You are heading to Disney and you are thinking about the best way to decide on your dining needs. You know everything is going to be expensive, so where do you start?
How should you go about saving money on dining at Disney?
These are my tips on how to avoid some of the costly pitfalls you may encounter while dining at Disney.
1) Avoid the buffets if you can, most of them are very expensive.
The buffets are more costly than most regular table service meals, especially the character buffets. Most dinner buffets range from $35 – 60 plus tax and tip, and some don’t even include soft drinks!. For $40 and change per adult and probably close to $30 per child, you could probably get two lesser priced decent table service meals, or possibly three quick service meals for the same cost as one buffet.
I’m going to be very honest with you, most people can not truly eat enough food to make any buffet worth it monetarily. Now if you hear people say, it’s not about the food – well that is another story, and yes, there are some nice things about Disney buffets in that they are unique and fun, usually the food is good, sometimes the food isn’t worth all the hype and people go to the character buffets because of wanting to visit with the characters. When I do go to a buffet, I try to look at it as a multi-course meal, and I’ll try a little of the the soup(s), salad(s), entree(s), and dessert(s).
So keep in mind if someone tells you that you have to go to this place or that place it could be just because they have a special attachment to it rather than being practical – and that is fine, but it is not helpful to someone on a tight budget who is pulling out their hair wondering how can I afford Chef Mickey’s and 1900 Park Fare and Crystal Palace… you get the idea, which leads me to #2.
2) Narrow down your splurges. What are your Must-Dos?
Can you name a few things that you really would love to do? Make a list of where you would like to dine. For instance, if you really want to try a buffet, would you consider doing a breakfast buffet instead of lunch or dinner, breakfast is less expensive and most include your soft drink. Sometimes the lunch buffet is also priced less – this is the case for The Biergarten in Epcot, but sometimes it is priced the same as dinner.
For example, we’ve eaten at Captain’s Grille for buffet breakfast and got to have various juices and coffee at no extra charge, I believe it cost $23.99 per person. While character breakfasts are more expensive than non-character breakfasts, a character breakfast is cheaper as compared to the dinner price. Keep in mind you stomach is only so big and will only hold so much, so if it’s about the characters, best to do a breakfast and save money.
Been dreaming about Dole Whips and Mickey Bars, put it on your list. Having a special snack can be a fun and memorable experience, and for the relative cost can be worth the expense as a fun splurge.
Not everything is out of reach. If you have champagne wishes and caviar dreams you can budget in a way to at least get a taste of the high life. Disney has Signature Restaurants which are very expensive – on the dining plan these restaurants cost 2 table service dining credits! If you want to take your significant other to California Grill but can’t afford a $200 meal, consider visiting the California Grill Lounge – they don’t take reservations but you can check at the podium to see if there is availability. The lounge is perfect for having an appetizer or two and still get that amazing view at a whole lot less money as compared to a full multi-course meal.
For example, my husband and I have been to the CG lounge and spent about $75, that was for two sushi rolls and included a two beers. If you want to spend less on sushi and beer, try a less expensive alternative like Kona Cafe at Disney’s Polynesian Resort or Tokyo Dining in Epcot. There is even a quick service option if you are looking for a sushi and beer date night, try Katsura Grill – price wise it’s not really cheaper than Tokyo Dining BUT you don’t have to tip because it’s a quick service (walk up counter) restaurant – so that is 15-20% saved.
The Volcano Roll at Kona Cafe
Want to splurge on a fancy dessert, Narcoosee’s has an amazing almond crusted cheesecake. Again, the Narcoosee’s lounge is available with no reservation. You can view the fireworks and Electrical Water Pageant from their observation area.
3) Do some research ahead of time. Scout out the places you listed.
If you want to get some candid reviews about a restaurant, check out Tripadvisor.com. This will give you some up to date feedback and opinions about the food, service, and other pertinent information that might effect your decision about dining at one place versus another. Sometimes it comes down to knowing what to order, and Tripadvisor can be good for that. Seeing food photos ahead of time or finding out what dishes are better than others can really make or break your own experience. Something might sound amazing on the menu, but seeing a photo of it or reading about how it was prepared may be the difference between wasting money or not. Especially seeing portion size can be a real eye-opener.
4) A Disney Dining Plan may not actually save you money.
Disney Dining Plans are expensive, at least in my opinion. While they give some people peace of mind in that they do not have to worry about order the most expensive item, yes that is true, but, they don’t quite work as well for light eaters and vegetarians, and chances are that you guys are not the Flintstones who want giant brontosaurus steaks at every meal. Even then, any gains you get from a Fred Flintstone or Barney Rubble in your group are off set by the other Wilma and Betty in your group – it kind of balances out in Disney’s favor.
You have to be very crafty to make a Disney Dining Plan work in your favor, I’m not kidding either. I’ve done the math countless times and in order to come out ahead, you really have to maximize the cost of your meals credits, which sometimes isn’t practical or desirable.
So far the best use (strictly based on monetary value) of a regular dining plan day that I have come up with is using it for Be Our Guest Breakfast (considered a Quick Service) and Akershus Dinner (Table Service).
Keep in mind those refillable drink mugs are NOT use-able inside Disney Theme Parks, they are only refillable at the resort filling stations.
5) Cut out unnecessary purchases. Only order what you are going to eat.
This is things like buying soft drinks at every meal. You can always get filtered ice water at any of the quick service and table service restaurants for free.
For instance, if you guys aren’t planning on eating that side of fries, at quick service locations, you can usually ask them if it costs less for just the sandwich or entree without side dish, for most sandwiches and burgers it is about $2 less to skip the fries. They don’t advertise this, it’s something that they do if you ask. If you are sick of fries and don’t plan on eating them, might as well ask.
