By Jennifer Stuart
There is no way around the fact that the Most Magical Place on Earth can also be a very expensive place to visit and food can be a big ticket item, especially if you are feeding a family. Here are our tried and true tips for saving money on food at Walt Disney World.
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Eat at Your Hotel
This is our preferred way to have breakfast when staying off property. We always check to see if a hotel offers a free breakfast and calculate it as part of the cost of the hotel. We will choose one hotel over another if they are similarly priced but one offers a free breakfast and the other doesn't. For a family this can add up to significant savings.
On or Off Property
You could also make your own breakfast in your room. If your room has a fridge and you are cereal or fruit and yogurt people then a quick stop at the grocery store can help out with inexpensive breakfasts. If you also have a microwave there are even more options.
Insider Tip: If you are without a car there are several options to have groceries delivered to your hotel. This is a great way to stock up on water and snacks as well.
Like a coffee and muffin for breakfast? There are several options in or out of the Parks to choose from. Most of them are around the same price. There is currently a Starbucks location in each park and two in Disney Springs. If you are not a Starbucks fan, there are plenty of other places to grab a quick drink and a pastry for a breakfast on-the-go.
If a sit down breakfast is more your style, the deals are few. The way to save here is to have a big sit down breakfast later in the morning and replace your lunch with a snack. Again it is often much cheaper to enjoy these meals outside of the park.
Insider tip: You can use your Starbucks card to pay for your purchases at the in-park Starbucks locations so that you can collect stars, but you cannot redeem stars for free beverages or get your birthday drink. For more information you can read our post Everything You Need to Know About Starbucks at Disney World
Bring Your Own
Of course it is most cost effective to bring in your own drinks. We like refillable water bottles as we can fill them up at the hotel in the morning and then refill them as we go during the day. We love the Platypus water bottles as they are BPA free and they collapse as you drink so they take up less space (click here for Canadians). If you are going to bring a water bottle make sure that it is not a glass water bottle as glass containers are not allowed in the park. You will either have to surrender it to security or return it to your hotel. (This happened to my sister-in-law last year).
Free Ice Water
Yes, you heard me free! At any counter service restaurant in Disney World you can ask for a free cup of ice water. We often start to drink these and then use the left over to fill our water bottles so that we are not hampered by drinks on the rides.
Insider Tip: Don't like the taste of plain water? Carry flavour drops or powders to add to your water. (We like lemonade and the kids really like fruit punch).
Share a Large Drink
A large drink is usually not much more than a small drink so if you are OK sharing consider sharing a large drink between 2 people rather than ordering 2 smalls. At time of writing a regular size fountain drink is $3.99 USD and a large is $4.49 USD.
If you are looking to save money on food, bringing your own snacks is a good start. My kids are big snackers and munching on a handful of crackers while in line was a good way to keep them happy and to save time by not having to stop for a snack break later. Small portable snacks are the way to go here. Things like goldfish, granola bars, trail mix all travel well in your park bag. Fresh fruit or veggies and applesauce cups can also work. You can bring snacks from home if you have space in your luggage or hit a grocery store in Orlando. (Keep in mind if you are coming from outside the U.S. that you cannot transport most fruit across the border (click here for U.S. guidelines). Small soft sided coolers are usually acceptable if you need to keep something cold but you will want to be aware of the new rules regarding bringing ice into the parks. Read our post Banned at Disney World -- what you can't bring into the parks for more information.
If you are going to treat yourself to food at Disney World, a snack item although pricey, probably won’t break your budget. Everyone has their favorite snack items. We love Dole Whips and when the kids were smaller we could get away with sharing one between 1 child and 1 adult. My kids are still happy enough with a half churro or splitting a Mickey pretzel. It is enough to have a taste of their favorite treats.
Lunch and Dinner
Eat your big meal at lunch. Often a sit down lunch is cheaper than a sit down dinner. An example of this would be the Biergarten German Buffet in the Germany Pavilion at EPCOT. The lunch buffet costs $28 -36 (varies seasonally) and the same dinner buffet costs $41 at time of writing.
Order the Kids Meal
I am not a kid but I find portion sizes can be big and I will often order the kids meal at counter service restaurants for myself. These meals while mostly unadventurous are a good portion for me and always include a small drink. (Usually water or milk/chocolate milk) Think chicken breast with rice, fruit (usually grapes) applesauce and a drink or a chicken taco with rice, fruit, vegetables and a drink. The menus say that these items are meant for children 9 and under but at a counter service restaurant no one will question you. The options are getting more adventurous over the years and we have had some very good kids meals recently at Captain Cook's and Sautuli Canteen.
