Welcome to the third part of the Expert Planning Series!
In Part I, we discussed the importance of choosing dates and using a crowd calendar.
In Part II, we discussed how to choose a resort, particularly at the best price and some tricks.
And now, we are now at another fun, but can-get-complicated part of planning our trip…
Note: if you are doing a Disney Dining Plan, you’ll want to research more than just this post. It can help guide you, but you’ll want to be more selective with your dining options to get your money’s worth.
I have never done the dining plan because of my eating style (lots of snacks vs. major meals), and will likely only do it in the future when I intend on testing out expensive breakfast buffets and then expensive sit-down restaurants.
And even as I type this, sitting down for that long in a day to dine instead of being back on Toy Story Mania doesn’t sound as great.
When I’m in travel agent mode, I WILL typically suggest a dining plan to honeymooners, or people that are really focused on the culinary and romantic part of their travel. And enjoy buffets, and enjoy foods like seafood and red meat. This is where I create food itineraries that will crush the dining plan and milk it’s value.
More on signature dining below, but dining at these establishments or a nice sit down meal each night of vacation is a must in some of those circumstances.
One MAJOR word of advice: if you must do the dining plan, you need to truly look at all the meals and costs of each. AKA, making sure you’re taking advantage of savings – and avoiding losing money. If you’re interested in going this route, my concierge planning includes a dining plan analysis and potential meal idea sheet that ensures you will save hundreds as opposed to losing money like most do.
Ok, dining plan rant over!
Now, if you’ve done Disney World, you know that the dining experience absolutely requires some advanced planning. That is, if you don’t want to be eating counter-service fare your entire vacation – though that’s an OK and economical route. If you do want more counter-service than table service, there are many that are quality AND affordable. Examples include Flame Tree Barbecue in Animal Kingdom, and Yorkshire County Fish Shop in EPCOT.
Now: when I am planning my next Disney trip, the first thing I do is write out any restaurants I want to go to or try. This includes must-dos, repeats, and even things I am not sure if I will make time or the budget for.
But I write it all out!
If you aren’t familiar with restaurants, you’ll need to do some Googling (one day, I’ll create a thorough guide for adults…but that day is not now! ). I’ve included the best resources at the bottom of this post.
Know that there are really three types of ways to consume food at Disney World, both at resorts and in park:
Snacks: I include snacks in here because so many of the greatest foods and treats you can eat at Disney World are snacks, where they are ordered at a quick stand or kiosk setting, and not considered a full meal.
These include things like Turkey Legs, Mickey pretzels, Dole Whips, Nutella Waffles, pastries, ice cream…the list goes on! Snacks are LIFE!!!
Counter service restaurants: where you’ll wait in a line to order at the counter; this is typically the cheapest option for a full meal vs. sitting for a table service meal. The majority of guests typically hit these for lunch options.
Table service restaurants: a sit down dining experience, just as if you went out to eat at a restaurant. Almost all of these accept Advance Dining Reservations, and many you’ll need to have a reservation if you want to get it.
*Table service includes the regular table-service restaurants, and then there are also signature restaurants. This is Disney’s version of fine dining, and almost all of them deliver remarkable cuisine in a nice atmosphere. Many also have dress codes. If budget is not a huge deterrent, I always suggest adults hit at least one. Read more below.
You’ll want to determine the experience, cuisine, and/or budget for each meal. There are truly endless ways to get your caloric needs met in the World. I can spent $25 a day eating, or $200 a day. That goes for you as well.
Now, everyone eats differently. My first priority when planning my vacation is usually going to the least crowded parks each day…
And then I incorporate the dining and drinking experiences I want.
For example, on our January 2019 trip we know we want to experience the new Prix Fixe dinner at Be Our Guest in the Magic Kingdom. So instead of just making the reservation for any night, I looked at the two nights we will be in the Magic Kingdom because it’s least crowded, and then made our reservation.
I suggest using this strategy so you don’t get stuck either making a reservation you can’t get to, or end up having to go to a super crowded park, just because you have a dining res. Meh.
And yes…this means I already have my itinerary planned for each day – at least, which parks we’ll be going to and booking our FP reservations for. The next post in this series will go over day-to-day touring plans!
I then decide based on how and what I want to dine, and see where it fits.
So…what are some of my personal choices when considering my dining plans? I’m glad you asked!
Here are a few of my favorite ways to dine at Disney:
First, I am middle ground with my budget. This means I don’t go to signature restaurants and order lobster every night, but I won’t eat a ton of counter service meals either.
Photo credit to Orlando Date Night Guide
For breakfast: Amy and I always do at least one breakfast buffet as a rule. If you choose right, they’re full of delicious food and you can, of course, load up and skip lunch. It’s also a really nice way to start a morning instead of scurrying to the theme park. I always suggest sitting down for a late breakfast on the third day or so, getting some sleep and then relaxing over unlimited Mickey Waffles.
On a longer trip, we enjoy at least two sit-down breakfast options, although they don’t have to both be buffets.
If I’m at a Deluxe resort, I usually enjoy the quick-service breakfast options. But, I don’t have enough tolerance in the morning for food courts at the Value Resorts, heh. YMMV.
