Theme parks worldwide thrive on excited, sugared-up children and parents who are too worn out to say “no” to such things as $9 hot dogs and $3 Cokes. At least the budget algebra is easy. The cheapest combo meals are always from counter-service restaurants (called Quick Service in Disney-speak), and adults usually pay $9 to $12, including a side but not a drink, no matter the time of day. Kids’ meals (a main dish; milk, juice, water, or soda; and a choice of two items including grapes, carrot sticks, applesauce, a cookie, or fries) always cost around $6 at Quick Service locations. If you want to sit down for waiter-service meal—character meals are always in sit-down restaurants—adults pay in the mid-teens for a lunch entree and usually over $20 a plate at dinner, before gratuity or drinks, and kids’ meals are about half as much. Disney aggressively sells a Disney Dining Plan that takes away the need to pay a bill after each meal, but which comes with a lot of rules that dictate how and where you eat each day.

No longer is it easy to simply stroll into any restaurant that catches your eye and enjoy a meal. Oversubscription to the Dining Plan has spoiled the meal experience for everyone else. It’s that simple, and that sad. For table-service meals, always make reservations ([tel] 407/939-3463) or you are likely to be turned away.

Semihealthy options are possible on even the lowest food budget: Disney limits saturated fat and added sugar to 10 percent of a counter-service dish’s calories; no more than 30 percent of a meal’s calories or 35 percent of a snack’s calories come from fat; and juice drinks have no added sugar. Trans fats are out. One way Disney seems to have accomplished this is by reducing serving sizes—you won’t feel stuffed. Kids’ meals come with carrots, applesauce, or grapes instead of fries, and with low-fat milk, water, or 100 percent fruit juice instead of soda. (Fries and Coke are still available by request—Disney knows kids are still on vacation and deserve a treat.)

It will always be cheaper to drive off property to feed your family, but particularly at the Magic Kingdom, that’s not always possible or desirable. Consult the list of restaurants located outside the theme park gates, found in the Orlando section.


Should You Buy the Meal Plan? Pros and Cons

If you book at a Disney hotel, you will be offered the credit-based Disney Dining Plan, which prepurchases many of your meals. It is extremely complicated, with all kinds of rules, exclusions, and premium versions. Lots of people cave and buy it in the name of convenience, thinking it will make everything easier, but if you are a casual Disney visitor and not using it for things like character meals, it has other costs.

* It’s not cheap enough. The least expensive plan, Quick Service, has a per-day cost of $42 adults, $16 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 $42 using the plan.


* It’s inflexible. You must buy the plan for every night you stay at the hotel even though you may be exploring off of Disney property for parts of your vacation. You are not permitted buy fewer days than your star. And everyone in your group must be on it. Having spent all that money, you’ll feel welded to Disney property (which suits Disney but restricts you). Also, some 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 ($61 adult, $19 kids, per night) buys the equivalent of one sit-down meal, one Quick Service meal, and a snack. If you want all three meals covered, you’re looking at $110 adult/$30 kids each night. Few first-time visitors want that much daily table service at a theme park. Yet the plan has you doing that unless you use it for breakfast and buy 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 six or more, in which case there’s a mandatory 18 percent 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.


Well, then, who is the Disney Dining Plan for? For one, people who never intend to leave Disney property at all during their vacations—is that you? It’s also a boon if you get it for free as part of a vacation package, which happens during some sale periods.


Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.