An Insider's guide to theme park dining plans

September 22, 2010, 1:59 PM · Starting today, and over the next several Wednesdays, we'll be taking a look at some of the "extras" that theme parks offer to sell you, beyond your basic admission ticket.

First up: Dining plans. These can be great ways to pay in advance for your food during your theme park visit, potentially making your meals less expensive that they would have been had you paid as you'd gone through the park. But if you're not careful, you could find yourself paying for meals that you don't eat, and locked out of dining choices you'd wanted to try.

The Disney Dining Plan, offered at Walt Disney World and in a more limited form at Disneyland, differs from other parks' plans in that it's simply a pay-in-advance plan, with a fixed number of meals and snacked covered by the plan. It's also available only to people who book their vacations through Disney. Universal and SeaWorld, on the other hand, offer "all you eat"-style plans that may be bought be anyone, including day guests. These plans don't require an advance purchase, either, and can be bought on-site, inside the park.

Disney Dining Plan

If you're not planning to stay at of one Walt Disney World's on-site hotels during your next trip to Disney World, well, Disney hopes that its dining plan might help convince you to change your mind. It's available only to guests of Disney's hotels, who book a vacation package through Disney.

Biergarten Restaurant at Epcot
Epcot's Biergarten Restaurant

The benefit of the Disney Dining Plan is to make a Disney World vacation more of an all-inclusive experience, one minus the hassle of paying for individual meals and snacks. Priced as part of a package, Disney also suggests that selecting the dining package can save visitors over the cost of paying for their hotel room, theme park tickets and meals separately. Even better for guests, Disney often offers steep discounts on its vacation packages during off seasons (essentially, whenever children are in school in Florida), making the dining plan a free add-on.

Walt Disney World offers three variations on its dining plan:

You also can add a wine option onto your plan for an additional charge. All packages also include one refillable drink mug per person, which can be refilled at your hotel's quick-serve restaurants.

Do note that the Disney Dining Plan does not include tips at table service restaurants. (Please, don't stiff your server!)

If your intent with the Disney Dining Plan is to create an all-inclusive experience, don't forget that by staying at an on-site hotel, you won't be getting the free or pre-paid breakfast that you might at many off-site hotels. So if you want to avoid paying out-of-pocket for any meals during your Disney vacation, you'll need to go with the Deluxe Dining plan, the only option that covers three meals per day.

You should also know that certain restaurants sometimes will charge two meal credits, rather than just one, including The Hollywood Brown Derby and Le Cellier. And Bistro de Paris, the Epcot restaurant which won the 2010 Theme Park Insider Award for best theme park restaurant, doesn't accept Dining Plan credits at all. So even if you select the Deluxe Plan, you might still end up paying in the parks.

Visit the Disney Dining Plan website for more information, including the complete list of participating restaurants.

Finally, remember that just selecting a Disney Dining Plan doesn't guarantee you a seat at any restaurant. You'll still need to make priority seating reservations by calling 407-WDW-DINE or booking online up to 180 days before your visit.

At Disneyland, a basic Disney Dining Plan is available for visitors who book through the Walt Disney Travel Company, which offers not only the three on-site hotels at Disneyland, but also packages with stays at several "Good Neighbor" hotels.

One advance-purchase dining option that is available to anyone at the Disneyland Resort is the World of Color picnic. These $15 boxed dinners include reserved seating at the World of Color show at Disney California Adventure, which remains a tough ticket for anyone who doesn't arrive at the park at opening to obtain a free FastPass reservations.

Universal Meal Deal

Universal's dining plans don't require advance purchase, and are not restricted to guests of the resort's official, on-site hotels. It's also more of an all-you-can-eat package that does not include a specific number of meals, such as Disney's, but that allows you to visit participating restaurants as often as you'd like.

That said, only a handful of restaurants at the Universal Orlando Resort participate - three in each theme park.

At Universal Studios Florida:

At Islands of Adventure:

You can get one entree platter and one dessert each time you go through the line. The Universal Meal Deal currently costs $19.99 for adults and $9.99 for children (age 9 and under) for use in one park for a day, and $23.99 for adults and $11.99 for children if you'll be visiting both parks in the same day while using the meal deal. Prices do not include tax and children must order from the kids menu. (If you're visiting the parks on separate days, there's no need to buy the two-park deal. Just buy a one-park deal for each day.)

