Tipping at Disney World restaurants is a major controversial topic, especially among us Brits. However, tipping is part of a Disney World holiday and it is here to stay.
Ever since my recent social media post about how I have noticed servers at some Disney World restaurants were bringing over the gratuity form before scanning the magic bands to redeem the dining plan credits, it sparked a huge tipping conversation among many of our readers, all with their own different points of view. I want to make clear that the servers were not bringing the gratuity form before we ate, they were bringing it over after we ate, but before they scanned our magic bands to redeem our dining plan credits.
I'm going to go through my thoughts and lay out some of the proper etiquette when it comes to tipping, some of which you might not agree with. So grab a cup of a tea and strap in, this could get rough.
Getting the gratuity form before the scanning of the magic bands was new to me this trip, but it also didn't happen at every restaurant. Some places would scan my magic band as soon as I sat down, others wouldn't do it until I completed the gratuity form first. While I always leave a tip anyway, it did make me feel (parden the dramatisation) that I was being held hostage until I filled out the gratuity. Maybe it was because those servers have been stung too many times by guests before, or maybe they assumed I wasn't a tipper, or assumed I have yet to understand the tipping culture after hearing my British accent and assuming the worse (which some readers of ours has accused servers of doing, but we've not experienced that prejudice that we could see). Some of our readers have also noticed getting the gratuity form before scanning the magic bands in some places recently, and others have said they've always had their magic bands scanned first. So it doesn't appear to be a universal thing yet either way.
Tipping isn't a British thing, we don't really tip over here. However, as parts of the American culture continue to bleed onto this side of the pond, tipping is becoming more and more widespread. Although it can vary from place to place, my general rule of thumb at home here in the UK is you don't tip unless you get extraordinary service, and that would usually be around 10%. We have a stunning Indian restaurant we go to regularly and I always leave a tip because they provide fantastic service to us. You might have even started seeing "service charges" added to some restaurants over here. One of our local Chinese buffet places added a 10% service charge onto the bill, but shortly removed it after major backlash.
When it comes to tipping in the USA, some Brits have very passionate views on the subject. However, tipping is part of the American experience that should be respected, even though it adds more cost to an already expensive holiday. But eating out is different over in the USA than it is here in the UK.
The Good Ol' Days
Things were a lot easier back in the day. For those of you old enough to remember, the dining plan used to include gratuity. However, as Disney were pushing their "free dining" offer, gratuity was no longer included and the guest would have to pay it separately. Having the dining plan include tips would make the whole process and experience so much better, but I digress.
Tipping In General
Personally, I actually prefer the tipping system. The food and beverage costs are set, and you get to (mostly) decide what to tip your server based on their service. It incentives servers to do a good job and give you the best possible service. I'd rather pay $50 for a meal and determine the tip based on the service I get, rather than pay $60 and have it included (of course it's not as cut and dry as this).
Even if servers were paid a better wage and tipping was abolished (which is what many people feel), you won't be saving any money because the service would be priced into the meal. At least this way servers are incentivised to give good service, not get paid regardless.
The style of restaurant shouldn't matter either. I know many people think buffet servers are less deserving, but often times they are more deserving. Also remember, the tips are sometimes shared with other members of staff, not just your server.
One previous cast member told us: "I used to be a server at Disney. Whether a table tipped me or not I still had to "tip out" on that table. So if your meal was $100 2% of my tip would go to bar staff, 5% to food runner, 5% to busser. If you don't tip then those % are now having to be paid by the server. So essentially I'm paying for you to sit at my table if you don't tip. It's a very different concept to the U.K."
The Problem With Tips
Tips were designed to be a reward for good service. And as I just said, I actually prefer it that way. However, as time goes on tipping has become somewhat expected regardless of service, and that is what annoys people, myself included. Of course not all servers are the same, but some do act like it's owed to the regardless of the quality of service they provide. We had a meal at Ohana and had a pretty monotone server who went missing through most of it and our plates were empty for too long, and he expected a full 20%. I don't think so, buddy. If service was included in the price of that meal, I'd have been super mad. However, I can leave an appropriate tip based on the service I was provided.
Paying For The Service
The words "tipping" & "gratuities" is sort of misleading with what you're paying for. You're technically paying for your meal and service separately. This is why you'll see online guides that say things like tip 5-10% for bad service. On the surface you'd think, I'm not tipping anything for bad service. But, you're "paying" to be served. Whether you agree with it or not, that's how it is over there. Even if service is bad somewhere, you were still served (you had someone take your order, your food and drinks was brought to your table etc). If service is ever truly terrible, you must bring it up with the manager and not just leave without tipping at all.
