Disney may be the Happiest Place on Earth, but nothing can wreck the happy faster than poor planning.
This is especially true when it comes to one of the most important parts of your trip — eating!
After decades of Disney dining, we’ve perfected some expert tips and advice to get the most out of your Disney World visit.
Today, we’re sharing our 56 Must-Read Disney Dining Secrets to ensure that you have the magical visit of your dreams!
Top Disney Dining Secrets
Let’s get started!
1. Make dining reservations. Even if you don’t follow any other piece of advice, we can’t say this emphatically enough. To fully appreciate the truly entertaining and delicious array of Disney Dining offerings, you must make advanced dining reservations. If you wait until you arrive at Disney to make table service arrangements, you may miss out on many of your top picks because they will be booked.
2. BYOP (Bring Your Own Pepsi). Yep. Those of you who are die-hard Pepsi drinkers will be sad to note that any and all Disney establishments will not carry Pepsi products. It’s a Coke-only zone here! So either bring your own Pepsi, or plan to take a trip to a nearby gas station, convenience store, grocery store, or drug store to pick up your stash. You can also order it and have it delivered directly to your hotel from Garden Grocer.
3. Don’t miss the must-eat items! After years of eating Disney goodies, we here at Disney Food Blog have amassed quite a list of “must-eat” treats in Disney parks and resorts. Cult favorites like Dole Whip Floats, Zebra Domes, School Bread, and Mickey Bars are high priority when you’re visiting the Happiest Place on Earth. To read up on our favorites, head over to our Best Disney World Restaurants Page for some great “Best Of” posts like Best Cookie Snacks in Disney World, favorite Disney ice cold snacks, Disney’s best grilled cheese, and more! And if you’re headed to Disney World for the first time, you must read our Best Disney Restaurants for First-Timers article — very helpful!
4. Make your reservations 180 days prior to your visit whenever possible. Nope — it’s not enough to just make reservations; you need to make them as early as possible. For most restaurants, that’s 180 days prior to the date you’re seeking. If you’re staying in a Disney hotel, you can book all of your reservations for up to 10 days beginning exactly 180 days before the first day of your trip.
5. Don’t pay for food you don’t want. One of my favorite Disney Dining tips is to be a squeaky wheel when you need to be. Disney is very good at customizing meals, and at counter-service restaurants, your customized meal might even save you some money! For example, if you’d rather have just the sandwich with no sides, the price will likely be lower. So if you’d rather not have the extra food that comes with the entree, let them know and expect a lower price.
6. Get free ice water during those hot summer months. And any other time as well! Most Disney counter-service restaurants will give you a free glass of ice water when asked. This can come in handy when you don’t want to spend extra money on a drink with your meal, or when you’re dying of thirst on those hot Disney days!
7. Research your dining options. There is a dizzying array of dining options at Disney — everything from ultra upscale haute cuisine, to restaurants offering incredible themed experiences. Take your time and research your options — Disney Food Blog has dedicated Disney World restaurant information pages for every single restaurant and kiosk in Disney World that includes menu details, our reviews, and more. While you’re planning, take into consideration park hours for the days of your visit as well. Using the Disney Dining Restaurant Search Tool is a great way to ensure that your pick meets all of your needs.
8. Consider the pace of service when you’re making dining decisions. Some Disney signature restaurants (the most expensive spots on property) can have a relaxed pace of service, like Citrico’s or Artist Point. This may be great for a date night, but not so wonderful if you have tired children or are trying to keep a tight schedule. Take into consideration the pace of service when you book, and consult Disney Food Blog’s Disney restaurant reviews for details on what to expect.
9. Save on dining costs by eating a big, late breakfast. If you’re looking to stretch your dollars, one of our favorite suggestions is to eat a big breakfast at one of the many table service restaurants offering a morning meal. Generally, breakfast is less expensive than other meals, and by starting your day off with a full stomach a little later, you may eliminate the need for lunch altogether. Another relaxed alternative is combining breakfast and lunch, and choosing a brunch option.
10. Embrace snacks, even as alternatives to meals. There are some seriously substantial snacks to be found all over Disney! Many, like school bread in Epcot’s Kringla Bakeri Og Cafe, can take the place of a meal altogether. In this way you accomplish two goals — you get to try snacks and save money!
11. Eat during off hours. Not a big fan of crowds, or looking to get into a booked up restaurant? Consider eating during off hours. Booking a very early or late meal, or taking in a counter service spot between traditional meal times can greatly reduce your wait, and you might even get to try a few restaurants that you thought you’d have to skip.
