Dining at Disney can be expensive. Very expensive, but if you plan ahead you can get the most out of your dining experience. If you buy your package ahead of time, Disney Dining might be the best way to save in the long run. By adding a dining plan to your package, you will budget in your dining costs and pre-pay for your meals. The dining plan will only save you a few dollars, but it keeps you from over spending during your resort stay by helping you budget and be aware of what you’re spending for each meal.
One of my favorite things to do with the kids is the Character Dining at Disneyland and California Adventure. It’s a great time to get the kids to eat while they get to visit with several characters. Each character will make it to your table and you will have the perfect photo opportunity. Character Dining is available at several locations throughout the parks and hotels.
An option for budgeting: the meal plan
One caveat: the price of Character Dining can scare away some families. Prices range from $23-$39 per person depending on the time of year. Adding in a meal plan at the same time you book your vacation may be an easier way of budgeting in a Character Dining experience. If you plan on being at Disneyland for several days, I recommend buying a meal plan. The vouchers y0u get with the meal plans are good at almost all cafes, snack carts, and restaurants throughout Disneyland and California Adventure, as well as Character Dining at the hotels. Most meal plans include at least 2 Character Dining vouchers, and these Character Dining vouchers include tax and gratuity for that meal. You’ll pay nothing additional.
There’s a catch though. Unlike Disney World, Disneyland meal plans are only available through club memberships (like Costco or AAA) and vacation packages bought through Disney. If you’re already looking into package deals, this is one expense that I encourage you to think about. Here’s why. When you are purchasing a dining package, you are budgeting in the expense as part of your trip. This makes meal planning easy. You know in advance how many meals you’ll be eating and what type of meals. You can also make your reservations 60 days in advance for Character Dining and sit-down meals.
We’ve purchased meal plans three different times now. The first time we opted for the meal plan, we didn’t end up using all of our vouchers. This was a waste of money. There’s no cash value to the coupons, and you won’t get any cash back for the vouchers you don’t use. You also get no money back if you fail to use the full value of each voucher. For example, if you use a $15 voucher for $12 of food, you won’t receive $3 back in change. You can combine vouchers with cash though. So for a $20 food purchase, it’s smart to use a $15 voucher, and pay the rest in cash.
Now we buy a meal plan that’s for one day less than our actual trip duration. For example, if we are going to the park over four days, we buy a three-day meal plan. This way, we can plan accordingly and have less of a chance of having anything leftover in the end. If we run out of vouchers, we just pay cash. No big deal, but no wasted vouchers.
The current price of a 3-day meal plan is about $160 per adult, $96 per child. Realistically, a typical family of four should plan on spending close to $100 per day. That’s eating at counter service locations and a snack. If you’re wanting to sit down or have a Character dining experience you’ll pay around $30 per adult and $15 per child just for one meal. This is why I like the meal plan. It allows us to pre-pay for our dining experiences in advance, and it helps us avoid over-spending once we get to the park.
Our favorite places to eat
Our family enjoys eating breakfast at Storytellers Cafe for our Character Dining experience. I feel you really get the best experience here. And Goofy’s Kitchen is our favorite Character Dining for an early evening dinner. One of our favorite places to eat in the park is Big Thunder Ranch BBQ. It’s fairly new and offers an all-you-care-to-eat family-style meal with chicken, ribs, baked beans, cole slaw and corn. Plus you get live entertainment. In true Disney fashion, they love to have the kids join them on stage. Our daughter loves it too, maybe for a different reason (see the photo of the ice cream sundae below)!
One of our favorite places to eat is the Wine Country Trattoria in California Adventure. Although it may not feel very Disney-esque, the food seemed very fresh and healthy in true California style. They had a great kids menu as well. It was refreshing to eat here after feeling a little greased out by some of the other amusement park options. Ehem…darn churros.
If the meal plan doesn’t seem right for you, there are still other ways to save when eating at Disney. Counter service meals really aren’t that pricey. They have also become more health conscious in the last few years, and they have more options for kids. If you are going to be staying in the area, find a hotel that offers a continental breakfast. Not only can you avoid the crowds, but you’ll save big with one less meal per day you need to pay for. If free breakfast at your hotel is not an option, head to Downtown Disney. They have a newly renovated La Brea Cafe that has a full menu or items to go. There are several great snack, lunch and dinner options at Downtown Disney as well. Several locations even take reservations if you’re on a tight schedule.
If you are staying at a Good Neighbor hotel, you’ll be very familiar with ART (Anahiem Resport Transit) by the time your vacation comes to an end. Not only is it easily accessible from just outside the main entrance, but it can get you to great eateries in the area. If you have the time and want a break from the crowds, head over to The Garden Walk for a bite. There are several chain style restaurants such as PF Changs, California Pizza Kitchen, etc. that are going to cost less than most sit-down Disney dinners.
One last thing. At any Character Dining experience, if it’s your birthday, anniversary, or first time to Disney, make sure you let the restaurant know when making your reservation. They typically will ask you when you call. After a long day of play in the park, Emma was still wearing her birthday button when we hit Goofy’s Kitchen. We were surprised with a character serenade and “special” birthday treat just for Em. Yum!