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A big part of the Disney World vacation experience is dining. However, as you probably know, eating at Disney World is no simple matter. It requires planning (sometimes almost a ridiculous amount), there are a huge amount of choices, and none of it is cheap.
Here are 13 of the best tips & tricks to help you navigate your way through the world of Disney Dining.
1. Make reservations WAY in advance
The first time I tried to book ADRs (Advance Dining Reservations), it was a little over a month before our trip. I was very pleased with myself, thinking that I was planning very far ahead and that we would have plenty of available choices.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha!
Sure, in the Real World, making dinner reservations at a restaurant over a month in advance would be almost ridiculously early. But Disney World is very different from the Real World in many ways.
You can (and ideally, should) make your ADRs 180 days in advance.
Yup, that means you’re scheduling your meals roughly half a year in advance. Crazy? Possibly, but this is Disney we’re talking about. That’s just the way it is.
Now don’t think all hope is lost if your vacation is in three months and you haven’t booked any restaurants. In fact, I’m in this situation right now. Our trip is in four months — yikes! — and I still haven’t taken the time to make our ADRs. I need to get on it!
If you’re in that situation too, just be prepared to be flexible … and keep trying! Just because there are no available slots today doesn’t mean that tomorrow, or the next day, or next week won’t be different. That’s how I booked I lot of our ADRs: after many days of persistence.
Oh, and by the way, those ADRs are not signed in blood or set in stone, so don’t panic too much that your family might change its mind sometime later. You can always cancel it tomorrow … or next week … or a few days before your trip. We have definitely done that ourselves.
2. Check out the website Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free WDW if you have dietary retrictions.
If anyone in your family is gluten-free or dairy-free, this site is a great resource. They have a podcast, Top Ten lists, recipes, and more.
3. Speak up about what you want (or need).
Speaking of special dietary needs, make sure you mention them twice — both when you make your ADR and then again when you arrive at the podium. We have never have to deal with food allergies ourselves, but I have heard that Disney is extremely accommodating. It’s even possible that the chef might come out to speak to you about your needs.
Along similar lines, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, even if it’s not on the menu. For example, if you don’t want the fries that come with your sandwich, let them know, and they’ll charge your accordingly.
4. Don’t forget about the Disney resort restaurants.
This was a sudden realization for me before out last trip. We were on the free Disney Dining Plan (more about that later) and I was trying to decide which restaurant we should choose. All of a sudden it hit me: We don’t have to eat at the parks! There are lots of restaurants at the resorts!
We booked lunch at Kona Cafe in the Polynesian resort, and and it was one of the smartest things I made on that trip. The food was fantastic, it was easy to go on the monorail line after spending the morning at the Magic Kingdom, and we got to see the Polynesian for the first time, which was beautiful.
5. Eat a late breakfast.
There are a few good reasons for this. For one, the parks are the least crowded first thing in the morning, so it’s a shame to waste that prime time sitting in a restaurant. Second, this can save you some money, as breakfast prices are almost always cheaper. And third, if you time it right and eat at a leisurely pace, you can enjoy both breakfast and lunch menu options at Disney buffet restaurants.
6. Psst … the Crystal Palace open before the park does.
Speaking of breakfast, here’s a Disney dining secret we didn’t know until our last trip: The Crystal Palace, between Main Street and Adventureland (home to Winnie the Pooh and friends) opens for breakfast an hour before the Magic Kingdom’s normal operating hours.
This is awesome because not only because you get breakfast and meeting characters out of the way before the park even opens, but also … how cool would it be to get photos in the Magic Kingdom while it’s essentially empty?
Unfortunately, because it’s so awesome, it’s very difficult to get. I tried and tried and tried again, but we were never able to get reservations for that time. But maybe you will have better luck than I did!
7. Make an educated decision about Chef Mickey’s.
If you didn’t already know, Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary resort is a somewhat controversial restaurant. Of course families often jump (like we did) at the idea of a character restaurant with “The Fab Five” (Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, and Donald Duck). But there are some people who really hate it.
So what to do? Is Chef Mickey’s worth it or not?
Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. Personally, I’m glad we went, although I have no desire to go again until I have grandchildren someday. It’s the kind of place that has a lot less appeal if you’re not traveling with little kids.
Robert, my husband, had less love for Chef Mickey’s than I did. He said it was “basically a Shoney’s breakfast bar.” Which isn’t the worst thing in the world — except that the buffet at Shoney’s doesn’t cost $41 per adult.
