Which is Better, Free Disney Dining Plan or a Room Discount
Every year there is a quiet rumble in the Disney community about Free Dining: When will it be? Which resorts will be eligible? Should I upgrade room categories or resorts when it is released? The popularity of Free Dining has beem actualized in my 3 and a half hour wait time on hold to apply the discount to my clients’ existing reservations. Since then everyone is asking if Free Dining will be released for the rest of the year. Disney normally uses Free Dining to lure vacationers in to slow months, like September, and it has grown a devoted following. But, is Free Dining really that much better than the room and/or room and ticket discounts that are regularly released throughout the year? To find out I did a non-scientific comparison of four families traveling to Walt Disney World in September 2013. This is akin to a graduate level, interdepartmental class that will earn you credits in both Disney Mathematics and Walt Disney World Package Planning.
For our case study we will be booking trips for the Davis Family (Mrs. Davis and her sister traveling with two children ages 3-9, Andy and Molly); the Tremaines (Lady Tremaine and her boyfriend, along with her two teenage daughters Anastasia and Drizella); the Parr Family (Bob and Helen with the children Violet over age 10, Dash and Jack-Jack ages 3-9); and the Fredricksens (Carl and Ellie). These families want the best deal for their vacation dollar and are willing to try several different accommodation choices to get that deal—we checked All Star Movies (Standard room), Port Orleans Riverside (Garden View), Beach Club Resort (Garden View), Animal Kingdom Villas, Kidani (Standard View Studio and 1 bedroom for the Parrs), and Old Key West (Studio and 1 Bedroom for the Parrs). They ares looking at two sets of dates, either September 14-21 (with a 6 day base ticket), or the 14-17 (with a 4 day base ticket).
Another consideration in this discussion is price versus value (here is where your undergraduate degree in Disney travel comes in handy). The Dining Plan’s price is $55.59 for adults, $17.16 for children (per day). But, not everyone may realize the full value of the dining plan. For instance, for a 7 night trip the price of your dining plan is $1018.50 for a family of four (2 adults and 2 children ages 3-9). But is the value $1000? That is up to the individual. Quick calculations with just a sampling of restaurants show that a family of four could eat the equivalent of the dining plan (1 Snack, 1 Counter Service Meal, and 1 Table Service Meal) for around $950 for that same 7 night trip (not including dessert, or tax). So, if you are a family who doesn’t eat as much, or doesn’t want to do a table service meal each day of your trip for the sake of time, you may be spending less out of pocket than you would for the dining plan (if you were paying for it). On the flip side, if you always enjoy dessert with your meal, stop for a mid-day snack, want to eat a lot of Character Meals, and just like the idea of having everything pre-paid the Dining Plan is a great value for you. You have to decide the value of the dining plan to your family to compare to the findings below. By the way, these are the numbers I will be using throughout the comparisons to evaluate the dining plan’s value versus paying out of pocket for your meals.
Let’s start with the Davis family. Overwhelmingly their best deal is going to be Free Dining for either set of dates and for most resorts. For instance, with the Free Dining offer at Port Orleans Riverside for 7 nights the Davis family would pay $2649.98. With the Room Only discount (no dining plan) their vacation would cost $2275.44. I am fairly certain that this family of 4 would receive a value of at least the $274 difference from the dining plan even if they didn’t maximize their credits. The only time the room discount might be better in this scenario is for the 7 night vacation in a deluxe resort or a deluxe villa resort with the higher percentage discount. At the Beach Club, the percent off Room Only discount (without the dining plan) saves the family approximately $870 more than the Free Dining discount, and at Old Key West the difference is around $770. If this family wanted to eat more counter service meals than table service, therefore spending less than $870 or $770 on food, then they may not realize the full value of the free dining, and would be better off with the Room Only discount.