Other days for breakfast, we grab quick food in the park (ex: Starbucks coffee and pastries or breakfast sandwiches), or eat a Clif Bar or something we’ve packed before having an early lunch.
Packing non-perishables for breakfast is a great way to be economical – save money, and head to the parks quick and not have to worry about breakfast.
I’ll then figure out days where we want a more relaxed morning starting with breakfast, and not getting to the parks until noonish.
For lunch: we typically are getting counter service or snacking in the parks. But with all the amazing dining options at Disney Springs now, many adults that are night owls may want to consider doing lunch at Disney Springs, and then hitting the parks either before a late lunch, or later at night.
After this, we plug in where we want to do any cocktail hours. I am a big wine snob, and Disney offers some shockingly amazing wine lists. An example of a must, is that it’s just become a tradition that after our first Magic Kingdom day, we leave the park at about 4pm and head to Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto. ‘Cause it’s amazing!
For dinner: we enjoy sitting down for dinner, either for a full meal, or going to the bar or lounge at a signature restaurant and doing an appetizer and drinks type of thing (that’s my personal way to experience lots of signature restaurants on one trip without breaking the bank).
Finally, you’ll also want to make it convenient for transport if you are relying on Disney buses like we do. That means if we want to dine at the California Grill, maybe we’ll do it on a night where the Magic Kingdom has EMH hours at night. That way, we have a great meal, then hit the park again. Make it work for us.
You get the gist.
The next thing to know is this: 180 days in advance (+ however many days if you’re staying on property) is when the Disney reservation system opens. That means if I have a trip booked February 1st-8th staying at a Disney resort, I can actually make my reservations for the entire trip at the 180 days before February 1st. A bit confusing, but a huge advantage.
The reservation system opens up at 6am EST for online booking, and via phone at 7am EST. You’ll want to visit disneyworld.com or call 407-WDW-DINE. If you have problems with cookies on your browser, try opening an incognito window.
Will you want to make reservations for your vacation? Absolutely.
In efficient eyes (but not spontaneous ones), you’ll plan out all of your meals and be able to figure out what times you want at which restaurant, and then secure all reservations as early as possible.
However, that’s not that fun, and not always necessary.
As far as being up at 6am on the 180th day (4am my time if you’re lucky like me), I’ve found that the only time I really need to be booking at that point is for the hard to get reservations such as:
Be Our Guest
Victoria and Albert’s
Many of the character buffets tend to go quick too, FYI.
Even restaurants that don’t have historically great food but are known for their great ambiance such as Sci-Fi and Beaches & Cream are booking up REALLY early nowadays.
This list is not conclusive, so do a little research and make sure you know which ones you’ll need to book early.
Again, if you are set on any popular restaurant – you need to figure out which date and time you want to go, and then you should be ready to book at that 180 day mark.
I then recommend making any reservations at any sit-down you’ll know you want to book for sure.
As far as cancelling reservations? They do require a credit card at time of booking, but nothing gets charged. There will be a $10 per person charge if you are a no show or cancel after 11:59pm EST the day before. This means…you can cancel up to midnight the day before without any penalty. So, to be safe, make all the reservations you think you’ll want, and then you can always cancel later.
NOW…what if you DON’T get the reservation you want?
Or this is all new information, and you were just going to “wing it”? It’ll be OK. Here is my expert advice:
This site is amazing. If you couldn’t score a reservation, create a free account on this site and create alerts that let you know when the reservation you want is available. Yep! You’ll select the restaurant, date, and ideal time range and then be alerted via e-mail and/or text. One word though, is that you’ll have to jump on it. Especially for popular reservations. But, it is still a wonderful website. We have scored an Ohana reservation the night before, and a Be Our Guest lunch reservation a week before, among others. Free plans include up to six alerts! Most of the alerts will start appearing the couple of weeks before your trip, so be prepared.
You may be familiar with OpenTable, as thousands of restaurants use the reservation software. Well, guess what? Most restaurants at Disney Springs are within the OpenTable system now, meaning you can also check and book here! So if you see a restaurant at Disney Springs that is not available via DisneyWorld.com, head to OpenTable.
Another beautiful thing about OpenTable is that there is not a fee for cancelling the same day of the reservation. Which can be great, because so many factors can come up in a day at Disney (exhaustion, monsoons, the list goes on). I only use OpenTable for my Disney Springs reservations. If you do cancel though, don’t be a dick. Make sure to give a courtesy call and let them know.
To close it, here are some of my favorite dining choices, and a beautiful Pinterest pin you can save if you’re a Pinterest person.
My favorite picks for table service:
Sanaa for dinner, Boma for breakfast, Sci-Fi for ambiance, Beaches & Cream for both ambiance and food, Trattoria al Forno for dinner especially since it’s a bit underrated, Rose & Crown Pub, California Grill Lounge for the incredible wine list and apps, and Kona Cafe for either breakfast or sushi. There’s many more, but there’s a start for ya!
Please contact me if you need any help with planning your Disney Dining, and we’ll do it right!
Title photo of San Angel Inn courtesy of Joe Penniston