Before we do anything else, you need to think about what kind of food family you are. Do you love to eat at restaurants, do you hate sack lunches? Is it more of a hassle to sit down and wait to be served, or is it more of a hassle to make sandwiches the night before? If you are willing to bring and pack at least some meals, you can save a ton of money (and time) during your vacation.
Food in Disney World isn’t hugely overpriced for most things, but sit-down (table service) restaurants for dinner will set you back at least $35 per person including tip. Counter service restaurants can be cheaper, about $15 per person. The thing is, with few exceptions, Disney dining offers good food, but not really great food. Although reading restaurant descriptions and reviews may set your mouth watering, in most cases you can find similar (or better) food at your local restaurants for much less money.
If you are going to Disney World specifically to eat, then one of the Dining Plans may save you money (you’ll really need to do the math on this one). If you are going to Disney World to experience all the wonderful attractions and activities the place has to offer, then food is the one thing you can really save money on.
A quiet and relaxing lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant sounds like a wonderful way to recharge your batteries after spending the morning touring the parks, but in reality, most of the Disney restaurants are anything but quiet – they’re vibrant and busy places. Returning to your room for some pool and nap time, then an early dinner you make yourself can not only save money but get everyone rested up and ready for more park time that evening.
Changing diet and eating habits while on vacation can lead to stomach troubles, problems sleeping, and general crankiness. Sure, have that ice cream sundae, but don’t follow it up with a churro, a large Coke, and some nachos. Who wants to spend vacation time rolling around on the floor begging for more Pepto Bismol?
Another reason packing at least snacks into the parks makes sense? You’re waiting in line for a show, ride, or park opening, and one of the kids says “I’m staaaaaarving” guess what, you have something to eat right there.
Finally, eating takes time. If your time in the parks is limited, then making smart choices about how you spend that time is important. Factor in at least 1.5 to 2 hours for every Table Service meal, plus travel time if that meal is not in the park that you happen to be enjoying at the time.
Disney Dining Plan
WDWInfo has a very good page that covers all the Dining Plan options http://www.wdwinfo.com/disney-dining-plan.htm
Some travel agents love to add the Disney Dining plan to your reservation. They will try and talk you in to this “money saving” option, which sounds very good on the surface, but in reality is usually only a good deal for very few people.
Disney has three levels of dining plans; Quick Service, Regular, and Deluxe. Gratuities are NOT included with any of them.
Here is a great tool here to help decide if it’s right for you http://www.dadsguidetowdw.com/walt-disney-world-dining-plan.html
Disney offers “free” dining at different times during the year that is a package deal including resort reservation, park tickets, and dining plan . This option cannot be used with any other room discount. Depending on how many “Disney Adults” are in your group, and what room discounts are being offered, free dining MAY save you money, but usually the room discount is better. However, bringing your own food and only purchasing snacks and a few special meals at Disney will always be your least expensive option.
The Deluxe dining plan offers a massive amount of food, and takes a huge chunk of time out of your day. Even if money is no object, unless your greatest wish is to eat your way around Disney World, some people end up skipping meals on this plan and wasting tons of money.
Dining reservations can be made up to 180 days out if you are staying at a Disney resort, you read that right, SIX MONTHS. If you are going during a busy season, and/or want to eat at the most popular places, you really have to think ahead!
You need to make reservations for every table service meal you are planning, no exceptions. Occasionally, during a less busy season, you may be able to get a table without a reservation, but it is rare.
If you cancel with less than 24-hours notice, you will be charged $10. There is no fee for changes you make before that 24-hour mark.
You can make reservations online here: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/ or by calling 407-WDW-DINE
Don’t make reservations until you have determined what days you’ll be visiting each park (see this page).
Character meals are special dining opportunities that will give your kids guaranteed time with certain Disney characters. If your kids really love Princesses or can’t leave without seeing Mickey, this may be the best way to do it. You can find the complete list of Character Dining options by following the link above and selecting “Character Dining” in the Dining Experience section.
One final thing about Disney dining reservations – they aren’t really reservations in the way that we normally think of them. A typical reservation is an actual table that a restaurant has your name on for a specific time frame. Disney’s “reservation” is essentially a place in line. In most cases, you will wait 15 -30 minutes for a table. In some cases the wait can be longer.
Disney Dining Hints:
It’s all Coke products on Disney property, if you have a Pepsi fetish, you’ll have to bring your own!
Waffles with Cindy: Do you dream of Breakfast with the Princesses in Cinderella’s Castle? You’ll have to plan early. You MUST make reservations as soon as possible for this restaurant. Plan to pay; cost is more than $60 pp for adults.
Coffee: Most Disney locations serve Joffrey’s coffee, which is relatively basic fare. You can get ‘real’ coffee at some Espresso stands, Starbucks in every park, and a few table service restaurants. Or, bring your own coffee maker or french press (if you’re staying at a value resort – moderate and deluxe resorts have in-room coffee makers).
Refillable mugs: are available at your resort and only work at your resort for the days you pay for – choose from coffee, cocoa, tea, soda, sports drink. The new system uses RFID mugs to confirm the mug is eligible, prices vary from $8.99 for a single day to $17.99 for length of stay. You have to drink a lot of coffee or soda to make up for that price tag, so do the math before you commit. Single-use paper cups that you purchase at resorts and in the parks also have and RFID chip inside which limits you to 3 refills for one hour. This new pricing structure means it makes even more sense to shop for your own groceries, or have them delivered.
