Wednesday, June 14, 2023

The Disney Dining Plan - Is It Right For You?


We're back today with a topic that carries a lot of weight among Disney fans - the return of the Disney Dining Plan.  As noted in that post, the original announcement was short on details.  Now that the Dining Plan is available to book (for visits starting January 9, 2024), we have a lot more information about what is included, what isn't, and most importantly, the pricing.

This post will take a look at those things and try to answer the impossible question - is the Disney Dining Plan "worth it"?  Or at the very least, is it right for YOU.  As you might surmise from the word "impossible", there is no real way to answer that question (if you're looking for a simple yes/no, you can probably stop reading this right now).  But we're going to crunch some numbers and talk about how these plans can best be leveraged for your vacation, and then you will hopefully have the information you need to make an informed decision.

So let's dig in!  The Disney Dining Plan is essentially a "pay in advance" plan for certain meals and snacks throughout the course of your trip.  There are two versions of the plan being offered in 2024, at least as of now - the Quick Service Dining Plan (QSDP) and standard Disney Dining Plan (DDP).  We speculated in that prior post that since no mention was made of the Deluxe Dining Plan that this was probably eliminated, and that appears to be the case (at least for now - Disney can always decide to bring it back if they want to).  There had also, very briefly, been a plan in between the DDP and the Deluxe called the Disney Dining Plan Plus, but that is also not returning as of now.  Perhaps four tiers was a little much?  

In any case, let's talk about what is and isn't included in this new iteration of the Dining Plan.  You can look at the "full" list of restaurants here, though I'm not going to focus too much on that.  First, things can change at any time, so any list like this probably isn't worth much in the long run.  And second, most restaurants are indeed included here - there are some notable exceptions, but for the most part, if you want to eat there, the Dining Plan is likely accepted.  Check the official website before booking anything if you're concerned about the status.

We'll start with the QSDP, as that is the less expensive version, and one that will hopefully inform the numbers we come up with for the DDP.  With the QSDP, every guest over the age of three is entitled to two quick service (QS) dining meals per day, one snack/drink and one refillable mug.  I'll mostly ignore the mug - they're cool to have, but shouldn't really factor into whether you purchase the Dining Plan or not.

The first thing to note is that you are only entitled to one snack credit per day.  It lists "non-alcoholic drink" as well, but if you only have one, I would certainly suggest not using it on a bottle of water or a soda.  Snacks are the most amorphous category, so you'd have to check each location for the Dining Plan symbol in order to determine what is and isn't considered a snack for these purposes.  There are ways to maximize your use of the Dining Plan (for both snacks and meals) but that's beyond the scope of this post.  Suffice it to say, purchasing the most expensive meal or snack you can find under the Dining Plan will be your best bet to "save" money.

I mention the one snack per day for a reason - when the Dining Plans were last offered in early 2020, each tier of the plan came with TWO snacks.  Again, this isn't a huge deal when it comes to deciding whether to purchase it, but in case you remember those days and assume everything is the same, it's not.  The two QS meals with this plan are unchanged.  It's also worth noting that most normal humans eat three meals a day, so having two meals paid for in advance still leaves you one short.  This may or may not be important to you, but the idea that the Dining Plan will cover all of your dining expenses for a trip is likely a misnomer.  

Personally, I like to snack throughout the day so I would likely need to purchase some snacks out of pocket.  Of course, if you have a family of four, that means four TOTAL snacks that day - maybe you can share, maybe someone doesn't want one, etc.  As I said above, your individual situation will determine how valuable the Dining Plan is to you (side note - under the old version of the plan, we used it for our first trip and had a bunch of snack credits left over on the last day.  I don't think that would happen again, given the lesser number of snacks and the greater age of my hungry children).

I also have advocated in the past for grocery delivery at WDW.  We normally eat a quick breakfast on the go, both for time and efficiency.  In this case, having two meals covered by the QSDP and one meal "covered" by groceries in your hotel room means you should be good for the day.  Again, your mileage may vary.  And if you did want a bigger breakfast, you would probably have to pay out of pocket for a lunch or big snack to hold you over until dinner.

Okay, I've gotten this far into this post and didn't talk about price.  Disney doesn't plaster their pricing all over their website, probably because they'd rather you just add it as part of a package and not think about it too much.  But price is obviously a MAJOR factor in deciding whether you want to purchase it.  You can start booking a vacation on and then look at the Dining Plan add on, doing the math to come up with the price.  Or we could do it for you.

For the QSDP, the adult price is $57.01 per day, and the child price is $23.83.  This is the same no matter what dates you choose, what resort you're staying at (even off property), etc.  In other words, this pricing is inelastic.  If you have/spend more money, the relative cost of the Dining Plan will be less than if you're working off of a tight budget but in terms of actual dollars spent, there is no difference.

This makes it pretty easy to parse the value of the plan.  Let's look at the adult pricing first, since I have to assume there's at least one adult on this trip.  Oh, that brings up a good point as well - you can't pick and choose members of your party (either all of you have to get the same plan - whatever it may be - or all of you have to NOT get one) and you can't select the Dining Plan for some days of your trip and not others (again, this is an all or nothing situation).

So starting with the $57 price tag for adults, we can try to work backwards.  Let's assume you can pick a high value snack for your one snack a day; we'll say $7 here.  You can argue that there are plenty of snacks priced higher than this, and that's true; but you could also find many that are less expensive, including a lot of Goofy's Candy Co. and bottled water.  So let's assume you're not hunting down the absolute best use of your credit (if you're doing that in all cases, as I mentioned, you'll probably come out ahead - I just suspect that's not the way most people will operate on vacation) and pick a good happy medium price.