Many guests find that sharing meals is a good way to not waste food and money, and you can always order something else, or make another pit stop. My husband and I will share a quick service meal and then move on to rides and sightseeing, when we get hungry again we can always stop at another quick service and eat again. Having a lot of leftovers that you throw away is not an effective way of saving money.
When you are paying out of pocket, skip ordering extra appetizers and desserts when you aren’t really that into it, or if you know you just can’t eat all that. Spread it out, and eat something again in a while.
While talking about unnecessary purchases I have to point out that if it rains you are going to want a rain poncho – the Disney ponchos are about $9 + tax, so if you want to plan ahead you can pick up store packed generic ponchos for about $1 each from any Walmart and pack those in your luggage and bring them with you. So for a family of 4, that would be about $38 for ponchos at Disney, or around $4-5 at Walmart.
6) Bring snacks and/or order groceries to be delivered.
Don’t hesitate to bring some snacks and drinks with you to the parks, you can bring packaged snacks, protein bars, fruit, whatever you feel like carrying. You are able to bring very small coolers into the park (of course no alcohol is permitted in the parks, strictly talking about soft drinks and food), see their website for dimensions.
Many guests eat breakfast before they get into the parks, you can find grocery items in the resort gift shops, while the prices are high, they still will be cheaper than table service dining, so if you decide to at least eat a little breakfast from grocery items, it would save some money.
There are also grocery services where you can have groceries delivered to your resort and they add a service charge, this way you can have access to cheaper food and drinks delivered to your resort.
Such services are provided by third party companies like WeGoShop and Garden Grocer (delivery fees apply), and Amazon (free delivery for Prime Members with $35+ purchase, and now same day service to WDW – order by noon and receive by 9 pm.)
If you have a car, there is a Publix located in Celebration, right off of Hwy 192. A great grocery store with ready made food, fried chicken, picnic foods, sandwiches made to order, bakery, deli, etc.
7) For the soda junkies – know where the free refills are.
There are only a hand full of quick service places where you can get soft drink refills, so if your family loves soft drinks you may want to consider stopping at Sunshine Seasons or Electric Umbrella in Epcot to eat, at least you can get your fill on soda rather than pay per single serving. Restaurantosaurus in Animal Kingdom. Cookes of Dublin, Earl of Sandwich, Wolfgang Puck Express in Disney Springs. WDW uses Rapid Fill technology, a tiny RFID chip in the bottom of their cups, which means your drink refills are timed – as in you can’t fill it and chug or share or transfer the liquid into another container and then set it back down for another refill immediately – there is a timer which tells you when you can refill it, something like a 2 or 3 minute cooldown. And it is limited to 3 refills for a quick service paper cup.
If you are staying on Disney property, and your family must have soda, tea or coffee, consider purchasing the refillable mug at your Disney resort, these are sold for a set price ($16.99+ tax per mug at the time of writing this) and are refillable at the resort drink stations for the duration of your stay (up to 14 days max.). You’ll have to do the math to see if it’s right for your group. The resort drink stations are in specific spots, so if your room is far away you may not feel like walking 1/4 (or more) to get there to fill up your cups. Keep in mind those refillable drink mugs are NOT use-able inside Disney Theme Parks, they are only refillable at the resort filling stations.
8) Don’t waste money on a dessert party.
Unless you really have your heart set on it, see #2, and this is on your must do list.
You might have heard about the Dessert Parties they offer. The Wishes Dessert Party is located on Tomorrow Land Terrace in Magic Kingdom and costs about $49 per adult and $29 per child (new pricing after July 2015).
Many people are disappointed in the dessert party, while you will be given a proper table with seats to enjoy your desserts, once the pre-show and fireworks start everyone at the party goes up to the railing and blocks the view for anyone sitting down. So basically you have to do the same thing, get up and stand at the railing to watch the show.
The desserts themselves are just typical buffet desserts in individual portions. A lot of them.
9) Check for discounts. Annual Passholder, Disney Vacation Club, Tables in Wonderland, or Disney Visa Card
This is a very handy chart showing all the possible discounts for Disney Restaurants.
Discounts range from 10 – 20% at select locations.
It might save you money to use your Disney Visa card at certain locations. Plus you can always redeem your Disney Visa earnings to spend at Disney.
Tables in Wonderland (TiW) is a special discount dining card available for purchase if you are a Florida Resident ($175), Disney Vacation Club Member ($150), or Annual Passholder ($150). The TiW card will get you 20% off food and alcohol at most table service Disney restaurants on most days of the year, some Block Out dates apply, 18% mandatory gratuity is added. Even though they add 18% back to your check, you still save money by using it as long as you get to your break even point (You’d have to spend $750 – 875 out of pocket on TiW participating restaurants to come to your break even point to pay for the money invested in the card). The card is good for 13 months. It can be ordered online or in person at Guest Relations at WDW.
- A 20% discount offered on food and beverage, including alcohol, at over 100 participating restaurants at the Walt Disney World® Resort (discount is valid for a party of up to 10 Guests including the member).
- Complimentary Resort Valet and Theme Park parking for dining purposes.
10) Lastly, you can choose to dine off Disney property.
While this might be a tempting choice for some planners, I would only really recommend it to people who are already staying off Disney property and who have transportation.
Time you spend outside of Disney is time you aren’t in Disney, so if you are okay with that extra time driving and hassle then there are a lot of dining choices in the area. If those restaurants are not out of your way and you are passing by them anyways then it’s not that bad. While most restaurants at Disney are more expensive than outside restaurants, when you factor in the added time and expense to drive somewhere else out of your way, it seems like it would be a total wash and probably a waste of valuable vacation time in the parks.