Disney Dining Program – Is it right for you and your family?

A large part of any vacation is food. Whether you stay in a hotel with a kitchen and eat in to save some cash or meticulously plan all of your restaurant stops, when, when and how much you eat can impact a vacation budget. Dining at Disney isn’t any different. Food at Disney isn’t chicken nuggets, burgers, and pizza. Disney has truly expanded the food in offers in the last 10-15 years to include almost anything. They have also kept up with changing dietary trends, allergies, and awareness of healthy eating especially for kids. Most of us will want to sample that food while in the parks. Some of us are light eaters. If you’re anything like the folks in my house you can pack it away when necessary and you aren’t afraid of an extra snack, dessert, or nightcap. The benefits of the DDP may help maximize your Disney foodie experience.

The Disney Dining Program (DDP) is only offered to resort hotels guests has three tiers - Quick Service, Disney Dining, and Deluxe Dining. Each plan includes 1-3 quick service and/or table service credits which can be used for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and 2 snack credits per day of your stay. Quick service includes two credits at counter service restaurants plus two snacks per day. Disney Dining (moderate) is one counter service and one table service credit plus two snack credits. Deluxe Dining is three table service credits and two snack credits. These credits apply to restaurants inside hotels, at each park, and is Disney Springs. Counter service credits including entrée, non-alcoholic drink (including a bottle of water or specialty drink where available!) or alcoholic drink or alcoholic drink for guests 21 and over. Table service credits including entrée, non-alcoholic drink or alcoholic drink for guests 21 and over, and dessert. A non-alcoholic drink or beverage can include milk shakes, fruit smoothies, soda, tea, coffee, and hot chocolate. The addition of alcoholic beverages is new to the DDP as of 2018. Snack credits can be used on single serve items in a variety of locations around the Disney hotels, parks, and Disney Springs. On location menus, these items are designated with a purple and white Disney Dining Program logo.

It is essential to know that Disney isn’t going to give you a huge discount on food just because you’re in the park. They are probably betting that you will choose to stay on property for the most convenience possible – including your dining experience. Pros of the DDP include paying up front for all of your food with hotel, tickets, and travel costs. It can definitely help you get a better picture of your budget to have food costs laid out in black and white. It also help with planning your meals and making reservations in the 180 day window. Suffice to say if you like to plan the DDP is a great way to go. Personally, I enjoy the idea of prepaying for my Disney vacation and not dealing with a big bill at the end. That being said, if you or your family are light eaters, have specific dietary needs such as vegetarian or vegan, or you just don’t tend to order items like steak, dessert, and soda or specialty drinks at each meal the Disney Dining Program may not save you much or any money. Factors like these are a great place to start when considering whether the Disney Dining Program is right for you and your family.

Let’s look at a breakdown:

You and your Honey-Bunny book flights to Orlando and decide to stay in the Polynesian Village Resort for three nights (hello fried rice, dole whip in your resort, and Tonga Toast). Discussions about the DDP ensue and while your hubby is 100% sure he will be happy ordering steak and lobster if it’s available, you aren’t sure because you tend to be a water drinker and just started a new eating program… who’s bright idea was it to go on vacation after starting a new eating program? You check a few menus and price out what you might have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for your stay (3 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 3 dinners, and 3 snacks per person, per day).

Breakfast Quick Service at Poly $10-15 per person/day x3 - $60-90
Lunch at Counter service restaurants in Parks $15-20 per person/day x3 $90-120
Dinner at Table service restaurants $30-50 per person/day x2 $120-200
Disney’s Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show $66 per person x1 $132
Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto $15 per person x 1 $30
Snacks $7-10 per person/day x3 $42-60
Total: $474-612 (3 Breakfasts, 3 Counter Service Lunches, 2 Table service dinners, 1 Special Dinner, 1 alcoholic drink, 3 snacks) $60-90 per person per day

Cost of Disney Dining Program (moderate) for 3 days: $468.02 or $78 per person per day

If you tried to have essentially the same dining experience with the DDP as I outlined above you could have a light breakfast items at Captain Cook’s each morning for a snack credit, lunch at counter service restaurants at the parks as a meal credit, dinner at a table service restaurant as a meal credit (Spirit of Aloha would count as 2 credits), snacks in the park, and cash pay for one additional dinner. Drinks would have to be with meals only – sorry, Trader Sam. If you are eating on the lighter side of the scale the DDP isn’t going to save you anything and will cost you more. If you eat on the heavier side of the scale (alcohol, dessert) it might save you $150.

Moral of the story: if you’re a light eater or don’t drink soda, much alcohol and don’t need dessert with every meal the DDP won’t save you money. If you want to sample as much Disney fare as possible (more than $75 dollars per day worth) and order the most expensive thing on the menu plus dessert and wine you’ll save some cash.
The other important thing to note is special dining experiences or certain restaurants may either cost 2 table service credits (ie Cinderella’s Royal Table, Brown Derby) or will not be available as part of the Dining Program. Not every snack or single serve item in the park is available as a snack credit (ie gelato at Italy in Epcot). Also, children under 3 can eat off of parents’ plates and get their own plates at buffets for free. Finally, tips are not including with the cost of the DDP. Be kind, tip your Cast Member as they are working hard to ensure you have a magical experience and if you aren't happy or have a special request they will go out of their way to make your experience satisfying.

But what about the Free Dining Program?

Free Disney Dining Program dates were recently released. These dates are traditionally represent slower times at the parks and are meant to encourage guests to visit. For 5 night/6 day packages booked through September 29th, 2019, guests booking non-discounted room only rates can opt for Free Dining for September 1st - 30th, November 17th – November 27th, and December 8th-December 23rd.

Dining for free sounds pretty great. The downside of free dining is no room discount and room rates are significantly higher than if you look further through the calendar to other slow times after the free dining dates are over.

Comparing a room from our above trip right before Christmas (Dec 19-Dec 23):

Free DDP for two people cost is $4,655 (note this includes 6 days of Park Hopper admission tickets!)
Room only price is $745 per night, plus 6 days of 1 park per day tickets $4,485
Fall and Holiday Room Offer is $670 per night, $4,149 with 6 days of 1 Park per day tickets and $4,320 for Park Hopper tickets
Difference between holiday discount only plus single park tickets is $42 per day for food and park hoppers is $28

Compared to February prices with 1 day tickets $3972 or with park hoppers $4142 with daily allowance of $56 to $42 per day for food.

Moral #2 of the story: if you are going with 2 people as light to regular eaters you won’t save much of anything. If you are going with 3 or more people especially with little ones under the age of 3 it is probably worth it to book your trip during a slower period and when the free dining dates come out modify your trip on the WDW App to include Free Disney Dining Program. You will save a decent amount of money the more people in your party.

In the end, if you love to plan, prepay, or what to feel like your Disney vacation is truly all inclusive, get the DDP. You can use your magic band to cash in your credits, keep track of them on receipt print outs, and turn in any extra meal credits for snacks at the end of your trip. Whether you chose to use the Disney Dining Program or not, you will have amazing food experiences at Disney which will make your tummy and Instagram account happy.

Have you used the Disney Dining Program in the past? Would you use it again? Comment below!

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