The Universal Meal Deal isn't accepted at the parks' table service restaurants, including Mythos, nor is it good at the Three Broomsticks in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Also note that drinks are not included in the Universal Meal Deal, but you can buy a refillable beverage cup for use at the participating restaurants for $8.99. Full details (and advance purchase) are available at Universal Orlando's website.

Universal Studios Hollywood offers an All You Can Eat Pass for $19.95 a day ($9.95 for children under 48" tall). It also gets you one entree platter each time you go through a line, but no drink, and its available at five of the California theme park's counter-service restaurants

SeaWorld's All Day Dining Deal

SeaWorld's pass is similar to Universal's expect that it does include (certain) drinks and is accepted at most of the parks' tray-service restaurants.

The cost is $29.99 for adults and $14.99 for children (ages 3-9), plus tax. You'll get one entree (excludes baby back ribs), one side or dessert and one non-alcoholic drink (excludes Naked Juice) on each visit to a participating restaurant. Again, prices do not include tax.

SeaWorld's All Day Dining Deal is not accepted at table service, buffets or character meals, including Sharks Underwater Grill or Makahiki Luau.

Visit the SeaWorld Orlando website or the SeaWorld San Diego website for the full list of participating restaurants. The price and terms of the All Day Dining Deal are the same at both parks.

The All Day Dining Deals also is available at Sea World's sister park, Busch Gardens Tampa.

We'd love to hear, in the comments, about your personal experience with theme park dining plans, including your opinion of them and advice for other theme park visitors.

Replies (11)

September 22, 2010 at 2:40 PM · Disney world needs to have and option of trading out dessert for something else like an appetizer or something. We spent 6 days there this summer and I was dying for a salad!!!

I hate that the sweets are almost forced on you.

September 22, 2010 at 3:11 PM · I was really disappointed with the universal meal plan because the food was just awful. I ate at mel's drive in, Louies italian restaurant in USF, and Circus McGurkus and Comic Strip cafe in IOA. Of these, circus McGurkus was the only one that was edible. Now for their resorts, I've had several really good meals from the Islands dining room at the Royal Pacific resort.

As for the disney plan, I've had great luck with all the restaurants at Disney I've been to other than the Pepper market at the Coronado springs resort. (And that was really an off hour, so that might account for the poor food there.)

I don't know if you can still do it, but there used to be a way to manipulate the disney system if you had kids. The number of meal 'Tickets' was assigned to a room, so if you were two adults with two kids, you had 4 'tickets' for meals. If you went to the nicer restaurants that require two meals to eat, you could use the 'kids' meals for the adults and buy your kids something inexpensive off the kids menu. I don't know if this loophole is still there, though.

September 22, 2010 at 3:14 PM · I completely agree with the previous poster about Diney Dining plan, they need to make it a choice between an ap and dessert. We mixed it up with buffets to get some veggies! I've even written to Disney about this issue. I'll take it as a free add on, but would not consider paying for the plan in the future, in large part due to this issue.

Also, I have not used Universals plan, because the value is not there during the off season when they close early. I typically only eat one meal during the day, and without a drink included and the limited choices, it has not made sense.

September 22, 2010 at 5:56 PM · One of the things that I think should be mentioned about the Disney dining plans is just to remind that the portion sizes at Disney are massive. On our recent trip to Disney World, our family got the Deluxe plan and ended up wasting half of it, simply because of the appetizers being almost the size of a meal in its own. And the problem is, the food is so good, you don't really want to waste it, but it's too much. I would advise families who aren't that big into eating to stay away from the deluxe plan, and stick with the regular.
September 22, 2010 at 6:38 PM · Personally, I've never been able to convince myself to buy a dining plan. To me, unless you're overeating, the Universal plan doesn't add up. Throw in the fact that it excludes my favorite places to eat at IOA - Mythos, Confisco Grille and Three Broomsticks - and why would I bother?

I might look into the SeaWorld package, but again, I don't think the numbers add up if all you eat at the park is one moderate lunch and one dinner. Plus, I like the ribs. :-)

As for Disney, again, you're going to end up paying out of pocket pretty much whatever plan you choose (minimizing the convenience factor), so unless it was a free throw-in on my vacation package, I'd rather pay my own way and have complete flexibility in ordering, with no chance of paying for something that I won't use.

