This is one of those questions that many, many families struggle with as they make their Disney vacation plans.
So which is better...a Disney Dining Plan or just paying for your family's meals as you go? The good news is that there is NO right answer to this question. The right answer is choosing the best option that is right for your family's vacation style.
First things first, your family MUST be staying in a Disney Resort in order to be eligible to add Disney Dining to your Disney Vacation package. If you are not staying in the park at a Disney Resort then your decision has already been made for you. You cannot get Disney Dining unless your family is staying at a Disney resort in the park.
To decide if a Dining plan makes sense or which plan best suits your family, you really need to make a HONEST assessment of your family's needs and vacation style. Are you a commando style touring family? The kind of folks who are go, go GO all day to ensure you can see as many attractions as possible. Perhaps you are the type of family who finds joy in all the little details and likes to stop, relax and smell the turkey roasting. Are you a clan of big, adventurous appetites or a group of finicky eaters? Are you visiting with a bunch of teen age boys or one fidgety toddler? Will you be staying at Disney for your entire vacation or will you be visiting other local parks and attractions during your vacation? Are character meals a priority for your family's Disney vacation experience?
Speaking of Character meals and dining experiences in Disney...How far in advance you are making your Disney vacation plans also influences your decisions. Disney allows guests to make dining reservations 180 days in advance of your arrival. If you want a place at Cinderella's Royal Table or plan to visit during peak periods like the December holidays or spring break you MUST make advanced reservations.
Once you have considered your family's vacation style and needs, we suggest selecting the Disney Dining Plan that is the best fit. Obviously, finances are normally a huge decision maker for many families. Everybody is looking for the most "bang" for their vacation bucks. When considering which is the best value decision for your family, first determine which type of Disney dining plans suits your style. Disney Dining Plans change pricing and inclusions change every year. A good place to start making your decision is to compare the plans and their prices to determine which plan may be a good fit for your family.
Now that you know how much a Disney Dining Plan will cost your family, it's time to do some comparison shopping. You can check out Disney Restaurant Menus. Here you can get some rough estimates of what typical meals for your family will cost. Compare these prices to the daily rate of the Disney Dining plan of your choice and you'll have a good idea of which plan makes the most economic sense for your family.
Remember as you're doing your calculations...Be sure to budget for gratuities of 15-20% for table service dining. Gratuities are NOT included as part of the Disney Dining plans. Whether you're paying out of pocket in the restaurants or paying with a dining plan, tips and gratuities are often one of those budget items that parents often overlook.
Even though you've crunched all the numbers, money is not the only consideration when you're trying to decide between a Disney Dining plan or paying for food as you go...
- Dining and food can be a huge part to a Disney vacation experience. Often the dining plan offers a bit more freedom. You can order the most expensive item on the menu and not have to worry about the cost.
- Vacation is the time most families like to splurge and indulge a little.
- Having a Disney Dining Plan means you won't have to worry about carrying or fussing with money or credit cards making it very convenient for parents.
- Including a Dining plan as part of your vacation package will let you predict your vacation costs in advance. It will keep you from worrying about prices every time you pick up a menu. Disney dining plans can be paid for in advance with vacation layaway. This may make more economic sense for your family in the long term.
- Often having a dining plan along with advanced reservations makes daily touring plans for the parks much easier. Having a plan in place will save your family spur of the moment decisions and waiting when you're hot, tired and cranky.
Free is the best deal of all - Right?...NO, this is a trick question.
Disney is always offering deals and savings to entice families to their parks. One perk that they will usually offer during off season is FREE Disney Dining. Yes if your family has a room booked at a Disney resort during a specific time, you can get free dining. But "free" isn't always best.
Parents need to watch and again do the math. Disney might also be offering resort percentage off deals...say 20 to 30% off of your resort stay. Often if you are staying at a Deluxe or even moderate property this savings may indeed be a much better value for your family. Guests can only apply one deal or savings to their reservations so it does pay to compare offers.
My family has done the parks more times than I can count. We've done Disney with and without a dining plan. Personally we love the Dining plans. Usually the standard, basic dining plan works best for our needs. After a long day in the park, we like taking a break, having a nice meal and having the luxury of being served. We've also timed some of our dining reservations to get prime viewing spot for the fireworks and illuminations which we think is a bonus.
You will have to determine whether a Disney Dining Plan makes the most "cents" for your family vacation...pun intended. Remember, the real "sense" comes when you make it a fun a memorable vacation that your family will enjoy. That's really what a family vacation is all about.