Most self-respecting Disney budget blogs will tell you the Disney Dining Plan is not a savings. If you plan to stay in a condo with a kitchen and cook meals in-house, pack peanut butter sandwiches for the parks, and eat at quick-service restaurants only, they’re right. But while the plan may not give you a lower bottom line while enjoying the parks, we believe it does add to your overall value, especially if you’re already staying on-site in a Disney resort. This is why you should get the Disney Dining Plan…even if it doesn’t save you money.
Let’s break the Disney Dining Plan down (henceforth to be known as the DDP):
To get it, you need to have purchased a Magic Your Way vacation package, which is the first strike against it in the eyes of a budget vacationer. Packages are often more expensive than booking your vacation a la carte. However, with Disney, this is not always the case. If you’re staying in a Disney hotel, and booked your stay for at least 5-7 days, most likely a package is the best deal.
You can add one of several DDPs to your package. The cheapest is going to be the Quick-Service Dining Plan. Sounds good, right? Skip it. It only includes two meals per day, and doesn’t include any of the character dining or table service restaurants, which is where the value of the DDP comes into play (and remember, you’re staying on-site and don’t have a kitchen to cook that last meal).
The next option is the standard DDP. It includes 1 quick service and 1 table service meal per person, per day, plus 1 snack each. Table service meals can be redeemed at character dining. You can add signature dining, but it will ‘cost’ you two table service points. This is a nice option, but remember, you’ll still be on your own for one meal per day. We find this plan to be the sweet spot, and simply buy some breakfast items to eat in the room.
You can also upgrade to a deluxe (3 meals per person per day), premium, or platinum plan, which give you more in the signature dining area, but the costs outweigh the value, unless your prime reason for being in Disney is to dine.
Prices for any plan depend on the number of days and ages of people in your party. Calculate it all here.
Now that you know what the DDP includes, how do you use it to the top value?
- Use the DDP to take park breaks. Leave the park, hop on the monorail, and enjoy a more relaxed meal in a Disney resort. This gives you a chance to see the inside of some of the deluxe resorts without staying there, and gives your family a breather from the theme parks. Our favorite picks: Ohana at Polynesian Resort and Whispering Canyon at Wilderness Lodge (take the boat over!) For a quieter meal, opt for 1900 Park Fare when it’s not a character dining time period.
- Use the DDP to enjoy affordable character meals. The first time I booked a character meal at Disney without the DDP, I almost fainted when I got the bill. Are you kidding me, Disney? But with the DDP, you feel like you’re getting a downright deal. Our favorite tip: book a character meal in your favorite park before park opening. Once you’ve eaten, you’ll enter the park ahead of the wave of crowds.
- Use to DDP to curb kids from whining for snacks. Snacking is where I get really worn out at Disney. I just get so tired of watching the budget (disappear) and saying no. When we have the DDP, each kid (and grown up) gets one snack per day. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it goes a long way toward morale. Toss granola bars in your backpack for those other 2,000 times per day people want snacks.
- Use DDP to truly experience all of the Disney magic. There’s something so wonderful about taking a tired, sweaty family and bypassing a long counter-service line in favor of sitting down in air-conditioned bliss. The first example that comes to mind: the day we were touring Epcot World Showcase, were practically at the end of our ability to walk/talk/be civil, and ducked into the sanctuary of Le Cellier for an elegant family meal. Everyone was in heaven. Ditto for stepping into Tusker House in Animal Kingdom or Ohana to watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks.
- Use DDP to have an amazing meal out. If you have babysitting services, use your DDP to have a signature meal out with your significant other. If not, spurge on a dinner show (our favorite is Hoop Dee Doo Revue). It’s already built into your plan, and using this option truly feels like you’ve unlocked a new ‘level’ of Disney.
But wait, you’re not done!
Now that you’ve decided which plan is best, swallowed the cost of it, and know how to use it to enhance your trip, you need to make Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs). At Disney World, this is easier than ever, and at Disneyland Resort, it’s also cut-and-dried. Make ADRs six months in advance, and use this FAQ to get started.
Once you’re at Disney, each receipt you receive from a Disney Cast Member when buying meals will show your DDP balance. All participating restaurants are listed and have a DDP symbol (but don’t worry…it’s just about every restaurant).