Vote of the week: Have you ever bought a theme park dining plan?

January 11, 2013, 11:22 AM · Theme parks want to make sure you're spending money when you're inside their gates. And one of the ways that they do that is to offer deals that keep you in the park longer for each day that you visit.

Ultimately, that's one of the big reasons behind Fastpass and other ride reservation systems. If you've got a reserved time to ride an attraction later in the day, odds are you're more likely to stick around in the park until your reservation time comes.

That's also part of the reason behind dining and meal plans. Pay once for "all you can eat" plan, or get a dining plan that's tied into your hotel stay, you're probably going to stay in the park to get all those meals you've "paid for." Having bought into the plan, you're less likely to leave property early for dinner or another meal outside the park.

The Grey Stuff
If you're celebrating a birthday or other special occasion at the Magic Kingdom's new Be Our Guest restaurant, let them know. You might get to try The Grey Stuff. (It tastes like chocolate mousse.) Photo by Amanda Jenkins.

But have you ever gotten one of these deals? Disney, Universal and SeaWorld each offer options in their Orlando-area parks. Disney's Dining Plan is tied into on-site hotel stays -- you buy the meal plan as part of a vacation package, and "free" meal plans are often thrown in as a discount for visits during certain times of the year.

You don't have to stay at an one-site hotel at Universal Orlando or SeaWorld to get their Meal Deal or All-Day Dining Deal -- they're available for purchase by any park visitor. But the Universal and SeaWorld deals only allow you to select from a handful of restaurants in their parks, and don't include any full-service dining. Disney's Dining Plan includes just about everything, depending upon the plan you select, and you'll have to use more points for certain locations.

If you have used one of these plans, please tell us in the comments if you'd do it again, any why. If you haven't please tell us what it'd take for a park to convince you to buy its deal.

And, as always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider. Have a great weekend!

Replies (15)

January 11, 2013 at 11:28 AM · The DDP used to be an incredible deal back when App, Dessert, gratuity, etc were all included. It still isn't a bad deal if you use it correctly and make the most of it but not near the value it once had
January 11, 2013 at 11:31 AM · My family loves the DDP...we do it each summer. IF you know how to use it--sure it takes some work and pre-planning--it comes out great for us.

****If you like food, and like to try different things, then it is great. You can try different foods and restaurants that you might not if you were "paying" at the time. With DDP, you can order a $45 steak and not feel bad.
****If you have kids under 9, it is very good. $15 a day, easily recouped with a character buffet that can cost close to $25.
****Convenience...I love not having to "pay" each time.
****With planning, we have saved close to $400 each of my last 3 trips.

The BAD:
****no flexibility...would love to trade the dessert for appetizer at some restaurants.

January 11, 2013 at 12:20 PM · I have used all three of the major park dining plans.

In my opinion, the Disney Dining Plan is only worth it if it is included as part of a hotel promotion. We typically don't eat a lot in the parks or share meals if we were not on the Dining Plan. It was definitely better before Disney made the modifications by taking away the second "snack" credit per day and eliminating the appetizer. However, even as it is constructed now, the DDP can be a valuable incentive to stay on-site and can be worth far more than the @$30/day they charge for it as a stand-alone option.

The Universal Meal Deal is my least favorite, because it does not include beverages and severely limits the types of food you can get. If you're not a fast-food junkie, the Universal deal is a waste, and if you don't want to eat more than 2 meals in a day, it's also pretty worthless. I did find it pretty advantageous for us last October, because with an infant, it's much easier to have the kid nibble off a plate I can replenish for free than to purchase a kids' meal only to have the kid turn his nose up and throw away only to say 2 hours later that he's hungry. Universal says that "sharing" is prohibited with the Meal Deal, but I think a 2-year old nibbling off a parents plate is well within reason, afterall, Disney allows kids under 3 to eat free at all of their buffets.

The Sea World All-Day Dining is a great deal, again if you're planning on eating 2 or more meals in the park. It does include beverages, which is a godsend on hot days. However, much like the Unviersal deal, the locations are limited, but unlike the Universal deal, those restuarants have much more diverse menus. You can get items from the BBQ, handmade sandwhiches from the Spice Mill, or fast food-style items from other park eateries. The big drawback to the Sea World Plan is that because all of their restuarants have relatively long lines, even during low season, it can take a big chunk of the day to stop and eat, and the plan is not eligible at many of the quick-service eateries.

Ultimately, guests need to look at what they typically eat when they go to theme parks, and examine the menus before purchasing any plan. The parks are counting on guests not eating the value, and using the plan as a convenience, so if you don't want to get ripped off, it requires you to do some homework before buying into it.

