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Vote of the week: Are dining deals the best deal for you?

August 2, 2013, 11:39 AM · How hungry do you get when you visit theme parks? Food and beverages provide a huge share of income for most theme parks, and smart park managers know that offering something other than the same food anyone can find in a shopping mall food court can help drive spending in their parks.

Just take a look at the new Simpsons-themed Springfield land Universal Orlando has opened in its Universal Studios Florida park. (The latest phase opened today.) Universal already had a Simpsons Ride — the new Springfield land surrounding it is driven by an opportunity for Universal to increase food and beverage sales. The new "attractions" in Universal's Simpsons land are stuff you can eat and drink: Krusty Burgers, Lard Lad Donuts, Flaming Moes, and Duff Beer.

Pulling a Flaming Moe
A bartender at Universal Studios Florida's Moe's pulls a Flaming Moe. Photo by Justin Pegg.

It's not just what theme parks sell you. Parks try to lure your business by how they price and package their food, too. Walt Disney World this week announced its annual "free dining" promotion, where visitors who book certain vacation packages at its on-site Disney World hotels get a free Disney Dining Plan option during their stay. Universal's also added an expanded dining plan option, too, and you can buy variations on one-price, all-you-can-eat deals at SeaWorld and Six Flags parks, as well.

Of course, the deal's in the details with any of these dining packages. Some Disney fans are getting upset over leaked news that Disney World soon will add RFID chips to the refillable mugs that it sells to guests at its on-site hotels, and throws in "free" with Disney Dining deals. The chips reportedly will work to allow mugs to be refilled only at the hotel where that guest is staying, and only for the duration of the stay. That's the current rule for the mugs, but with no enforcement, guests have been refilling them at other hotels, and even bringing them back to refill on future visits, too.

All this raises the question: How do you find value on food and drinks when you visit a theme park? Do you look for one of these specially-priced dining deals? Or do you try to save money (and calories!) by sharing over-sized portions, ordering from a kids' meal or otherwise limiting what you buy to eat?

Soup and bread at Epcot
Sharing the Lobster bisque and a baguette at Epcot's Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie.

Or are you one who doesn't buy food in parks? (Maybe you bring your own, or wait to eat until after you've left the park.) Or, finally, do you just say "I don't have time for that," and order what you want, when you want, making dining part of your theme park experience?

It's time for our vote of the week.

Tell us your experience with dining deals, in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading Theme Park Insider.

Replies (18)

August 2, 2013 at 12:06 PM · As a visitor from the UK with the 'free' Dining Plan I have to say it worked great for us. We upgraded for £10 per person per day to the next level which got us a Table Service meal each day as well as a counter service and we booked several signature dining restaurants and used our 'free' dining to get us superior quality meals at standard prices, plus we ate for free each lunchtime we were in a Disney park, plus we used our snack credits to graze our way around the Epcot Food and Wine Festival on two separate days.

I would never purchase the Disney Dining Plan but if it comes free with your booking it's a no-brainer and frankly it added massively to our overall enjoyment. It's another reason I'd automatically book a Disney resort the next time we visit....

August 2, 2013 at 12:08 PM · The meal plans just aren't the deal they were to start with at disney. I'd still get it if it were free, but once they got people hooked they took out stuff like the tip so it's just not the same value as before.

I eat breakfast in the room, lunch and dinner in the park. Usually counter service, but at least one meal per trip is at a nice restaurant and I'm just working my way through the restaurants.

Universal's meal deal sucks. they aren't good at every restaurant, only selected ones which are guaranteed to be crowded if it's anywhere near dinner time. Plus, it's not like it's even the good restaurants. It's the crummy ones that no one would eat at if they hadn't already bought the meal deal. Definitely avoid this plan

August 2, 2013 at 12:10 PM · We don't use the dining plans. We tried it once. Although we like to eat at table restaurants, we found that the food was too much. We don't eat like that. I would love to have some flexibility in the plan, i.e. instead of dessert- an appetizer (I know it would be too difficult to track). When we did the quick service only, we didn't want the large size drinks and felt that on either plan we felt compelled to order everything we were allowed but instead we wasted the food. We attempted to take the dessert with us but found that it didn't make it in a very appetizing state. We are headed to WDW in December and are contemplating giving it another try but since we are DVC, we will just buy groceries for the room and eat 1 nice meal at the parks on our dime.
August 2, 2013 at 12:36 PM · As Tracy mentioned, the Disney Dining Plan isn't what it used to be. The basic plan lost the appetizer and tip. The one and only time I used the dining plan it was part of the free promotional period. I did the math though during the trip and if real money was on the table, paying for the plan would've saved us approx $600 over an 8-night trip.