If I were someone with a big appetite for burgers, fries and counter-service food, of course, the math would be different and these could be great deals. But that's not me.

September 22, 2010 at 8:31 PM · I have done the meal deal at Busch Gardens and found it a great value if you arrive when the park opens with an empty stomach ready for breakfast at the Zagora Cafe. Eating light meals throughout the day helps to make it really worth your money. We would go through the line just to get a bottle of water or some fruit to snack on. The food is tasty and fresh and for the most part pretty healthy. Passholders can get an additional discount on the price, making it about $27 plus tax. Our family really enjoyed it and it made the day a lot more fun.

I also have done Universal's meal deal in it's early days when nearly every restaurant was included on the list (minus Mythos of course). It was good, but by the end of the day you never want to see another burger and fry platter. We went about a year later and wow the meal deal was completely different. The food quality had greatly decreased and now we were limited to the 3 restaurants per park. I was very disappointed and didn't feel like I got my money's worth at all. I would suggest skipping the meal deal plan at Universal and spend your money on it at Sea World or Busch Gardens.

September 23, 2010 at 7:32 AM · The Busch Gardens one is worth it just to be able to get drinks at all times of the day. We skipped breakfast and instead ate small amounts throughout the day, most places didn't have as bad queues as I expected except Zambia Smokehouse, where I just got into 'the slow queue' where there was one family holding up everyone for 10 minutes (no joke), but it did have the nicest food. As we tried to stay away from junk food every other day we didn't have a problem with it for one day.

The places at Busch gardens have a lot more variety than the ones on the Universal plan, the Disney plan is only worth it if you plan on ONLY doing Disney AND having enough money to stay at their resort. Seaworld's is the same plan as Busch Gardens but we split that park over two days, doing short bursts and they also have Shark's Underwater Grill which is worth paying full price for.

September 23, 2010 at 8:22 AM · I agree with Robert. I can't see myself eating more than one theme park meal a day, even if it's table service. I like a room with a kitchen/kitchenette so I can eat breakfast in the room and come back later for an afternoon snack. Usually, I eat a table service meal for dinner.

The dining plan at every park just seems like too much food, and that's coming from a heavy eater.

On a side note, California Grill and Jiko, my favourite Disney restaurants, are included in the plan as two-credit meals. Even with the two credits, it's still cheaper than dining there without a plan (assuming you eat more than just an entree).

September 23, 2010 at 3:22 PM · Geez yea, most theme park portions are HUGE! I always have to share my meal with somebody... always!!! The meal plan definitely wouldn't work for me because all say "no sharing."

But it sucks 'cuz I eat frequently throughout the day and if I wanted to eat the "small portioned" food offered at theme parks, I'll most likely have to sacrifice savory-ness for small portions. Starch over sauce.

September 24, 2010 at 11:14 AM · As someone who has had dining plans on vacation to Disney World and recently decided to go without one, I was soon shocked at the prices of items. With small children who want to "eat" with the characters, the dining plan more than is worth its weight in gold. My husband and I vowed to never again, book a trip without a dining plan just to cover these special dining experiences.
September 24, 2010 at 10:10 PM · I purchase Universals one day last summer and it was horrible. The selcetion of resturants is to small. Once I found the resturant I could only eat there between certain hours and only select from a few items. I ate spagetti (which I actually vomited up a few minutes later) and that is all I really got for my money. By the time I got around to another of the resturant that were on the list to eat at there were only a few moment left to be able to get my meal and the line were at least 40 people deep. Universal really needs to rethink this plan.

I was please with Sea Worlds Deal. I was able to eat little items at many different resturants as i travels freely around the park and did not feel I had to time my activities around locations like at Univeral. The best part about Sea World was that bottled water was included. I went in July when it was extremly hot. I stopped in some locations just to get a bottle of water. I feel I got my money worth because I probably would have spent about that much on just water during the day. A plus for this plan is also if you have kids. If they do not like something that they got, they can easily go back to the line and get something else.

I have never had Disney's plan since I live in Florida and never have had the oportunity to stay on property. I wish they did have one for passholders. I would eat more meals in the parks if I could purchase a package to go with my season pass. My sister's family did stay on property and had the meal plan. The only issue that they encountered was trying to get reservations. Their main meal almost evey day had to be breakfast because those were the only reservations available and they booked months in advance.

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