One of our readers put it quite well: "If it makes it easier, think of it like this: you pay the restaurant for the food, via your bill, and pay the server for the service via your service charge. People need to get the notion of "tipping" out of their head, you're paying the server to serve you."
Yes, It's Lot Of Money
Although we travel to Disney World as a couple, I do completely understand the eye-watering gratuity bill when going to Chef Mickey's with 3 children. On the flip side, they are serving every member in your family, which usually means they're working harder for you.
It's one of those industries that if you've never worked in it, you just can't explain how it's not "just clearing plates". When I see comments like "how hard is to take a couple plates off a table?", it does rub me the wrong way. How a lot of the cast members do what they do and still have a smile of their face is something to envy.
"I Don't Tip Because I Can't Afford it"
This along with "Prices Keep Going Up, I Am Not Paying More" is two common quotes I see. Disney is getting more and more expensive every year, and at the moment, the exchange is getting worse and worse, and gratuity is seen as the niggling expensive "optional" extra cost that's easy to snip. It's not the staff's fault that Disney charge so much to holiday there, and it's unfair to punish them for Disney's pricing. If it's not something you agree with or can budget for, nobody is forcing you to go. However, this is why Disney offer quick service options for those who cannot budget for gratuity. No tips, no mess, no fuss.
Disney Should Do More
Disney do not make clear - especially for first timers - when they book their package holiday with a free dining plan, that they are expected to pay gratuity when they arrive. I've never been told once before going over there, and I've booked it many times through various agents and Disney direct.
The problem is that advertising "free dining" is a little misleading when you have 20% gratuity on everything you order. However, that's not good marketing, so they don't tell you, which is borderline unethical. Disney do place the tip card when you get the bill, but it's a bit late by then if you've not been told beforehand.
The only thing I can find officially from Disney regarding gratuities is a one page FAQ on their help site, and buried in the small print of the UK free dining offer.
Although you can argue that it's up to you to know the culture of the country you're visiting. Love or hate it, the tipping culture in America isn't going away. I'm sure Disney World servers are generally sympathetic to first timers to the USA, but you should familiarise yourself with how things work in the culture you're visiting. No place is going to change their culture for you.
Disney's Suggested Gratuity
Disney charge an 18% gratuity to your bill if you're in a party of 6 or more. However, you are free to leave more if you desire. Or, if you think your service was not good enough, you can speak to a manager and have it reduced. Finally, don't try to book a table for 2 and a table for 4 and asked to be sat near each other, they see right through that.
Disney suggest 18% to 20% gratuity. I find it a little strange those two numbers are so close together, but generally speaking 15% is acceptable for standard service, and 18% and higher for good service.
"Soda & Smile Test"
The soda and smile test is a good metric to base your tip. If a server is doing their job well, is smiling and courteous, and never lets your glass go empty, they're worthy of the full 20% tip. Remember, good service isn't just catering to your needs, it's also predicting your needs in advance.
What Do I Tip?
I've been asked a few times what I tip at Disney World restaurants, and my own personal formula is simple.
What I generally do is start at 20%. If something isn't going to my liking or i'm feeling the service isn't as good as it should be for me, it goes down 1%. If it's been a couple minutes and i've not had a refill, it goes down 1%. You get the idea. I also do go the opposite way taking it above 20% if a server has been nothing short of fantastic, would has happened a couple times this trip.
I budget for tips just like my spending money and everything else I want to buy or do when I'm over there. Would I rather spend the tip money on something else? Sure! However, as discussed, it's part of cost of visiting America. I tend to budget for $20/day for tips (that's for 2 of us). We don't end up using all of that for tips, as some meals are cheaper than others, so we spend what's left of that pot on souvenirs on the last day, or save it for the next trip if we have everything we want.
How Do I Tip?
Always cash. I always avoid adding my credit card to my room/magic band, as there are stories of people leaving cash tips and being charged the gratuity and having to waste time sorting it out. I tip using cash, and use my credit card for purchases around the parks.
There's No Perfect System
I love a good banter about subjects like this that people are passionate about, whether you like tipping or you don't. But there is never going to be a winner or perfect solution. Pay the staff better? You can't be naive about it. The cost would be pushed to you regardless, at least this way you get to freedom to choose how to compensate. A good chunk of servers prefer it this way, they're offered a small basic wage for the opportunity to do a good job for tips.
Saying that, the fact that gratuity is based on the cost of the food which goes up and up every year, increases the cost of dining even further, but that's a whole different conversation.
if you dont want to get involved with all this tip nonsense and want to use the money you'd spend on tips on something else, stick to quick service. Satu'li Canteen is delicious.