Don’t Be Dopey: Here’s How to Get the Most Out of Your Disney Dining Plan
Most families roll up to the gates of Magic Kingdom dreaming of Mickey hugs and Space Mountain thrills. My family blows right past Snow White on a quest for cheeseburger spring rolls and Dole Whips. It’s all the pixie dust we need.
To transform the Manhattan-sized property into a playground for your taste buds, Walt Disney World has developed the Disney Dining Plan. The plan proposes to save you time and money as you eat your way around the World, and most people claim they can at least break even.
I’ve broken down the price of the Standard Disney Dining Plan to see how much you’ll save over buying food and drink outright — and I’ve added 10 years of my own Disney Dining Plan hacks to help you get the most out of your meals with Mickey.
Get to Know the Standard Dining Plan
Guests who stay at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel are eligible to purchase a Disney Dining Plan. The plans provide a certain number of credits to each person in the resort room. These credits can be redeemed at over 200 table and counter service restaurants across the parks and resorts. There are a few different dining plans: Quick Service, Standard and Deluxe.
The Quick-Service Dining Plan includes only fast food-style counter service meals, and the Deluxe Dining Plan comes at a premium price and includes extras like wine and more than one table service meal every day.
We’ll be looking at the Standard Dining Plan, which includes both counter service and table service meals.
2018 Standard Disney Dining Plan Cost-Per-Night:
Children 3 to 9: $25.80
For each night of your stay, the 2018 Standard Dining Plan includes:
- 1 table-service meal credit: includes entree, nonalcoholic beverage and dessert; or buffet.
- 1 quick-service meal credit: includes entree with beverage.
- 2 snacks.
- 16-ounce souvenir mug, refillable at all resort beverage stations.
Note that your dining credits are for each night of your stay, not each day. This will come into play for our strategy later. In the meantime, let’s see how to get the most out of that refillable mug.
Your Mug Runneth Over
The refillable mug bundled into the price of your Disney Dining Plan retails for $18.99, but it’s actually worth so much more — if you do it right.
For a six-night stay, this mug averages out to a cost of $3.16 per day.
Fountain beverages average about $3.99 (price varies per location) per 16 ounces, so you’re already saving on that first drink. But don’t just snag a pop with dinner. If you grab coffee in the morning, a soda in the afternoon and hot chocolate in the evening, your mug is worth $11.97 in drinks on the first day of your stay.
In fact, the high-tech chip on the bottom of the mug will allow you to fill that bad boy for free every two minutes. (Please don’t drink a sweet tea every two minutes.)
The mugs are not usable in the parks but are usable across the 30 Walt Disney World resorts — not only the one you’re staying in.
When my husband and I heard of this fantastic tomfoolery, our eyes met and it clicked. With gleeful smiles, we remembered we had packed our own plastic bottle of rum in our luggage. Yep, that’s right, parents. If you pack in your own booze, the rum and Cokes at Disney resorts are close to free.
That’s about $7 per drink saved over visiting the bar, not including the tip. But drink responsibly, Penny Hoarders. You can’t bring alcohol into the parks, and if you’ve saved over $40 with this tip today, go back to your room and watch Dumbo for some pink elephant life lessons. No one likes a Disney lush.
A buffet sounds like a great way to use a table service credit, right? But not all buffets at Walt Disney World provide the same value. Here are a few that are your best bets and book up fast. I recommend making reservations for these months in advance of your trip.
Dinner at Whispering Canyon Cafe, $51 value: Yee-haw! The servers at this rootin’ tootin’ Wilderness Lodge Resort restaurant double as entertainers, and you’ll likely experience a napkin shower or two. Li’l cowpokes could be led through a parade and even ride a wooden horse through the restaurant.
The all-you-care-to-enjoy skillet ($33.00 for adults for now, $35.15 starting December 16, 2018) on the menu has barbequed favorites and down-home sides. Order the bottomless milkshakes ($9.00) and the Granny Smith caramel apple tart with gelato ($9.00) to maximize your value.
Breakfast at Ohana ($40.47 adult, $24.50 child): Located at Disney’s Polynesian Resort, your luau morning begins with Mickey, Stitch and friends coming right to your table for photos and hugs. To start your day off with some extra magic, cast members will conduct a Hawaiian parade with the kids.
The all-you-care-to-enjoy breakfast of eggs, sausage, Mickey waffles and more is served in a large pan in the middle of the table and continuously refilled by your server. You’ll have a view of Cinderella’s Castle across the Seven Seas Lagoon as you dine, and the monorail can take your full bellies straight to the Magic Kingdom.
Dinner at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot ($64.97 adult, $39.41 child): Your vacation dollar often comes down to time well spent, and character greeting lines can eat into your time at Disney. Let the princesses come to you.
At Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, Belle will give your little princess a royal greeting at the door, offering a special photo opportunity and some time to chat about the royal life. Up to five princesses will later come right to your table for photos and then lead the kids in a royal parade.
The meal includes access to a traditional all-you-care-to-eat Norwegian cold bar (unlimited smoked salmon, anyone?), then your choice of an entree (like “Tradisjonell Kjøttkake“ traditional Norwegian meatballs) and a dessert platter for the table to share.
Dinner at Cape May Cafe ($55.38 adult, $30.89 child): This seaside-themed restaurant at Disney’s Beach Club Resort is a seafood lover’s dream. No protocol, parades or waiting here — just hit the buffet until you can’t.
