When it comes to planning your visit to Walt Disney World, one of the most difficult aspects can be understanding and making a decision about adding a Disney dining plan to your package. In this post, we cover what the Disney dining plans are, why they matter, how to decide whether or not you should book with them, and how you can get Free Dining plans from Disney.
Disney Dining Plans - The Basics
Walt Disney World has dozens of wonderful table service restaurants, nearly 200 quick service stops, and even more snack carts throughout the parks. Over the course of a seven-day Disney vacation, a family of four is going to consume nearly 100 individual meals. And all of the meals (and snack stops) cost money. It adds up.
To keep the sticker shock of a Disney vacation from ruining your experience in the parks, Disney has developed the Disney dining plans. In very simple terms, the Disney dining plans are a way of paying for your meals before you get to Walt Disney World. When you get a Disney dining plan, you are purchasing dining credits from Disney that you can use at Walt Disney World during your stay.
When you book a Disney vacation package, you’ll be given the option to add a variety of dining plans (we cover these in more detail below). They range from about $20 per night for children for the most minimal package to $116 per night for adults on the deluxe package.
At least once a year, Disney offers “Free Dining” packages, where you can book a vacation package and add a dining plan for free. The specific rules on what hotels are eligible and which dining plans are eligible change from year to year. We cover Free Dining in more detail below.
If you opt for a dining plan, when you purchase food or beverages at Walt Disney World, including table service meals if your purchase the more expensive packages, you’ll tell the Cast Member you order from that you’re using the dining plan. They’ll clarify any questions you have about how your credits can be used at the specific restaurant.
Dining credits are linked to your reservation, so you’ll “pay” using your Magic Band or room key. You need to inform a Cast Member that you’re using the dining plan in order to use it for a given meal.
Disney Restaurant & Food Types
Before we discuss the specifics of the difference Disney dining plans, it is helpful to clarify a few terms. For the purposes of the Disney dining plans, there are three types of meals at Walt Disney World: table service, quick service, and snack. The full list of table service and quick service restaurants is available here.
Table Service Restaurants
Walt Disney World’s table service restaurants are the nicer restaurants where you’ll either be served by a waiter or have access to a buffet. The include character dining experiences, signature restaurants like Jiko (at Animal Kingdom Lodge) and California Grill (at Contemporary), and ordinary sit-down restaurants like San Angel Inn (at the Mexico Pavilion, Epcot).
For purposes of dining plan credits (more on these below) a table-service meal is:
(for breakfast) one entree and one beverage
(for lunch, dinner) one entree, one dessert, and one beverage (Disney Deluxe Dining Plan guests also get an appetizer)
(at applicable restaurants) one buffet seating
(at applicable restaurants) one family-style seating
Quick Service Restaurants
Quick service restaurants are (mostly) the spots around the parks where most people grab lunch. These are places where you’ll line up at a register, place your order, pick up your food at the counter, and find your own seating. Quick service restaurants include places like Satu’li Canteen, The Lunching Pad, the food courts at value resorts, and Geyser Point Bar & Grill (at Wilderness Lodge). For purposes of dining plan credits (more on these below) a quick-service meal is one entree and one beverage.
Snacks are the smallest form of food at Walt Disney World. Snacks include things like ice cream bars, bottles of water, popcorn, and coffee. Pretty much any small, single food item counts as a snack. Snacks are often indicated using the following icon:
Most notably, snacks include items at Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival! Not every item is included, but menu boards use the dining plan icon to indicate the items that you can purchase with a snack credit. This is easily one of the best ways to use snack credits at Disney World.
Dining Plan Credits
Each dining plan offers a different combination of “credits.” There are snack credits, quick service credits, and table service credits. A snack credit is good for one snack; a quick service credit is good for one meal at a quick service restaurant.
A table service credit is good for one meal at a table service restaurant.—mostly. The nicer table service restaurants actually require two table service credits. The restaurants requiring two table service credits per guest are indicated on this list by the “2” in a circle.
This is a hugely important point, so I’m going to write it again: the best restaurants at Walt Disney World require two table service credits per person per meal. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s move on to the details of the Disney dining plans.
The Three Disney Dining Plans
There are three Disney dining plans. The lowest-cost option is the Disney Quick-Service Dining Plan. The middle-tier option is simply called the Disney Dining Plan. The most expensive option is the Disney Deluxe Dining Plan.
Rules Applicable to All Dining Plans
There are a few things that are true of every dining plan. First, dining plans are available to persons three and older. Kids under three cannot participate in the dining plan. They either have to share with someone or get a separate meal purchased for them.
Second, children aged three through nine are categorized as “children” and must order from the children’s menu, where available. The reverse issue, children ten and over wanting to order from the children’s menu, is typically handled on a case-by-case basis.
