You’ve heard it before, “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” and the same may hold true when considering the Free Dining discount at Walt Disney World. All of the million dollar questions for Walt Disney World vacations seem to revolve around free dining: Will it be offered? When will it be offered? Which Dining Plan? Which Resorts? When can I book it? But possibly the most important question you need to consider when thinking about booking a free dining vacation at Walt Disney world is . . . is it worth it?
First, what is free dining? Free dining is a promotional discount that Walt Disney World sometimes offers to fill empty hotel rooms. This means they normally only offer it during slower times of the year. Christmas-New Year’s week? Not going to see free dining. They don’t do this to be nice people, they do it to get their occupancy rates up to the level that makes them fiscally comfortable. Free Dining means that the dining plan portion of your package is “free” but you are paying full price (i.e. rack rates) for your hotel room and your tickets.
Over the years Free Dining has evolved and changed—and most notably it has become more limited. There are certain rules and restrictions that Disney applies to the packages, and we never know what those are going to be until the discount is officially announced. Historically, there are minimum stays required, the package must have some type of ticket with it (not just room + dining), you had to add the park hopper or water parks fun and more add-ons to your ticket, and the type of dining plan you qualified to get “free” was based on your resort category.
When will free dining be offered? Again, we never know for sure until Disney tells us. In the past the discount has been released in late April-May for Fall vacations. Everyone gets very excited when the dates are released, but reading the fine print is important because there are blackout dates. Remember how the discount is meant to fill empty rooms? If the dates say September-December you will find that within that a good portion of October is not eligible for the discount (at least in past years) because that has become a popular travel time with fall breaks, Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival, Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween party, and nice weather. Certain periods in November and December are excluded as well.
Which Resorts? Again, it always varies depending on where rooms are occupied already. It is pretty safe to say the Little Mermaid rooms at Art of Animation, Campsites at Fort Wilderness, certain Grand Villas, and other select resorts will be excluded. But please note, just because your resort is advertised as one of the eligible resorts doesn’t mean that you will automatically have availability for your vacation with the discount. “Eligibility” and “availability” are two very different things in Disney’s book. For instance, if you have a room booked at Coronado Springs for September 27-October 1. Both Coronado Springs and that week are eligible for the discount. But, there is a big convention in town and Coronado Springs is already at their goal occupancy. They may offer 1 room discounted for free dining. Or no rooms at all for that week. It is up to the individual resort how many rooms for each date are available with the discount.
Which Dining Plan? This part has evolved over the years. The most recent free dining offer allowed the Quick Service Plan as the “free” plan at value resorts and the Plus Dining Plan at moderate, deluxe and deluxe villa resorts. If you were staying at a value resort you could pay the difference in the two plans to upgrade. You could also pay the difference in your “free” plan to upgrade to the Deluxe Dining Plan. A recent variation of free dining was to offer 1 quick service meal per day to guests staying a value resorts—so not a free dining plan, but a free meal offer.
Now, is it worth it? There are many things you have to take into consideration when you crunch the numbers to see if Free Dining is the best discount for you (because often there is a second room discount out for the same time frame).
First, do you really need the dining plan? If you were paying for it out of pocket would you utilize it? For many people the answer is yes. They want the convenience of having a package with dining paid for, they want to eat multiple character meals where the dining plan provides its best value, or when they vacation they enjoy the food as much as any other part of the trip so they want the daily table service meals that include a dessert. Other families could to better without the plan—they don’t want as many sit down meals, they often share food at a la carte restaurants, they are going to bring breakfast from home to get a quick start out the door to the parks. For those families the value of the dining plan isn’t there.
Other things to consider are how many people are in your party and what is the per night cost of your room. If you choose the free dining offer you are paying full price for your room and tickets to get the food free. If you choose a discounted room offer you are saving up to 25%-30% on your room, and if you are a family who would not get the full value out of a dining plan you could budget your meals out of pocket to fit your vacation habits and save more with the room discount. Sometimes the room discount will save you more than taking the free dining—particularly when you look at some of the rules attached to free dining in the past (like requiring a ticket add-on).
The scenarios I’ve found with clients when the free dining is really the best savings—regardless of how they use the plan—is when there are 4-5 people sharing a single room, particularly at a value or moderate resort. In this situation the dining plan price times 4-5 people outweighs a discounted room. On the flip side, when you have a party of 2 adults staying at a deluxe resort often the room discount is the better savings—even if you get the dining plan on top of that. 25% off deluxe room prices per night add up to be more than the dining plan for those 2 people.
So, for me, the jury is still out on whether or not free dining is worth it. I really have to see what the next free dining offer (if there is one) looks like in terms of rules, requirements, etc. And then it has to be looked at for each family individually—checking the comparative savings, examining how and what you want to eat on your vacation, deciding on the best resort for your dream vacation, etc. and seeing what works out best on a vacation by vacation basis.
What do you think? Is Free Dining worth it? Is it the best offer out there?