12. Hit up resorts for meals. While it’s a lot of fun to eat in the parks, consider booking meals at nearby resorts. Spots like Kona Cafe at the Polynesian or The Wave at the Contemporary are a convenient monorail ride away from Magic Kingdom, and can even offer a respite from the heat and crowds.
13. Research the Disney Dining Plan to see if it meets your needs. There are deeply divided opinions regarding the value offered by Disney Dining Plans. Our suggestion? Research it. If you always like to eat the most expensive foods, it may just save you money. Or the convenience of having much of your food paid for ahead of time may be more valuable to you than savings. For more advice, check out advice on pros and cons of the Disney Dining Plan.
14. Book a character meal. If amassing character photos and autographs is a priority for your family, then be sure to book a character dining experience. You have to eat anyway, so again, this is a meal that does double duty. And instead of you waiting in long lines, the characters come to you. And don’t skip this option if you’re kid-free — lots of adults-only parties have an awesome time at character meals!
15. Choose the right character meal for your group. There are LOTS of character meal choices in Disney World, and you want to be sure that you pick the best one for your brood. For example, if you have a pre-schooler in the group, the Hollywood and Vine Play ‘n Dine with Disney Junior characters might be perfect. If you have a little princess, she may want to hang out with other princesses at Cinderella’s Royal Table. Have all boys? Maybe Winnie the Pooh characters or Mickey Mouse himself would be the best choice. Check out this great primer on how to Choose the Best Disney Character Meal for your Family for insights.
16. Visit at slower times of the year to avoid crowds. While slow times at Disney are becoming more rare, there are still a few times during the year that you can go when the crowds are lower. Booking your visit in September, early January, early February, or May can lead to shorter lines and more dining options available.
17. Consider purchasing a Tables in Wonderland card. If you’re a Florida resident or a Disney Passholder, be sure to check out the Tables in Wonderland discount card. Good at many locations throughout Disney, the card offers a savings of 20% on meals, and includes alcoholic beverages.
18. Make plans to visit the Epcot Food and Wine Festival least once. What began as an event to draw crowds during a slow part of the year has turned into a premiere culinary event with demonstrations, special dining opportunities, and fantastic marketplace booths. Anyone who loves to eat should plan to visit the Food and Wine Festival at least once! And to help with planning your Food and Wine Festival trip, pre-order the 2013 DFB Guide to the 2013 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, and get the 2012 for free!
19. If dealing with a food sensitivity or special diets, have it noted on the reservation and then mention again at the podium. Disney is one of the most accommodating resorts that we’ve experienced when it comes to special needs diets. If you have any food sensitivity ranging from allergies to intolerances and beyond, let them know. Note it at the time of the reservation if you book by telephone, and mention it again at the time you check in. The restaurant’s chef will see to it that you are in good hands. For even more information on dining with special diet needs, see our Disney Dining resource page.
20. Get a little something for free. Believe it or not, you CAN get something for nothing in Disney World! Disney candy shops and other stores regularly offer free samples of their wares — from caramel corn to caramel apples to fudge, cotton candy, and more! A few of our favorite spots to scope out for samples are the Confectionery on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, Big Top Treats in New Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom, and Prairie Outpost and Supply in Frontierland in the Magic Kingdom.
21. Save some dough by bringing your own eats. The easiest way to avoid high theme park food prices or to avoid the headache that can result from a special diet is to bring your own less expensive eats from home (or from your hotel)! Disney does have rules and regulations about bringing food into the parks, but for the most part, bringing in snacks, small coolers, non-alcoholic drinks, and other goodies is allowed. See details about bringing food into Disney parks here.
22. Take a Restaurant Tour. Enjoy a little education with your sustenance! Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge offers free culinary tours of its restaurants every day at 4pm. This usually come with a little taste test of some of the more popular items, so be willing to sample! See details of the AKL culinary tours here.
23. Be prepared for cost. Here’s a newsflash: Disney is not cheap. But that’s okay, because it’s a vacation, and you’re getting a lot more for your money than just food. Take into consideration the service, as well as the atmosphere, grounds, and themeing, and expect that you will pay more for a meal here. Understanding this ahead of time could alleviate some sticker shock when the check comes.
24. Try underrated restaurants. There are many, many restaurants at Disney. Sure, getting into the super popular ones, like Epcot’s Le Cellier, might be difficult. Don’t be afraid to try a few spots you’ve never heard of. Some of our favorite meals have been at spots that tend to fly under the radar, like Boatwright’s at Port Orleans (check out our dinner review here.)