Third, dining plans are purchased per night as part of your entire package. Someone arriving at 11PM on Day 1 and checking out at 6AM on Day 4 gets the same number of credits as someone arriving at 9AM on Day 1 and checking out at 10PM on Day 4. Both would get three nights worth of meals.
Relatedly, credits purchased on a package are shared by all those booked as part of the package. You can use each others’ credits, except that adults cannot use child credits and children cannot use adult credits.
Fourth, when it comes to using credits, everyone is on their own. You can all dine together or you can go to separate locations. Fifth, everyone (three and older) gets a refillable mug for use at any Disney-operated hotel at Walt Disney World Resort.
Now, let’s move on to the three Disney dining plans, what they include, and what they cost.
Disney Quick-Service Dining Plan
The Disney Quick-Service Dining Plan comes with (per night, per guest):
2 quick-service meal credits
2 snack credits
For stays in 2019, the Disney Quick-Service Dining Plan costs (per night, per guest):
$23.78 for children aged three through nine
$52.50 for persons aged ten and above
Disney Dining Plan
The “standard” Disney Dining Plan comes with (per night, per guest):
1 quick-service meal credit
1 table-service meal credit (no appetizer)
2 snack credits
For stays in 2019, the Disney Dining Plan costs (per night, per guest):
$27.98 for children aged three through nine
$75.49 for persons aged ten and above
Disney Deluxe Dining Plan
The Disney Deluxe Dining Plan comes with (per night, per guest):
3 meal credits (quick service or table service; table service lunch/dinner includes appetizer)
2 snack credits
For stays in 2019, the Disney Dining Plan costs (per night, per guest):
$43.49 for children aged three through nine
$116.25 for persons aged ten and above
Is The Disney Dining Plan Worth It?
This is the big question you all want the answer to. Here’s our short answer: if you want to put the effort in and squeeze big value out of the dining plans, yes they can be worth it. If you aren’t planning to put the effort into figuring out where to get value from the dining plan, you’re going to get ripped off.
Valuing Dining Plan Credits
A Mickey Ice Cream Bar costs about $6 (after tax), and a bottled soda costs about $5. Based on that, we can quickly value the average snack credit at $5.50. From that, we can approximate that a quick service credit costs an adult $20.75, and a table service credit costs an adult $43. (Remember, Disney doesn’t sell individual credits, these figures are just for reference.)
For children, the numbers are much lower, but you have to remember that children are under ten years old and they must order from the children’s menu. For a child, a quick service credit costs about $6.39 and a table service credit costs about $12.50. In general, you’ll want to use your credits for more than they cost in order to maximize the value of the dining plan.
Disney Dining Plan Calculators
We haven’t inspected many of these, but Google points to plenty of Disney dining plan calculators if you’re looking to run some numbers. The menus for all the Disney restaurants are also available online.
The trick here is to be honest about what you would typically spend. If you use these calculators to put together your dream dining experience, you’re doing things backwards. Start by finding out whether the dining plan makes sense based on what you’d typically spend.
Making the Dining Plan Worth It
If you find out the dining plan won’t save you money based on your typical dining habits, you may decide you want to try to make it worth it anyways. I would never dine at Akershus Royal Banquet hall for the $60 it would cost me, but if I could fit it into a dining plan and get it (effectively) for less than $60, I might try it.
My typical dining habits are based on wanting to save (Emily and I will split bread service at Sanaa for the bulk of our dinner); but if I was able to craft a set of experiences that appealed to me at the price of the dining plan (and the dining plan was actually cheaper than paying cash), then it might make sense to go with the dining plan.
Winging It On The Dining Plan
It’s rare that someone puts no effort into meal planning and discovers they would have had big savings on a dining plan. The dining plans aren’t really built that way—if they were, Disney would be losing money across the board with them.
Yes, you might wind up feeling like you got your value out of it, but that might be because you just wind up eating more than you would have if you were paying out of pocket.
Upsides of the Disney Dining Plan
If you’re paying for a Disney dining plan, you need to know the upsides and downsides of the plans. We cover Free Dining and whether/when that offer makes sense in a bit below.
It’s a Good Way to Keep Kids On Budget
If you’ve got teenage kids (or others in your party you’re paying for) eating on their own, you won’t have to worry about how much they’re spending on their meals. With the dining plan, they just have to know they have a set amount of credits and that’s it.
Credits Are Pretty Flexible
You can use your credits for most food purchases on property. You can exchange a quick service meal credit for three snacks (restrictions apply). You can ditch your dessert in favor of a side at quick service restaurants. You can use a table service credit for a quick service meal (but NOT vice versa). There are a lot of these sorts of “tricks” available, though they’re always subject to changes/restrictions by Disney.
