Home » 5 Ways to Eat Like a King at Walt Disney World…Without Breaking the Bank

    5 Ways to Eat Like a King at Walt Disney World…Without Breaking the Bank

    Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe

    Few Disney topics are as divisive as the subject of meals, especially with regards to payment options. Disney is the top amusement park company in the world, and it prices its meals to reflect its superiority.

    Any visit to Disney will include these sorts of tourist trap costs. Were it not for these expenses, the term staycation never would have been invented.  Alas, amusement park meal charges are constantly increasing, but I have a handful of recommendations for park visitors in order to maximize the contents of their bank account and thereby their vacation. The key is hacking the Disney Dining Plan to maximum benefit.

    I want to note at the start that the Disney Dining Plan is available only to people staying at Disney properties. Then again, if you are planning a park trip wherein you choose to stay off site, I want to add that I think you are making a real mistake and should reconsider your plan. The All-Star Resorts options are virtually the same cost as non-Disney properties, and you will make up any difference in charges via the meal plan as long as you strategize correctly while saving yourself a ton of aggravation with regards to transportation.

    Simply stated, Disney resort guests are treated better than those customers who are not providing the company with the monopoly of their vacation money. And from a business perspective, that is the way it should be.

    5. There are three main Disney Dining Plan options. Don’t pick the wrong one.

    Cosmic Ray's Starlight CafeCosmic Ray’s Starlight CafeThis place is a creepy sci-fi take on Country Bears Jamboree. Image © Disney

    In terms of pricing, there are technically five tiers of the Disney Dining Plan. Unless you are an oil baron, there are realistically only three. The Disney Quick Service Dining Plan is the lowest tier as well as the cheapest option. You may be swayed by the daily cost of $39.64 per person. A family of four would only spend $950 on a seven day, six night trip to Disney. It is not the sweet spot, though. Your family would live off burgers and fries for a week, which is neither healthy nor satisfying. The Quick Service plan offers neither Table Service meals nor the means to switch multiple Quick Service meals for a single sit-down offering. Plus, the Disney character meals that children covet more than Enchanted Tales with Belle FastPasses are off limits. In short, the Quick Service Plan is cheap but far from optimal.

    Conversely, the Deluxe Dining Plan may make you feel like a king when you purchase it. By day four, however, only people with potentially fatal tapeworms will still have any remaining appetite. At the cost of $104.94 per person per day, the plan user is entitled to three Table Service meals per day. A Disney Table Service meal on this plan includes appetizer, main course, dessert and beverage. Jabba the Hut could not consume that much food on a daily basis. There is no living creature at Animal Kingdom that could, for that matter. It would be like celebrating Thanksgiving every meal for a week. If you ever chose to buy this plan, the first person you see when you get home had better be your gastroenterologist. Plus, it is pricey to boot. The same family of four would have to spend $2,500 on meals and then purchase a family gym membership after vacation. Again, that is not the sweet spot.

    4. Why the Disney Dining Plan IS the right choice

    Columbia Harbour House at Magic KingdomColumbia Harbour House at Magic KingdomIf you like fish, this place is not to be missed. Image © Disney

    At a modest $58.66 per day (at time of publication), the Disney Dining Plan is named precisely that way by the company. I presume they do so to identify it as the best option. They know it and now I am about to explain to you why.

    The proverbial family of four spends $1,400 on this plan, less than $20 more per person per day than the Quick Service plan. A family saves $1,100 over the Deluxe Dining Plan in this manner. Meanwhile, they also receive much better food for only $450 (an average of $75 a day) more than the Disney Quick Service Plan. The key is in the options made available.

    Under the Disney Dining Plan, each park visitor receives one Quick Service meal as well as one Table Service meal. The contrast is in the pricing. I will presume that you provide your own breakfast cereal or fruit in the morning, because that is the healthy (ish) way to eat at a theme park. A Quick Service meal at Disney is priced for adults to spend about $20 each for the remaining two meals a day plus $12 each for the two children in our theoretical example. That is a charge of $128 for a plan that costs your family $158. That doesn’t sound like a great deal, does it?