25. Nosh at a lounge or bar in place of a sit down dinner. I love meeting friends for drinks and bites at many of the lounges, bars, and pubs located throughout Disney. They offer some delicious eats, and great alternatives to busy table service or counter service restaurants. If you find yourself hungry and you don’t have a reservation, check out the bar menus at spots like the Territory Lounge at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Or stop in Epcot’s Rose and Crown Pub for an English Bulldog. You won’t leave hungry, I guarantee.
26. Fill up at a buffet. Buffets represent some of the best value at Disney, because they are always all-you-care to eat. They’re also a fantastic option for groups whose members have wide variations in taste, or for picky eaters. For these reasons, a breakfast or dinner buffet can be a wise choice if you’re looking to maximize your budget, or you appreciate meals that offer a wide variety of foods. In addition to buffets, there are other family style restaurants, like ‘Ohana at Disney’s Polynesian Resort and dinner at the Liberty Tree Tavern in Magic Kingdom which also offer an all-you-care-to-eat format. This is also a great option for family with growing, ravenous teenagers!
27. Take home snacks like fudge as souvenirs and gifts. Take home Disney food for extra special souvenirs. Whether you want to take a little pixie dust home for yourself, or bring a little something home in your suitcase to someone you love, Disney Authentic Parks snacks or classic treats like fudge will keep the magic going for just a little while longer.
28. Eat off property to save money. When you’re in Disney World, you’re a captive audience…and food prices are going to be higher than they are in the surrounding areas. As a result, a great way to save some cash on dining when you’re in the World is to get “out of the World” for a while! Head over to a chain restaurant nearby to spend significantly less on your meal, or head to a grocery store to pick up grab and go eats.
29. Time your reservation in Animal Kingdom or Magic Kingdom for afternoon parade time viewing. Book your lunch reservation at Animal Kingdom’s Yak and Yeti or Tony’s Town Square at Magic Kingdom at just the right time, and you can take in one of the afternoon parades from the comfort of an air-conditioned table, rather than a hotter-than-hot street curb.
30. Book a meal during Wishes or Illuminations for a great view of fireworks. Likewise, booking your dining reservation to coincide with fireworks displays at Magic Kingdom or Epcot can make for an extra special evening. For the best viewing of Magic Kingdom’s Wishes, check out restaurants at hotels bordering Seven Seas Lagoon. One of our favorite spots for delicious dining and beautiful views in a laid back atmosphere is Narcoossee’s at the Grand Floridian. For viewing Illuminations at Epcot, our favorite spot is the front patio at the Rose and Crown.
31. Don’t forget about other restaurants on Disney property. There is a tendency to overlook restaurants on Disney property that aren’t in Disney hotels or theme parks. Some of the best meals that we’ve had have been at the restaurants of the Swan & Dolphin Resorts, such as Todd English’s bluezoo and Shula’s Steakhouse. Likewise, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Hilton Bonnet Creek offer fantastic options, like Bull and Bear Steakhouse and La Luce, and reservations are often easier to get than they are at Disney restaurants. You might even find that these spots offer slightly less expensive dining than Disney-owned spots. The popular Earl of Sandwich at Downtown Disney is a great example.
32. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask. If you have any questions about the food or the menu at a restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask your server about it. Disney restaurants offer great flexibility for the most part when it comes to making substitutions or accommodating dietary needs.
33. Gluten free and vegan celebrations are possible, thanks to Babycakes NYC. Gone are the days when requiring a gluten free diet means that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. With advanced notice, Babycakes NYC, located at Downtown Disney, can deliver a celebration cake to any Disney restaurant for your special occasion.
34. Consider booking a dinner that combines food and entertainment. There are plenty of options available at Disney if you favor a “dinner with a show” approach. The Spirit of Aloha at Disney’s Polynesian and the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at Ft. Wilderness are well known options.
35. Bring water if you don’t like Florida tap water. Many visitors to Florida share something in common — a dislike for the tap water. If this is an issue for your family, you might want to bring bottles of water with you. Whether you ship them ahead, or have them delivered to your door from a delivery service like Garden Grocer, you will have the water you prefer, and will save money over buying it in the resorts or parks.
36. Know which restaurants to check out if you don’t have a reservation. Think you’re sunk for a decent meal if you didn’t book ahead? Think again. With so many quality restaurants located in the resort, you can always find restaurants to check out if you don’t have a reservation. You just need to know where to look. Check out our suggestions for alternatives to some of Disney’s most popular restaurants!