Moving on to the Tremaines who are hoping to spy on their stepsister while on vacation, the results are pretty much the same as the Davis Family. For both sets of dates the Free Dining is the winner, with the possible exception of the Deluxe Beach Club and the Deluxe Villa at Old Key West for 7 nights. Here again, if they are going to eat less than $800 or so worth of food then the Room Only discount might work better for them. But I have a feeling Anastasia and Drizella are going to want to eat plenty of table service meals, and as everyone in this group is considered a “Disney Adult” those out of pocket meals would be a bit pricier: a family of four adults would eat about $1350 worth of food out of pocket using the formula presented above.
The Parr Family adds an extra person to our equation, with three “Disney Adults” and two children. Again, the Free Dining discount seems to be the best for this family. With the Beach Club and Old Key West 7-night stays you see a smaller gap in the savings and value of the Free Dining versus using the Room Only discount and paying out of pocket for meals (like the Tremaines and the Davises).
Finally we come to Carl and Ellie Fredricksen. They are visiting Florida to scope out the Animal Kingdom Park to bring home ideas for their own zoo, and to get tips from the balloon sellers on Main Street USA—just one of their many adventures together. The scenarios with the Fredricksens proved most interesting.
For their 7 night trip here is the breakdown of the best discount:
- Value Resort, Free Quick Service Dining: Free Dining
- Value Resort, Upgrade to Plus Dining: Free Dining
- Moderate Resort: Free Dining
- Deluxe Resort: Room Only
This is the kicker! It is less expensive to book with the Room Only discount and ADD the Plus Dining Plan than it is to book with Free Dining. I triple-checked my numbers. With Free Dining the Fredricksens would pay $3488 at Beach Club and $3398 using the Room Only discount WITH the dining plan. To see if this was the case across the board I checked several other deluxe resorts. It is all going to depend on the percent off that resort is offering. It worked at the Contemporary with a Tower Room, Bay Lake View being almost $300 less expensive to book with the Room Only discount and add the dining plan than to book it with Free Dining. Wilderness Lodge and the Polynesian didn’t work out this way with adding the dining plan to the Room Only discount, but the difference in the Room Only and Free Dining ($700+) was enough to pay out of pocket for food by going with the Room Only discount—I would say this would be a toss-up between the two discounts.
- Deluxe Villa, Kidani: Free Dining
- Deluxe Villa, Old Key West: Room Only.
Unlike the Beach Club and Contemporary, this one does not come down enough to add the dining plan and still be less than Free Dining, but the nearly $800 savings would more than pay for a party of 2 to eat for 7 nights according to my calculations, this doesn’t weigh in the convenience of the dining plan.
For their 3 night trip, Free Dining is the better discount at most resorts. Again at the Deluxe Resort, the Beach Club is $40 less to book the Room Only discount and add the dining plan than it is to book with Free Dining. Another thing to consider is that the Room Only without the dining plan is over $300 less expensive than the offer with the dining plan—again, depending on the value of the dining plan for your family this could be the better option. With Old Key West, the results were similar. This time the Room Only plus the dining plan is $3 more than Free Dining. The Room Only with out of pocket dining is over $300 less than Free Dining, price vs. value.
Now, this by no means is a conclusive study. There are more variables for this than there are letters in the alphabet, so you definitely need to check your desired vacation dates with both discounts and crunch the numbers (or have an Authorized Disney Travel Planner do it for you). The math can get complicated, but you end up with a great deal to get you on your way to the Magic. In general, if you have a smaller party, and/or if you are staying at a Deluxe Resort, your savings with Free Dining are not going to be as great (or there at all) as it would be if you are staying at a Value or Moderate with a large family. In the latter case the rooms are less expensive to begin with and you have more people getting the dining plan “free” so your savings will naturally be higher with a Free Dining Discount. The other lesson learned here: if Free Dining is not offered for your dates, don’t despair! A Room Only discount can save you just as much, if not more. In some of the cases where Free Dining was the best option for these families, the difference was minimal. I know that $100 difference can buy a lot of Mickey Bars and Dole Whips, but there are lots of ways to save on your Disney Vacation.