Disney's Dining Plan

by Steve Russo, staff writer

I’ve procrastinated long enough. As much as I have tried to avoid opening what is sure to be a can of worms, it’s time to lake a look at the Disney Dining Plan. It’s at the forefront of a lot of conversation; some people love, it while others run the gamut from neutrality to downright hatred. Not that anyone is against the Dining Plan per se, but its popularity has led to many full dining rooms which, in turn, has forced many people to plan and arrange their dining reservations much earlier than they ever had previously. As I’ve said many times, do any of us know where we’ll be, when we’ll be hungry and what we’ll want to eat… 180 days in advance? I didn’t think so.

Before we get into any analysis, let’s take a quick look at what the plan is and what it costs. Essentially, the Magic Your Way Disney Dining Plan is available as part of a package that includes your resort room, dining and admission media. At its heart, it was, and is today, a plan that allows the guest(s) to pre-pay for most or all meals and not have to concern themselves with paying as they go. On the surface, that’s a terrific convenience—particularly for larger groups or families. Multiple families dining together don’t have to worry about divvying up checks and the like.

Initially, the Dining Plan was only available as part of a Magic Your Way package so, guests staying on a Disney Vacation Club (DVC) reservation were excluded from participating. Also left out were those Annual Passholders that preferred booking room-only reservations to take advantage of Passholder discounts that might be available. In short order, Disney rectified both situations by establishing a daily price for the Dining Plan that could be used by anyone, leaving us where we are today; the Plan is now available as part of a Magic Your Way package or as an add-on to a room reservation made using cash or DVC points.

Here are the announced prices for the 2009 Plan (prices include tax but are exclusive of gratuity):

Dining Plan

Daily cost per adult

Daily cost per child

Quick Service Dining Plan
Dining Plan
Deluxe Dining Plan
Premium Dining Plan
Platinum Dining Plan

In addition to the above, there is also a Wine and Dine add-on package for an additional $39.99 per night. This package entitles you to one bottle of wine per night, redeemable at table service restaurants during your stay.

Before we get into the specifics of what each package contains, let’s take a quick look at a few terms that are used and their meanings:

  • Quick Service Meal – is a meal from a counter service establishment like Pecos Bill’s in the Magic Kingdom or the Electric Umbrella at Epcot. Within the Dining Plans, this meal would include an entrée, dessert and a soft drink.
  • Table Service Meal – is just that; a meal from a traditional restaurant (service from a waitperson) or a buffet. This meal also includes entrée, dessert and soft drink. There are a certain few “upscale” establishments that would require two table service credits for a single meal. An example would be the California Grill at the Contemporary.
  • Snacks – may typically be purchased from counter service locations, kiosks or carts throught Walt Disney World parks and resorts. Some examples of eligible snack options would include: a frozen ice-cream, a fruit bar, a box of popcorn, a 20 oz. bottle of Coke or a 20 oz. bottle of water.
  • Refillable Drink Mug –is available, for cash, from each Disney World resort. The current price is $12.49 and it allows you to refill it, free of charge, at identified soft drink locations at your resort for the length of this stay.

How do the different plans work? Here’s a quick breakdown of the various packages’ highlights:

Quick Service Dining Plan

The Disney Quick Service Dining Plan is the newest plan and includes two quick service meals and two snacks per person, per night of your package stay for everyone in the party ages 3 and over. The plan also includes one refillable drink mug per person.

Dining Plan

The Disney Dining Plan includes one quick service meal, one snack, and one table service meal per person, per night of your package stay for everyone in the party ages 3 and over.

Deluxe Dining Plan

The Disney Deluxe Dining Plan includes three table service meals and two snacks per person, per night of your package stay for everyone in the party ages 3 and over. The plan also includes one refill¬able drink mug per person.

Premium Dining Plan

The Disney Premium Plan offers a complement of dining, recreation, and entertainment options. Each guest on the Disney Premium Plan receives one table service breakfast, lunch and dinner and two snacks per day. The plan also includes one refillable drink mug per person. In addition to these dining options, this plan also provides the following entertainment opportunities: preferred fireworks viewing for Wishes and Illuminations; unlimited golf, boat rental, fishing excursions; admission to Cirque du Soleil’s show, La Nouba; access to Disney Children’s Activities Centers; admission to a number of Disney’s theme park tours.

Platinum Dining Plan

This package includes everything in the Premium package plus: personalized pre-arrival itinerary planning; a fireworks cruise; private in-room babysitting; nightly turn down service; a spa Treatment; and a Disney Photopass CD.

Phew! Got all that? I know it’s a lot of information to digest.

So… the question I hear most often is, “Is the Dining Plan worth it?” As you can see from the laundry list of options, above, it’s not an easy answer. Periodically, during the slowest seasons (typically April and September), Disney will offer the Dining Plan free to guests. That offer is only if you partake of the Magic Your Way package, paying rack rate for your room and including admissions as part of the package. Nevertheless, free is free and I’d have to say that when it’s free… it’s worth it!

