Thanks to über-generous in-laws, we’ve taken our kids to Disney World Orlando four times in the last few years. So we’ve pretty much done Disney every way that you can imagine. We’ve stayed at Disney resorts and rented off-site condos, we’ve strategized on Fast Passes and stood in line for shows. And, yes, we’ve done Disney with and without the Disney Dining Plan.

We’ve learned a lot about how to navigate the Disney Dining Plan options through experience, so if you have a trip to Disney World in the near future, here are five Disney Dining Plan tricks and tips to think about before choosing a plan that’s right for you.

Related: 13 smart tips for doing Disney World with a baby. Yes, it’s possible to have fun.

 

Disney Dining Plan tricks: Book your hotel for off-season dates, if possible, and ask if meal plan is included. It may be! | Cool Mom Eats

1. Decide where you’re staying and ask if discounts are available.

The Disney Dining Plan is only available for purchase if you stay at a resort, so if you’re staying off-site (which can save you a ton of money, FYI) it’s not even a consideration.

If you are planning on staying at a Disney resort (which has a tons of perks, FYI), check with your vacation planner to see when Disney is offering their free dining plans. It’s usually in the fall and winter, but this year some weeks in early summer will get you free dining too. We found great info at Disney Tourist Blog, but an informed vacation planner should be able to help you too.

Related: Kid and Coe family vacation rentals in Orlando look like they’re straight out of a magazine.

 

Disney Dining Plan tricks: Try the grey stuff, it's delicious! And five other tips that will help you eat well without breaking the bank | Cool Mom Eats

Try the grey stuff; it’s delicious.

2. Understand how the meal plan works.

The meal plan is a voucher system that allows you to pay in advance for a certain number of meals each day. You may use them at restaurants in the park or at the resorts. The idea is that once you’re on vacation, you don’t have to worry about prices — one meal is one meal, whether it’s the filet mignon or the chicken tenders.

There are three levels available, and you can find meal and pricing details on the Walt Disney World site. But, basically, you should decide how many sit-down meals per day you want to have.

Keep in mind that a sit-down meal is anywhere from a 1- to 2.5-hour block of time, depending on the restaurant and time of day. So, unless you’re really there for the food, it’s unlikely that you’d want three sit-down meals a day.

Updated: Also, some meal plans includes a dessert with every meal. This is why Disney World is the only place in the world where I can walk 20,000 steps a day and still gain weight. Of course, you can skip the dessert or get a “healthier” option, but your kids may not love this idea. Just saying, be prepared.

PRO TIP: Don’t get too excited about that refillable mug that comes with all the meal plans. These let you load up on free soft drinks, tea, coffee or hot chocolate at the resorts, but they don’t allow you free refills on drinks in the parks.

 

Disney Dining Plan tricks: Be realistic about your family's stamina, and don't pay for expensive meals if your kids are going to sleep through them. | Cool Mom Eats

3. Ask yourself these questions to decide which plan is right for your family.

Before you choose a plan, ask yourself: How do you envision your day at Disney?

Are you all about getting to as many rides and attractions as possible, and you don’t mind scarfing down a hot dog while you stand on line? Or are you planning to spend a lot of time relaxing at the resorts, sitting by the pool using up those snack credits, and heading out to a nice table-service dinner at night?

Are you all about the fine dining and want to try as many of the fantastic restaurants around Epcot and the resorts as possible, or do you have little kids who won’t make it through a long table-service meal at the end of a tiring day in the park? (Because paying for a $30 meal that they’re going to sleep through is a bummer.)

Even though Disney has some healthy options at their quick-service restaurants, will a week of only fast-food style eating make you grumpy?

Will your kids actually enjoy those pricey character meals, or will they get scared? There’s absolutely no point in spending $35 per kid and $60 per adult for breakfast if your child will react as one of mine did (see picture below – ha!). Remember: You’ll have plenty of chances to see characters while in the parks.

If you think realistically about what your day will look like before you commit to a plan that gives you three table-service meals per day — or none — you’ll be less likely to regret your decision.

PRO TIP: Disney character meals, which are usually a buffet where characters do table side meet and greets, can be booked using two table-service meal credits from your meal plan. This can be a good way to use Dining Plan credits if you find yourself with a bunch left over.

Related: 5 smart do’s and don’ts to save you loads of money on your next vacation.

 

Disney Dining Plan tricks: If your kids are scared of characters, don't book character meals. Goes without saying, until it's time to book. It can be hard to say no to these, but they're too expensive to waste on this reaction. Ha! | Cool Mom Eats

4. Plan ahead to be happy with your meal plan.

If possible, make your reservations early. This is big. Dining reservations can be made 180 days before the first day of your trip, and the popular spots — Be Our Guest Restaurant (Belle’s Castle), Cafe de France, Crystal Palace, and Tusker House Restaurant, to name a few — book up fast. There’s nothing worse than buying the expensive dining plan and not getting the chance to eat where you really want.

PRO TIP: Mark your calendar to call Disney Dining early — 180 days before your trip, to be specific. Then, make a tentative plan for which parks you’re going to visit each day and which restaurants you want to try. Call Disney Dining and book all of your reservations at once. (Important: you can do this online, but I’ve found that you’re more likely to get the spots you want if you call). Then, even though you’ve done all this advance planning, be flexible: You might need to switch your plans around to get the reservations you want.

Related: How to stock a vacation rental kitchen: 8 smart tips to stay on budget.

 

Disney Dining Plan tricks: On of our five must-have tips, save money by eating breakfast in your room. | Cool Mom Eats

5. Follow this 5-point plan to eat well without breaking the bank if you skip the dining plan.

There’s no doubt that eating a la carte in the parks can get expensive, especially if you plan to include a number of  table-service meals with appetizers and dessert. Here’s what I’ve done to save cash on trips when we’ve skipped the meal plan.

Make your own breakfasts. When your days are already packed with activities at the parks, it’s nice to wake up and have a lazy breakfast in PJs in your room. Granola bars and instant oatmeal work fine for us, though consider reserving a room with a kitchenette if you’re going to skip the meal plan. The extra space and opportunity to save $15 per person or more on a full breakfast might be worth it. If you’re packing lunches too, it really adds up to big savings.

Use a Disney credit card. We planned for a year before our first Disney trip, and during that time we put every single bill we could on our Disney credit card before paying it off each month. At the end of the year, we had $800 on a Disney gift card to spend anywhere in the park, including restaurants. Even with two expensive character meals and other table-service meals, the credit lasted us six days.

Pack your own snacks and water. No one likes carrying loads of stuff through the park, but if you can toss a bag packed with snacks and water bottles on your back or into the bottom of your stroller, you’ll save good money by skipping the pricey snacks in the park. If you have older kids, give each of them a small backpack that they can manage on their own and distribute personal snack stashes.

Be fair, but be bold. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want within reason. Disney loves making things right, so when they messed up our room reservation (twice), for example, and asked how they could make us happy, my mother-in-law asked that a fruit tray be delivered for breakfast. Smart, right? And they were happy to oblige.

Splurge where it’s worth it. Even if you pack your own snacks, be sure to splurge on a Dole Whip. Because, serious yum. And maybe on a round of churros too. Just saying.

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