Anita Does the Dining Plan, Part II:
Family Style

by Anita Answer, Allears.net Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the
September 19, 2006, Issue #365 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

A few weeks ago, I reported on using the Magic Your Way Dining Plan for four days as a single traveler with my good friend Flo. I recently returned from a seven-night trip with my family of three (two adults and one teen) and a close family friend (adult). We used the Dining Plan again, but this time I went into it knowing that I personally would be using the plan differently than on my previous trip, and would not be trying to "maximize" the plan. Last time I ended up maximizing myself in the process!

Here are my observations on using the Plan with a family, as well as some general thoughts on the impact the Plan seems to be having on the dining experience at Walt Disney World restaurants:

--------------------
PLANNING
--------------------

Several weeks prior to our trip, I polled everyone to see what table service restaurants they wanted to try. After I got all the requests together, I chose the day for the restaurant by looking at its location and the Extra Magic Hours evenings schedule for that month, which would place us in or near the correct park if we wanted to participate, as this would save us some travel time. We planned to eat all breakfasts in our two-bedroom vacation home at Old Key West, and lunch locations would be chosen spontaneously (yay!) dependent on what park or location we found ourselves in at lunchtime.

-------------------------
ADVANCE DINING RESERVATIONS
-------------------------

I still don't like having to book my dining reservations so far in advance, but as long as the Dining Plan remains popular, this is what I'll have to do for every trip, even if I'm not using the Plan. It takes the spontaneity out of a trip, but it's necessary if one wants to dine at a table service restaurant. With that in mind, about six weeks prior to our trip, I booked Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs) for the four of us at Narcoossee's, Teppanyaki, '50s Prime Time Cafe, Cape May Cafe, Tony's Town Square, and the Concourse Steakhouse.

I had no trouble getting exactly the times and days I requested. I tried to choose a good cross-section of park and resort restaurants, and included one buffet and one "signature" restaurant. I left one evening open, as we planned to be in Animal Kingdom that evening for Extra Magic Hour, and Animal Kingdom does not have a table service restaurant. We used that night's table service credit at Narcoossee's, which requires two table service credits, and planned to use two counter service credits on that day for lunch and dinner. What actually happened is that we ended up using one counter service for lunch that day, and paid cash at the Flame Tree Barbecue for dinner, using the Disney Dining Experience (DDE) card discount (20 percent). Mr. Answer pointed out that Animal Kingdom is the only park that you can use the DDE at counter service locations, and we could save our counter service credit for lunch on our last day. I have trained him well!

At the two-week mark before our arrival, we learned that some friends of ours had decided to join us for the second half of our trip. I was worried that it would be difficult changing our ADRs for those days from four to six people, but I had no problems. All of the modified ADRs were within 10 to 20 minutes of the original reservations.

After our delicious meal at Teppanyaki, my family decided we should cancel our ADRs at the Concourse Steakhouse and book Teppanyaki again for our last night's dinner. The following day, before I had a chance to call and change anything, I found out that yet another person would be joining us late in the week, for a total of seven people. From a Friendship between Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios, I called Disney Dining with my fingers crossed (and by the way, it is really hard to dial a cell phone that way) that I would be able to secure an ADR for seven people at Teppanyaki for a Saturday night during peak summer season with only three days' notice. I had to compromise a little on the time (changing from 7 p.m. to 8:20 p.m.), but they were able to book us. Phew! I later heard from other friends who were at the World the following week that walk-ups and same-day ADRs were all but impossible. We were very lucky to be able to get what we wanted.

--------------------
SERVICE
--------------------

It seems that the longer the Dining Plan continues, the less attentive the service gets. With the exception of Narcoossee's and Teppanyaki, our service was ho-hum at best. In particular, we noticed that the servers at the '50s Prime Time Cafe no longer seem to do their schtick with the diners -- you know, "Elbows off the table, eat your veggies, did you wash your hands?" This was a big disappointment for our friend, who last ate there in 1993. He remembered the fun we had then, and was looking forward to it on this trip. In the words of Charlie Brown, we "got a rock..." We were lucky if our server stuck around long enough for us to ask her for ketchup or a drink refill. I believe that the 18 percent gratuity automatically included in the Dining Plan is what is causing this, coupled with the huge increase in diners demanding faster turnover on the tables. The servers know they'll get tipped no matter what, so why bother with anything more that rudimentary service? I find this to be a shame since we had come to count on having that famous Disney service at all restaurants over the years.

