Is the Universal Dining Plan worth the cost?

Who likes to go on vacations and spend more money than they absolutely have to? No one. Who likes to go on vacations and feel like they got a bargain or a good deal out of it? Lots of people. What can you purchase at Universal that can make you feel like you got a good deal, but you end up spending more money than you need to? The correct answer is the Universal Dining Plan!

The Universal Dining Plan (UDP) replaced the old Universal Meal Deal last year and not a lot of good things have been said about it. The old Meal Deal was a great bargain for people who loved to eat greasy quick service food multiple times throughout the day, but the restaurant options were very limited and definitely not the healthiest. The Universal Dining Plan took over, bringing Quick Service and Full Service options that are more in line with what you’d experience with the Disney Dining Plan at Walt Disney World, but without the same value.

The Full Service UDP, which can only be purchased if you have a vacation package at Universal, costs a staggering $51.99 + tax  per adult/day and $17.99 + tax for children ages 3-9. The Full Service plan will give you one Table Service meal (an entree, non-alcoholic beverage, and a unique UDP dessert, tip not included), one Quick Service meal (an entree and non-alcoholic beverage), one snack and one non-alcoholic beverage per day. The Quick Service UDP, which can be purchased by anyone, is much more reasonable at $19.99 + tax per adult/day and $12.99 + tax for children ages 3-9. The Quick Service plan will give you one Quick Service meal (an entree and non-alcoholic beverage, one snack and one non-alcoholic beverage.

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One of the stranger aspects of the UDP is how you redeem your meals. In the Meal Deal days, Universal gave out wrist bands to signal you were apart of the deal, but Universal had to switch to plastic cards with the restructuring. The plastic cards aren’t awful, except for the fact that each person has their own card for each day you buy the plan. So, if you’re a family of four and you decide to buy the UDP for three days then you are carrying around twelve plastic cards that all look the same. If you were to buy multiple days in advance, bring a Sharpie to write down names and days on each of the cards, but advance purchase isn’t necessary. If you ever lose track of what you used on each card, all you have to do is go to any UDP location and they can let you know what is remaining on each card.

During a recent test of the Full Service UDP, I found out just how bad of a deal the dining plan can actually be. I am very mixed about how I eat at theme parks. Before I moved to Orlando, I would typically eat a full service meal and a quick service meal throughout the day with some snacks and drinks, so dining plans back then made a lot of sense to me. I had to revert to my old ways for this review and I wish I would’ve been happier with the results.

I started my day of food with a quick service meal at Bread Box Handcrafted Sandwiches in CityWalk. Bread Box serves up fresh, artisan cold sandwiches and melts. Sandwich prices range anywhere from $7.99 to $11.99 and that includes french fries making a great deal given the quality of the food. I had a Patty Melt for $8.99 and ordered a Coke Zero for my beverage and was given the 32 oz cup, which costs $3.19.

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Honestly, my meal at Bread Box filled me up enough that I didn’t feel like getting my snack or even extra drink while walking around Universal Studios Florida. Luckily, the UDP doesn’t expire at the end of the day. Much like multi-day tickets, the UDP doesn’t expire for 14 days after the first use. This allowed me to get a Butterbeer for $4.99 on a later visit and a $4.00 bottle of water on another.

For dinner, I chose Vivo Italian Kitchen in CityWalk. The Cowfish would’ve been my first choice, but as of this time it is still listed as coming soon to the UDP. Vivo, like the other Universal owned restaurants, is actually very reasonable in terms of pricing. Entrees at Vivo run from $9.95 to $26.95 with great portion sizes given the reasonable price. In fact, my favorite entree at Vivo, Gnocchi, costs only $13.95 and is so heavy that I can split it up for two meals. For this review, I went with the Veal Marsala for $20.95 and opted out of a non-alcoholic beverage and just drank water. The Vivo UDP dessert is a cookie trio with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, which I valued at $3.99 based on other desserts and snacks.

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For those not keeping track of the math at home, I spent $46.11 after days of using my UDP card and came in approximately $6 dollars short of the cost of the card. Had I gotten the most expensive items at Bread Box and Vivo then I would’ve spent more than the UDP cost, but I am not the type of person that likes to base my food choices on money. Sometimes I want to spend the extra money if I’m in the mood for a nice steak, but sometimes I want to settle for a burger, which always ends up being less expensive. For that reason alone, the Universal Dining Plan doesn’t work for me unless I looked at menus ahead of time and knew I was planning on ordering the most expensive items and also spacing out my snacks and beverages on other park days.

The Quick Service UDP advertises a potential 30% savings, but that amount of savings is only possible if you’re smart about your options. It can become an even better deal if you add on a Coca-Cola freestyle unlimited refill cup for only $6 more. The Full Service UDP doesn’t advertise the same potential savings percentage (it doesn’t promote any), because unless you order the most expensive items for all of your meals then it is nearly impossible to overcome the price of the UDP itself.

Universal Dining Plan still needs a few tweaks and adjustments to become a truly great deal. There are plenty of quick service options inside the theme parks, with few full service options, but the opposite is true of CityWalk. If Universal was to team up with the restaurants at the Loews Hotels on property for the UDP then it would be a complete game changer and make the UDP infinitely better. If you’re the type of person that doesn’t like to plan your vacation down to the meals ahead of time then skip the Universal Dining Plan, but if you’re a mega planner then the dining plan just might work for you. Definitely look at menus and do your homework before making any decisions though.

If you want more information about the Universal Dining Plan, check out our coverage of it on the DIS Unplugged: Universal Edition!

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