Bringing Your Own Food
You have a few ways to get groceries to your resort. Options vary in price depending on how much food you will be buying. Generally, if you are staying on site, using a grocery delivery service will be the least expensive option. Obviously, if you have a rental car or your own car, doing your own shopping will be cheapest.
Grocery Delivery Services: Wegoshop, or Garden Grocer will do the shopping for you and deliver to your resort. Wegoshop is typically cheaper with orders over $100, Garden Grocer is less expensive on smaller orders. We have always been very satisfied with Wegoshop and have not tried Garden Grocer.
Amazon, Costco, other Online services: If you will only be needing drinks and very basic snacks, it is possible to buy from Amazon or Costco with free shipping and have the order delivered to your resort.
Limo Service with a Grocery Stop: (See Ground Transportation) If you have very picky eaters, food allergies, or other reasons why you need to do your own shopping, this service will give you 1/2 hour at a large grocery store to do so.
Rent a Car: If you can get a rental car for less than $70 for your stay, then this will be a cheaper option than the Limo Service, but still more expensive than using a Grocery Delivery service.
Bring Food From Home: Pack everything in an extra suitcase (liquids and perishables are not recommended), then use the extra suitcase for souvenirs on the return trip. This may work fine in tandem with Amazon for liquids, but take baggage fees into account when deciding if this option will work for you.
What Foods Work Best?
What works for you and your family will be determined by what you enjoy eating, if you have a refrigerator in your room, and if you feel comfortable using the microwave at your resort’s food court or if you will be bringing a hot pot or other water heating device.
We bring a hot pot (search “Hot Pot” on Amazon for options, we have the Rival 32-ounce).
Refrigerators (or “beverage coolers”) at the Disney resorts are tiny, if you think you’ll have many items that need to stay cold, add a Styrofoam cooler (under $10) to your grocery list and fill it with ice every day.
Even if you will be eating park food during the day, save money and time by eating breakfast in your room. You can heat water for oatmeal (bring an electric kettle, or use the food court microwave), or do Pop Tarts, breakfast bars, fresh fruit, or bagels. This saves time and money.
Be careful not to over-buy. Work out exactly how much each person eats during an average day and plan accordingly.
Below is a list of items that we generally have delivered by our grocery service:
Bread: Rolls, Bagels, Loaf of Bread
Dry Goods: Pasta, Instant Oatmeal, Instant Rice or Mashed Potatoes
Canned Goods: Soup (non-cream varieties work best), Peanut Butter, Jam or Jelly, Pasta Sauce
Dairy: Margarine, String Cheese, Cream Cheese, Milk, creamer (for coffee if you make in-room)
Drinks: Water, soda, beer
Snacks: Chex Mix, Goldfish Crackers, Smartfood Popcorn (pre-popped), Cookies, Jello or
Fruit with Jello, Granola Bars
Vegetables & Fresh Fruit: Oranges, Apples, Grapes
We also bring certain items from home that are easy to pack and cheaper in bulk. These items are:
Costco Dried Fruit, Candy (licorice, chocolate, caramel, etc.), Nuts, Trail Mix, Crystal Light, Parmesan Cheese, Folger’s Coffee Singles or Starbucks Via
Sack Lunches in the Parks
You are welcome to bring in any food item except alcohol and glass containers into the parks. You can carry ANY soft-sided bag into the parks, as long as it is small enough to fit into a locker (17”H x 9”W x 16”), and doesn’t have wheels. This includes soft-sided or backpack coolers.
There are two ways to carry your food: Bring a backpack (carry it all day) or small soft-sided cooler (rent a locker and store it). Pack protein-rich foods like pb&j sandwiches, powerbars, nuts, etc. Also crackers, something sweet, and something to drink.
If you aren’t purchasing soda or bottled water, bring Crystal Light singles and add to the flat-tasting Florida water to make it more palatable. You can get a free cup of ice water at any counter service restaurant, just pour it into your bottle and add the Crystal Light.
Okay, so everyone’s been walking around the parks all day, and now you’re back at the room, it’s time for dinner, and the entire family is famished. They don’t want to share a cup-o-noodles with their sister, they want REAL FOOD!
Make a habit of having one adult go to the Food Court and get food – that keeps kids from seeing and wanting everything on the menu.
So, how do you provide a good dinner without breaking the bank?
You have a few options. Of course, if you have a car you can drive to one of the inexpensive restaurants nearby. Without that option, your next best bet is to purchase something at the Food Court of your Resort and add other things from your own food stash to make it into a real meal. Buy a grilled sandwich or entree to split and then heat some soup. Or buy some stir fry and make instant rice. Buy soup and make a sandwich to go with it.
The goal isn’t to make the family feel like they’re on a starvation diet, but just to stretch your dining budget as far as possible. Be sure to have plenty of everyone’s favorite snacks and goodies on your grocery list. A cookie or candy bar that Mom doesn’t allow at home can go a long way to make kids think of this as a treat rather than some sort of weird punishment.
If it’s possible to do it within budget, plan one or two special in-park meals towards the middle of your trip. These can be counter service at one of the excellent locations in Epcot’s world showcase, or Table Service at one of the less expensive options like The Plaza in Magic Kingdom.
Disney Springs has one relatively inexpensive dining location – the Earl of Sandwich offers an excellent sandwich for a cheap price (hold the sides and the drinks).