Let me first discuss the various options you have for dining. This week, I'm going to start at Disney World in Florida (I'll hit Disneyland in California next post :) ). The basic bottom level, Disney offers a Quick Service Dining Plan. With this plan, guests are able to receive 2 counter service (think fast food type ordering) meals, 1 snack, and few extras per person per night. The next step up is the Disney Dining Plan, where guests are afforded 1 table service (waitstaff ordering) and 1 quick service meal, plus 1 snack per person, per night. The highest level is Deluxe Dining, which includes any combination of three meals (table service or quick service) plus 2 snacks per person per day. The plan itself is associated with your room key (Disney calls it your "Key To The World") so there is no need to carry anything extra with you. The tally of meals counts down each time you use it (snacks too), so the hassle is taken out of it.
Generally speaking, the Quick service plan is for families or travelers who aren't concerned with anything spectacular or special and just would like an easy to follow meal plan for themselves and their families. That is not to say that the food isn't good...in fact it's quite good at all of the quick service restaurants (I particularly prefer Cosmic Rays in Magic Kingdom and Flame Tree Barbecue in Animal Kingdom). I'm
really referring to culinary experiences that are basically ordinary. The benefits include ease of use, low cost, and convenience. If you are going for the first time and don't know what you'd like, or you are not interested in anything like character meals, or upscale dining at the resorts or Downtown Disney, this is the plan for you. Notice, however, that it only includes 2 meals per day, so there would still be one meal (assuming you eat three) you'd have to purchase. Keep in mind, however, that you do get a snack...and Disney is quite generous with that term "snack." The snack options are listed all throughout the parks and resorts and can include anything from candy or pastries, to pretzels or ice cream. It's quite extensive and, with proper planning, a snack can easily bridge the gap between meals. It's also important to note that many of the entree's that are offered as quick service options are truly big enough for 2 people. Be creative! Do some research about what is offered where. You may be able to share meals and stretch the number you have out over the entire time you are there.
A quick side bar...meeting the characters is probably one of the most important things you can do on a Disney Vacation. The parks have the schedule (and now it's available through the My Disney Experience links) of where the characters will be and what times. However....it's a gamble whether or not you'll be able to see them. Many of the characters have very limited times that they are available, and they will frequently close the line long before you make it there. I've found that, especially for the big ones my princess cares about, it's easier to plan a character dining experience than to try to schedule our day around the possibility of a meet and greet with Mickey.
Getting back to the dining, the Disney Dining Plan is the middle of the road expense wise, however, in my opinion, gives the most bang for the buck for most families. With the quick service as well as table service, the dining options are vast. A pastry snack for breakfast, Quick Service shared lunch, and then an All-You-Can-Eat buffet as a table service for dinner. That's a normal meal progression for families using this plan. The best thing is that many of the character dining experiences that fall under the table service category are all buffet style meals, giving you a HUGE meal for which ever meal you choose (breakfast, lunch, or dinner). Another way to stretch this plan is to forgo even the snack in the morning and try to make a breakfast reservation as late as you can (Chef Mickey's in the Contemporary generally has 11:30 breakfast reservations...that's pretty much lunch for most people!). That will allow you to stretch the afternoon out even longer and take the quick service later on in the evening. The possibilities are numerous with this plan, and for this Disney Freak, it's the best value for my buck.
The final plan at Disney World is the Deluxe Dining. Not too much to say here, other than this one allows for any combination of 3 meals (quick service or table) for each person, thus allowing those with specific tastes or wanting specific experiences the chance to indulge in those. For instance, if you wanted a buffet breakfast at Hollywood and Vine, then a hearty lunch at The California Grill, then a steak dinner at Le Cellier, it would all be included. Again, this plan is for those who want their food experience at Disney to be as memorable as the trip itself. While it's the most expensive package offered (of these three...there is one more that includes even alcohol...I'll elaborate on that later), it also offers guests with the largest number of choices...in fact, depending on the length of your stay, a choice doesn't have to be made. You could, in theory, eat at every table service restaurant in the parks on this plan. That would be a lot of food! It's a good thing that the average person walks nearly 4 miles on a Disney vacation! :)
Joking aside, it's truly up to you whether or not you use the dining plan. As a professional travel planner, I do recommend the Disney Dining (the middle) plan. I feel it really does give the best of everything for those who wish to have the ease of not thinking about meal. Research is key, however, and your family has to do what is best for you. I would very much encourage anyone looking to travel to Disney World to discuss these options with your travel professional and see which (if any) fit your budget, your family, and your tastes!
Until next time, Have a Magical Day, and remember...always be looking for your Enchantment Destination!!