02/23/2012 07:08 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2012

Tips For Making The Most Of Disney World Dining (PHOTOS)

When it comes to food at theme parks, the conception most people have is that it's all greasy fast food, with only corn dogs, hamburgers and various varieties of deep fried "objects" available.

This is the impression many people have about food options at Walt Disney World, but in reality, this perception couldn't be further from the truth. This misconception is perpetuated by the sheer volume of sales that some fast food, or "counter service," in the Disney vernacular, restaurants do at Walt Disney World, as the number of guests served by these restaurants is proof-positive that many guests voluntarily choose the "regular" fast food options when in the Disney theme parks.

In actuality, most guests would likely find the breadth and variety of dining options at Walt Disney World shocking. There are so many different options, in fact, that there are actually regularly updated websites and blogs that focus solely on Disney dining!

Walt Disney World really offers a wide array of dining options. From Victoria & Albert's, a AAA five-diamond award-winning restaurant featuring a six-course prix fixe menu, to Jiko, a restaurant serving African cuisine with one of the largest selections of South African vintages in North America, to Babycakes NYC, a bakery specializing in vegan, all-natural and organic treats.

Other Disney restaurants offer food grown in the greenhouses at the Epcot theme park, chef tables at which guests can interact with the kitchen staff and specialty wine flights, among other things. While Disney does offer a number of ordinary fast food options, it can also be a veritable adventure in dining for foodies with many of its lesser-known dining options.

The key to making the most of dining options at Walt Disney World is -- as with anything related to planning a trip to Walt Disney World -- to do your homework. When researching dining at Walt Disney World, the first decision you'll likely need to make is whether you should purchase the Disney Dining Plan. Essentially, this tiered plan allows guests to pay for an allocation of meals in advance for a set nightly fee and then simply use their hotel key to redeem meal credits at each restaurant at Walt Disney World instead of paying the prices listed for each item on restaurant menus. For example, the standard dining plan consists of one snack, one counter service meal and one table service meal per adult for $51.54 per night.

If the dining plan aligns with the eating habits of guests, they can save a fair amount of money by utilizing the plan if they order more expensive menu items. But many guests find that the plan offers more food than they are accustomed to eating, so any potential savings are negated by wasted or unused credits. Frequently, the Disney Dining Plan is offered free of charge as one of the package discounts guests can obtain by booking their entire trip through Disney directly. In this case, the dining plan is usually a good deal for guests.

Once guests have answered this threshold question of whether the Disney Dining Plan is right for them, the next question to answer is where and what to eat. Luckily, searchable and up-to-date versions of all Disney restaurant menus can be found online. Those planning trips to Walt Disney World would be well-advised to examine a variety of these menus to find restaurants that best-suit their palates. If scouring menus for the myriad of restaurants at Walt Disney World doesn't sound appealing, reading reviews of the top restaurants and hidden gems at Walt Disney World is advised.

If on the dining plan, there are a number of resources that can help people maximize their value on the plan by ordering items that are normally the most expensive on restaurant menus. If not on the dining plan, trip planners may look to resources that rank the restaurants that offer the most bang for their buck. Regardless of whether those planning trips to Walt Disney World are using the dining plan, they all should make reservations in advance. Disney allows guests to make reservations 180 days prior to the start of their trip, and many of the more popular restaurants are booked solid for weeks or months in advance.

Eating at less-expensive off-property restaurants is usually inadvisable for tourists staying in on-property hotels due to the time it takes to commute from the Walt Disney World Resort property, but guests may take their own food to the parks if traveling on a budget rather than feeling forced to eat only cheap corn dogs and burgers. However, if guests are so inclined, they can enjoy one of Disney's best attractions -- delicious cuisine -- by following the tips in this article!

Dining in Walt Disney World