Why Disney World Dining Plans Should Be on the Menu

Eating at Disney World can be expensive, but dining plans can help, as this editor learned on his family trip to Orlando.

About three years ago when my wife, Jamie, and I wanted to take our daughter, Abigail, to Walt Disney World for her fifth birthday, we were prepared to spend a small fortune. It had been decades since the last time I went, and I remembered the expense then, so I could only image what contemporary prices would be.

We were pleasantly surprised, however, to find out that you can go through the Disney website and plan your trip more than a year in advance After you plan your trip, you get a total (ours was just less than $2,000 for four days and three nights with three Park Hopper passes for all the Disney theme parks), and you have until two weeks before your arrival to pay it off. How cool: You can put a Disney vacation on layaway! One of our best decisions was the Dining Plan. When you purchase the Disney Your Way package, you can add a Dining Plan (gratuities not included) and make restaurant reservations up to 180 days out. I cannot stress enough the importance of reservations, especially if you plan to go to any of the character meals, during which Disney's best-known characters show up to mingle.

Disney is in the business of making dreams come true, and for a fifth birthday, character meals do just that. The experience with the characters is worth way more than the price of the meal. Abigail wore a badge with her name and the fact that it was her birthday. All the human, speaking characters told her, "Happy birthday, Princess Abigail." Nonspeaking characters in full costume (Mickey, Minnie and such) pointed to her badge and gave her a high-five.

Abigail Turner, dressed as Cinderella, meets Prince Charming at 1900 Park Fare, which was part of the Disney Dining Plan. (©Dustin Turner)

We spent about $400 for the Standard Dining Plan, and it was more than worth it—in memories, if nothing else. All the food was fantastic, and servers everywhere knew exactly what was on the plan and what was not. You are not limited to just Dining Plan items, of course. You can always purchase additional merchandise out-of-pocket. Our first meal—the buffet at Chef Mickey's—would have cost us more than $100 but was included on our Dining Plan. There, to the delight of our daughter, we met Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck and Goofy. Between the characters and the delicious buffet—which even had a lower counter with kid-friendly food  for children—Abigail was in pure Disney heaven. At 1900 Park Fare—another $100 buffet—Abigail's eyes lit up when Cinderella and Prince Charming entered the room. Another memory worth more than the cost of the meal. It has been more than three years, and Abigail still has her autograph book that has a picture of her with each character next to that character's signature.

How does the Disney World Dining Plan work?

A Dining Plan must be purchased as part of a Magic Your Way package, which includes your Disney hotel stay (from $80/night budget resorts to $400/night premium resorts), theme-park tickets (which include free parking, usually $15 per theme park) and the Dining Plan. Plans cannot be purchased outside of the package, but you are not obligated to buy a Dining Plan as part of the package.

With the standard Dining Plan, each guest in your party (ages 3 and up) receives per day: one table-service meal (an entree, nonalcoholic drink and dessert or full buffet); one quick-service meal (entree or combo meal, nonalcoholic drink and dessert); one snack (ice cream, popcorn, fruit bar, fountain soft drink, etc.) and one drink mug that can be refilled at your resort as often as you want. More options are offered on the Deluxe and Premium Dining Plans, which, of course, cost more.

You don't have to use each item each day. On our last day, we had hardly used our snack credits, so we stocked up on the way out for the drive home.

Looking back, I should have kept track of the cost of each food item we got through the Dining Plan and compared it to the cost of the plan. I'll never know whether we would have spent less out-of-pocket, but I suspect that you save money with the Dining Plan. Even if you don't, the convenience of having those meals and snacks paid for in advance was well worth it. Our entire trip was paid off before we left, and we spent less than $700 over four days, including gas and meals on the seven-hour drive each way, gratuities, souvenirs and other odds and ends.

The Disney Food Blog breaks down the dining plans nicely. Disney's official Dining Plans website also breaks down each plan and tells which restaurants are accepted on the plan and how meal credits are used. When we went, we were given what looked like a credit card that was our room key, theme-park tickets, dining card and shopping card (it is linked to your credit card). When you would normally pay for your meal, just give the cashier your Key to the World Card, and the meal credits are deducted from the Dining Plan. Your receipt shows what has been used and what is left. These days, though, the cards have been replaced by bracelets that you just hold up to a scanner.

Some buffet tables at Chef Mickey's are low enough for children to use. (Matt Stroshane/Disney)

How much is the Disney Dining Plan?

Quick-Service Dining Plan

  • $39.64 per night ages 10 and up (no seasonal pricing
  • $15.75 per night age 3 to 9 (no seasonal pricing)
  • (Increase from earlier 2013 pricing of $37.58 and $14.32)

Standard Dining Plan

  • $58.66 per night ages 10 and up (may be a dollar or so lower depending on season)
  • $18.88-$20 per night age 3 to 9 (depending on season)
  • (Increase from earlier 2013 pricing of $51.54 and $15.02 during standard seasons and $56.94 and $18.16 in peak seasons)

Deluxe Dining Plan

  • $102.94-$104 per night ages 10 and up (depending on season)
  • $28-$29.51 per night ages 3 to 9 (depending on season)
  • (Increase from earlier 2013 pricing of $99.97 and $26.84 during standard seasons and $102.27 and $28.91 in peak seasons)

Premium Dining Plan (year round)

  • $189 per night ages 10 and up
  • $139 per night ages 3 to 9

Platinum Dining Plan (year round)

  • $249 per night ages 10 and up
  • $179.01 per night ages 3 to 9

All prices current as of July 17, 2015.