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The BLOGFlume—Decisions

Part three of my Orlando Vacation Planning Guide

Written by Russell Meyer
Published: August 31, 2005 at 9:15 PM

An Orlando Vacation Planning Guide: Part 3

In my last installment of my Orlando vacation planning guide, I went through the trials and tribulations of actually booking hotels and tickets. For many tourists, the planning would be done, but not for us. I don’t consider myself an obsessive planner, but a trip to Orlando, particularly Walt Disney World, requires an extra amount of planning that would not normally be needed for a regular vacation. For most vacations, knowing approximately where you’re going to be on any day would be sufficient. However, Walt Disney World is a totally different animal. You may be wondering, what makes Walt Disney World vacation planning so much more complicated? The simple answer is that Disney makes planning more complicated. Extra Magic Hours, Advanced Dining Reservations, Tours, FastPass, and parades and shows that don’t run every day make compiling an itinerary more frustrating than filing your taxes.

This will be our third trip to Florida as a couple over the past 4 years, so we have been looking into doing some different things at the parks on this trip. I’ve always been interested in doing a guided park tour, and was enticed by the Keys to the Kingdom tour at the Magic Kingdom. However, the tour lasts a little over five hours, which is a too long for my taste. The tour is very popular, and those who are interested in taking it should make sure to sign up for it at least a month in advance. The behind the scenes tour offers a glimpse of the park that you would normally only get on the Travel Channel. It also includes lunch at the Columbia Harbor House, and at a price of $58 (park admission not included), is relatively reasonable for such a cool experience. I really didn’t want to spend half of a day doing a tour, especially since park hours are limited in November, so we kept looking for other unique tour-style experience. Pretty much every one of the Disney parks has a behind the scenes tour, but one of the neatest sounding tours happens at EPCOT. Around the World at EPCOT on a Segway is truly the guided tour of the future. For those who don’t know what a Segway is, it is a two wheeled human transporter that was supposed to change the way people get around in cities. While the invention has not quite caught on as expected, probably because of the price tag over $3,000, EPCOT has an entire fleet of them, and they are slowly catching on in different parts of the country as ways to speed up walking tours. The two-hour tour has two separate parts. The first part is a training session where each guest learns how to operate the strange looking machines, most importantly learning how to stop. The second hour is literally a tour around the world, the World Showcase that is, before the park opens. At a standard price of $80 per person (admission not included), it is a relatively good deal considering a local Washington DC Segway tour company charges $70 for a two hour tour of downtown DC, Gettysburg, PA, or Annapolis, MD. Disney also offers a AAA discount on the tour which lowers the price to $68 per person, but as with many of the unique Disney experiences, space is limited. Spots are especially limited in this particular tour because of the number of Segways they have available for use. I wanted a unique experience, and I think we found one in this tour, and have scheduled the 8:30 AM tour for our first full day of the Disney portion of our vacation. on Wednesday, November 9, 2005.

