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.

  • dsnygrl13

    We just got back from a trip and used the dining plan. For 3 adults eating at the nicer restaurants, we could never have afforded it without the dining plan. While this plan might not work well for families with children, we felt we got a great at every place we ate at.

    • Chris Wood

      Did you use the deluxe or the base? I haven’t tried the deluxe yet.

  • jcruise86

    Thanks, Chris!
    It’s great to have a really smart person actually thinking about something that Disney might not expect most CUSTOMERS (sorry, pixie-dust-eyed GUESTS) to think about.

    Remember the Green Grocer option! They can deliver food and beverages to most WDW hotels.

    • Chris Wood

      Wow, thanks a lot!

      We just used a grocery delivery service last time and it worked out really well. A nice savings.

  • daliseurat

    Yep. It a nice convenience, but no bargain. When it first came out you got 2 snacks, quick service meal (including drink and dessert) table service ( including appetizer, drink dessert) and all tax and tips were included. When I did the math for THAT version, using menus to plan how we would NORMALLY eat, the plan came out about even. A little bit of savings. But when I applied my strategy of eating everything offered and even took fruit as dessert at lunch and carried it for a snack it was a HUGE bargain. No wonder they changed it. Great deal if it’s free! It would still be okay if the tips were included, just not as big a bargain.

    • Chris Wood

      Yes, I’m not really getting the “save 20%.” I love it for the convenience, but that’s the main selling point for me. Also, I am afraid I would cheap out and cancel all my ADRs if they weren’t pre-paid. 😉

  • ahecht

    Even back in 2008, when the dining plans were significantly cheaper, we came out ahead by not using the dining plan.

    On our 10-day trip we ate breakfast in our hotel room most days to save time (bagels, cream cheese, lox, and PB&J that we brought with us), had 7 Table Service meals, 16 Counter Service meals, and about 6 snacks. We brought granola bars from home and we never purchased sodas (water is free and caffeine leads to dehydration in that sort of heat), although we did buy alcoholic drinks on 3 occasions. Including the price of the breakfast food and granola bars we purchased in advance, we spent about $30/person each day including tips.

    The “Quick Service Dining Plan” would’ve been $35/person each day but we would’ve had to skip the Table Service meals and alcohol or pay for them out of pocket. The Regular dining plan would’ve been $46+tips/person each day (probably around $51/person each day with tips) plus the price of alcohol. Either one would’ve been more expensive.

    I wouldn’t even take “free dining”, since you can’t combine it with other discounts. I’d rather get a percentage off the room (AAA or other discount) as cash in my pocket and buy my tickets from a reputable discount reseller.

  • BC_DisneyGeek

    You eat a lot more when you have the dining plan. Sure, if you have a free table service meal every day you might save compared to paying for such a meal each day, but would you have actually had such a meal every day if you didn’t have the dining plan?

    For many people, the answer is probably no. Without a dining plan, I might have a big meal every second or third day, so I’m definately spending less.

    For me the Dining Plan allows me to indulge in more meals than I would be able to otherwise, but I’ve only ever used it when it’s free. I can’t imagine paying for it.

    It’s also problematic if you spend any time offsite. Spend a day or two at other attractions and suddenly you’re struggling to use all your credits.

    I’d prefer a system where you decide how many days worth of dining plan you want to buy, and can use them over the course of your visit. For example, I visit WDW for ten days, but have the option to buy seven days worth of dining plan credits to use as I please over those ten days.

  • Mtnman

    I’m not sure I can understand the “convenience” argument. The dining plan takes away a lot of my choice during my trip as I have to eat one CS and one TS per day. I also have to get a dessert at both meals, I can’t get an appetizer at the TS meal. When I add up everything I’ve received, yeah it usually shows I broke even or possibly a small savings. The problem is that I would never have purchased all that food normally, so did I really “save” anything?

