After the last post, you should have a good handle on resorts and tickets (or completely confused by my ramblings, either is a possibility). But this post deals with the subject of the Dining plan and dining reservations, the most nerve racking and exciting part of the booking process!
As the same with the ticket options, there are different levels of dining plans as well, but I'm really only going to discuss two of them (for the simple reason I only have experience with these two); the quick service dining plan and the basic dining plan.
I guess I should first describe the different meal levels (yes, Disney does so love their levels). Snacks, which, believe it or not, consist of a lot of choices from rice crispy treats to Disney cookies (my personal favorite, they are huge and thick and doughy in the middle-perfection!) to Mickey head ice cream treats to chips to soda to donuts to turkey legs, to fresh fruit, to well, you get the point. Then there is quick or counter service, which basically functions like your local fast food joint, but definitely different where the food is concerned! And finally, the table service, which is a sit-down meal in a restaurant.
With the quick service dining plan you get one snack and two counter service meals consisting of an entree or a combo meal, a dessert, and a non-alcoholic drink for each day of your package. The basic dining plan is one snack, one counter service (with the same choices as the quick service) and one table service (buffets are also included in this category) consisting of an entree, dessert, and non-alcoholic drink. Any alcohol or appetizers are out of pocket expenses. Appetizers used to part of the dining plan, but no longer. Frankly, I'd rather have an appetizer than a dessert or have the option to choose one or the other, but it really doesn't affect us...if we want appetizers, we get them and we definitely get the alcohol (ICE WINE!!).
Both plans also include a refillable mug...one of my favorite collectibles from trips and something we always get. For the entire length of your stay, you can use your refillable mug in the food court at your resort (but only there, not in the parks) and get unlimited drink refills. This is also a very controversial item. Originally, the cup was valid forever, but Disney soon changed that and it became only valid for the length of your stay. Some people bring back their mug on their next visit and reuse it (their expired cups, not the forever ones), but we don't nor ever will do since it's stealing and just plain uncool (and Disney can actually ban you for life and that's a stupid reason to be banned). There have been rumors of barcoded cups that you have to scan to fill, and I personally can't wait until this practice comes into play!
But people will be people and, not only do they continue to bring their non-valid cups, but I've heard of them filling bread bags with coke (and I've personally seen someone filling a small milk container). Come on...you've just paid a small fortune to come to WDW, if you didn't get the dining plan, spend the extra $12 and buy a new cup. After a couple of days, the bloody thing has paid for itself! Every single time I hear, "we're paying a fortune for this trip, it doesn't hurt Disney if we do...blaa", it makes me cringe. OK, yes, you are paying a fortune to be there, but there is no place in the world like Disney, so you are definitely getting your money's worth.
But more importantly, what lessons are you teaching your kids? "Honey, mommy and daddy say it's OK to steal soda because we've given Disney enough money already". Yeah, and when your kid gets nicked for stealing candy bars from the grocery store because "you've given the grocery enough money already" by buying a ton of groceries, don't go blaming anybody but yourself! While I'm on the rant, same goes with cutting line on rides, pushing people out of the way who have been waiting a lot longer than you for the parades just because you have a kid and they don't (little Johnny can look at the back the entire parade, I paid my money just like you did and just because he's a kid doesn't make him more entitled to see Donald than me - Disney isn't just for kids and saying so might just get you hit, get their earlier next time and wait like the rest of us), leaving your trash all over the tables when you're done eating for someone else to clean up, or just basically being rude all 'round. People wonder why their kids are satan spawn...hmm, don't look in the mirror much?
But alas, I'm digressing...normally, we choose the basic plan, but the quick service plan comes into play for one very specific reason - time restraints. Dining reservations are made 180 days before your trip arrival. Disney resort guests get to book an additional 10 days early (one of the many perks to staying on site, which I'll address in the next post). But there is one major caveat to table service meals...getting reservations. Some table service restaurants are very hard to get into, even if you are either online or on the phone exactly at opening time. If I don't have the time to book reservations, then I always go for the counter service plan. Table service without LeCellier just isn't worth it!
There are certain times of the year that Disney offers free dining and it definitely can save you lots of money, but keep in mind that it also tends to fill WDW up with tons of people, even in the off seasons. People do so love free food!
Now, when you choose a plan, you get credits for each night of your stay, so if you're staying 7 nights, that's 7 snacks and 14 counter service credits for the quick service plan and 7 snacks, 7 counter service, and 7 table service credits on the basic plan. But some table service restaurants are what is called a "Signature Dining Experience" basically meaning they take two credits instead of one. For example, at least three of the restaurants we are eating at next month are Signatures, leaving us with only 1 credit a piece if we use them all up on the Signatures, but there are ways around this (quite legal, I assure you). Disney doesn't restrict what time of day you use what credits, so making a Signature for lunch and not using the credits for that meal at all means you have two additional credits for another day. A table service at lunch time is always cheaper than dinner time and basically has most of the same food choices. Using it for lunch often makes it affordable to just pay for it with cash. You can use your counter service credit for dinner time, which in the case of Magic Kingdom, works out brilliantly (taco salad from Pecos Bills anyone?). Plus, there is always one night we don't eat a table service meal, so it all works out with very little out of pocket expense.
But, in the end, not getting the dining plan is also one of those big mistakes that can cost you. Although it goes up in cost every year, right now the quick service plan is about $35 and the basic plan is about $52. Considering the average counter service meal is about $15-$20 and the average table service is $60-$120, having the plan pays for itself very quickly! There are no limitations to menu choices using the dining plan, so if the restaurant has lobster, then it's covered! You could have lobster and your table-mate can have a salad and you've both paid the same price, one credit!
Once your trip is booked, the next big step before actually making your reservations is making your schedule, which determines what meals you eat where on what days, but there is one more booking step ahead before we can get to scheduling...transportation. But that's for part 4!