My family used to swear by Disney Dining Plan. It started out as a fantastic partnership, but then we changed, it changed, and we grew apart. Still, the Disney dining experience is essential to our vacation. Here’s how we let go of the plan and came up with a way to keep everyone happy….and well fed!

Confession of a Disney Dining Plan Drop Out

Getting Minnie’s autograph without standing in line means more ride time for us! Photo by Mary Lebeau, EastCoast TMOM

Confessions of A Disney Dining Plan Drop Out

The first time around, it was pure bliss: my sons wanted to share ice cream sundaes with Chip and Dale; my baby girl babbled about meeting Mary Poppins (she called her “Popp”) at breakfast; my husband salivated at the thought of a medium rare filet served in a Canadian cellar. And we were able to do all those things, and more, thanks to the Disney Dining Plan. In fact, we even scored the Holy Grail of eating experiences – we ate a fabulous breakfast in Cinderella’s Castle, overlooking Fantasy Land. And then, greedy tourists that we were, we went back there for lunch. Yes, the Disney Dining plan was that good a deal.

Confessions of a Disney Dining Plan Drop Out

Max and Kristina enjoyed meeting Beast – and a great meal – at the Be Our Guest restaurant. PhotoPass Photo.

But that was then – back in 2005, when the Disney Dining Plan was in its infancy. And when it was first introduced, the Disney Dining Plan was an undeniable asset to the whole Disney experience. The first time we used it, we were able to give our children an unbelievable vacation as we worked the plan for all we could. Character experiences? Well, we never had to stand in line for meet and greets, because we met all the princesses, Pooh characters and the Wonderland gang during our meal time. The “Big Five” – Goofy, Donald, Pluto, Minnie and Mickey Mouse himself – sat at our table and signed autographs while we ate the best cheese mashed potatoes ever at Chef Mickey’s. We even scored private time with the elusive Mary Poppins while feasting on a breakfast buffet at 1900 Park Faire in the Grand Floridian Resort.

And it wasn’t just about the kids. Thanks to the original Disney Dining Plan, we were able to snare a fine dinner at Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot. Scott still raves about their filet mignon, while the kids have fond memories of pretzel bread (and thinking of their crème brulee can still make me drool). In fact, we enjoyed our meal times so much using the Disney Dining Plan that Scott and I returned to Disney for our anniversary in 2007, just the two of us. And we booked Cap’n Jack’s twice on that trip, because we enjoyed those twin lobster tails and crab cakes appetizers so much.

The Evolution of the Disney Dining Plan

But like I said, that was then. This is now. Cap’n Jack’s is gone from the waterfront of Downtown Disney (or whatever they’re calling it these days). And just as gone is the Disney Dining Plan that we knew then.

The biggest change is what is included on the plan. When it was first offered, there was only one, the basic dining plan, which included one quick service meal, one table service meal, and one snack per person per day. You had the flexibility to choose how to use these, so that if we wanted to save all our table services meals for one day, while running around the parks and just using quick service the other days, that was fine. In fact, we usually ended up saving all our snack credits to the end, and using them to buys some Mickey Mouse shaped Rice Krispie treats for the folks back home.

Location, Location, Location

The servers at Kona treated us to an anniversary dessert - even though it was included in the Dining Plan. Photo by Scott Lebeau

The servers at Kona treated us to an anniversary dessert – even though it was included in the Dining Plan. Photo by Scott Lebeau

The credits could be used pretty much anywhere, and most meals we were interested in only took one credit. So that steak dinner at Le Cellier only cost us one table service credit each. Same for what was then considered the brass ring of dining experiences, at least for kids. Yes, I’m talking about breakfast in Cinderella’s castle, where we chatted up with Belle, took pictures with the Fairy Godmother, and even snagged that elusive Little Mermaid autograph while eating as much stuffed French toast our hearts desired – all for one table service credit. (The first time around, we were so gleeful about this experience we went back to the castle for lunch!)

These days, though, Disney has caught on to what dining experiences are “desirable” – and they’ve placed a premium on them. So if you want to eat in the castle now, it will cost each member of your party two table service credits. Ditto Le Cellier and the Hollywood Brown Derby, which started out as single credit experiences but are now considered “signature” dining choices (which cost two credits).

What’s In, What’s Out

Confessions of a Disney Dining Plan Drop Out

The Fairy Godmother discussed FantasyLand attractions with Max at Cinderella’s Royal Table. Photo by Mary Lebeau, EastCoast TMOM

Back in the day, the Disney Dining Plan provided each person with almost an embarrassment of food – especially if you include kids who will only pick at a salad, but must be counted as Adults due to Disney’s age restrictions. Originally, for each table service credit, you were eligible for an appetizer, an entrée, a dessert and a drink – and your gratuity was included. On the program as it is now, you are entitled to an entrée, a dessert and a non-alcoholic drink, and the tip is not included in most locations. Gone are the

appetizer and tip – and with them, a lot of the value we received from the plan.

And by “plan,” I’m talking about the original plan. These days, the Disney Dining Plan actually offers three plans – a quick service plan, which does not include table service dining; a regular plan, which most closely resembles the plan I had (one quick service, one table service, one snack a day) but doesn’t include the tip or appetizer; and the Deluxe Dining plan which allows you to choose between table and quick service for three meals a day and includes two snacks.

Of course, the cost of the plan increases with your options. And, like most things Disney, the cost of every plan increases every year. (So does the cost of the food without the plan!) But there came a point (soon after the dropping of the gratuity and appetizers) that using the Disney Dining Plan wasn’t worth it for my family.

Confessions of a Disney Dining Plan Drop Out

Chef Mickey’s is a family favorite – on or off the dining plan. Photo by Mary Lebeau, EastCoast TMOM

Making Our Own Disney Dining Plan

As the Dining Plan changed, so did my family’s needs. My kids were getting bigger; the “two fulls and a trundle” set up at Port Orleans Riverside that worked so well for us when the kids were tiny suddenly felt squished and not very “resort-like.” When I saw what renting two connecting rooms would cost me, I hesitated, knowing I could book a resort condo or even a private villa for the same price.

My husband, ever the foodie, balked. “But if we go off property, we won’t be eligible for the Disney Dining plan,” he complained. “A lot of my fun in the vacation is getting to eat at the Disney restaurants and not thinking about price when I order.”

Well, who was I to stand between a good man and his vacation lobster? So I came up with this plan. We took the money we would have spent for the Dining Plan, and we used it to buy a Disney gift card instead. Then we made whatever dining plans we wanted (always being sure to make reservations six months in advance – the popularity of the DDP has made walk-ups impossible!). We all ordered whatever we wanted, and ate as much as we wanted. And you know what? When we were done our trip, we still had money on that gift card (which came in handy buying “thank you” gifts for the neighbor who fed the cats).

I know that some people like the Dining Plan, even if it isn’t cost-efficient, because it allows you to “prepay” your meals. But we prepay our meals by buying the gift card, so we have that convenience, plus the freedom to choose where, when and what we want to eat. And since we no longer have to be on Disney property, I’ve enjoyed the luxury of a personal villa with my own heated pool out back. I get to swim to my heart’s content while my husband chows down on his strip steak leftovers. Now that’s a plan!2015-01-28 20.58.04