What dining plans really offer are is less worry. You don't have to think about what you want to eat and how to pay for it. It's already been covered. This works best at Disney since nearly every food venue is a part of the plan.

I haven't used a plan elsewhere but researching the Universal and SF plans, guests are restricted to specific restaurants. This can cause problems for groups that want to eat together or guests who have dietary restrictions.

Although my next trip to WDW is fall of 2014 which will likely be another free dining plan promotion, I would pay for the basic level dining plan just to create the ease of mind.

August 2, 2013 at 1:16 PM · I didn't vote.

As a diabetic, it's important for me to eat while at a park. But I've been lax in the past, often going 10-12 hours at a park eating nothing but a soft pretzel, sometimes not even that. I've gotten better the last two years, though.

That was one of my reasons for buying the SF Plan this season. For $70, I get a lunch and/or dinner at the park, depending on what time I arrive and how long I stay. Is the food I get healthy? No, although some options are. I also have found my capacity for food intake at a meal has dropped in the last two years or so. But I got the plan because this way, I know I'll eat. Unfortunately the heat and other factors have kept me from going to Great Adventure as often as I usually do. But I'll still break even at worst. What I do at other parks varies.

August 2, 2013 at 1:30 PM · "What dining plans really offer are is less worry."

Not necessarily since you have to make reservations for certain table service restaurants on your own. To really make it worth the effort, the dining plan should have that concierge service flair that it currently lacks.

The dining plan should also be more flexible as what you'll expect from concierge service. People ought to order appetizers instead of desserts or substitute a dessert/drink for a wine or beer. If you eat salads or sandwiches, which are lower cost items, why not make up the value with both appetizers and desserts.

Personally, I have never tried it, but like most things, if you overeat, it can't continue throughout your full trip. By the 4th day, you will need a break from the greasy theme park food. Time to try something else or skip a meal.

Best way to save money is (1) eat breakfast in your room (especially if room has microwave and refrigerator) or free continental breakfast at a good value hotel, (2) bring sandwichs, soda, water, and pre-popped popcorn and other snacks in your backpack or stroller, (3) order fast casual for dinner in the parks, or leave early and eat outside the parks.

August 2, 2013 at 2:25 PM · I can speak only about Six Flags, as that's the only chain for which I have a season pass. (To buy a meal plan anywhere else wouldn't make a lot of sense.) At the time that I looked into the dining plan, it limited the choice to one of three entrees; the plan did not and probably still does not afford the flexibility of ordering whatever you want. Dietary restrictions were mentioned previously and as a vegetarian, I found that none of the entrees were suitable. I have additional dietary restrictions so manage to find something that will get me through the day -usually ice cream for lunch and cheese fries or something similar for dinner. Going to an amusement park is a good excuse to eat junk food! On occasion I've tried to get something more nutritionally sound but couldn't because there are so many foreign nationals with a limited command of English at the food concessions that when I asked what was in a particular entrée, they didn't understand the question and consequently were unable to answer.
August 2, 2013 at 3:02 PM · I'm heading to Disney World in the spring and just finished sorting through all the dining plan options. As an over-planner, I already know all the restaurants I intend to eat at, so I was able to compare the cost of dining with and without their plans. For our 11 day stay, it would cost us (using the 2013 plan prices) $611 for the standard dining plan or $1099 for the deluxe plan per person, plus the cost of meals at restaurants not included in the plan or outside the parks on days when we leave the resort, bringing the per person food costs with the plans to $941 and $1274, respectively. By choosing not to purchase the plans, we will be able to eat at all the same restaurants for $590 per person.
August 2, 2013 at 3:56 PM · Decided to try the Six Flags one-price season dining plan, and I have very mixed if not negative results. One the one hand, it is VERY convenient and if one goes to the park often, it feels like its definitely worth the $70.

However, as others have stated, only select restaurants participate. The food choices at Six Flags is very limited and often your only choices are hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken strips. And they seem to want to put fries with everything as filler and most of the time I'm just throwing them away.