Even the standard hamburger or chicken nuggets, while in a smaller size than the adult, will come with apples, carrots and a drink. (Usually priced at $7.69 as opposed to the adult hamburger with fries at $12.49 with no drink – fountain drinks are $3.99 for a small).
Share a Larger Portion
As I said, I find that portions can be large. I will often split an entrée with either one of my kids or with another adult. In Magic Kingdom the Columbia house has big platters that are perfect for sharing. Other examples would be the platters at Flame Tree Barbecue in Animal Kingdom.
Order an Appetizer Instead
Obviously some appetizer sizes can be quite small and others larger. Talk to your server or look at other people’s food. I usually order an appetizer of Pulled Pork Sliders with a side of fries from the House of Blues happy hour menu and even that is too much food for just me! (House of Blues can be found in Disney Springs).
Avoid Festival Food
The Epcot Festivals always come with lots of fun food items. Whether it is Flower and Garden, Food and Wine or Festival of the Arts, we hate to tell you to stay away from these items but while they can be tasty they can also be giant budget busters. The portions are usually relatively small and the prices are generally higher than for other snack items. If you are serious about saving money on food it's best to skip these. Instead treat yourself to one of the seasonal or festival offerings at a counter service like Sunshine Seasons, which often have fun festival related cupcakes or desserts.
Eat Off Property
I do love to eat in the parks and I have several restaurants that I love but it can be very pricey. We usually mix it up and eat out of the park most days and in park a couple of times so that we can visit our favourites.
Look for offsite restaurants clustered in several areas, like along International Drive. These are mostly chain restaurants such as Cheesecake Factory, Bubba Gump, Tony Roma, House of Blues, and California Pizza Kitchen.
Join Clubs or Email Lists
Sometimes it is possible to get a deal or discount by joining a restaurant’s email list or points club. This is best done shortly before you arrive as most of the offers are time sensitive and will expire within 2 weeks. I recommend doing it 3-7 days before your arrival date at Disney World to make sure that you can benefit from these deals. One of our favourites is with Earl of Sandwich (clickhere for our review from Disneyland). It has a location in Disney Springs. Usually Earl of Sandwich offers a free sandwich for signing up to their email list (click here for link) It also has a points system that you can accumulate further discounts by making purchases. Visit their website for more details.
Cook Your Own Meals
Before booking your hotel check and see what the room amenities are. Most (but not all) rooms will include a fridge and many a microwave. A handful of hotels offer rooms with a real kitchen. House rentals are a very popular and affordable vacation choice in Orlando. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t mind cooking while on vacation or if your family has food restrictions or allergies that make it easier to prepare your own food this will add up to a significant savings.
Be an Annual Passholder
Disney World Annual passholders receive a discount of between 10% and 20% on food depending on the type of pass. This includes Resort Hotels but does not include snack carts ) Click here for a list of passholder discounts.
These are a pricey meal. You are really paying the price for Character interactions rather than for the food. The nice thing is that they are all you care to eat buffets and there are options to please picky eaters so you really can eat a BIG meal…but you won’t be “getting your money’s worth” in terms of food. If you want to do a character meal and save money choose breakfast. Breakfast is considerably cheaper. You will want to check out the different locations as the characters vary. Again if you have a really large breakfast you might be able to get away with having just a snack for lunch and save some money there.
Insider Tip: A character meal can be a way to add extra “Disney” to a day that you aren’t going into the park. If you choose a character meal at one of the Resort Hotel locations you can enjoy a day at the beach or elsewhere and still meet characters. This is a great way to stretch Disney out on a longer trip without using valuable park time for dining and without buying a longer ticket.
Resort Refillable Mug
This is one of the occasions where you need to do your math. The current cost of a Resort Re-fillable mug is $18.99 for the length of your stay. Obviously the longer you stay the more likely you are to be able to make this pay for itself. At $3.99 per small drink you would need to be able to have more than 5 drinks over the course of your stay to make it a money saving choice. Keep in mind that you can only use these at Disney Resorts and not in the parks. Look for our post What You Need to Know About Resort Re-fillable Mugs coming soon for more information.
There is an old saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch and this is true of "free dining" as well. Although this is a very popular promotion, it might not be the money saver that it sounds like. For a very detailed analysis we suggest you read the post Disney Dining Plan vs Paying Out of Pocket By Tom Bricker at Disney Tourist Blog. He has many years of experience in this area and has done a very thorough job of crunching the numbers for you.
If you enjoyed this post you may be interested in some of our other Disney posts.
Photos by Jennifer Stuart
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