You don’t eat at 27 different Disney restaurants in two years without learning a few hacks for Disney dining – and specifically Disney Dining Plan Hacks. And what good is all of that information without sharing it with other Disney fans?!
Today, we’re excited to share our hard-earned Disney Dining Plan Hacks so you can get the best bang for your dining dollar.
If you’re not familiar with the Disney Dining Plans I’m first going to give you a brief overview of how they work before we get into how to get the best use of them!
You can only purchase a Disney Dining Plan if you are staying at a Disney resort and purchase Disney tickets or have an annual pass. (This was one of the down-falls to our mostly awesome stay at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort.)
There are 3 Disney Dining Plans – Quick Service, Standard and Deluxe. If you’ve used Disney Dining Plans in the past, the biggest change is that desserts have been removed from the quick service entitlement but you now get an additional snack per day. This is actually better for most families because Disney’s portion sizes are huge and you can barely think about dessert after the meal – so now you can save dessert for when it makes the most sense for your day (or use that snack credit for a healthy mini meal).
The Quick Service Dining Plan (as of 2018) offers:
- Two Quick Service Meals (includes one entree and one non-alcoholic beverage)
- Two Snacks
- One Refillable Resort Mug
The Standard Disney Dining Plan offers:
- One Table Service Meal (includes one entree, one non-alcoholic beverage, and one dessert OR one full buffet)
- One Quick Service Meal (includes one entree and one non-alcoholic beverage)
- Two Snacks
- One Refillable Resort Mug
The Deluxe Dining Plan offers:
- Three Meals (redeemable interchangeably at Quick Service or Table Service locations)
- Two Snacks
- One Refillable Resort Mug
What are quick service restaurants? Quick Service locations are walk-up counter service or cafeteria-style restaurants. You do not need reservations at most QSR (with Be Our Guest restaurant at Magic Kingdom being the only current exception), and many now provide mobile ordering in advance. They are generally more affordable and offer “quicker” options than table service restaurants.
What are table service restaurants? These are more traditional restaurants – sit-down dining, waiters, and your table is bussed for you. Generally, they are more expensive and have more options, including fancier foods, cocktails, etc.
Free Disney Dining
The best “Disney Dining Hack” is to plan your vacation during Disney’s free dining periods. These tend to be in early fall, from late August to early October, however the official dates are usually announced towards the end of April. You can always book your hotel room and add on the promotion afterwards.
It looks like Disney is going to start offering discounted dining plans as well for other less-busy seasons.
When you book a Disney resort and tickets during the free dining promotion, your free dining plan is determined by the level of resort you book – with Value resorts getting the Quick Service Dining Plan and all other resorts getting the (regular) Disney Dining Plan.
No matter which free Disney Dining Plan you receive, you can pay to upgrade to the next level of dining plan (the exact prices for the upgrades change every year but they are nominal compared to the cost of paying for the additional meals out-of-pocket).
(However, if you’re staying at a Value resort to save money and are considering paying the upgrade for the dining plan, I’d suggest instead looking at the price difference for a Moderate resort which already comes with the standard dining plan.)
(Above, pastries and a mimosa at Les Halles Boulangerie & Patisserie)
Planning Your Reservations
Book your reservations as soon as you can – 190 days from your travel dates. That’s over 6 months away which may seem excessive but after not being able to get a single reservation on my list when I called 3 months out on our first Disney vacation, I will never make that mistake again. Even if you haven’t secured your dining plan, you don’t want to run the risk of not being able to secure a reservation later on.
When in doubt, overbook your reservation – it is easier for the host to find you a smaller table than a bigger table. Also, if you can’t get the time you want, book for slightly later and show up early. There will always be another party running late (or a no-show) that will lead to you being able to squeeze in earlier.
You can use up your dining plan credits however you like as long as you complete them before midnight on the day you check out of your hotel. (You don’t have to use one snack, one quick-service and one table service per day – you can use two quick services in one day and two table services in the next.)
(Princess Aurora meets diners at Akershus and Cinderella’s Royal Table)
Table Service Locations NOT To Waste Dining Credits At
Sometimes, a meal is not worth using your credits on and you are better paying cash for it. Be sure to specify that as soon as possible – when booking and arriving at your reservation.
This applies to both low-cost table services meals and signature table service meals. For example, Beaches and Cream Soda Shoppe counts itself as a “table service restaurant” but is a total waste of a table service credit with the majority of it’s meals costing $16, especially when you can use that same credit for a $60 character meal elsewhere. Pay cash or use a credit card at low-priced table service locations (anything where your main, dessert, and a soda will cost less than $35) and do not charge it to your magic band to avoid billing errors.
Also, this may be controversial but I would never use the Disney Dining Plan for Disney’s signature restaurants – Le Cellier, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Hollywood Brown Derby, etc. These restaurants use up TWO table service credits per person so instead of getting two $50 meals, you’re only getting one $50-75 meal.
To figure out which restaurants give you the best “bang” for your credit, check out this amazing comparison from WDW Prep School.
(Strawberry Shortcake cupcake – formerly at Hollywood Studios, now at Boardwalk Bakery)
For most locations, I suggest overbooking whenever possible – however, if you cannot get a table reservation big enough for your party size, most locations can adjust your seating by one or two if you call them on the day of your reservation. (Try to reach out to the restaurant directly or stop by if you can.)
The downside with having to make reservations 180-190 days in advance is that sometimes you’re not positive of your exact plans. In this case, make double reservations and then call to cancel the “extra reservation” as soon as you have your other plans secure.
The reservation lines can see more openings and book faster than you can online – but you can book online at the same time, so when that 180 day time frame hits, double up! I’ve had reservations book up while on the phone debating my options.
