If you book a vacation at a Walt Disney World hotel in Orlando, you will be offered the option of purchasing the credit-based Disney Dining Plan, which pre-pays many of your meals. It is extremely complicated, with all kinds of rules, exclusions, and premium versions, but lots of people cave and buy it in the name of convenience, thinking it will make everything easier.
Although now and then Walt Disney World offers it for free (there's a sale happening right now that grants it for free on a few dates throughout the fall—book by Sunday, Sept. 15), for the casual Disney visitor, it has other costs.
* It’s not cheap enough. The least expensive plan, Quick Service, costs $38 adults, $15 kids, and includes two counter meals and one snack (like popcorn or ice cream), plus a refillable soft drink mug you can only use at a Disney hotel ($9-18, based on how long you're staying). Most adult quick-service meals cost $12 to $14 per meal using cash. Even if you spent $15, simple math proves that if you stick to two counter-service meals with no plan, plus one $4 snack, you’ll spend about $34 versus $38 using the plan.
* It’s inflexible. You must buy the plan for every night you stay at the hotel. You can’t buy fewer. And everyone in your group must be on it. Having spent the money, you’ll feel welded to Disney property (which suits Disney, but restricts you). Also, many menu items and food locations are excluded. Only those marked with the DDP logo count.
* It costs time. The forced use of sit-down restaurants clogs reservations months ahead of time. You’ll have to do hours of advance planning and stick to a schedule. And table service eats more time than grabbing meals to go would.
* It’s impractical. The basic plan ($56 adult, $18 kids, per day) buys the equivalent of a sit-down meal, a Quick Service meal, and a snack. Few of us want daily table service at a theme park. Yet the plan has you doing that unless you use it for breakfast and pay for dinner in cash.
* It’s not any easier. You can pay using cash or a room key as quickly as using plan points. You must also make reservations with or without a plan.
* It’s incomplete. The plan doesn’t include appetizers, tips (unless your party is 6 or more, in which case there’s a mandatory 18% tip), alcoholic beverages, souvenir cups, and don’t forget the basic plan also leaves out that third daily meal that you’ll have to pay for.
* It wastes. Because it begins on the day you arrive, you’re bound to leave with some unused credits, resulting in a loss.
* It forces you into a Disney package. If you're looking to save money, this route will not fail to disappoint. Disney packages are never the cheapest way to go, and they are famously inflexible on the dates when your theme park tickets start and end, which make it hard for you to visit other theme parks without paying for Disney days you don't use.
Often, such as during the low fall season (there's that deal on right now), Disney will throw in free dining as long as you stay at one of its resorts (which cost much more than equivalent competition outside the gates). In that case, I say go for it. As long as submitting to the Dining Plan won't keep you from exploring the other wonderful attractions of Orlando, and as long as you're aware that having to schedule restaurant reservations will eat up hours of planning time, it's hard to turn down an offer for free food.
Disagree? Agree? Add your comments below. I fully expect people to register their approval for the Dining Plan for its convenience, but are there any ways in which it actually economizes your money or time?