37. Have a couple healthier-for-you options in your back pocket. Even though you’re doing a ton of walking during a Disney vacation, those Mickey ice cream bars can add up, and so can the pounds. Be sure to have a couple of tips for healthy eating in Disney World if this is something that’s important to you or family members.
38. Skip dessert. Table service, that is. Adding dessert for two to your table service bill can easily bump up the cost quite a bit (like, up to $20+!). If you’d like a little something sweet but are looking to save money, consider skipping dessert at the restaurant and grabbing a treat at a specialty store or kiosk. From custom made ice cream cookie sandwiches to chocolate-covered treats, there are all sorts of sweet endings outside of the restaurant — and the walk might do you some good, too.
39. Get the most out of your Disney Dining Plan. If you’ve chosen to purchase a Disney Dining Plan, your planning isn’t over yet! Every year we scope out the best ways to get the biggest bang for your buck with your Disney Dining Plan credits. Check out our Disney Dining Plan Tips section here!
40. Scope out great restaurants for vegetarian options ahead of time. Whether you are a vegetarian or you just like to work in the occasional meatless meal, it’s good to have an idea about good restaurants for vegetarian options. Granted, just about every Disney restaurant will offer something those favoring a plant-based diet can eat — but some are way better than others.
41. Order necessities from Garden Grocer and have them delivered to your hotel. If you’d like to save some money or eat some meals in your room or villa, you no longer have to worry about driving or taking a cab off property. Now, you can order packaged items, fresh fruit and veggies, drinks, and any other grocery item directly from GardenGrocer.com and have it delivered right to your hotel room! This is a great option especially if you have special dietary needs in the family.
42. If this is your first Disney trip, don’t underestimate the magic of your dining experience. Even though you may have visions of Space Mountain and character autographs for your first visit to Disney World, first time visitors shouldn’t overlook the importance of planning meals wisely. With incredible themeing and unique dishes, Disney dining has the potential to be every bit as memorable as the rides and attractions that you encounter. Check out our suggestions for Best Disney Restaurants for First Time Visitors!
43. Decide ahead of time if refillable mugs are a good bargain for you. Are you an ardent soda, tea, or coffee drinker? Then you’ll definitely want to do the math to decide if refillable souvenir mugs are a bargain for you. The mugs, which are for sale in resort counter service locations and gift shops, come with a steep price tag if purchased separate from a Disney Dining Plan. Be sure that your number of refills and beverage preference make this a good deal — unless you’re just happy to go home with a super cute mug.
44. Plan ahead for dining on arrival and departure dates. You may not give it much thought, but planning meals for arrival or departure days can be tricky business. Unless you are an annual passholder, you may not want to pop into the parks for a meal on a half (or less) day. Give some thought to resort options for dining so that you aren’t burning a park day on your pass unnecessarily. Check out our best tips for Disney dining on your arrival and departure days, and don’t forget to read the awesome “traditions” that many of our DFB readers have developed for their arrival day!
45. Know where to go if you run out of baby food. If you’re visiting with an infant and you run out of baby food at Disney, have no fear. There are many options, both inside the parks and out, that ensure you’ll have as many strained peas and peaches as you need to keep your little cherub happy as a clam.
46. Can you have fun in a Disney restaurant that doesn’t feature characters? You bet. Think that the only restaurants where you find entertainment are spots with characters or dinner shows? Think again! There are several options throughout the resort that offer amazing entertainment without characters. For a buffet that can’t be beat, head to Biergarten in Epcot’s Germany Pavilion for fun live music and dancing.
Or for upscale pub food and incredible dancing, check out Raglan Road at Downtown Disney. This authentic Irish Pub offers traditional Irish music and dancing nightly while you dine — and during Sunday brunch as well.
47. When all else fails, order in. If you’re tired of having to hunt and gather your food, then have your food come to you with Disney pizza delivery. All resorts, even the values, have fresh, made-to-order pies available at the touch of a button, which can be a welcome option after a long day of park hopping.
48. See what Special Events will be happening during your trip. During certain times of the year, you may be lucky enough to enjoy a special event at Disney! Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party in Disney World and Mickey’s Halloween Party in Disneyland, and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party in Disney World are definitely worth attending — even though it costs a bit more for the ticket. During the holidays, Disney opens specialty food and beverage kiosks all over the parks that feature yummy cold weather treats (check out our DFB Guide to the Walt Disney World Holidays for all of the details!).