You can also use your credits for a variety of non-standard meals. In-room dining and pizza delivery, for example, are both included in the dining plan, but they’ll require two table-service meal credits!
A better value is to use your credits for packages that include VIP seating for parades or night time shows. These include the Fantasmic! Dining Package, the Rivers of Light Dining Package, and the Festival of Fantasy Dining Package.
You Can Mostly Ignore Prices…
Except that you’ll be tipping based on the price of what your order (more on that below), you can ignore the prices of the items you’re ordering under the plan. Some special items might not qualify for the plan, but for the most part if its listed under “entree,” it will count as an entree on your meal credit whether it costs $20 or $50.
…Because You Already Paid For Them!
I really hesitate to mention this at all, because it’s not really an upside unless you’re getting more value out of the dining plan than you’re spending for it. But the reason you get to ignore the prices is because you already paid for them when you booked your vacation, months ago.
Some people definitely get mental and emotional satisfaction out of knowing they won’t have to worry about paying for their meals once they arrive at Walt Disney World. Individuals on the Disney Dining Plan and the Disney Deluxe Dining Plan could theoretically spend nothing after they arrive at Walt Disney World other than table service tips.
Downsides of the Disney Dining Plan
There are a few downsides to the Disney dining plans.
You Lose Flexibility
Yes, you can eat wherever you want regardless of whether or not you have the dining plan, but obviously when you have a dining plan you need to focus on getting value out of it or it was a waste of money.
To that end, you lose a lot of flexibility. To keep within the terms, you’ll be restricted to how many quick service and how many table service restaurants you go to. To get value out of it, you’ll have to go to specific restaurants and order from a more limited set of entree (that $15 pasta won’t be worth it, sorry).
Some meals we eat only appetizers. Sometimes we split an entree and splurge on desserts. Some days we only eat quick service, but we do it four times. And some days we spontaneously add a table service meal because it’s raining, or too hot, or we just want to try a new place. We would be the worst people in the world for the dining plan!
Disney Package Required
The only way to book a dining plan is to book your hotel stay through Disney. If you’re booking online, you’ll need to book a package (with tickets) to add a dining plan. You can add a dining plan to a room-only booking to create a ticketless package by calling Disney or your travel agent. Because of the complexities of these packages and the fact that you’ll be limited in how much you can manage them online, we strongly suggest working with a travel agent if you’re interested in these.
You cannot get a dining plan if you are not staying at a Disney-operated hotel. This means guests of the Four Seasons Orlando, Swan & Dolphin, or Disney Springs hotels cannot get a dining plan. Having to book through Disney also means missing out on lower hotel rates you might find on sites like Undercover Tourist or Expedia.
Where does your park money go?
If every guest on the dining plan put the time into making sure they were saving money on the dining plan, it might still make sense for Disney to offer the dining plan. The reason is that when you’re not spending money out-of-pocket on food, you’ll spend it on merchandise.
If you visit Disney World with the dining plan purchased, it’s incredibly easy to make it through the day without spending an additional dime. But are you doing to do that? Or are you going to say to yourself “I haven’t spent anything today, so I can definitely get that t-shirt!”
Not All Restaurants Participate
The most notable restaurant that doesn’t participate in the Disney dining plan is the best restaurant on property: Victoria and Alberts. Pretty much every other restaurant you’ll consider is on the plan, but you always need to confirm by checking directly with Disney. Here is their 2018 list.
Getting Maximum Value Takes Time
You can’t maximize the value of the standard and deluxe dining plans without eating at table service restaurants. If you’re on the Disney Deluxe Dining Plan, you’ll be wanting to have three table service meals each day. Those three meals will easily cost you between four and six hours each day.
You can hedge against this problem by eating at restaurants that are in the parks or your hotel, but even those meals are going to take an hour each, at least. You need to think carefully about whether you really want to be eating as many table service meals as your dining plan will require.
Two-Credit Restaurants Aren’t Usually Worth It
This one is a real bummer for a lot of people. The math almost never works in the guest’s favor when it comes to the restaurants that require two table service credits. Those restaurants also happen to be the places most likely to occupy on a spot on your bucket list, which means getting value out of the dining plan can mean skipping some of the best restaurants at Walt Disney World!
Tip Is Not Included
With a few exceptions (mostly show-meals and Cinderella’s Royal Table), tip is not included in the cost of the dining plan. So you can go ahead and order the most expensive entree, dessert, and beverage you can find, but then you’ll be confronted with deciding how much to tip. And don’t forget, parties of six or more will have an 18% bill automatically presented to them.