One thing that really ticked us off, though, is that its not usable in other Six Flags parks. Its only suppose to be used at the park you bought your pass from. Is it really that much of a cost factor? As far as I know there was nothing in the literature that explicitly stated that you couldn't use it at other parks (nothing you said you could either). I had actually used it a couple of times in another park, but I think during those times their machines were down and by default they give it to you if your pass had it written on it. We were very mad the next time we came through and were completely denied.

Also, they severely limit WHEN you can eat... 11:30 to 3:30 for lunch and 4:30 to 7:30 for dinner. If you are in between those hours, or after before/after those hours, tough luck.

In addition, if you paid for your whole family and say someone can't come that day... you CANT use their pass to get a meal. Only those passes that got scanned while coming into the park.

Just so many limitations... obviously to reduce the amount you use it. So in the end, it becomes more of a hassle than benefit.

I would not recommend getting it.

August 2, 2013 at 5:40 PM · I voted for the first option.

With a guilty conscience, I admit that my husband and I frequently plan our vacations around where we get to eat :-). We went to New Orleans earlier this year and the most detailed conversations about the trip centered around food!

That being said, we have our favorite places at Universal (Latin Quarter, Hard Rock, Mythos, Finnegans, Lombards....and I think we're gonna have to add a few Simpsons locations....) and we just figure out how we're going to work them in.

We don't worry about dining plans. We DO have the benefit of annual pass discounts, but that doesn't really determine where and when we go. The package deals seem too limited -- we'd rather budget to spend a little extra on food and enjoy ourselves, rather than try to fit to a plan.

August 3, 2013 at 12:37 AM · The buffet breakfast at the Swan in the Epcot resorts area is about $25 per person after you factor in drinks. For a family of four that's $100 for one meal. At this rate your budget can spiral out of control quickly. It's the same price at Universal for the breakfast buffet.
We always buy food at the Publix near Downtown Disney and prepare as many meals in our room as we can. The same $100 for a single breakfast can cover a whole week of self made breakfasts'. We are staying in a two bedroom villa at the Boardwalk in October and can easily walk back to our room to prepare food in the kitchen. (That also gives us an excuse to head back to the room for a mid day nap after we prepare our lunch.)
We still have to eat in the parks at some point and try to eat at off hours to avoid the chaos that surrounds counter service at most WDW eateries. Although I loved that some places have started using the touch screen ordering machines like in Pecos Bill's at MK. I hope to see more of those on this trip.
August 3, 2013 at 10:17 AM · I've used Disney's dining plan a few times, and while there were certainly benefits, I've decided not to go for it on future visits. It's not a good fit for my family, because we just don't eat that way on a regular basis. Dessert with every meal? No thank you. I'd much rather have an appetizer, so I often end up paying separately for that- and leaving a dessert uneaten. When "free" dining is offered, it's at the expense of getting a possible room discount- which is much more of a benefit for my family of three. I will say,though, that I'm glad I've done it, if only for all the character meals. It helps to not have to worry about the price when you're booking those special meals. If paying out of pocket, I'd be much less likely to spring for the character meal prices.
August 3, 2013 at 10:30 AM · The past few years we have traveled to WDW twice a year and have taken advantage of both the "free" dining plan and/or the 30-35% off room rate packages. We have now gone through all of the restaurants in both fast food and sit-down. However, I did some rough calculations and found that it is cheaper to go with the 30-35% off room rates rather than the "free" dining plan. We have been staying at The Beach Club for the past four years and with the rooms running over $500 per night the discount saves something like $150 per day. For our next trip this fall we plan on taking advantage of the room discount special and just purchasing a quick serve dining plan separately. If we want to eat at one of our favorite places, like Tusker House, we will just pay for it as it is not that expensive to begin with. Perhaps we just got tired of scheduling our park visits around a dining reservation.
August 4, 2013 at 5:25 AM · I usually do a little research before going to the parks (Thank you TPI!) and try to select a place that I know is good, regardless of price. If it is good, I would be willing to pay an extra bit. I think this is my issue with the Six Flags parks.

I think that's Mythos at IOA's secret weapon: extremly good food at not an outrageous price.

Still, I think that the recommendations on TPI (and especially Robert's picks) will steer you in the right direction. France is very underrated along with Morocco at EPCOT to use some examples.

Personally, I liked Disney's meal plan, but then again, I knew exactly where I was going to use the credits to get the most value for my buck.