So we have our unique experience; now I was beginning to wonder what else we could do to make our trip memorable. When we usually go to a theme park, we try to find ways to avoid eating in the theme parks. We have already booked a special event for the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival on Saturday, November 12, 2005, and were planning to spend an entire day eating at the World Showcase Food and Wine Festival booths. Over the past few months, Disney has been offering a free dining plan for guests staying at a Disney resort. I was hoping that the free dining program would extend through our stay in November, but it is officially ending the first week of October. The Disney Dining Plan at first glance sounds like a scam, but upon further examination can actually be used to the guest’s advantage, and in some cases to a HUGE advantage. The plan costs about $35 per day for adults and about $10 per day for children. When booked, guests receive one table service meal, one counter service meal, and one snack per night of their stay. Table service is considered any restaurant where guests sit down to be waited on, including buffets, character meals, and dinner shows. A table service meal includes one appetizer, one main dish, one dessert, and one non-alcoholic beverage. Counter service is considered anywhere you walk up and order your meal from a cashier. A counter service meal includes one main dish, one dessert, and one non-alcoholic beverage. A snack consists of a soda, water, ice cream, etc… If the dining plan is free, as it has been over the past few months, it’s a no brainer. However, at $35 per person per day, the dining plan can still be a great deal, or a waste. It all depends on how much you eat, and how you use your plan. What I have found is that the key to making the dining plan an incredible deal is to maximize your table services. Not all restaurants participate in the dining plan. One of the more notable is Victoria and Albert’s at the Grand Floridian, and there are some places that require two table service credits like Coral Reef at EPCOT and California Grill at the Contemporary Resort. However, many of the restaurants participating in the dining plan have main dishes that can cost upwards of $25 : Le Cellier at EPCOT and Cinderella’s Royal Table at Magic Kingdom, for example. Add an appetizer, a dessert, and a beverage, which can sometimes be a milkshake or smoothie, tax and gratuity (included in the cost of the dining plan), and you can easily spend well over $35 per person in a single meal. The dining plan also allows you to eat at restaurants you wouldn’t normally consider because of the price, and eat appetizers and desserts, something we rarely do when dining in a restaurant. When examining whether or not the dining plan is a good option, take a look at the restaurant menus which you can find at allearsnet.com and pick some items you think you might get if you ate at the different restaurants. More often than not, even if you pick the more moderately priced items on the menus, you can easily exceed $35 for a single table service meal. The one place you can possibly lose on the dining plan is if you use your table service meal on a buffet, eat breakfast at a table service restaurant, or a character meal. Most of the buffets cost between $17 and $25, and breakfast is typically the least expensive meals in the sit down restaurants. You can still break even while eating at a buffet by eating at one of the more expensive counter service restaurants.

We closely examined the pros and cons of the dining plan and determined we would be able to get a great deal without too much of a problem. An important thing to remember when purchasing the dining plan is to make sure to make Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) for your table service meals. Many of the nicer table service restaurants tend to be booked solid during normal meal times and around special events (fireworks), so the sooner you can reserve your meals, the better. Disney allows you to book 90 days in advance for most table service/character meals, and even sooner for dinner shows (Hoop-dee-Doo Revue and Polynesian Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show). If you try to walk up to a restaurant (especially right now because of the free dining plan), you might be turned away, or may have to wait many hours to get a table. You can use table service credits for counter service meals, likely at a loss (not the other way around though), but if you do not use your dining credits before midnight on the day that you check out of your resort, you forfeit any unused credits. You can also begin using your dining plan as soon as you check in to your resort. If you check in at 11:00 AM, you can start using your dining plan at 11:01 AM, but remember you only have dining credits based on the number of nights you are staying on-site, so if you use both a counter and table service credit your first night, you will not have anything left for the day you check out unless you skip some meals during your stay.

We looked at all of the menus a picked out a few restaurants where we wanted to eat. The three restaurants we chose were Cinderella’s Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom (the restaurant in the castle where they treat you like royalty), Maya Grill at Coronado Springs Resort (where we are staying for the dining portion of our stay), and Chefs de France at EPCOT (Kevin Baxter’s favorite theme park restaurant). We had to be a little flexible with Cinderella’s Royal Table, but did not have any problems with the other two. If you do not have park hopper passes, it will be very important to plan your ADRs very carefully, but if you do have park hoppers, it’s pretty easy to be flexible. We are pretty satisfied with our selections, and feel that the dining plan is going to show us a side of Walt Disney World we normally do not experience because of sticker shock. Walking up to a restaurant in the middle of a day and looking at a $25 steak and a 45 minute wait for a table would make a lot of people want to run to McDonald’s, but the dining plan and a little bit of planning can make eating at Walt Disney World a feast for the palate.

Readers' Opinions

From Cameron Rust on September 1, 2005 at 10:01 AM
Cinderella's Royale Table was the best Disney restaurant I hve ever eaten in!! They had the best salads, prime rib, and chocolate mousse dessert. ENJOY!!

Do they offer dining plans for passholders that stay on site or is it just addable to admission tickets?

From Russell Meyer on September 1, 2005 at 1:04 PM
You have to purchase a "magic your way" plan in order to add the dining option. That means staying at a resort and purchasing tickets. When the dining was free, people were buying one day base passes just so they could get the free dining plan. The dining plan only covers for the nights of your magic your way plan, so if you split your vacation between two resorts, like we are, you can only use the dining plan on the days that you are staying at the resort that the plan applies to, or you have to buy a set of park tickets for both resort stays.