Of course, Shoney’s doesn’t have Mickey and Friends either, which is kind of the point and the key to whether or not you should decide to eat there. You’re paying for The Fab Five, not the food, and not even really the atmosphere (although watching the monorail go by is pretty cool.) Since Robert never gets too excited about seeing Disney characters, it’s not surprising that he wasn’t particularly impressed.
So if you love the idea of seeing Mickey and Friends all in one place, and you don’t mind eating at a restaurant that is busy and noisy and has little kids crawling all over the place, then I say go for it. Your kids are pretty much guaranteed to love it, not just for the characters, but also because they will love drenching their Mickey Mouse waffles in chocolate sauce, sprinkles, chocolate chips, and whipped cream.
However, I would not go there for dinner. Based on everything I’ve heard, while the food is “just okay” at breakfast, it’s downright bad at dinner.
I would also recommend getting to Chef Mickey’s as early as your family can stand it. They open for breakfast at 7am, so if you can get an early reservation, not only will it be little less crazy-busy, but you won’t have to sacrifice the ideal early-morning time at the Magic Kingdom.
If Chef Mickey’s is sounding pretty cringey to you right now, but your family really wants to see Mickey Mouse, I suggest trying The Tusker House in Animal Kingdom or The Garden Grill at Epcot.
8. Sharing food is the way to go.
I would highly recommend splitting counter service meals between two people. If you’re like Joey from Friends and don’t like the idea of sharing food, then at least get a kid’s plate. Not only will it save you money, but unless you eat like a horse, a full meal is way more food than you’ll need.
I would even recommend splitting most of the snacks. For one thing, many of the snacks are too big and/or too sweet to handle on your own.
Also, sharing allows you to try more items (for example, you can try both the Berry Cream Puff and School Bread in Norway). Also,
Funny story: Our family of five tried to all split a turkey leg in Frontierland once. It did not go well. Use some common sense when sharing food, please.
From what I have heard, Garden Grocer has a much better selection and better customer service, but is pricier.
If you have experience with either of these (or know of a third option), please feel free to share your wisdom with us in the comments.
10. Bring your own food into the parks.
Make sure you bring plenty of your own snacks with you into the parks each day. You don’t want to have to be at the mercy of having to buy park food every time someone in your family suddenly gets hungry.
Even though you can get free ice water at any counter service restaurant, you may wish to get one of these, especially if you’re picky about how your water tastes.
I use this park bag that is cute and small but still has room for food.
11. Visit Disney World when one of your kids is two years, eleven months old.
Kids under age 3 eat for free off a parents’ plate at Disney World buffets and family-style restaurants, which can save you a fair amount of money during your trip.
12. Check out the menus before your trip.
You can view the menus for each restaurant at the Disney World Dining Page. This is a nice way to help choose where to eat ahead of time and give you an order of what you might want to order when you get there.
13. You can search high and low, but you’ll never find a Pepsi.
Disney has a contract with Coca-Cola, and therefore does not sell any Pepsi products in the parks. Don’t worry there, you can click here to easily have all the Pepsi you want delivered to your room.
14. The parks all have a great spot just for Baby Dining.
Each park has a Baby Care Center that is air-conditioned, quiet and peaceful. You can sit in a rocking chair and nurse your baby, or feed them in a high chair. And if you’re short on baby food, wipes, or formula, you can buy it there. There are also toys and cartoons to keep your preschoolers amused while they wait.
15. Decide if the Disney Dining Plan is right for you.
Ah, the controversial Dining Plan … is it worth it? Is it a waste? When it it free? What exactly does it include?
For now, let’s just say that we had done the Dining Plan twice when it was free, enjoyed it very much, and plan to do it again this year. It may seem silly, but we love the fact that it’s “already paid for” and we can enjoy ourselves and not worry about it. And we indulge in a way that we wouldn’t dream of doing if we were actually looking at the prices.
However, I would not recommend getting the Disney Dining Plan unless you’re able to get it for free.
The Standard Dining Plan is $75.49 per adult and $25.75 per child per day. For our family (because our kids are considered “adults” now, that’s $377.45 a day for food, every day of the vacation.
Seriously? Would you have planned to spend that much money on food if you were paying for meals and snacks as you go? My guess would be no. But be sure to check out my guide to 2018 Disney Dining Prices & Tips so you can make the best decision for your family.
I hope you’ve enjoying these dining tips. I’m sure there are a ton more that I haven’t thought of, so feel free to share some of your own favorite tips below in the comments!
Overwhelmed by all the Disney Character Meal Options?