Disney on a Shoestring: Dining and Shopping

Lisa Fritscher August 1, 2014 No Comments

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Vendor Carts

Disney’s vendor carts are fun and relatively inexpensive.

After tickets and lodging, dining is arguably the most expensive element of a Walt Disney World vacation. Shoestring travelers are generally good at avoiding the priciest souvenirs, but even smaller items can be extremely costly. Fortunately, savvy budgeters can find a plethora of deals on both dining and shopping by following a few simple tips.

Dining Options
Like any theme park, Walt Disney World charges a lot of money for food. However, there are also great deals to be found. When traveling on a shoestring, stick to counter service restaurants and vendor carts. For example, the Liberty Square farmers market at the Magic Kingdom offers excellent baked potatoes that are surprisingly inexpensive. Table service meals in Epcot’s World Showcase are pricey, but most countries have a reasonably-priced counter service alternative. We have found China and Morocco to be particular favorites. If you enjoy vegetarian meals, the Backlot Express at Disney’s Hollywood Studios has a hearty yet inexpensive Portobello mushroom sandwich that is frankly gourmet. At Downtown Disney, the Earl of Sandwich offers artisan sandwiches for not much more than fast food prices.

Unless your family has particularly large appetites, plan to share meals as much as possible. Portions are usually surprisingly large, and it is easy to fill in with a la carte side dishes to ensure that everyone is satisfied. If you prefer not to share, kids’ meals are available to all, and contain enough food for an adult-sized light lunch.

If you plan to eat table-service meals, schedule them at breakfast or lunch rather than dinner. The lunch menu is generally similar to the dinner menu, but at significantly lower prices. The breakfasts are extremely filling, and a late breakfast, coupled with an afternoon snack, could easily hold you until dinner time.

Snacks and beverages are arguably the most overpriced items at Walt Disney World. Plan to carry in your own chips, cookies, granola and other nonperishable snack items, as well as a water bottle for each person. Cups of ice and/or water are free at counter service restaurants, even if you are not buying food. Dump some ice into your water bottle before refilling it at a water fountain, as many of the fountains are lukewarm during the hot summer months.

If you want to supplement with snacks that you buy in the park, stick to things you can’t get at the corner store. For example, the Dole Whip, a pineapple float with pineapple nondairy ice cream, is legendary. Pick up one to share at Aloha Isle, located in Adventureland at the Magic Kingdom. Another inexpensive but delicious snack item is the cream cheese pretzel, available with or without jalapenos at various vending carts throughout the theme parks.

Disney Dining Plan

Sci Fi Dine In

The Sci-Fi Dine-In is a fun table service meal that is much less pricey at lunch than at dinner.

The Disney Dining Plan is a prepaid food plan that is extraordinarily popular, but not necessarily cost-effective for shoestring travelers. It is available in three forms: Quick Service, traditional, and Deluxe. As of 2014, the Quick Service plan costs $41.99 per night per “adult” age 10 or over, and $16.03 per night per child age 3 to 9. The traditional plan costs $60.04 per adult per night and $19.23 per child per night. The Deluxe plan costs $109.53 per adult per night and $29.86 per child per night.

The differences between the three plans have to do with how many counter service meals versus table service meals you receive. All the plans also include snacks (1 per person per night for Quick Service and traditional, and 2 per person per night for Deluxe) and a refillable mug. Everyone in your hotel room must purchase the plan or else no one can, and you must be staying in an official Walt Disney World hotel. Gratuities for table service meals are not covered by the dining plans.

Disney sometimes offers “free dining,” in which your hotel package also includes the traditional dining plan. However, this offer requires paying rack rate for the hotel room, making it less appealing than it first appears. Shoestring travelers are almost always better off staying somewhere else, or on site with a discount, and paying out of pocket for meals.

Money Saving Tips

Shades of Green Kids' Table

If anyone in your group is current or retired military or DoD, Shades of Green has great budget choices for both shopping and dining.

As you might expect, groceries and souvenirs are extremely pricey at Walt Disney World. Fortunately, even if you do not have a car, other options are available nearby. Do not try to save money by going to Gooding’s at the Crossroads plaza near Downtown Disney. Their prices are nearly as high as those at the Disney hotels. If you have a car, Publix and Winn-Dixie are on the same road, with much more reasonable prices. If not, the Hess gas stations across from Downtown Disney and next to the Boardwalk have expanded grocery sections and relatively low prices.

The Hess stations are also relatively cheap for alcohol and cigarettes if you are so inclined, and they have among the lowest gas prices in the area. Never stop for gas at the stations just before you turn for Downtown Disney from the main roads. Those are significantly more expensive than the stations on Disney property or anywhere else in the area.

If you have a car, visit the outlets for Disney merchandise at significantly lower prices. If anyone in your family is current or retired military or a Department of Defense civilian, the shop at Shades of Green sells a limited selection of the same merchandise sold in the parks at an average of one-third the cost! The local Wal-Marts also carry an extensive supply of Disney-branded products.

Incidentally, the handheld misting fans are extraordinarily popular during the hot summer season. They sell for $17 (as of 2014) in the parks. If you can forego the Disney characters, you can buy practically the same fan for $7 at Wal-Mart.

Disney on a shoestring does not have to be any less fun than blowing thousands of dollars. It just requires a different mindset and a willingness to do some advance planning. Carefully research your options, funnel your money into the activities that are the most meaningful to your family, and trim the fat by cutting out things that your family will not truly miss.

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Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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