They way we booked our vacation by splitting between Animal Kingdom Lodge and Coronado Springs, we could only use the dining plan for the days we are at Coronado Springs. We purchased 10-day non-expiring park hopping plus passes because they are the best value and applied them to the Coronado portion of the stay making it a "Magic Your Way Package." The Animal Kingdom Lodge portion of our vacation was booked as a simple hotel stay. If we want to have the dining plan for the Animal Kingdom Lodge part of our stay, we would have to buy at least 1-day base admission passes in order to add the dining plan. There is also a premium version of the dining plan that costs a little more, but adds an additional counter service each day (seems like a little too much food for me).

This new Magic Your Way system has really made things a lot more complicated, especially if you're used to the way things could be purchased al a carte before. It's actually easier and faster to play around with the Disney web-site booking engine to see what you can do with the different options of the plans, as opposed to trying to talk to someone in the reservation center over the phone. You still have to call if you want to make dining or tour reservations, special room requests, or book with a AAA discount.

Annual Passholders do not receive any sort of discount on the dining plan, and even those with Florida Resident Passes still must stay on-site and purchase a Magic Your Way Package in order to get the dining plan. Passholders can purchase the Disney Dining Experience, which offers discounted dining throughout Disney World, at a discounted rate.

From Cameron Rust on September 1, 2005 at 2:44 PM
I stayed at AKL for 10 days in July, and i remembered the Cast Members told me horror stories about the Dining plan. Have fun at AKL. I stayed there in 2001 when it opened, and have stayed 4 more times since then. You'll love it.

Is the plan ending for good in October, or is it just taking a hiatus for the duration of the holiday season?

From Russell Meyer on September 2, 2005 at 9:11 AM
The plan is not going anywhere, and is available for any Magic Your Way Package. The current free dining promotion is finished in October, and it does not look like it will be returning. People were really taking advantage of the system, and I think Disney lost their pants on the deal. I've read stories of people eating over $1,000 worth of food over a long weekend with this free dining plan promotion. I don't think the promotion got any more people into the parks or resorts, and has ended up costing Disney a boatload to run.

The horror stories from the cast members are probably because all of the guests were constantly asking what was included in the plan. When you walk into a restuarant or up to a cart, there are not usually any designations on the menu as to what you can get with the plan. Are milkshakes included? Are Dole Whips included? Can I get fries with a snack credit? I'm sure it drives the CMs nuts because they probably answer the same questions a million times every day. They also have to deal with the people who say they got a Dole whip as a snack yesterday from so and so, and create a confrontational situation. I know I would not want to work at a Disney restaurant with this confusing dining plan. It sounds simple, but it is very undefined and fluid as to the specifics of how you can use it in each restaurant. For instance, the company line is that you cannot use the Dining Plan for a Fantasmic Dinner Package. However, you can reserve the package and show up at the restaurant, and have a good chance of your server not knowing that you have the package, and are just there for a meal. Disney could have avoided a lot of cunfusion by putting symbols on food items or menus to denote what is included in the plan. It has been done in some places, but at others it's not very clear, and with people trying to eat as much as possible, they're going to try to see how far they can bend the definitions of the plan. Another common "trick" of the plan is to purchase a dining plan for your kids, but purchase their meals instead of using their credits. When you check into your resort, your entire family's credits are pooled together, and the plan cannot currently recognize the difference between an adult credit and a child credit. Meaning mom and dad can have a fancy sit-down meal for the price of a kid's meal.

I'm sure there are some CMs who probably love this plan. The Dining Plan includes a 15% gratuity for the table service meals, and many CMs have figured out if they steer their guests towards the more expensive items, their tip increases (Disney pays the gratuity to the CMs based on the total bill, regardless of whether or not the guests use the dining plan), and most guests usually augment the tip by leaving a little extra at the table for great service.

It is likely that the $35 per person per day price will go up in 2006 when all of the resort prices increase, and a number of restaurants are rumored to change to "signature dining experiences" requiring 2 table service credits (LeCellier at EPCOT), while others may drop from the signature list (Coral Reef at EPCOT).