    Compare the same calculations if you decide to “splurge” for Table Service at The Crystal Palace, a character buffet at Magic Kingdom. The same family would be charged $140 plus tax for that meal alone plus the same $64 for lunch. That is a $176 worth of food that costs over $200 if purchased without the Disney Dining Plan. You have gotten much better bang for your buck while enjoying a world class buffet rather than a mediocre plate of chicken nuggets. Plus, your children get to meet Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet, which is tantamount to free on-site babysitting in an air-conditioned building for over an hour. All parents reading this recognize that the value of this aspect cannot be accurately measure.

    3. Table Service meals at Disney are gala affairs

    Rose and Crown PubRose and Crown PubThis pub has my favorite view at Epcot. Image © Disney

    Yes, the people at surrounding tables will be in (possibly wet) shorts rather than formal wear. Otherwise, you will never feel taller than when you eat at one of Disney’s high profile restaurants. Your mind may link the meals at Disney as similar in scale to dinner at Applebee’s or Chili’s. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Disney restaurants hire James Beard Award candidates rather than line cooks. Some of their eateries receive Michelin stars and Five Diamond awards from AAA. Rather than eating a chewy, overpriced steak served by someone who has no intention of becoming a chef, Table Service meals are Instagram and Pinterest-worthy food porn on a plate. Plus, the food has been cooked by people who could feasibly compete on Top Chef someday. The difference between high end Disney Table Service meals and basic Quick Service meals is, in the immortal words of Larry Miller, the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it.

    2. You get what you pay for

    Olivia's Cafe at Old Key WestOlivia's Cafe at Old Key WestStay at Old Key West and enjoy Table Service right by the lobby. Image © Disney

    If nothing else, the difference in pricing should identify the change in status. Most Disney Quick Service locations feature food cheap enough that a family of four could eat for about $40 if the adults share food and lie about the ages of their children (and any Disney restaurant employee will tell you that this happens a LOT). It can be done and the savings of $25 per a meal will add up. Conversely, you will be eating in an unhealthy manner during a park visit where you will be burning massive amounts of calories traveling through the sprawling parks. Saving a few dollars a meal is not worth the trouble if eat your way into an emergency room visit on vacation. Always keep sight of the big picture here. Protein sustains you on a massive vacation undertaking. Pinching pennies can be short-sighted with lasting repercussions. You are on holiday. Live a little!

    I personally had four different Table Service meals that cost roughly that much during my most recent visit. Did I overpay? Yes, I did, at least in terms of sticker shock. In terms of actual money spent, however, I felt nothing because as a participant in the Disney Dining Plan, all I had to do was wave my Magic Band at the waiter then tip them for their service. Everything else had already been included with plan purchase. In terms of out of pocket expense, those four meals cost me roughly $60 each for tips while at the park plus the $58.66 per day for the meal plan. What I received from those meals was a lifetime of memories as my wife, a Disney super-fan, hugged her way through the entire Disney character community. Based upon recent events, I am now 30% convinced she has a furry fetish. Am I bothered by the cost? Absolutely not. We paid $117 a day plus tips no matter what. That is the magic of the Disney Dining Plan.

    1. Now you’re ready to eat like royalty

    Chef Mickey'sChef Mickey’sEveryone has a favorite Disney restaurant. This one is ours.

    Okay, I have sold you on the right plan. Now, let’s talk strategy. It is simple. All you need is the basic understanding of which numbers are larger than one another combined with a simple ability to Google restaurant reviews. At the official Disney web site, they list all of the restaurants participating in the Disney Dining Plan. Take a look at them and note the ones that include this signifier: $$$. You do not need to put any thought into it beyond that. I am not joking. Disney has done all the work for you. They create their pricing based upon basic market factors such as food cost and consumer demand. Any restaurant with three dollar signs beside it is their highest quality meal.

    Generally, that means not only great food but also character meeting options as well. Everyone has their favorites from this list, but Chef Mickey’s would be my suggestion because it is a high quality buffet that also includes meet and greets with their most famous characters, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck. What’s better than that?