    I will agree that if you purposefully go to the most expensive TS locations, usually character buffets and such, you will at least save a bit, but this requires an extreme amount of eating. All of the times we have used the plan, we normally spend the last hours of our vacation looking for ways to use up a dozen leftover snack credits and I know we are not alone in this.

    Now that my oldest child is a “Disney Adult”, I don’t believe we will use the dining plan anymore. I prefer the ultimate convenience of ordering what, when, and where I want without adding on a bunch of useless TS desserts and tons of un-wanted snacks. The dining plan would cost my family of 5, $195.41 per day plus TS tips. Now, we can enjoy a nice TS meal for under $100 (pre-tip) easily at many, many places (we don’t need or want dessert for everyone at every meal). $40 for a lunch is also easily doable. This daily savings can offset more expensive days such as when we go to a character buffet, etc. Overall, I can get the same meals, more conveniently, and save money by paying myself rather than this plan. Oh yea, I can also eat some meals off property (Gasp!) and get better food for less $! 🙂

  • StevenW

    “One of the things that Disney has always done well is give you value for your money.”

    NO. This is Disney marketing telling you how much things cost and making you think you’re buying a bargain based on the package that you’re offering you. The true costs are hidden. It is all profit for them.

    Since you go to Disney so much, why not do an actual experiment? Do without the Dining Plan or the 7 day park hopper pass. Just get the most basic park pass and pay for all meals separately.

    Compare the costs paid and decide if this is worth the effort. Don’t compromise the perks you normally might like to do. If you really can’t do with the park hopper pass, then put it back. Go and eat at that Table Service Restaurant. Get that dessert and appetizer, but if you lose that desire in other meals, it is a plus.

    I happen to think spending less money at the parks is a good thing. The Dining Plan and Park Passes are largely expenses for a captive audience. They got your money. It’s up to you to spend it. Why not spend your money as you actually use it?

  • Tanthus

    Wow, based on what my family eats that would be the worst deal in history for us. Of course if they offered it for free we would use it since I never feel obligated to over eat just to use something that I’m not really paying for.

  • BostonMike

    Bought Plus Dining Plan one 2 week trip to WDW for a family of 3. Didn’t think it was worth the money. By the 2nd week we were sick of the same old quick service meals in the park. End of trip had 8 quick service meals. Went to Earl of Sandwich and made 8 people very happy – paid for their lunch. I enjoyed that more than the dining plan. Won’t be buying again.

  • MSVRider

    My friends and I just came back from Walt Disney World and did the Deluxe Meal plan. First of all, I’ll say none of us have children and, frankly, we are foodies. In that respect, I think it was the ultimate bargain. We were able to eat at Walt Disney World’s finest restaurants at a fraction of the cost that it would have been if we were to pay for everything individually. Even having to leave tip, it was still a tremendous bargain. What’s weird, though, is that you get less of a bargain if you use your meal at a quick service restaurant because you don’t get an appetizer.

    But, we ate BIG and we still had meal credits left toward the end of our stay. So, we converted them to snacks and bought candy and water and stuff for us to take home.

    I don’t think I would go to Walt Disney World without doing the Deluxe Meal plan.

  • KenziesMOM

    We do the Deluxe Dining. In 2010 we only scheduled 2 meals/day. Late breakfast, late lunch/early dinner w/snacks in between. We only reserved table service, character/signature dining. I think it would have worked out well and we would have been ahead or at least broke even if we hadn’t screwed ourselves out of the Hoopty Doo. Our flight was late leaving us barely enough time to make it, we got on the wrong boat, switched boats but got stuck in the lake waiting for a boat to leave the dock and something about fireworks. It was just a series of misadventures to start the trip off wrong. Our reservations were not moved to our dining plan, so they charged our credit card and we ended up with extra dining credits (we used them to feed our neighbors breakfast on departure day) It was a learning experience for sure. But I do think that if everything had gone right, we would have gotten our money’s worth.