If that snack is $7, that means you have $50 remaining for two QS meals.  Quick math will tell you that is $25 for each meal.  This means that in order to get the full value of the QSDP, you would need to purchase items that come to $25 or more at each meal (or obviously a combination of the two - I'm just trying to keep this as simple as possible).  That includes tax as well.  

Are you able to do this?  Possibly, sure, but QS pricing is generally more static across the board than their table service counterparts.  I spot checked a few QS restaurants, and the average entree is often around $15.  Even Satu'li Canteen at Animal Kingdom, one of the nicest QS restaurants you'll find, has a high meal price of $17.49.  Add a drink to that (included as part of the meal). plus tax (6.5% in Florida), comes to around $23-24.

That's basically a break even on the plan, but also implies that you are always finding the "best" value for each meal credit, and that's the likely what will happen.  A $15 meal and $4 drink (common averages) plus tax is only $20.24 out of pocket but $25 on the QSDP.  Does that few dollars make a difference?  Per person, per meal, per day ... maybe.  That's one of the things to factor in when making a decision.

The math actually works better for the kids, as assuming a similar priced snack, each meal would be "worth" about $8.50-$9.00.  Most kids entrees are in the $7-8 range (which includes a drink) so that comes out to essentially the amount you would have spent on the plan.  I want to point out that when it comes to kids' meals, a Disney "kid" is considered age 3-9 only.  Kids in that age group must order from a kids' menu, if available.  A ten year old could theoretically do so as well, but you would have already paid the "adult" price for the Dining Plan, meaning that there is absolutely no value there.  This is something to consider, as my kids as an example often enjoy(ed) ordering from the kids' menu after the age of nine.

Things get more interesting when we turn to the DDP.  Before even discussing pricing, I wanted to point out that not everyone wants two QS meals per day - I for one love a nice sit down meal at Disney, as a great way to get off my feet and into some air conditioning.  Not everyone will feel the same, and obviously those that choose the QSDP will be thinking to the contrary.  But table service meals are where the Disney cuisine really shines and that's where the standard DDP comes in.

For the DDP, the adult price is $94.28 per day and the child price is $29.69.  Let's start with the kids this time.  We've already established the value of a snack at around $7 (let's say $6.69 in this case, to make the math easier).  And the value of a QS kids' meals is around $9.  That leaves $14 for a kids' table service (TS) meal.  And what do you know, that's around the average out of pocket price for a meal.  Add in tax and you likely come out AHEAD in the kids' department.

I suspect this isn't by accident.  Since the total value of these meals are far less than their adult counterparts, Disney can afford to keep this price low.  Adults need to have a Dining Plan in order for their kids to have one as well, as I noted.  So Disney won't be making any money off the kids in this scenario.  But if that's the case, where WILL they be making their money?  I think you know the answer.

Let's dissect that adult price here.  Again, using the numbers we already came up with (a snack value of around $7, a QS meal value of around $25), that puts the value of an adult TS meal at around $62.  TS prices vary wildly, so there are certainly some places where you can "spend" that kind of money.  But that's not as common as you might think.

Take a look at Coral Reef, as an example.  The most expensive entree on that menu is the prime rib, currently priced at $36.  The TS credit comes with a dessert - here, the chocolate wave is $10.  Add on a beverage of around $5-6, plus tax and you're looking at $55 or so.  That's not a great value for what you already pre-paid.  But wait!  Adults 21 and over can substitute a (much more expensive) alcoholic drink instead.  Using our Coral Reef example, the most expensive cocktail is the spicy poblano margarita at $16.50.  Add the meal and dessert here and you come up with around $66.  A big win?

This one example explains why the real value of the Dining Plan is hard to ascertain.  Perhaps as adults, you always want an alcoholic drink with your meal.  If that's the case, you are much more likely to get the most bang for your buck.  Would you buy the same drink if you were paying out of pocket?  How about a dessert?  For me personally, a dessert isn't a necessity with every TS meal, especially after I've already stuffed myself and want to go on more rides afterwards.  As for drinking, I make no judgments.  But drinking isn't a big part of my Disney trips, at least to date.  Alcohol makes me sluggish (and possibly queasy in combination with attractions) and I'd rather have all my faculties about me when I'm having marathon park days.

All of these are factors in determining whether you want to purchase a Dining Plan.  Even if the money doesn't exactly work out (let's say, give or take, you come out paying more than you would have out of pocket, but not exorbitantly so), there can still be value in purchasing the Dining Plan simply for the fact that you're paying in advance.  Don't underestimate that as a motivation.  If you had the Dining Plan, most of your meal expenses will have been paid before you go on your trip.  Otherwise, you come home to a large credit card bill (as I know from experience).  Is a premium on your meals "worth it" in this case?  That's up to you.

One other note on the DDP.  One of the major draws of Disney dining is a character meal or some other kind of Signature or Fine Dining meal.  These are the most expensive meals to purchase out of pocket.  But Disney is aware of this!  You can't leverage your Dining Plan to pay for these meals; instead, Disney will charge you TWO TS credits for each meal of this type.  That effectively makes character dining et al the WORST use of the Dining Plan you can find (there are very few restaurants where the cost of a meal is twice what you would pay at a "regular" TS restaurant).  Do you plan on having a lot of character meals?  This is yet another thing to factor in to the equation.

There is not a one size fits all answer to the Dining Plan question, which is the case for many Disney upcharges.  And as with anything else, the more legwork and planning you put in ahead of time, the better off you'll be in determining whether this is worth it for you.  Look at menus for restaurants you are interested in, think about what you might eat, do some math and then decide whether the convenience factor is a big motivator.  You might be surprised by the answer you find.

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