Walt Disney World Dining Plan Review and Comparison to Tables in Wonderland
BY MARY WARING – NOVEMBER 2008
[Editor’s note: Many of the prices mentioned here are from 2008, and Mary was writing at a time when the Dining Plan was cheaper relative to the average meal cost, and actually would save most people significant money. The meal costs have gone up slightly since then (about 10-15%, depending on restaurant), but the dining plan has gone up by about 60%, which makes the cost of the dining plan very similar to the average out-of-pocket cost for the included meals and snacks. In a few cases we’ve updated the numbers to 2016 numbers, but in others we were unable to do so.]
I’m often asked if the standard Disney Dining Plan add-on offered with Walt Disney World vacation packages is “worth it.” We’ve tried it twice now, for short stays, and the answer has to be “it depends.” Below are a few things to think about before you decide whether to purchase the plan.
Disney also offers a special program called Tables in Wonderland (formerly known as the Disney Dining Experience) to Annual Passholders, Disney Vacation Club members and Florida residents. I’m frequently asked if Tables in Wonderland is a better deal overall than the Dining Plan, or vice versa. You can read my evaluation below.
The Dining Plan includes the following (per person, per night):
- One table service or buffet meal – includes entrée, dessert (at lunch & dinner) or juice (at breakfast), or full buffet, plus non-alcoholic beverage and tax (gratuity not included)
- One quick service meal – includes entrée, dessert (at lunch & dinner) or juice (at breakfast) plus non-alcoholic beverage, OR combo meal plus non-alcoholic beverage or juice (at breakfast) OR combo meal plus dessert and non-alcoholic beverage (at lunch and dinner)
- One snack from a wide variety of options
- One refillable mug, which can be filled with non-alcoholic beverages only at resorts (not in the theme parks or water parks).
The plan has some flexibility, but not a lot. Here’s the flexible part: you can use two table service meal credits in exchange for one Character meal at Cinderella’s Royal Table, one Signature Dining Experience at a special high-end restaurant, one Disney Dinner Show, one Private Dining (room service) meal or a Pizza Delivery for two people.
There are several not-so-flexible aspects to the plan. For any given meal, you get what’s included, with no substitutions. This was a slight problem for us. We really didn’t want two desserts apiece each day (one with our quick service lunch and one with our table service dinner). In fact, Mike typically doesn’t want dessert at all, ever. We ordered desserts at lunch because they were included, ate one bite and threw away the rest. At dinner I would eat half of my dessert and Mike would take one bite of his. He prefers appetizers, but those aren’t included. [Editor’s note: As of late 2015 you can substitute a snack or side item (but not an appetizer) for a dessert.]
You also can’t “carry over” unused portions of a meal credit – for instance, you can’t get the entrée and drink at a quick service restaurant, then get the dessert later at a different restaurant. Again, this presented problems for us, because we are “grazers.” We prefer to eat smaller amounts at multiple times throughout the day. (“Small plates” and tapas style restaurants are our favorites, since we can try a lot of little bites of different things.) A couple of times we got one quick service meal and split it, then got another later and split that. We were still faced with too many desserts, but this strategy worked better for us.
Because of these two problems (too many desserts and the difficulty of “grazing” on small portions during the day), the Dining Plan is not great for a lot of people, such as diabetics and those who are trying to follow special diets. Sure, some locations have sugar-free options among their desserts, but that’s still a lot of empty calories. Surely a bowl of soup or a side salad can’t cost Disney any more than an elaborately decorated slice of cake. It’s odd that the Dining Plan includes dessert at both lunch and dinner, given Disney’s recent emphasis on healthier dining options in its theme parks and resorts.
Another element to consider is whether the Dining Plan fits your style of eating. We like to eat a hot breakfast at least a few times during a one-week vacation, then graze on light meals during the day, and then have an upscale dining experience with wine and a split appetizer most evenings. The Dining Plan doesn’t necessarily work out well for that. We end up with lots of leftover quick service meal credits and not enough table service credits.
Last but not least, consider whether the included beverages will work for you. We like to drink wine with dinner, which isn’t included in the plan. If you like soft drinks, regular bottled water, coffee or tea, great – those are included. If you prefer wine or beer, fancy mineral water, espresso, smoothies, etc., you will end up paying for your beverages. (Occasionally servers counted an espresso as a beverage on our plan, but not usually.)