  • KenziesMOM

    wanted to add that it was better when tips were included and when you could get coffee/juice and a drink with breakfast. Then I could just get a water to take to the parks.:)

  • tofubeast

    As a Florida resident, the Tables in Wonderland card always wins out over adding the dining plan. For DVC/AP/FL residents, I always recommend this card if going got 5 days or more in the year.

  • I’m not a big eater in the parks. It’s hard enough to make it through a day in the parks without a big heavy meal weighing you down. I really don’t think that the Disney World dining plan is a good deal. Especially if you like to eat like a normal person would. However, if you can get free dining with your vacation package, then this isn’t such a bad thing. Still, you’d probably be better off just eating what you really want to have and paying out of pocket. You are likely to order more sensible items and not always select a dessert. Your pocketbook and waistline will thank you for paying as you go.

    • Monorail Man

      I agree Dusty. What’s sad to me is how much quick-service has degraded in the parks, and I think it’s due to dining plan. Look at Disneyland, we have lots of unique Desert options, like the bumblebee cupcake at Hungry Bear, or the Pies at Flo’s. Yet, when I visit Disney World, the only desserts they seem to have are cookies, and those pre-packaged cakes with Mickey sprinkles on top. While it may be pre-paid under the dining plan, it’s really made the options at the resort go south. Do you really want one of those little cakes with each meal? Would you ever pay $3.50 for one? I don’t think so.

  • kkorod

    We haven’t used a dining plan in our last 4 or 5 trips as the expense and benefit keeps rising / lowering respectively. We were also spoiled the first time we purchased it when gratuity was included but you do find yourself reaching for things you normally wouldn’t including dessert at every meal. Because we’re visiting WDW at least twice in a span of a year, we decided to go with the Annual Pass and then Tables in Wonderland for dining. With the extra benefit of getting discounted full service meals for our family and another who will be travelling with us on the second trip, the math proved out Tables in Wonderland being the better value.

  • SpectroMan

    I’ve never paid for the Dining Plan and not sure I would. However, I do tend to schedule trips when Dining is free because it’s fun to not have to worry about any expenses for food. I do despise that they only include a dessert with no option to exchange it for an appetizer, side dish or perhaps an upgraded drink. That’s a huge criticism of mine; it doesn’t play well into America’s obesity problem, either.

    One thing I may pay for down the line is the cost to upgrade from regular to Deluxe dining. It’d be nice to be able to visit the premier locations on property instead of being confined to the “1 credit” ones for a change.

    • aggiemullins

      Last free DDP promotion they had, the bean counters wised up to people actually getting a decent deal and now won’t let you upgrade to the deluxe DDP anymore.

  • BrerSchultzy

    My family packs sandwiches for lunch, eats breakfast in the hotel, and gets quick service for dinner (without buying dessert). And yes, we get our snacks. Last year, we spent an average of $12 per day per person for food. This year, we did “Free” dining, which basically cost us $50 per day, since we couldn’t get a discount on the room. We ultimately spent about $100 more than we did our previous trip….but we sure did get a lot of food. We actually felt rich, because we could just get food whenever we wanted, without searching for the cash in our wallets. That said, I don’t think we’d ever buy the Dining plan, because it is way more than we would normally spend (almost $100 per day for our family).

    I think DDP is just another way for Disney to raise their prices, without letting you know they raised your prices.

  • haynesra

    Just got back from 6 day stay. We bought Annual Passes and the Table of Wonderland discount that includes food and drinks (including alcohol). First, Tables of Wonderland is not accepted everywhere but fairly large selection. When I added up the food and alcoholic drinks at table service meals with the 20% discount for Tables of Wonderland, it came to within 5 dollars (less) of what a the dinning plan would have cost.

    Long time WDW visitor, I agree with Chris’ assessment. Dining plan is only profitable if you go to a table service every night (use all your credits) and order the most expensive or more expensive items. Also, agree you tend to overeat on the dining plan – feel like you have to eat that desert to get your money worth.

    One final note, my family tends to like to get appetizers instead of deserts. Well on dining plan, we miss these because we want to “save room” for the “free” desert.