I know it wasn't mentioned (because its only offered to a couple of different groups), but the Tables in Wonderland is the best deal at Disney. For $100, you and nine other people can eat at virtually every table service resturant at Disney World and get 20%. There are some restrictions (no Japan and no holidays), but it should pay for itself in about 3 visits (if you have a party of 5)

August 5, 2013 at 12:29 AM · What are you talking about @Bobbie Butterfield and

Neither of you know what you're talking about regarding the Six Flags Dining Pass.

The Six Flags Dining Pass offers more than just three entrees and the program is offered at most of the restaurants within each park. Entree choices include more than just hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken strips. You just haven't spent the time to learn about the program and the entree choices offered at your park. you're especially ridiculous! You paid $70 and you're given the option of two meals each time you visit. That's a pretty amazing offer, yet you're upset about the meal hours which are pretty generous, the fact that you can't use it at other Six Flags parks and for being unable to use the meals for a passholder who is not present. Are you for real?

You didn't pay for your entire family. You paid for each individual to have the dining pass and I think it's expected that they should be present to be given the benefit you paid for.

Finally, most kids, which theme parks cater to, like French fries with their meal. You don't go to a theme park to eat healthy.

The Six Flags Dining Pass is an unreal value! It's almost too good to be true.

August 5, 2013 at 8:18 AM · My main experience with Six Flags is the one in Maryland, Six Flags America. Its not the best park to begin with. Six Flags Great Adventure has its problems as well, but definitely a lot better park experience.

None the less, I don't think anyone is expecting healthy dining choices at theme parks. I think people, however, would like more choices (unhealthy or otherwise). You get a lot of food choices at Busch Gardens and you get a lot at Disney. But not as much with Six Flags. That's not to say there aren't "some" choices (like one restaurant may serve BBQ this or that or one may server pasta this or that), but the choices definitely do not blow you away nor are they pervasive. My experience is that 90% of the time, the family is getting hungry and the only food places we can 'immediately' find are serving up boring chicken strips or hot dogs or hamburgers. And yes, the fries at Six Flags are horrible. I love fries! But the fries there are third-rate. They are filler. They make it look like you're getting more food than you really are.

With that said the $70 to $90 dining plan is great financially speaking IF you go to the parks often. If you compare it to what you would normally spend per meal (say $8 to $10 for just an entree), you win after 4 trips (if you do both lunch and dinner). But think about what that must mean the parks make profit-wise from any one meal. Six Flags must spend no more than a buck or two at most for each entree... which again, I think speaks to the quality of the food. I think this is the reason Six Flags can afford to do this kind of season long dining plan... because it probably doesn't spend a lot on the food to begin with. You will probably never see anything like this at Busch Gardens. In addition, the entrees don't include any extras like drinks or desserts or anything else. So, you get JUST the entree, even if it's just 3 chicken strips (plus the fries).

With that said... it is a good deal if you go often. It's understandable that they don't do it across parks (different costs per geographical area), but that would be a nice perk if they did this again next year. Even if they upcharged for it.

August 5, 2013 at 10:55 AM · We chose to skip the Disney Dining Plan last year when we spent seven days in Walt Disney World. Didn't seem like it would pay off for the way we like to eat. We just don't ever feel the need to sit down to three full meals each day, preferring to grab snacks when we are hungry, and possibly taking time out once per day for a relaxing meal. When I got home and added up all our food receipts (I'm obsessive about this sort of thing), I determined that we definitely made the right choice for us. Bottom line, it would have cost us about 35% more if we had purchased the Dining Plan. And like many commenters noted, we would have felt compelled to eat a lot more often, and in larger quantity, just to make sure our money didn't go to waste. Not a healthy mindset. Now, a free Dining Plan is a completely different story. I wouldn't hesitate for a second to make use of that. Who cares if you skip a meal or two when it's free?
August 5, 2013 at 11:15 AM · To Eric G - There's no call for you to be rude if you disagree with someone. Your comments to me and one other person were insulting and there's no excuse for that. Polite disagreements are perfectly acceptable but calling someone ridiculous is not!

BTW, when I looked into SFGA's meal plan, the only choices being offered were chicken wings and two other entrees which were not vegetarian fare. If you can find a meal plan at this park which would suit the needs of a vegetarian I'd love to hear about it - if you can tell us about it without verbally attacking other TPI members.

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