Even with all of its potential problems, you can get your money’s worth on the Dining Plan, but it’s harder than it used to be. Below are examples of bills from Tutto Italia and The Wave [Editor’s note: The original calculation was from 2008; we recalculated this with similar dishes in 2016]:
|Tutto Italia (Epcot)||The Wave (Contemporary Resort)|
|Pollo al Forno $27||Pork Tenderloin $23.99|
|Bistecca del Macellaio $34||Braised Beef Short Rib $26.49|
|Mocha Tiramisu $12||2 desserts @ $6.99 each|
|Panna Cotta $13||2 coffees @ $3 each|
|2 soft drinks @ $3 each|
|Total with tax: $97.98||Total with tax: $75.04|
Total those two meals would have cost if paying cash: $173.02.
Cost for the Dining Plan for two adults, for two days: $247.36 (for 2016).
It used to be that just the two table-service dinners would put you ahead on the dining plan, but you can see that now we have $74.34 left, and four counter-service meals, four snacks and two refillable mugs left. If you pencil in about $16 for a counter-service meal and $4 for a snack, we have about $80 worth of food remaining. We value the mug at $0 because we never use them and aren’t interested in taking them home. So for us, the dining plan is basically a wash. Also, we realize we are probably not typical of those who use the Dining Plan. If a quick service lunch and a table service dinner (or a Character breakfast) each day suits your dining pattern, you like dessert and you drink a soft drink or coffee with each meal, you’ll probably come out roughly even with the Dining Plan.
The other element of the Dining Plan that is hard to evaluate is its impact on your ability to relax. It helps you enjoy your vacation and worry less about the cost. When you know you can order any entrée and any dessert on the menu, that’s just plain – well, fun.
One of these days Mike and I will try the Deluxe Dining Plan. We’ve always felt it sounds like too much food and it’s awfully expensive, but it might suit us better because you can eat nothing but table-service meals if you want, and appetizers are included.
Mike and I also belong to Disney’s Tables in Wonderland program, which gives members 20% off all food and beverages (including alcohol) at most Walt Disney World table service restaurants as well as a few quick-service restaurants. The Tables in Wonderland program is only available to Annual Passholders, Disney Vacation Club members and Florida residents, and there is an annual fee.
We’ve always considered Tables in Wonderland a great deal. We can often get back the $60 annual fee [Editor’s note: now $150 or $175] with our very first dinner at one of Disney’s higher-end restaurants.
The question is, if you have to choose one or the other (the Dining Plan or Tables in Wonderland), which should it be? Again, “it depends.” If you drink wine with dinner every night, eat primarily table-service meals and enjoy upscale dining, it may be that the Tables in Wonderland program is a better bet for you.
Or maybe not. I decided to compare Tables in Wonderland head-to-head with the Dining Plan over a two-day period, during which we bought two table-service breakfasts, two quick-service meals, various snacks and two table-service dinners. I added up what we would have paid if we had just used Tables in Wonderland, vs. what we would have paid if we had only the Dining Plan.
I ignored tips, because they would be the same either way. (Tips are not included in the Dining Plan, but we normally tip at least 18%; an 18% gratuity is added when you use the Tables in Wonderland program.)
While we may not be typical, here are the results:
Table-service breakfasts at The Wave and Kona Café
- $58.48 with Dining Plan (meals not included)
- $46.78 with Tables in Wonderland
Quick-service meals at Sunshine Seasons, ABC Commissary and Cosmic Ray’s:
- $6.67 with Dining Plan (one beer not included)
- $54.91 with Tables in Wonderland (no discount)
Snacks: two items at Food & Wine Festival’s Australia booth, two bagged snacks from Polynesian gift shop
- $0 with Dining Plan
- $16.67 with Tables in Wonderland (no discount)
Table-service dinners at The Wave and Tutto Italia
- $123.21 with Dining Plan (for appetizers, Pellegrino water, wine and espresso not included in plan)
- $225.38 with Tables in Wonderland
Total cost with Dining Plan: $188.36 + $151.96 (cost of plan) = $340.32.
Total cost with Tables in Wonderland = $343.74.
So it’s roughly a wash. However, these totals include items we only ordered because they were included in the Dining Plan. If we had been using Tables in Wonderland only, we would not have purchased the quick service desserts ($10.82), Mike’s table service desserts ($14.48 with discount) and two of the snacks ($6.92), for a savings of $32.22. [Editor’s note: these are still 2008 numbers; the cost of the dining plan has gone up substantially since then, so it’s clear that for this scenario Tables in Wonderland comes out ahead.]
If you visit Disney World frequently or plan a long stay, it may be worthwhile to get BOTH the Dining Plan and a Tables in Wonderland card. Tables in Wonderland can be used to get 20% off any items that are not included in the Dining Plan, such as wine and appetizers. In fact, we used both together on our recent trip and saved over $40 with our Tables in Wonderland discount in that two-day period, on extra meals and items not included in the Dining Plan.