Grab crab legs by the bucket and eat all the mussels, clams and salmon you can handle. Since seafood typically comes at a premium, the value here is particularly delicious.
Don’t Go Signature. Unless…
Dinner shows, private dining and some upscale “signature” restaurants require two table service credits per meal.
Most character meals and buffets use one table service credit, so there’s no need to go signature unless you’d like to splurge for something extra special, like dining with Cinderella in her castle.
One consideration for signature dining and meal credit splurging: Do you have extra credits?
Remember, the dining plan gives a credit for each night of your stay. The credits don’t expire after the night is over, so you’re likely to have some left over from the day you arrived.
To get the most out of your first night’s meal credits, the standard advice is to arrive on Disney property early. But let’s get real; most of us aren’t arranging our flight plans around making it to lunch.
The silver lining to an afternoon or evening arrival is that you’ve created a surplus of credits to eat like a king during your stay. The value of the extra credits is negligible because you didn’t have time in the morning or afternoon to use them on your arrival day anyway. Allot those extra credits to meal experiences that cost two table service credits.
Often, guests realize only on the last day that they have extra credits to spend and end up leaving with 20 Mickey rice cake treats in their suitcase. Be sure to check your receipt after every meal transaction to keep tabs on your credits.
Don’t Get Breakfast
A Mickey-shaped waffle may be on your list of Disney food goals, but it’s better to pay out of pocket for the pleasure. Breakfast is by far the cheapest meal of the day across Disney parks and resorts, so your dining credits are best reserved for lunch and dinner.
The parks typically open at 9 a.m., so a quick bite in the room is the most cost- and time-efficient solution for families eager to make the most of their ticket price. Microwaveable breakfast options can be packed in your luggage or scored via a local delivery service. You can even use the in-room coffee maker to pipe out hot water for instant oatmeal.
My only exception to this rule is the absolutely magical all-you-can-eat character buffet at the previously mentioned Ohana. It can get some character greetings out of the way for the day, helping you to avoid those long lines at Magic Kingdom. This is a good trade-off to maximize your park ticket price.
Skip the Soda at Counter-Service Locations
This is a little-known dining plan hack that could really pack your bag with portable munchies. At most quick service locations, you can swap your beverage out for a snack-type item or bottled water.
Quick service restaurants with a fountain beverage station offer free cups of water, so there’s really no need to use the beverage portion of your quick service credits.
“Snack” category items are labeled as such on the menu and include everything from soup to fries to cheesecake. Swap them for wrapped treats to stash in your bag for munching on during parades or waiting for the fireworks.
If someone in your group just isn’t that hungry when you stop to eat, swap your beverage for a hearty side item like chili or fries for them to munch on — you’ve just saved their quick service credit for later.
This strategy can also increase the value of your credits every time you skip a sugary drink. For example, it’s possible to swap a $3.99 soda at Pinocchio’s Village Haus for $4.99 breadsticks.
Swap for Snack Credits
At a quick service location, you can ask the cashier to swap one quick service credit for three snack credits. This is especially handy during the fall Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, where pop-up kiosks around World Showcase allow you to sample tastes from around the globe.
Some food and wine festival items have a higher ticket price but are still available as snack credits. Shoot for anything over $5 to maximize your value.
My go-to is the lobster roll at a booth near the American Adventure Pavilion which retails for $7.75, making it one of the best uses of a snack credit. The escargot croissant at the France pavilion is priced at $5.75, and the croissant doughnut with chocolate hazelnut cream near Test Track hikes your snack credit up to a $6.50 value.
Use Snack Credits for Souvenirs
Did you know that the wrapped Mickey-shaped rice cakes in the souvenir shop count as a snack credit? So do the Chip ’n’ Dale trail mix packs, sleeves of Disney cookies and the new gourmet Mickey chocolate bars in flavors like strawberry truffle or key lime pie. Look for any snack marked with the Disney Dining Plan snack icon.
If you have people back home to buy souvenirs for, consider using a snack credit to appease their Disney needs. You’ll likely have a few snack credits left over at the end of the trip, and these treats are as exclusive to Walt Disney World as any other (likely pricier) souvenir.
So How Much Can You Save?
For our example of an adult on the standard Disney Dining Plan ($75.49), here is a day of maximizing your value:
- Quick Service Credit: Lunch at Pinocchio’s Village Haus: Chicken parmesan pasta, $12.99 and swapped fountain drink for a side of breadsticks, $4.99.
- Table Service Credit: All-you-care-to-enjoy dinner at Whispering Canyon Cafe with bottomless milkshake and dessert: $51.
- Snacks: Dole Whip float for $5.99; funnel cake with powdered sugar at $6.99.
- Refillable Mug: Coffee in the morning and a soda in the evening for about $8.
Total Value: $89.96
In this example, you’ve already exceeded the day’s food plan cost by $14.47. This is excluding extra savings like only visiting the most valuable meal options I listed above, using your refillable mug more than twice a day and mixing your own adult drinks.
But you don’t have to spend your vacation tallying up the numbers. The reason many people get a Disney Dining Plan is so they can relax; like a cruise, the food is paid for upfront.
Just try to beat the average meal value every time, swap those sodas for packaged snacks and use the refillable mug as much as you can. I promise you’ll go home with far too many Mickey-shaped rice crispy treats.
Rain Blanken (@RainLovesDisney) is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder. She is a former Disney Vacation Planner, and has written on budget travel for About.com, WorldofWalt.com and InsidetheMagic.net.
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