January 11, 2013 at 12:26 PM · We did the Disney Dining Plan back in 2007 and 2008. Back then the appetizer and gratuity were still included. After they stopped including those and raised the prices, and we bought a timeshare off Disney property, we stopped using the DDP for a time. We did add on a couple of nights one year at Beach Club Villas and purchased the DDP for those two nights only. We used it for our most expensive meals so it probably worked out to be a decent deal. But for us, since we are AP holders, the Tables in Wonderland card works out much better. We are not big dessert eaters and sometimes we don't want a full meal...we might share a meal or order an appetizer as a replacement for a meal, or just have soup and salad. With the TiW card, we get 20% off no matter what we order, plus we get the discount on specialty and alcoholic beverages that are not included in the DDP.
January 11, 2013 at 1:11 PM · I am using it right now and hate it. My son and friend wanted to budget their food so we got the quick service. My issues are: drinks are too large and I don't eat dessert at every meal. Also, breakfast is a terrible value. How about reducing the price and include a dessert every other meal, no resort mug, and a regular sized drink? I don't do the snacks but can see others finding that plus. Never again. I don't eat that way.
January 11, 2013 at 1:58 PM · Since the Dining Plan came 'free' with our DisneyWorld vacation last November we naturally used it. In fact we upgraded by £10 a day to the mid-price ding plan which gave us a counter service meal, a table service meal and snack each day. Having done that I would say categorically that we would never buy the plan as an extra but if it comes included in your deal it's a no-brainer. We used the snack credits to eat around the Epcot Food and Wine Festival and booked several of the signature restaurants for evening meals rather than eat at a standard table service each night. We still spent a package as we had appetizers and drinks, plus we had to pay gratuities, but we looked at it on the basis that we would have had to pay for dinner each night anyway and what the dining plan gave us was the opportunity to eat in the really expensive places at about the cost of an 'ordinary' meal elsewhere. Plus every day in a Disney park we had lunch for free and we had several evening meals in standard table service restaurants for free. Totally brilliant. We ate better than we have eaten on almost any vacation we have had anywhere and it was all down to the dining plan. The only down side was having to book ahead of times, but frankly that's a small price to pay for such a good deal.... IF it's included in your room tariff...
January 11, 2013 at 2:45 PM · I used the DDP in Dec 2010. We had the option of getting the Dining Plan for free, getting a discounted rate on our hotel, or getting a Disney gift card ($250, I think). I did the math, and figured out that the Dining Plan was worth more than the gift card, and worth more than what I would have been saving on the hotel, so I took that. I'm glad I did, but I don't know if I'd use it again. We didn't book very far in advance, so I had trouble getting reservations for most of the places I wanted to eat. We wound up using two of our table service credits eating at the restaurant at our resort two nights. Not that those were bad meals, but I'd like to have more flexibility.
If I'm given the same options the next time I book, I might choose the gift card or the hotel discount and just eat less.
January 11, 2013 at 2:45 PM · I never have for two reasons:

I had heard it was soooo much food. I don't really watch my diet on vacations, but I don't like the idea of "forcing" myself to eat more:( (and I know I would to make it "worth it" ) to use up all the dining credits.

With a large family (8) it is incredibly expensive. While on vacation I try to only eat out 1/day. I bring sandwiches and snacks and eat breakfast in the room.

I would get it if you didn't have to have it for each day at the resort. If you could buy it for 4 of a 7 day stay, I would definitely do it, then I could spread out the meals over the 7 days instead of wasting so much food each day. This would also help with people who also want to go to Universal during their stay.

January 11, 2013 at 2:50 PM · The dining plan has worked for us since we're 2 adults and 2 children. It's cheaper this way to do character meals.
January 11, 2013 at 3:53 PM · I bought the Universal meal deal when I visited from Australia in November 2010. For me it was a waste of money. There was no choice of something healthy and I felt that I had to keep eating to get my money's worth. That said, it still would have been cheaper to order the two meals I had from the menus, although given a choice, there's no way I would have ordered them as every choice seemed to be fried or pizza.

There needs to be a recognition that not everyone wants to eat junk, particularly two or three times a day!

January 11, 2013 at 9:32 PM · The on-line food option for Busch Gardens is a wonderful deal. Break even point is less than one meal. Plus you can get drinks all day!
January 12, 2013 at 12:50 AM · I voted yes, even though I've never tried any of the plans listed. I've bought a day's worth of vouchers at Magic Mountain, but I pretty much knew what I was getting when I went there. And it allowed me to give one to a person in need - she came with us but hadn't brought money for food. Or "food", if you prefer.
January 12, 2013 at 6:25 AM · Busch Gardens Tampa's meal deal is amazing. Yes, it's not five star quality, but if you like a variety and all you care to eat throughout the day then this is the meal deal for you. The BBQ place actually has real decent bbq for a theme park. -DH
January 12, 2013 at 8:10 AM · I can remember close to 25 years ago, we stayed more than a week at the Polynesian at WDW. My family got a card that you could eat anywhere on WDW property including Buena Vista for free and do anything like get those little boats to go around the lake as many times as we wanted because we had the card. Freedom to do what we wanted was limitless. My family ate at the French restaurant in Epcot, don't know what it was called back then, but everyone had lobster and steak. My father kept the receipts and what he paid for the card was like a couple thousand for a family of six. A lot for back then but it included all our entertainment, food, park entrance, and maybe our Polynesian rooms. From the receipts we spent over 10,000 and we got it for two. We lived like kings for 10 days. A couple years after that wonderful trip Disney decided to discontinue that card and go with a meal plan that back then was limited and didn't include the benefits like entertainment. I've never had a plan since. Reason being is I like the freedom of choosing where I go and what time. It's not entirely about the price although it does factor in. I would much rather enjoy myself at the park than being told where to go to eat because of some pre set plan.
January 13, 2013 at 2:37 PM · Used the meal plan in 2010. It came as part of a package deal (we stayed on Disney property). It did take planning on my part to get the most out of the plan, however, since my husband perfers sit down meals I thought it was worth the effort and it made him happy. We used some of the credits to go to a few of the places that would have been more costly. We found we didn't need as many snack credits as was offered. But, I used these credits to buy some disney mickey mouse cookies to bring home. The plan did work well for us.

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