Walt Disney World offers dining plans to help you plan your meal expense before you even leave your house. Your entire party (everyone on your reservation) must take part in the dining plan and it is for the entire length of your stay. If you have someone joining you part way through your stay and you do not want to buy the dining plan for them for the days they will not be there then you can not use the dining plans.
With all of the meal plans if you do not use all of your credits by the end of your vacation they are non-refundable. You may purchase items such as snacks to take home with you with the remaining credits. We have left WDW with Mickey Marshmallow treats, cinnamon rolls and drinks several times. Check your receipt carefully at the end of each meal as it will show the number of remaining credits left on your card. It is best that if there is an issue with the remaining balance to take care of it immediately!
Disney offers several levels of dining plans. The most basic is the Quick Service Dining Plan (sometimes referred to as QSDP). This allows each member of your party to have 2 counter service credits each day, 2 snack credits and a refillable resort mug. Counter service restaurants are in each hotel and all of the parks. This is often a good plan for people who do not want to take the time to stop at a table service restaurant for an hour or so for a meal. Snack items are clearly identified on all menus throughout the hotels and parks. Resort mugs can be filled from the fountains found in the hotels but not at the parks. Some first time guests do not realize this and try to get their mugs filled at the parks.
The next level of dining plan, for a slightly higher price each day is the Disney Dining Plan (sometimes referred to as DDP) allows each person to have one table service credit, one counter service credit and one snack credit per day. With this plan some planning may need to be done especially if you are visiting Walt Disney World at a peak or near peak time (or when Disney is offering the free dining). You will need to make advanced dining reservations (sometimes referred to as ADRs) for your table service meals. This meal plan does not include tips, special drinks and alcoholic beverages. These are to be paid out of pocket (sometimes referred to as OOP).
There is another level of Disney dining at a higher price called the Deluxe Dining Plan (sometimes referred to as DxDP). This plan allows for three tables service credits and 2 snack credits per day and a refillable resort mug. This meal plan also does not include tips, special drinks and alcoholic beverages. These are to be paid out-of-pocket. Again with this plan you really need to plan at least 2/3 of your meals ahead of time if not all during the busiest times of year. We have been to the park near Christmas where a sign is placed near the entrance to the park stating that there are NO reservations left for any of the table service restaurants in Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom and Disney Hollywood Studios. Epcot can usually find something but it may be very late or not the cuisine you wish to eat.
How do you decide where to make ADRs once your have decided on your plan? This is a tough question for most first time guests and even those of us who have been many times before. There are meals where Disney characters come to your table while you dine, there are Disney signature restaurants, there are buffets, there are family style restaurants, there are …. You get the idea. The best way I have found to approach this is to make a schedule of when the parks will be open each day and what special events (Spectromagic, Illuminations, etc…) will be happening during your stay.
From that list decide which parks you want to attend each day. There are websites such as allears.net that have the menus for all the restaurants in WDW posted including children’s menus. Children, those under 10, may only order off the children’s menu if there is one. Look at the restaurants in each park and decide what time you may be in the parks and what meal you may like to have while there. Do you want a big lunch (usually table service) and a light dinner? Or a would your little one like a character breakfast to start the day off right? Disboards.com and WDWmagic.com can offer other recommendations from other people who have been to Walt Disney World.
Also, there are delicious meals served at many of the resort hotels adjacent to the parks. You may also take advantage of these while deciding where you may wish to dine. TIP: If you have children who are hearty eaters or extra picky you may wish to choose a couple buffet style meals. The children and picky adults too can eat off both the children section and the adult’s section of the buffet at no extra charge. Some great buffet meals are 1900 Park Fare for the character breakfast, Chef Mickey’s character breakfast, Crystal Palace has breakfast, lunch and dinner character buffets and the Biergarten in Epcot. These are just a few of the many buffets in the park.
Dining reservations may be made 180 days prior to the first day of your vacation and for the ten days after that. You may book on-line or call Disney Dining to make your reservations.