Disney Dining Plan v. Paying Out of Pocket

Leah AlthiserDVC Owner Benefits, Vacation Planning Tips, Walt Disney World

Flame Tree Barbecue at Disney's Animal Kingdom

One of the questions I get asked most often about Disney World travel is “Should I get a dining plan?” I covered the basics of the Disney Dining Plans in my last post, so next I’ll address when it makes sense to purchase a dining plan, and when you’re better off paying out-of-pocket.

Flame Tree Barbecue at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Use a Quick Service Credit at Flame Tree Barbecue at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Who Benefits Most From the Dining Plan

The dining plans tend to work out better for some folks than others, depending on their style of vacationing and where they prefer to eat. Here are the keys points to consider to help you decide if a Dining Plan is a good fit. (NOTE: Please take these suggestions with a grain of salt! They are just overall guidelines to help you get a picture of who benefits most from using a Dining Plan.)

You should consider using the Dining Plan if you:

  • Want to eat at several Character Meals or buffets (These tend to be the most expensive out-of-pocket and represent the best value on the plan)
  • Have one or more “big eaters” in your party
  • Are planning a vacation at least 6 months in advance (though this definitely isn’t a make-or-break aspect)
  • Don’t mind making a touring plan (complete with dining reservations) and sticking to it
  • Are visiting during the Epcot Food & Wine Festival

You might want to avoid the Dining Plan if you:

  • Are a light eater (e.g. like to order an appetizer as your entrée)
  • Aren’t a planner
  • Don’t want to be bound to a schedule or touring plan
  • Want to eat at several Signature Restaurants
  • Are vegetarian or vegan (Though if you want to experience several buffets/character meals or eat some fish the dining plan still makes a lot of sense)
  • Are planning a vacation less than 6 months in the future
Disney Dining Character Meals

Character meals are often a good deal on the dining plan

The main factor that determines if you’ll get the full value of the plan is where you dine. Certain restaurants offer the best value on the plan because the are they most expensive out-of-pocket. However, be forewarned: these are also the most popular restaurants which means many of them are completely booked up as soon as the six-month window opens up. 

If you want to get the full value from the plans, you really should make dining reservations as early as possible, ideally the morning six months before your check-in date. I use this date calculator to find the day my dining window opens, and mark it in bold in my planner!

As a general guideline, I estimate that table service restaurants that cost over $40 per person per meal and quick service restaurants that cost around $20 per person per meal give the best return on your investment with the dining plan.  Since most buffets and character meals cost over $40 for adults, they tend to be a good value on the plan.

It is pretty difficult to get good value from the dining plan at Signature restaurants since they require two table service credits. You can get close at California Grill and Narcoossee’s (especially if you are after that lobster!), so keep that in mind when planning meals.

Food & Wine Disney Dining

Save your snack credits for Food & Wine Festival

You can get tremendous value from snack credits during the Epcot Food & Wine Festival because you can use a snack credit for most food items at the marketplace booths. Some items are upwards of $8 and can be purchased with just a snack credit. Changes to the dining plans for this year have added a second daily snack to the Quick Service and Disney Dining Plans, making the plans even more desirable during the festival. We like to save our snack credits and use them the eat our way around the festival at substantial savings!

Now let’s look at a few sample days on the dining plan to compare the cost of the dining plan vs. paying out-of-pocket.

Dining Plan vs. Out-of-Pocket Price Comparisons

Let’s compare what you would pay for the Disney Dining Plan versus out-of-pocket during a day at Epcot.

For breakfast, you use a snack credit to buy a pastry at your resort along with coffee from your refillable mug. You have lunch at Sunshine Seasons in The Land pavilion and enjoy a pressed Cuban sandwich, a fruit and cheese plate, and a fountain drink. For dinner you head to Akershus Royal Banquet Hall for an incredible three-course Norwegian meal with the princesses.

Here is a comparison of what it would cost out-of-pocket vs. on the dining plan:

  Dining Plan Out-of-Pocket Cost
Breakfast – Resort Food Court 1 Snack + refillable mug Pastry – $4.79
Coffee – $2.79
Lunch – Epcot’s Sunshine Seasons 1 Quick Service Credit + 1 Snack Pressed Cubano Sandwich – $13.49
Fountain Drink – $3.29
Fruit & Cheese Plate – $6.69
Dinner – Epcot’s Akershus Royal Banquet Hall 1 Table Service Credit Adult All-You-Care-to-Enjoy Meal – $55.37 (including tax)
Total Cost $69.35 $88.43

With this sample day, you would save $19.08 for one person on the dining plan. Keep in mind that Akershus Royal Banquet Hall is one of the priciest one table service credit restaurants at Disney World, so I wouldn’t expect to save this much every day. But if this is the type and quantity of food you would likely eat on vacation, then the dining plan might be a good fit for you!

Disney DIning - Sunshine Season

Sunshine Seasons in Epcot’s The Land pavilion

Here’s a day at Animal Kingdom to compare the dining plan versus paying out-of-pocket:

  Dining Plan Out-of-Pocket Cost
Breakfast – Resort + Creature Comforts (Starbucks) 2 Snacks + refillable mug Pastry – $4.79
Smoothie – $4.99
Coffee – $2.79
Lunch – Tusker House 1 Table Service Credit Adult Buffet – $45 (including tax)
Dinner – Flame Tree Barbecue 1 Quick Service Credit St. Louis Rib Dinner – $18.99
Mandarin Orange Lemonade – $3.99
Total Cost $69.35 $82.86

Today you’d save $13.51 with the dining plan and you’d eat some of my favorite food in all of Disney World. Again, this assumes eating at one of the most expensive quick service locations and dining at a character meal.

So overall, if these sample days represent how you generally like to eat on vacation, the Disney Dining Plan could work out very well for you! If you are looking to dine at a few Signature restaurants or aren’t that interested in buffets or character meals, you will likely be better off paying out-of-pocket.

Summary

Here’s a quick summary of my main points in these posts:

  • Disney Vacation Club owners and guests have the flexibility to add a dining plan to their stay without having to purchase park tickets.
  • Guests choose the dining plan for an “all-inclusive” vacation experience, to control their food budget, or to try out new dining experiences.
  • The standard Disney Dining Plan offers the best bang-for your-buck and I rarely recommend either the Quick Service or Deluxe plans.
  • You’ll need to plan your dining six months in advance to get the most out of the Dining Plan.
  • You’ll get the most of the plans if you are dining at several buffets or character meals.

I hope these posts helped you better understand the dining plans and who stands to benefit most from using them. Whether you choose to use a dining plan or not, you’re sure to enjoy some outstanding food on your next Disney vacation!




About the Author
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Leah Althiser

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Leah Crocker Althiser has more than 30 years experience planning visits to Walt Disney World. She shares tips and tricks for doing Disney on a budget on The Budget Mouse blog and podcast. She lives with her husband, daughter, and flock of chickens near Durham, North Carolina. View More Posts By Leah