Friction, Confusion, and Lines
An amazing 2015 Wired article discusses how Disney introduced Magic Bands in order to create a friction-free world. The idea is that people should not have to waste time thinking, fumbling for their wallets, and swiping various cards and tickets. Magic Bands enable you to make a purchase with a simple tap of your wrist. They are frictionless.
Disney’s dining plans are anything but frictionless. They are full of friction. There is no comprehensive list of, for example, what counts as a snack. Guests are often confused about what credits they can use for what meals. It’s rare a day goes by when you don’t hear a confused guest in a quick service line in front of you trying to sort out snacks and quick-service credits.
All of this is usually why we say if you’re on the fence about the Disney dining plan, it probably isn’t worth it. If you’re not willing to put the work into planning how you’re going to use it, the ins and outs of it and the hassle of using it are going to outweigh the small savings you might stumble upon if you were lucky.
“Free Dining” at Walt Disney World
Since 2005, Disney has annually released a promotion colloquially called “Free Dining.” The terms and conditions of free dining vary year by year, but there a few common aspects to the promotion.
Basic Terms of Free Dining
For eligible stays at participating hotels, the “Free Dining” offer allows you to add a dining plan to your vacation package for free. In 2018, guests who booked participating value and moderate hotels (for eligible dates) were able to add a quick service dining plan to their package for free. Guests who booked participating deluxe hotels were able to add a standard Disney Dining plan for free.
Not all hotels are included in Free Dining. The offer is limited in supply, so you may be able to book a room at a participating hotel but not have access to Free Dining. You can upgrade the dining plan included in the promotion to a better plan by paying the difference in price between the two plans.
Free Dining Announcement Date and “Book By” Date
Free Dining is typically announced at the end of April. For the last four years, announcements were made between the 24th and 27th. The “book by” date is usually in early July. In 2018, the book by date was originally announced as July 7, 2018, but it was later extended to August 1, 2018.
Free Dining Available Dates
Free dining is typically available for stays beginning on dates from mid/late August through mid/late December. There are typically blackout dates, sometimes encompassing entire months in this range. For 2018, the eligible arrival dates were:
August 20 to September 29
November 24 to November 27
December 7 to December 23
As you can see, arrivals during the entire month of October and most of November were ineligible for the offer.
Is Free Dining Worth It?
Free Dining is typically released alongside other package or room-only discounts. To know whether it makes sense to book Free Dining, you need to know what you’re giving up by forgoing the other discounts. If you want to know more about this issue, check out Disney Tourist Blog’s coverage. In any case, be sure to run the numbers yourself before hopping on Free Dining.
Special Access to Free Dining
In the past, groups including Chase Disney Visa cardholders and Canadian residents have had access to special Free Dining deals. These deals typically have the same terms as the public deal, but are available earlier or for slightly different booking dates.
While Disney has not historically released special Free Dining deals for Disney World Annual Passholders or Disney Vacation Club members, these are groups they typically offer other deals too. If you’re in any of these groups, it’s worth keeping your eye on the Disney offers page, especially around Free Dining time.
Other Dining-Related Booking Offers
Besides the annual “Free Dining” promotion, Disney has occasionally released other dining-related discounts. The Summer Meal Offer has been available the past few years to book in January for arrivals on select summer (June, July, August) dates. 2018 also had an offer for free kids dining for summer stays.
Free Dining is also sometimes offered as a bounceback deal to current resort guests. Finally, certain offers are discounted package deals that require you to purchase a dining plan to access to deal.
Disney Dining Plans - Conclusions
Hopefully you’ve gotten some value out of this lengthy discussion of the Disney dining plans. One lesson to take from this post is simply how much thought you might want to put into deciding on a dining plan. But is it really going to be worth the hassle?
Only you can look at your family’s habits and know whether a Disney dining plan will be (or can be) worth it for you. For our part,
All Your Other Disney World Planning Questions Answered
Don't be overwhelmed by Disney World planning! Take a second to check out our most important content and you'll not only be an expert, but you'll save big $$$ along the way. If you're still picking dates, we've got everything you need to know about Disney crowd calendars. For picking your hotel, check out our Walt Disney World hotels guide.
Don't forget to master your Disney World FastPass+ strategy a few months in advance. We'll keep you out of long lines so you can maximize the magical time in the parks! We've got park-specific guides as well: Magic Kingdom FastPass, Epcot FastPass, Animal Kingdom FastPass, and Hollywood Studios FastPass.
Finally, before you head out, be sure to check out our to-the-point packing list, 10 essentials you forget to pack for every Disney trip. And if you're interested in saving, there's no better list than our 53 Ways to Save on your Disney trip from start to finish.