Disney dining plan a delicious bargain

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- It's easy to get caught up in the amusement rides, beautiful resorts and dazzling shows of Disney World without giving much thought to the food. Yet, the dining opportunities may be among the best attractions of all.

During four trips to Disney over the past four years, my wife and I and our three children, ages 10, 8 and 6, have sampled flavors from around the world at Epcot, participated in the enchanting Princess breakfast in Cinderella's castle, and joined the company of Mickey and Minnie during one of many character meals.

There is something for everyone, even Fred Flintstone wannabes strolling Disney grounds gnawing on the largest turkey drumstick I've ever seen.

The food, like anything Disney, doesn't come cheap, but the company has introduced a resort "dining plan" that at least provides some price breaks. We tried this for the first time in 2007 as part of our vacation package and quickly discovered an incredible value. Changes made for 2008 make it less economical by not including gratuity (a hefty cut) and eliminating an appetizer from the adult table-service dinners. However, at the current daily prices of $37.99 for adults and $9.99 for children 9 and under, you can still save money without sacrificing taste or variety.

With the Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining you can eat at more than 100 restaurants throughout Disney World. You get one quick-service meal, one table-service meal and one snack for each night of your resort stay. Children must order off a children's menu when one is available. We have found that these offerings appeal to the youngest Mousketeers but aren't enough to satisfy the older children.

The quick-service meal includes one entree or one combo meal, one dessert and one non-alcoholic beverage. Table service is one entree, one dessert and one nonalcoholic beverage. Snacks come in all shapes and sizes: from water and soda to cinnamon rolls on Main Street, USA, to a three-scoop ice cream sundae with Mickey sprinkles and whipped cream at the Port Orleans Riverside resort.

For those with larger appetites, there's also a Deluxe Dining package that includes three meals and two snacks per night for $69.99.

It did help us to first experience Disney without the dining plan. Our first resort, the Cabins at Fort Wilderness, provided a kitchen, so we ate breakfast in the cabins, packed our lunches for the parks and made burgers and hot dogs on the cabin grill at night when we didn't eat out.

Making the switch to the dining plan took a little adjustment.

First, we had to make table-service dinner reservations, which forced us to see the parks on a schedule. Logistics also was an issue. It's important to allow plenty of time to get to your dining destination, especially in Epcot, where you will have quite a hike to the World Showcase.

With or without the plan, dinner reservations are a must and can be made up to 180 days in advance. This year, we didn't get some of our first picks but still experienced several outstanding meals. During a 45-minute call my wife and I made reserving our meals for this trip, there were more than 500 reservations being made at the same time.

But what restaurants do you choose? A difficult and delicious dilemma to chew on indeed. Dining in Disney should be enjoyed for both the meal and venue. Some of the reservation agents are quite helpful in offering opinions and can review menus. But this can get quite tedious over the phone. While the Disney Web site doesn't offer much detail, there are a number of "unofficial" Web sites that can assist. One in particular, www.allears.net, was an invaluable tool.

In Epcot we dined in France at Les Chefs de France, Morocco at Marrakesh, and the Coral Reef, with its amazing aquarium wall. We ventured to Wolfgang Puck's Cafe in Downtown Disney and the fabulous Kona Cafe in the Polynesian. The best experience this year was watching the fireworks timed to synchronized music from the veranda of Narcoossee's at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.

Our Port Orleans Riverside Resort offered an incredible selection of food in its Riverside Mill food court, all quick-service options. Breakfast included pancakes, French toast, waffles, omelets and more. Lunch through dinner selections were pizza, a pasta station, a grill station and a carving station, with turkey and beef. And the food court offers what may be the best bakery this side of Dudt's on the South Side, with killer brownies, cinnamon rolls, carrot cake, etc.

We also were able to share some quick meals, saving room for the bountiful dinners, as well as meal tickets. At Pizza Planet, for example, in the Hollywood Studios we were able to split four meals among the five of us, and two uneaten desserts were added to the collection of food tickets in the backpack for future sugar boosts.

For those times when the food court wasn't convenient, we brought snacks (Pop-Tarts and granola bars) and as much bottled water as we could pack. At $2 a bottle anywhere in Disney vs. the $2.99 I paid for a case, it was worth the extra suitcase.

Off the dining plan, you can figure that a quick-service breakfast or lunch, on average, will cost between $10-$15 and a table-service dinner $25-$40 per adult. Our family's dining plan (for three adults and two children) was $133.95 per day for a seven-day total of $937.65. Based on menu prices we would have spent out of pocket a total of $1,446.25, saving us $508.60. Our table-service dinners alone averaged $154.

No matter how you slice it, the Disney Dining Plan worked for us. We even came home with chocolate muffins and cookies, using leftover snack credits as we dashed to catch the bus to the airport.

Bob Topich, a Realtor, lives in Franklin Park. He can be reached at Bob@BobTopich.com . First Published March 16, 2008 4:00 AM


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