Now, normally you have to call and cancel or change your reservation at least 24 hours in advance but sometimes things happen and you don’t have 24 hours notice. There are three things you can do in this instance to work around the system:
- call and change your reservation to a time/day that you can make (often, restaurants will accommodate you within the hour – they will give you 20 minutes without calling before declaring you a no-show so call and let them know you’re running late)
- call and change your reservation at least 24 hours away (up to 6 months away) and then call back when you’re less busy to adjust to a time that you can make or cancel without penalty (a lot of reservations get cancelled within the 12-48 hours before a dining spot)
Note: there are other reservation hacks that I’m not including here because they “skirt the system” and I don’t want to be seen as encouraging or promoting that type of behaviour.
(Chicken Noodle Soup at ’50s Prime Time Diner)
What If You Can’t Get a Disney Dining Reservation?
If you don’t get the reservation you want, keep calling every week and especially within the 48 hours before the preferred reservation time. A lot of people cancel just before the 24 hour window.
I’ve also stopped by and checked in directly with the restaurant if they think they’ll have an opening and since we’re a small party they usually suggest a return time that they can squeeze us in.
At some restaurants – like 50s Prime Time – you can ask to sit at or order from the bar and be notified if there is a no-show. Ella and I nipped in and were going to settle for just a milkshake, but we were pleasantly surprised that a table opened up while we were waiting and I was able to buy her a more substantial meal to accompany that milkshake. I’ve also seen people score last-minute cancellations at Be Our Guest this way – but just don’t go out of your way for this option since it’s really hit or miss.
(Seared Scallops at Cinderella’s Royal Table)
Kids Eat Free
Kids under 3 can either eat for free off of their parents plates (or a separate plate at buffet meals) and at some locations can receive their own free meal (Garden Grill, Ohana and Akershus Royal Banquet Hall).
Older kids can split meals at any quick service location – and depending on your server, you can split a kids meal at table services (see above reservation hack).
(Mickey Pretzels – available at all parks. The Epcot version is darker)
Dining Plan Substitutions
My hands down favorite substitution is saving up my daughter’s quick service credits and using them to purchase snacks. Each quick service credit can be cashed in for 3 snacks, which is a fun way to purchase souvenirs or gifts – especially if you’re on the free dining plan to begin with! (You just have to purchase the 3 snacks in the same transaction.)
We tend to use the splitting method below – but you can also use your quick services to purchase decent-sized lunch “snacks” to tide you over, especially if you’ve had a large breakfast or plan to have a large lunch or supper.
For example, if you’re at Animal Kingdom you can stop at the Eight Spoon Cafe and pick up THREE Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Shrimp or Pulled Pork in exchange for ONE quick service credit (just be sure to specify that you are using a quick service and not a snack to the cashier). The portion sizes for this are really decent and perfect for tiding you over if you have a large supper in a few hours. This same principle applies to soups, salads, baked potatoes, chilis and more!
Or, you can use a quick service credit to purchase 3 desserts or snacks at once – like 3 ice creams while watching the parades.
Also, if you’re travelling or meeting up with people not on the dining plan, you can use your credits to cover their meals.
Note: you cannot “save” quick services for the kids at locations that require reservations, such as Be Our Guest.
(Frozen Coke at Hollywood Studios)
Splitting Disney Dining Credits
The adult quick-service portions are HUGE at Disney World, so as long as Ella and I can agree on what to split, we tend to use one adult quick-service and split it and save her quick service. At some point during the stay, we go to a location with amazing snack offerings and pick out 3 snacks for each of her saved quick services.
Kids can order either adult or kid-size quick-service portions on either dining plan. (They just cannot order adult-size table-service portions, but they can request smaller platings of the adult options.) So, another way to split credits is to order the kids an adult-size breakfast or lunch and split it between two or three of them.
But what if you cannot agree on what to split?
It’s still cheaper to pay out of pocket for your child’s quick service meal from the kid’s menu and save up those credits for snacks. For example, at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe the most expensive kid’s meal is $7.19 – and you can easily put that quick service credit towards up to $19 of snacks (or, again – our small lunch hack).
But wait a minute! Did you notice that they are calling an Uncrustable Sandwich with carrot sticks and a milk a “quick service credit” for kids?! When you can stop at a snack cart and pick up 3 Uncrustable Sandwiches (or 2 Uncrustable Sandwiches and another snack) and request cups of ice water for the kids – or purchase one large milk and split it amongst them.
(This secret spot is located in the Aztec Pyramid in the Mexico Pavilion at Epcot)
Free Snacks or Desserts
Usually when you book a reservation or show up to one, someone will ask if it’s a special occasion. Be sure to tell them – even if it’s just your first time at the parks.
We have celebrated birthdays twice and buying a home at the park, and both types of celebrations have resulted in cast members treating us to free desserts – usually cupcakes with decadent buttercream (or the gray stuff at Be Our Guest).
Alternatively, if you would rather an ice water instead of the free beverage that comes with your table service meal you can ask for a small dessert instead. Most cast members will offer you a scoop of ice cream, cookie or fruit cup.
(Plaza sundae at Magic Kingdom)
What Counts as a Snack?
Snacks are designated by the symbol on the menu. They tend to be single-portion healthy foods or splittable desserts. Most ice creams, pretzels, smoothies, coffee drinks, or “single-serve bakery items” count as snacks.
Sometimes something will count as a snack option at one location, but not at another.
Another Disney Dining Hack is to use Snack Credits as light, healthy lunches before a large or buffet-style supper – which I wrote a dedicated post about and listed all of the options you can purchase and where – so be sure to check out that post.