Disney dining bargain is all in the planning

There are a lot of decisions to make when planning a trip to Florida's Walt Disney World, and they don't end after you've selected a date, chosen a hotel, and booked your airfare.

Perhaps the biggest challenge remains: Where to eat? Although that might seem like a minor concern, with all the choices of restaurants at the four main theme parks, the resort hotels, and locales such as Downtown Disney, deciding where to eat, and when, can take hours.

One of the hardest choices - and the subject of much debate on Disney Web sites - is whether to participate in the Disney Dining Plan. This prepaid option provides most of your food for each day at the parks and hotels, but it comes at a hefty price.

The dining plan was introduced in 2005, and although it has changed - most significantly last year, when appetizers and tips were removed - it is popular among resort guests. That's why reservations are now required for most Disney World sit-down restaurants, which can fill up months in advance.

Here's how the basic Disney Dining Plan works: It gives each person in your group one counter-service meal (where you walk up and order), one table-service meal (at a sit-down restaurant), and one snack for each night.

The meals include an entree, a dessert and a nonalcoholic drink. Snacks include a variety of items usually priced at $4 or less.

So why the controversy? At about $38 per adult per day, and $10 per child (ages 3 to 9), the cost can add up quickly (and it is scheduled to increase by a few dollars this year, with several different dining plans to choose from).

What did we do? During our six-night stay, our family of five opted for the basic Disney Dining plan, which added about $635 to the cost of our trip. That gave us 30 snacks, 30 counter-service meals, and 12 adult and 18 children's table-service meals.

Our verdict? Unless you are a very light eater, the plan is worth the money if for no other reason than most of your food is paid for in advance.

The meal plan broke down to about $125 per person for the week. I don't see how you could spend less than that over the course of seven days at theme parks where a hot dog costs $5.79 and plenty of sit-down dinners cost $30 a plate before adding on drinks or dessert.

However, there are disadvantages. Table-service meals require reservations, which Disney recommends you make six months in advance of your visit.

Also, if you plan to spend days away from Disney, the dining plan is probably not for you.

Could you eat for less? Yes, especially if you bring much of your own food and drinks, which Disney allows.