I know you’re busy. You’ve got meals to make and kids and pets to shuttle around and a job. Somewhere in between all that, you might even be planning a trip to Disney World.  So in the interest of saving you time, I’m just going to answer the question of whether or not you can beat the 2013 dining plan with a big fat “maybe.”  How’s that for ambiguous?  You might remember (just indulge me) that my first Park Wise article was on the benefits of the dining plan and I still stand behind the convenience of the plan, but the price increase for 2013 has me scratching my head. How am I supposed to save 20% when I’m paying so much more?

Here’s how the price breakdown for 2013 looks (non-holiday):

Quick-Service Plan, which includes two quick-service meals, one snack and one refillable mug.

  • Guests ages 10 and up:  $37.58 per each night of your stay.
  • Guests ages 3 – 9:  $14.32 per each night of your stay.

Base or Plus Dining Plan, which includes one table-service meal, one quick-service meal, one snack and a refillable mug:

  • Guests ages 10 and up:  $55.59 per each night of your stay.
  • Guests ages 3 – 9:  $17.16 per each night of your stay.

You’re paying roughly 5 to 8 percent more for the 2013 plan. Not a huge increase, but when you break it down, it’s easy to see that this increase makes it difficult to beat the plan, let alone save the supposed 20% on food. I check receipts at the end of each trip and while I have broken even, I have never saved 20%.

Talk a look at this typical day. Say you’re a guest on the base dining plan, so you’re playing $55.59 per night.  On one of your days you eat the American breakfast platter at Art of Animation’s Landscape of Flavors food court for $7.58.  You’ll pay for lunch out of pocket and then have dinner at Via Napoli, where a personal pizza, drink and dessert comes to $38.63. Since you know drinks are a bad use of your snack credits, you finish off the night with a $4.25 pretzel. Your total for the day, which includes taxes, is $50.41. Now, you have a refillable mug, but only you can decide if you’re going to drink more than $4 worth of soda. If you’re spending time at your resort, you just might, but if you’re gone all day or if your quick-service location is too far from your room, how much use will you get out of your mug?

As you can see, it’s hard to break even on the plan, let alone save money.  One way to save is to pay out of pocket for breakfast and eat lunch (or dinner) with your quick-service credit, where you’ll rarely get a meal for less than $12.  Just doing that in the same scenario above, you would break even.  Add just about any character meal, which come in at around $40, and you’ll come out ahead.

What this tells you is that in order to not lose money on the plan, you’ll need to always be searching for a way to use your credits at the most expensive restaurants and then, you’ll  need to order the most expensive items on the menu.  I was talking to a Disney podcaster last night and he mentioned that a lot of times when he’s on the plan, he orders things he wouldn’t normally order because he likes a bargain. So if you’re on the dining plan and you’re eating at 50s Prime Time Cafe and you find yourself drawn to the $14.99 meatloaf but you order the $19.99 sampler platter instead, you’re not alone. There’s a compulsion on this plan to order the most expensive thing, and sometimes that’s a good thing: Obviously if you want the steak but you’re on a chicken budget, the plan lets you do that. But when you’re stuffing yourself and then forcing yourself to eat two bites of those delicious S’mores because the dessert is already paid for, you might have to question the benefit of the plan.

Get Park Wise: You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the quick-service plan and there’s a good reason for it. It’s not a good deal. Even ordering the most expensive items available, you can’t break even. This is the case where the House Mouse always wins.  Unless you get it for free, skip it.

I’m in the parks a good 30 days a year and I use the dining plan on about half those trips and I don’t believe, based on my experience, that you’ll save 20%.  Having just read that, you  might be questioning why I keep adding the dining plan. For me, it’s about convenience. It’s about not thinking about what I’m spending at that point. I don’t use the plan on adult-only “research” trips, but when I’m with the kids, it’s nice to not worry about my five-year old son ordering a steak that he might not finish. Yes, I’m paying for it one way or the other, but somehow this softens the blow of that big check at the end of a meal.

Get Park Wise: The convenience of the dining plan is like a big psychological pacifier for grown ups. It’s kind of like charging items to your room, where the amount of money you’re spending is out of sight and out of mind, at least until the end of your trip.  If you don’t need that but you still want to pay ahead for your meals, take the same amount of money you would have spent on the plan and put it on a pre-paid card. Works the same way and you might have money left over at the end of your trip.

One of the things that Disney has always done well is give you value for your money. At $367.43, the price of a 7-day park hopper is a bit shocking at first, but when you consider that it gives you unlimited access to four of the best theme parks in the world (I’m trying hard not to let my bias show here) for an entire week, it starts to seem like a bargain.  But when I can do the math and see that it’s actually quite difficult to break even on the dining plan, that’s when I start to question whether or not I can justify buying it myself or recommending it to others. And the price increase for 2013 may have just made that harder to do.

I’m always curious to hear about what others think about the plan. Do you ever use the plan and would you recommend it to others?  Does the increase for 2013 make you think twice about purchasing it? Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comments.