Please keep in mind, however, that this is much like the stock market in that past performance is not an indicator of future success. Because it has been offered in the past, many people are counting on it—even making Advanced Dining Reservations (ADR) in advance. There is no guarantee that a free Dining Plan will be offered from one season to the next.

If we try to analyze each of these plans, this column will end up being the size of a Tolstoy work, so, for now, let’s just stick with the newest one: the Quick Service plan. In a future column, we’ll look more closely at the full Dining Plan and a few of the others.

For the purpose of our analysis, I don’t think it’s necessary to plot a typical trip (7 days) for a typical family (mom, dad, a teen, a tween and a baby). Let’s just look at a single day for a single adult and we can form our opinions from there.

The cost of a single day of the Quick Service Dining Plan is $29.99. I’m not good with pennies so let’s call that $30. For that, I’m getting two counter service meals, two snacks and a refillable resort mug (Darnit! The mug needs to be amortized over the length of your stay to make our analysis of a single day work. OK, the cost of a mug is $12.49 and the average stay is 7 days so the cost per day is… carry the 1… a nice, round $1.78428571428571. Double darnit! Let’s call it $1.80).

OK, where were we? The cost of a counter service meal doesn’t vary considerably across property and, considering we’re doing this analysis for Joe Average, let’s just assume Joe goes to Pecos Bill’s for a Bacon Double Cheeseburger ($7.59), a Peanut Butter Brownie Mousse ($3.59) and, naturally, a Diet Coke ($2.39). That comes to a whopping $14.45 after tax. For dinner, Joe is at Epcot and visits the Liberty Inn for a Chicken Sandwich ($6.49), Apple Cobbler ($3.49) and another Diet Coke. This one, after tax, comes to $13.17. Add in two snacks, say a bottle of water and a pretzel in Germany ($5.63), and the $1.80 for the mug and… surprise! Our total is $35.05. And it only costs $30?  Disney is giving this stuff away. How do they do it?

Here’s a theory: I’ve often heard of people on the Dining Plan reaching the end of their stay and still having unused dining credits available. There have been stories of folks offering to pay for lunches and/or snacks for total strangers on their last day just to use their remaining credits. And probably more cases of people just letting those unused credits lapse.

However, if you do get every meal and every snack, wouldn’t Disney be losing money? Hardly. While getting $35 worth of food for $30 may be a good deal for you, it’s hardly a bad deal for Disney. Let’s not forget that it cost them about $.06 for that Diet Coke that retails for $2.39. I’m reasonably certain there’s some overhead built into that $7 cheeseburger as well. And they do make a lot back when your credits go unused, so let’s not feel too sorry for Disney.

Why else would they be offering such a great deal on food? The answer is simple. If you want to take advantage of the Plan, you’re going to have all your meals on property, giving you absolutely no reason to leave the confines of Disney to spend any money elsewhere. That other money might be spent on things like cocktails or souvenirs, and you’ll gladly spend that at Disney World because of the great deal you’re getting on food.

So can we conclude that the Quick Service Dining Plan is a great deal for the customer? Not so fast. Here comes the real kicker, in my not-so-humble opinion. If you weren’t on the Plan, would you have eaten as much? Would you have ordered a dessert with lunch and dinner every day? Would you have two snacks every day? My answer is an emphatic “No." I typically don’t order dessert with lunch—it’s rare when I order dessert with dinner. And, frankly, the desserts offered at the counter service establishments aren’t all that great anyway. I may have a pretzel and bottle of water a couple of times during a week’s stay—but not every day. I’d venture that most people, if dining only counter service for a trip, would spend something less than $30 per day on those two meals plus snacks.

“What about the refillable mug?” you ask. Is that really a good deal? I can remember the days when we’d each get one, and I’d make that early morning walk to Old Port Royale to bring back coffees and chocolate milks. It would have been nice to bring them with us for breakfast but, we would then have to return to the room to store them before heading to a park; or bring them with us and carry them around all day. And, to be honest, I always felt that their capacity wasn’t enough to make them useful for soft drinks—with ice, they just didn’t hold enough liquid. To me, their value is almost exclusively as a souvenir unless you spend a lot of time in your resort’s food court.

So where does that leave us? Is the Quick Service Dining Plan a good deal? It depends (that doesn’t surprise you, does it?). If the details of the plan are to your liking, you can save some money. If it will force you to eat more, or differently, than you would like, you may want to avoid it.

Here’s one other possibility that comes to mind, under the heading of “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you." You know that free Dining Plan that has been offered twice per year over the last several years? Suppose, if you will, that they stop offering it and offer the Quick Service plan instead. Then, with a free Quick Service plan, Disney will allow you to upgrade to the Dining Plan for the difference in price which is only $10. From your standpoint, you’re swapping counter service for table service for only $10. Better put, you’re giving up that cheeseburger at Pecos Bill’s and dining on Le Cellier’s Mushroom Filet Mignon with wild mushroom risotto, white truffle and herb butter sauce for only ten bucks! From Disney’s vantage point, you just paid them $10 for something that they had been previously giving away—free.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the other Dining Plan options to see how they stack up.

That’s my opinion. What’s yours?