Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Disney World: Planning your Trip on a Budget (Part 3), Dining

Picture above:  Mickey shaped waffles!  A breakfast favorite offered at many restaurants

While you are visiting Disney World,  you have to eat something!  Food at Disney, like any other amusement park, is not cheap.  One solution to avoiding the expensive food is to bring your own food.  Disney does allow you to bring your own food into the parks, so you could pack your own snacks and save quite a bit of money that way!

I've also read about people who have groceries delivered (or pack their own groceries if they are driving) and then cook most of their food in their resort rooms.  I suppose you could save a ton of money this way, but cooking all of our meals in a small hotel room does not sound like vacation to me!  I cook every day at home, and while on vacation, I want a vacation from preparing food!

While bringing your own food is definitely a budget saving tip, we are going to focus today on saving money while purchasing food at Disney parks and restaurants.

Disney Dining Plans
To help families budget their food money and create an all inclusive vacation, Disney offers dining plans.  You pre-pay for the dining plan, and then you are given an allotment of meals for each day.  The big question with the dining plan is whether it can save you money.  The answer:  maybe a little, but probably not very much.

Here are the current dining plan options and costs:

  • Quick Service Dining Plan ($39.64 per person for ages 10+, $15.75 per child for ages 3-9)
    • includes two counter service meals and one snack per person per day, plus one refillable mug per person (mugs can be filled at any resort counter service restaurant and can be used the entire length of your stay)
    • Total cost for a family of 4 (2 adults, 2 kids) for 5 days:  $553.90
  • Regular Dining Plan ($58.66 per person for ages 10+, $18.88 per child for ages 3-9)
    • includes one table serve meal, one counter service meal, and one snack per person per day plus one refillable mug per person
    • Total cost for a family of 4 for 5 days:  $775.40
  • Deluxe Dining Plan ($104.94 per person for ages 10+, $29.51 per child for ages 3-9)
    • includes three meals per day, either table service or counter service plus one refillable mug per person
    • Total cost for a family of 4 for 5 days:  $1344.50
To figure out whether the dining plan is worth the money, you need to sit down and look at where you want to eat first.  Some restaurants are more expensive, and if you plan to eat at enough expensive places, you might be able to save money with the dining plan.  Our family likes character meals, where the characters come around to greet you while you are eating your meal, and they can be pretty pricey (up to $150+ for our family to eat one meal).  You can find menus with prices on Disney's website or here.  Then there is this really handy spreadsheet, where you can plug in an estimated amount that you will spend on each meal.  It will calculate your expenses and then tell you if you will save money or not with the dining plan.

In the end, even if you don't save much money with the dining plan, the convenience is something to consider.  It is stressful to be in the middle of a busy restaurant trying to figure out what to order and whether you are spending too much money by ordering it.  With the prepaid dining plan, you don't have to stand in line counting your pennies and thinking about your budget.  And on vacation, that is a really great feeling!

There is one time when the dining plan can save you money, a lot of money actually, and that is during Disney's free dining promotion, which is when we are going in September!

Free Dining
This is an extremely popular deal from Disney, one that is rumored to possibly be discontinued someday, but for this year at least, they are still offering it.  With the free dining offer, you have to pay full price for your room (so this can't be combined with any room discount offers), but then each member of your party gets a free dining plan.  If you stay in a value resort, you will receive the Quick Service Dining Plan. . If you stay in a moderate or deluxe resort, you will receive the Regular Dining Plan.  You then have the option to upgrade to a different dining plan and pay the difference between the two.

So, here's where doing a little math can come in handy again!  For our trip, I knew that we wanted the Regular Dining Plan.  There are 4-5 character meals that I want to try while they are free for our family. We could have stayed in value room for 5 nights for a price around $650.  With an upgrade to the regular dining plan (around $220), it would have cost $870 for us to stay for five nights with dining.  For around $1000, we could stay for 5 nights in a moderate resort with the regular dining plan.  I decided that for an extra $130 it was worth the upgrade to a moderate resort.  

Me with my free cookie and hot chocolate at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, December 2013

Remember that you have to pay full price for your room to get the free dining offer.  Again it's important to run the math on this.  Some people just hear FREE and consider it a good deal.  However, there are cases where this may not be a good deal.  If staying in a deluxe resort, the room discount can be a better value.  For example, if you are traveling with only two adults and staying in a deluxe resort, you could be paying over $2000 just for your full price room for 5 nights.  A room discount of 30% is at least $600 or more.  A dining plan for two adults for five nights is $586.  So you could save more money by choosing the room discount over the free dining discount.  It's important to do the math and figure out if the free dining offer is a good deal for your family and your vacation.

For us, the free dining is a good deal.  We passed on the 20% room discount (which would have saved us $182) and instead chose the free dining plan (which is a savings of $775) for a net savings of $593 on our trip.  Plus everything is prepaid, so we don't have to worry about paying attention to food prices in the park.  For a budget minded person like me, that is a huge relief!!

This free dining deal is very popular.  You can read here about how I got up at 5:00 am to try to book the deal.  I recommend keeping in touch with rumors about free dining on the DisBoards (an invaluable resource if you want to be in the know about what is going on at Disney World!) to know when the offer is coming.  And then when it is released, be ready to book your vacation right away in order to have the best selection of rooms and resorts!

Making advance restaurant reservations is also important, especially during the free dining period, as everyone wants to eat at the best places to get the most out of their free meals.  I will have a whole post about this coming up soon!

Other Tips to Save Money
If you don't get the free dining deal and you don't want to purchase a dining plan, there are still ways to save money.  My first tip:  share your food!  Snacks and quick service meals can easily be shared, especially with kids.  I'm not a huge eater, so this might be easier for me than others, but I have found that portions are usually plenty big and can be shared by two light eaters.  Obviously at buffets, everyone needs to pay for their own plate, but at other places, I think sharing is a good way to both save money and avoid wasting food.
Daniel at Whispering Canyon Cafe.  If you ask for ketchup, they will bring it to you!!

If you are a Florida resident, an annual pass holder, or a Disney Vacation Club member, you have the option to purchase a Tables in Wonderland card.  The card costs $100 and saves you 20% at many Disney restaurants for a whole year.  This would only be a good deal if you visit Disney frequently enough to make it worth the $100 fee.

My final tip for saving money:  Plan ahead!  You can look at menus and prices before your trip so you can have an idea of where you want to eat and how much it is going to cost you.  It is REALLY easy to spend too much money when you just eat whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it in the middle of the park.  Having a plan can help you to stick to your budget.  And if making an exact plan before your trip of where/what you want to eat sounds horrible, consider the dining plan as a way to prepay for your food, give you some freedom to choose what you want on the spot and still avoid overspending.

Next Up:  Planning your Trip on a Budget (Part 4), Travel and Extra Expenses


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