Disney and Universal each offer people who stay in their on-site hotels pre-paid dining plans for use at their resort restaurants. These dining plans provide convenience by taking care of your meal costs with a single purchase. They can provide value if you eat enough and make the right selections so that you end up paying less for your meals than if you’d ordered them individually in 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.
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. The Disney Dining Plan is available only to guests of Disney’s hotels who book a vacation package through Disney.
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. It’s up to you to decide if that’s a better deal for your family than paying as you go in the parks. You must buy the dining plan for the entire length of your stay on-site, and it is priced as part of your overall vacation package, so the prices below are only a rough estimate. Keep in mind that Disney sometimes offers steep discounts, including free dining plans, on its vacation packages during the off season, usually for stays in the early fall.
Walt Disney World offers three variations on its dining plan:
All meals include one, non-alcoholic beverage. You 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, but not anywhere else on property. Not all menu options at all meals at all parks and hotel restaurants will be available for people using the Disney Dining Plan, though the vast majority are.
Do note that the Disney Dining Plan does not include tips at table service restaurants. (Please, don’t stiff your server! Waiters and waitresses in the United States should get a gratuity equal to 15-20% of the pre-tax, non-discounted cost of a meal.) You also should know that certain “signature” restaurants will charge two meal credits, rather than just one, for your meal, which could leave you having to pay out-of-pocket for another meal at some point during your stay, unless you’re willing to skip a meal for every signature restaurant meal you have.
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 or above dining plans, the only options that cover three meals per day. If you’re curious, the Premium and Platinum dining plans offer the same benefits as the Deluxe dining plan. They are included in Disney’s “Magic Your Way" Premium and Platinum vacation packages, respectively, and Disney slaps the fancier name on the included dining plans for those more expensive overall packages.
Finally, note that for those Deluxe Dining Plans, you’re paying the same whether you eat two courses at a cheaper counter-service restaurant or three courses at a more expensive table service one. As you can probably guess, that encourages people on those plans to eat at as many table service restaurants as possible. That’s the reason why advance reservations have become so hard to get at so many Disney table service restaurants. In the days before the Disney Dining Plan, it was rare to be shut out of a time at any Disney World restaurant if you called a few days in advance. For many locations now, it’s just as rare to be able to get a time if you wait until a few days before your arrival to call.
So, should you do it? It's time to do some math. Let's look at that Quick Service Plan. Given that snacks cost around $5-6, you're looking at paying about $19 for each walk-up counter service meal you eat under the plan. Would you spend more or less than that, on average, without the plan? Walt Disney World provides up-to-date menus and prices for all of its restaurants, on its website and its app, so you can price what you might like to eat in advance. That will help you decide if a plan, or which one, is a good deal for you. For many visitors, the Disney Dining Plan doesn't really become a deal unless you're eating almost all your meals in higher-end restaurants... and using a higher-end dining plan to do it. As always, your mileage will vary. For some people, each version of the plan represent a good deal. For others, none do. It just depends on how much and what you prefer to eat.
Visit the Disney Dining Plan website for more information, including the complete list of participating restaurants: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/planning-guides/in-depth-advice/disney-dining-plan/
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: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/