At Narcoossee's, we had a bubbly server named Debby who stopped by to chat and have a laugh with us. She answered all of our questions about what we could order on the Plan, and described and recommended some dishes as well. We never felt rushed or hurried, though she did seem to disappear for long periods. Teppanyaki always has good service, since they cook right at your table. Cape May is a buffet, so you mostly serve yourself, but we noted that drink refills and plate removal were very slow. The place seemed understaffed for the number of people dining there. We saw empty tables, yet there were many people waiting to be seated, which we assumed meant that there were not enough servers to cover all of the sections.

At Tony's, we had a very long wait for our table, and watched a number of people with the same size party being seated before us, even when they had arrived much later. When we were finally seated after bringing this to the hostess' attention, we were given the table right next to the kitchen door, which was very noisy and had a lot of traffic. I asked if we could possibly be re-seated at the large empty table on the other side of the dining room, and the hostess practically took my head off! She was so over-the-top rude that I reported her to the manager -- something I have never done before at the World. The manager had apparently received complaints about this hostess before. "Well, why is she still here then?" I wondered to myself. The manager was apologetic, but seemed distracted by something he was hearing over his headset. It turned out to be a security problem in the restaurant, so we left without our problem really being resolved. Our server at Tony's was polite and mostly efficient, but hurried and indifferent, and tended to disappear for long periods of time. Two of us ordered steaks; one medium rare and one medium. When they arrived, they were both well done. We wondered why they had bothered asking us how we wanted them cooked to begin with, and our server disappeared for so long it was too late to send them back to the kitchen. What we experienced at Tony's was a complete 180 degrees from the service I had in May. Was this downturn in the level of service and food quality due to the Dining Plan or just our bad fortune on that one busy evening? After the encounter with the "Hostess from Heck" and the mis-"steak," I'm not sure I want to return there again to find out. Tony's has always been a family favorite, so I was doubly disappointed.

--------------------
FOOD
--------------------

More and more, I'm seeing less and less! The selections on the table service menus are all beginning to look alike. It seems like every table service place has the same things on the menu: Caesar salad, calamari, and goat cheese for appetizers; a steak, a fish, a chicken and a pasta dish for entrees. They all have different names, but they're all the same dish, more or less. The signature restaurants still have unique fare, thank goodness, but they require two credits. The buffets still have a number of interesting selections. Portion sizes are still huge. I left a lot of food at the table after most meals. As I mentioned earlier, I was not going to "maximize" the plan this time, but ordered what I wanted to eat and only ate until I was full.

To my dismay, I found a distinct lack of sugar-free dessert selections at the counter service places. Cosmic Ray's has a no-sugar-added brownie, and the Tomorrowland Terrace Noodle Station has sugar-free ice cream. At a few places, you can sometimes find a fruit cup or some grapes, but by and large, nothing but sugar. If you can't eat sugar, you're out of luck on the Dining Plan. Most, but not all, of the table service places still have some sort of sugar-free offering, but many of them did not seem imaginative or appealing. I gave away a lot of desserts to others at the table.

Recently, almost all of the counter service restaurants have changed over to little pre-packaged desserts. You will find the same chocolate-cake-in-a-cup just about everywhere. The bakery-made desserts are becoming hard to find. I only saw them in Animal Kingdom's restaurants, where they still had slices of cake and pie. Even the quality of these had declined over the last year, I'm sorry to say. El Pirata y El Perico in the Magic Kingdom has churros (not very fresh, I'm afraid) and Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars, which they allowed us to come back to pick up after lunch so they wouldn't melt.

Over all, with few exceptions, we were somewhat disappointed with menu selections. This is something that new visitors to the World might not notice, but veterans like myself, who may travel to the World four to six times a year, will notice this disappointing development after two or three days. Since my August trip, I have heard that Tony's menu has been modified and is missing a few of the better entrees and desserts. What a shame!

