There are a few major expenses when planning a Walt Disney World vacation. We’ve covered ticket options and where to stay in other posts. Besides travel (likely airfare), the biggest expense remaining is one that most people probably don’t think about that much when it comes to setting their vacation budget, but they should – dining. If you’re visiting the parks for a week or so, it’s likely that you will be eating most of your meals and snacks there which can add up quite a bit. I don’t know about you, but we don’t usually eat out for a week straight when we’re at home.
In this post, we’ll talk about the various dining options at WDW, whether you should look into the Disney Dining Plan, and how to save some money while you’re on vacation. There are plenty of great restaurants throughout Disney property, at both the parks and resort hotels, as well as Disney Springs. Where you eat depends largely on your taste but suffice it to say, there will be something for you somewhere on property.
First, some definitions. Dining at Walt Disney World largely consists of two different kinds of restaurants – quick service (QS) and table service (TS). These are probably self explanatory, but a quick service restaurant is one where you order at a counter and then take the food to your table and a table service restaurant is one in which you are seated and served by a waiter or waitress, or have access to a buffet. It’s not exactly accurate to think of QS as “fast food”, as the quality is often better than your typical McDonald’s, but you get the idea.
Quick service restaurants are generally less expensive than table service, and you can walk up to a QS place at any time. Table service restaurants, particularly at WDW, have reservations fill up quickly. There can be some same day availability, depending on the restaurant and time of year, but if you really want to eat at a particular location, I would always recommend making advance dining reservations (ADRs) as soon as you can. This used to take place up to 180 days before your trip, but has been shortened to 60 days. If you are staying on property, you can book 60 days in advance PLUS the length of your stay (up to 10 days). This can be an advantage for those hard to get reservations.
One thing I like about quick service is that most restaurants now have mobile order available through the My Disney Experience app. This is a good way to think ahead to what you and your family might want to eat and place the order while you’re doing other things in the park. Just hit “I’m here” when you’re ready and they’ll make your food and alert you when it’s time to pick it up. Tip – if you tell them you’re there before you’re actually there, you can often time it that your food is ready right when you arrive.
One option that people usually love at WDW is the Disney Dining Plan. As of now, this is suspended and has been since the Covid-related closure. But Disney is sure to bring this back as soon as they feel able to do so, as it is a big revenue generator for them. The way the dining plans work is that you pay in advance for the length of your stay, then eat at places where the dining plan is accepted. It’s a pre-paid option that can feel like an all inclusive resort, as you don’t have to lay out as much money while you’re at the parks.
There are normally four levels of dining plan available, starting from the least expensive and working your way up. There’s the quick service dining plan (two QS credits and two snack credits per person per day of your stay), the regular dining plan (one TS credit, one QS credit and two snack credits), the dining plan plus (two meal credits, either QS or TS, and two snack credits) and the deluxe dining plan (three meal credits, QS or TS, and two snack credits). All of these come with refillable mugs as well, that you can use at your resort. There are a lot of details I’m not going to get into here, but take a look here for more information.
If you choose to use the Disney Dining Plan, think about the time and the money involved before making a decision. Personally, I find the deluxe plan to be far too much food. Even the dining plan plus is probably only “worth it” if you’re eating multiple table service meals in one day, something I don’t generally recommend. We’ve taken advantage of the regular dining plan before and that suits our needs – we usually have one QS meal and one TS meal daily when at the parks. The snack credits are useful as well, though we often end up with a bunch left over that we have to use at our hotel gift shop.
Notice that I said above that we eat one QS and one TS meal per day. You might be asking, “What about that third meal? Don’t you need a balanced diet?” Why yes, of course, and I don’t skip meals, especially when I’m burning so many calories. But one thing we do to save money is have groceries delivered by Amazon Fresh directly to our resort. You can add items to your cart at any time and check out when you land (or even before you take off). Just select a window and let someone else do the work for you. Make sure to look up your resort’s address ahead of time so it goes to the right location.
There are other ways to accomplish this, like going to a local store (easier if you’re renting a car) or even shopping in your resort, as they often have small food items. But we prefer to have the delivery, as it’s quick and easy and doesn’t take any extra time out of our day. Each resort’s rules will vary – they say you have to be present to accept delivery, but that hasn’t been a problem for us at any resort we’ve stayed at so far (we did have that issue at a Universal resort, but that’s not relevant to this post). Usually the resort will hold your order and have bell services deliver it when you’re in your room.
The stuff we typically order is usually breakfast foods – granola bars, fruit, donuts (a true breakfast staple), juice, coffee, etc. You get the idea. We usually hit the ground running to the parks, so it’s easier to grab and go for breakfast, then have more relaxed meals in the parks later. Some people need a sit down breakfast, so you could always switch this to other items as it suits you. One common question people have is whether Disney allows you to bring in outside food and beverages, and the answer is yes! They don’t seem worried about losing revenue from people doing this, as most people won’t – eating in the park is certainly more convenient though not cheaper. One important part of this is the “beverages” – one item we absolutely order from Amazon every time is a case of water. You’ll need plenty of water throughout your day, and I find that throwing a couple of bottles of cold water in your backpack in the morning can be a lifesaver. They might not stay cold for long, but they will still be refreshing and by the time you need to get more, you’ll probably be ready for a snack or meal break anyway.
I want to end by talking about ADRs again. It’s a fool’s errand to talk about the “best” restaurants in WDW as that will be highly subjective. In general, Epcot is known for its food above any other park, mostly due to the variety and sophistication. As mentioned elsewhere, Magic Kingdom doesn’t have the best TS restaurants, but there are convenient resort hotels just a quick walk or monorail ride away that offer anything from casual dining to a AAA five diamond award winner in Victoria & Albert’s.
As far as popular (or hard to get) restaurants, as with attractions, the newer the restaurant, the more difficult it is to get. In this case, Space 220 fits that bill and will probably be difficult to come by for a few years, given its unique theme and the long anticipation of its opening. Any character meal is also generally very popular, no one more so than Cinderella’s Royal Table at Magic Kingdom (because the appeal of eating inside the castle is limitless). And one that has eluded us for years for various reasons is ‘Ohana at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
There are plenty of others depending on what you’re looking for. Make sure to book at exactly 60 days, and if you miss out, keep checking as plans always change. One useful tool for this purpose is the Touring Plans Reservation Finder which can do the work for you, though you still have to be fast once they find something! Dining is a major part of the Walt Disney World experience so treat yourself and try new things while you’re there.