to our list? 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!