Walt Disney World, Florida
By Suzanne Rowan Kelleher
Dining at Disney in Magic Kingdom (Matt Stroshane)
Everyone likes to take pot shots at theme park food. But the truth is, your dining experiences at Walt Disney World will depend largely on what you make of them. You can graze through the resort, downing snacks on the fly, or savor truly fabulous sit-down meals prepared by award-winning chefs. A meal at the extravagantly-themed Be Our Guest Restaurant, in the Magic Kingdom‘s Fantasyland, would be memorable no matter the location. For lunch, you might grab a hot dog at Casey’s Corner on Main Street. That evening, perhaps you’ll spring for a sumptuous dinner laid out on Wedgwood china at Victoria & Albert’s in the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Some eateries, such as the Yak & Yeti Restaurant in the Animal Kingdom and Tutto Italia in Epcot’s Italy pavilion, can transport you to an exotic locale. You can experience the full gamut of culinary styles, from down-home Southern fried chicken to authentic Japanese sushi to a very proper English high tea. It will probably come as no surprise that food at Walt Disney World is more expensive than in your hometown. But, to be fair, it’s likely that the breadth of amazing dining possibilities is incomparable.
(MORE: View a family trip plan: 5 days at Disney World with kids.)
There are over 300 places to eat within Walt Disney World, not counting the food carts scattered throughout the parks. As you’d expect, eating at full-service restaurants is both more expensive and a major time gobbler. If don’t want to spend a lot of time or money on meals, then stick to eateries with counter service.
On the other hand, if dining is an important part of your vacation experience, you’ll want to make reservations for table-service meals. Budget Tip: If you’d like to dine more inexpensively at one of Disney’s most exceptional full-service restaurants, like those at Epcot’s World Showcase, make your reservation for lunch. Menu prices tend to be significantly higher at dinner.
Disney’s phone-in reservations system is called Advance Reservations (407/W-DISNEY). Be forewarned that having an AR doesn’t guarantee you a table at a specific time. It merely gives you priority seating ahead of walk-ins. Think of it as a Dining FASTPASS.
Chef Mickey’s Character Breakfast in Disney World (Flickr: n2linux)
Option 1: Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining Plan
Walt Disney World’s Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining. It’s available only to guests who stay at Disney hotels and resorts, including Disney Vacation Club properties. It works like this: For each night of your Magic Your Way package, you’ll pay an additional $56 per adult and $17 per child between the ages of 3 and 9.
Tip: Every so often, during off-peak months such as January or September, Disney offers the Dining Plan as a free add-on. This can be a compelling reason to visit during a slower time of year. For each night of your stay, you are entitled to a day on the dining plan, including:
- One table-service meal including appetizer, entrée, dessert, and a non-alcoholic beverage. Kids 3 to 9 must choose off the children’s menu. A child under 3 can share from an adult’s plate for free. Note: Since 2008, the gratuity is no longer included in the dining plan
- One quick-service meal including entrée, dessert, and a non-alcoholic beverage
- One snack, such as ice cream, popcorn, fruit, or a non-alcoholic beverage such as juice, soft drink, or coffee
Guests can use the meals and snack in any order and in any amount throughout the package stay. Usage is tracked electronically, and the server or cashier can provide a receipt showing the remaining balance.
The plan is available at nearly every restaurant inside Disney World, including most hotel restaurants. Generally speaking, the dining plan is a good deal for families who plan to eat one meal per day at a full-service restaurant. “It’s not a great deal for grazers or light eaters,” advises Deb Wills of AllEarsNet.com, the most comprehensive online guide to Disney World. “They would be better off sticking with quick service,” she says. To get the most out of the Dining Plan, plan ahead and pre-book all your key meals. Here are our key tips:
- Equate dining with down time. You’ll be doing an awful lot of walking in the parks, so use sit-down meals as an opportunity to relax. Enjoy your meal at a leisurely pace. Book your big meal of the day at off-peak dining times—late breakfast, late lunch, or early dinner—to minimize waiting for your table to materialize.
- Read the menus. You can preview the selections and prices at every Walt Disney World restaurant on AllEarsNet.com’s menu guide. While the quality of food within Walt Disney World varies greatly, it is getting better all the time. Some restaurants remain unremarkable, while others are truly exceptional. The dozen or so full-service restaurants in Epcot’s World Showcase are among the standouts.
- Indulge, within reason. You can choose anything from the menu, so why not go for the fillet mignon, if only once? Or go upscale. You may exchange two table-service meals on the dining plan for one “signature dining experience” at a top restaurant, such as the California Grill in the Contemporary Resort.
- Meet the characters. Booking a character meal is one of the easiest ways to get your money’s worth out of the Dining Plan. For small fries, encountering the Disney characters is bound to be a big highlight of their trip. About a dozen restaurants in Walt Disney World offer character meals, which are covered under the Dining Plan. While your family eats (usually at a buffet or family-style meal), one to five Disney characters work the room, moving from table to table, hugging kids, signing autographs, and posing for snapshots. With the Dining Plan, a character meal counts as your day’s one table-service meal, so plan your day accordingly. If you’re not on the Dining Plan, the cost for a family of four can be anywhere from $46 for breakfast to over $74 for dinner. See AllEarsNet.com’s listing of character meals at Walt Disney World.
- Maximize Epcot. On the day you visit Epcot, use the table-service option on your Dining Plan on a great meal out in one of the marquee restaurants. (Just don’t forget to make a reservation).
- See a show. Want to really get bang for your buck? The Dining Plan allows you to exchange two table-service meals for one dinner show, including the long-running Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at Fort Wilderness or the Spirit of Aloha Luau at the Polynesian Resort. Note: These events are incredibly popular and often need to be booked months in advance.
Character Breakfast is a great reason to take the kids to Disney World. (Flickr: Thomas_Jung)
(MORE: Find a family-friendly hotel near Disney World.)
Option 2: Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Service Dining Plan
More recently, Walt Disney World launched the Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Service Dining Plan. Think of it as a scaled-down version of the original dining plan. Like its counterpart, it’s available only to guests who stay at Disney hotels and resorts, including Disney Vacation Club properties. It works like this: For each night of your Magic Your Way package, you’ll pay an additional $38 per adult and $15 per child between the ages of 3 and 9.
For each night of your stay, you are entitled to a day on the dining plan, including:
- Two quick-service meals, such as one entrée or one complete combo meal with dessert (lunch/dinner) or one juice (breakfast) and one soft drink
- Two snacks, such as ice cream, popcorn, fruit, or a non-alcoholic beverage such as juice, soft drink, or coffee
Guests can use the meals and snack in any order and in any amount throughout the package stay. As with the original dining plan, usage is tracked electronically, and the cashier can provide a receipt showing the remaining balance.
Note: All family members staying in the same room must be on the same dining plan.