And our favorite, the International Epcot Food and Wine Festival, happens every year in the Fall and offers incredible eats and drinks! Definitely save some stomach space for these!
49. Have picky eaters? Many of us visit the parks with folks who’d rather eat chicken nuggets for every meal than try something new…and that’s OK! Disney is a safe haven for those with specific likes and dislikes. Check out menus before you make your dining reservations and plans to be sure there’s something that everyone can eat. Remember that it doesn’t matter if the approved food is an appetizer, side dish, or kids’ menu item — it can be served in adult entree size for an added cost. Here are a few more tricks and tips for Disney dining with picky eaters.
50. Do date night in Disney. Think that you must have kids to be allowed to do Disney? Wrong! Disney World isn’t the #1 Honeymoon destination in the world for nothing! This place can be very romantic…on any budget. Plan ahead to treat your favorite person to a signature dinner at a fancy restaurant, have a romantic picnic on the beach in the moonlight, take a fireworks cruise complete with snacks, or share ice cream and a ride on the carousel!
51. Keep an eye open for special, limited time only eats. This year, Disney’s running its Limited Time Magic promotions in Disney World and Disneyland. That means that, from time to time, you’ll find specialty eats and treats that are only available for a limited time. These will usually be advertised via a placard at counter service restaurants, or on the menus at table-service restaurants. But even if you’re headed to Disney next year or later, you’ll still find specialty menu items for different holidays and promotions, like the red velvet pancakes at Kona Cafe on Valentine’s Day!
52. Take advantage of dining and merchandise discounts. At many times of the year, dining at Disney’s counter-service restaurants outside of popular dining hours will merit you a discount coupon for a variety of merchandise locations. For example, eat at Pecos Bill’s in the late afternoon and your receipt might include a coupon for a discount on Disney merchandise at the Emporium on Main Street and several other locations. It’s another great reason to avoid the Disney restaurant crowds and dine at off-times. There are several other dining discounts that are available to you as well. Check out our Disney Dining Discounts page for details.
53. Consider visiting during a “free dining” season. Disney World’s “free dining” promotion offers guests the chance to book a Disney Vacation Package with a free Disney Dining Plan during certain times of the year. While saving money with the Disney Dining Plan alone can be difficult, our calculations show that taking advantage of the free dining promotion can save you some dough in certain circumstances. Free dining is most often offered during early Fall months. Here are the details on the 2013 Disney World Free Dining promotion.
54. Include your companions in the dining planning. Traveling to Disney with picky eaters, disinterested teenagers, first timers, a stressed out spouse? The best way to ensure that everyone has a great time at the World is to make them all feel invested in the trip planning. And who doesn’t want to give their opinion on food? Share menus, reviews, and restaurant options with the family or your other traveling companions and get their feedback and favorites. This is an especially great idea for budding chefs!
55. Order a cake to celebrate a special occasion. When it’s time to celebrate that anniversary, birthday, graduation, or new job, consider ordering a custom cake to make the occasion that much more special! You can order a cake ahead of time (with all the bells and whistles) or order a cake when you arrive at the restaurant. We’ve got all the details you need about ordering a cake in Disney World right here.
56. Plan a magical picnic. There’s nothing more fun than discovering a secret hideaway on Disney property where you can avoid the crowds and relax for a bit. Some of our favorites include the Disney resort hotel beaches — especially when everyone else is at the parks! Instead of fighting the masses of Disney guests for a table in a restaurant, pack some sandwiches and create your own oasis in the Happiest Place on Earth for lunch or dinner. We highly recommend the beaches at Wilderness Lodge, Disney’s Polynesian Resort, or Fort Wilderness. Lounge by the lake, enjoy your goodies, and take a moment to refresh before heading back to the parks. For a particularly romantic occasion, bring a bottle of wine and some grapes and cheese to the Polynesian Resort beach around sunset and stay for an incredible view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks!
Want More Great Disney World Dining Tips?
Above, we’ve listed just a few of our top suggestions for having a fantastic Walt Disney World dining experience from start to finish. With a little planning and flexibility, your trip can be just as awesome as you’ve dreamed it would be.
For even more tips on getting the most out of your Disney Dining experience, pick up a copy of our DFB Guide to Walt Disney World Dining e-Book! You’ll find over 450 pages of expert and experience-based advice, tips, and suggestions for every facet of Disney dining, ensuring that you have the best Disney vacation possible!
Hundreds of photos will show you exactly what to expect!
What are your top tips for Dining at Disney? Let us know by leaving a comment!