--------------------
PROBLEMS
--------------------

All food outlets seem to know the drill by now. At the table service places, the servers allowed us to put our non-Dining Plan friends' appetizers and desserts on the plan when one of us on the plan didn't care to use the appetizer or dessert part of the credit. We were also allowed to use the Disney Dining Experience discount for items not included on the plan, like alcoholic and specialty beverages, sushi, and our friends' meals.

We did encounter three minor problems using the Plan; two of them with Snack credits at the Magic Kingdom, and one involving the Dining Plan in general at the Animal Kingdom.

Strange Problem #1: I went into Auntie Gravity's at the Magic Kingdom for a snack. Even though it isn't on the 2006 list of places for the Dining Plan, every single item on the menu sported the purple-and-white logo that denotes "snack" on the plan. I thought maybe they were a late entry into the plan. When I got to the register to order, the Cast Member told me, "Uh, we don't take the Dining Plan." OK... "So why is every single item on your menu marked with the snack symbol?" "I dunno, it's messed up." Yes, indeed it IS messed up! I politely declined to order and left, wondering how many times a day that scenario is played out.

Strange Problem #2: Mr. Answer and our friend wanted some popcorn and drinks at the Magic Kingdom, but the stand they chose was having problems with the Dining Plan cards. They were forced to find another stand with a working scanner. Lesson learned: When a computer is involved, stuff happens. Be ready to change your plans!

Strange Problem #3: I met Allears.net team member Gloria for breakfast one morning at Tusker House in the Animal Kingdom. I arrived before she did and was able to use one snack credit for coffee, and one for a bottled water. She arrived at the table a few minutes later empty-handed, to report that the lines were suddenly very long and slow, and that the registers were having problems with the Dining Plan. Like I said, when computers are involved, stuff happens!

--------------------
VALUE
--------------------

As I said in my last review of the Dining Plan, if your family likes to eat at table service restaurants, are not picky eaters, and eat large portions, the Dining Plan can be an excellent value. If your dining style is more like burgers-on-the-fly or you are light eaters, the plan may not be for you. I found that even when not trying to maximize my credits, ordering lighter fare, and eating only half of my meals, I still came out ahead, although I felt like I had wasted a lot of food that went uneaten.

-------------------------
WOULD I USE IT AGAIN?
-------------------------

Lots of pros and cons here. We definitely got our money's worth on this trip. As good a value as it is, however, I still feel like it's too much food and forces my trips to be too structured. Table service can take up a lot of park touring time, but we found that we enjoyed a break from the heat and crowds each evening, even when the service seemed rushed. Since we went during the summer with extended hours and Extra Magic Hours, taking the time for a table service meal worked well. During the slower months when the parks close early, however, it may eat too much into your touring time. While it took a lot of the spontaneity out of our trip, my family seemed to appreciate that we had a plan in place for each day, which can be useful when you visit the World at crowded, peak times like mid-summer. The convenience of a pre-paid plan was great, and the flexibility makes the plan fairly easy to use once you have your ADRs in place. It was convenient to be able to separate from each other, but still use the Plan to pay for our meals and snacks.

I have three more trips planned before the end of 2006. Two of them are short solo trips, and one is an extended trip with my family and our friend Flo. So far, I have not booked the Dining Plan for any of those trips, choosing instead to try to go back to a more loosely structured trip. I still have a few weeks to make my final decision, and I could change my mind before then. Quite frankly, though, after experiencing the level of service slipping and the menu selections becoming more and more disappointing and pedestrian after each of my three previous trips this year, I'm disinclined to visit some table service restaurants that used to be a "must-dine" for me. I certainly hope that this is only a temporary bump in the road for Disney Dining, and that soon, all will return to the level it once was.

October 1 is the beginning of the Year of a Million Dreams, so I can hope, right?

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

RELATED LINKS:

Read Anita's previous article on the Dining Plan: http://allears.net/ae/issue358.htm

Read Anita Answer's weekly column here: http://allears.net/aa/anita.htm

The Disney Dining Plan has been recommended by 99% of our reviewers. Read their comments and provide yours, too! http://land.allears.net/reviewpost/showproduct.php?product=324&sort=8&cat=81&page=1


-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.