Is Free Dining the Best Deal For You?

2012 DCL-WDW 007For nearly a decade, Disney has been offering free dining in the fall and early winter as a way of filling hotel rooms during slower months of the year, a promotion which also has the effect of keeping Disney restaurants full and their staff occupied and up to speed.  Under free dining, a family of four still pays full-price for their room and tickets, but they can easily save around $200 a night.  For this reason, free dining is the stuff of a Disney fan’s dreams and the subject of endless threads on Disney message boards:  Will it be offered at all, what are the dates, what hotels will it cover?  Speculation builds to a frenzy in the weeks before free dining is expected to be released, however, as we approach the latest round of free dining rumors with our forks poised, ask yourself this:  Is free dining really a good deal for you?

To answer that question, you have to keep in mind that Disney usually runs two types of discounts concurrently: Free dining and a room discount. Only one discount may be applied at a time, but there is no penalty for applying it to existing reservations. These discounts are  not available during busier times, of course. In fact it looks as though Disney will be cutting back on free dining in the future, even during slower months.  However, if the historical trend holds at least for this September, and there are many rumors suggesting that it will, expect free dining and some sort of room discount to be available during that time period.  This begs the question:  If you have more than one option, which discount is better for you?

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Well, a lot of it depends on how big your group is and where you plan on staying.  For a family of four staying at a value resort, free dining is a no-brainer since saving 15% on a room that costs $159 a night is a fraction of what you’ll save under free dining.  On the other hand, a couple staying at a moderate resort will only save around $110 a night under free dining. More than likely, this is still a better deal than a room discount, but they’ll want to do the math on the room discount just to make sure.  Finally, for those staying at deluxe resorts , which are often discounted as high as 30%, a room discount is usually a better deal than free dining, but you’ll want to check your numbers since room discounts are often “tiered” and can be as low as 5% on some deluxe resort rooms.

The nice thing about Disney discounts is that you can generally apply them without penalty as long as you meet two requirements:  1)  The discount is available for your dates and resort;  and 2) You only apply one discount at a time. This means you shouldn’t wait to book your trip until the right discount is released—by all means, take whatever you can get!  Since the first discount offered for a period of time is usually the best, don’t take the chance that nothing better will be available.  Even if you’re that rare guest who doesn’t like the dining plan, even when it’s free, get the free dining discount if that’s all that’s available.  You have to eat, regardless. Then if something better comes out at later date, you can apply it then.

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Staying on Disney property is expensive, a trade off for convenience and the opportunity to immerse yourself in the magic.  The good news is that except for a few weeks out of the year, you shouldn’t have to pay full price for a room if you plan your trip far enough in advance.  Then, just watch for Disney discounts, do the math, and compare what’s available.  You may be surprised to find that the “free dining frenzy” taking over the Disney blogosphere really isn’t the deal you thought it was.

How about you? Have you found free dining to be the best discount or did another that worked better for you?

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About Christina Wood

For more travel planning articles by Chris, check out her Disney travel blog, Everything Walt Disney World. Chris is also a member of the Mouse Chat podcast team and an authorized Disney travel planner with Pixie Vacations, and visits the parks about 55 days each year. To get free planning and assistance with your next Disney vacation, please call her at 919-889-5281 or email at ChrisW@PixieVacations.com. You may also fill out a quick Disney Vacation Quote form here.
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3 Responses to Is Free Dining the Best Deal For You?

  1. Amy says:

    For me and my significant other, the free dining plan is more of a mental savings to us compared to just a room discount.. We love that in advance we know what we are spending on EVERYTHING. Then all we have to think about is souvenirs, which tend to come out of our monthly spending money for “fun” anyways. If we didn’t do free dining, we probably wouldn’t treat ourselves to a lot of the restaurants because the in person sticker shock would stop us from eating there. The free-dining allows us to indulge ourselves.

    • Mike says:

      Amy, I couldn’t agree with you more. For us, the allure of Free Dining is such that without the Disney Dining Plan (free or otherwise) we end up making a lot fewer dining reservations then we do when we have the plan, regardless of whether we paid for it or got it free. I know that what Chris said makes sense about looking at the best value overall, but for me personally, not having as many table service reservations translates into a part of the Disney Magic that we don’t experience.

      Thanks!
      Mike

  2. CAStruck says:

    Free Dining has been the best for us. We always stay at All-Star Sports (we spend very little time at the resort when the 4 parks beckon…) and the free dining saves us hundreds! We stayed for a 10 day vacation and added up our dining from just one day and it was well over $200 for the 4 of us. When your hotel room is only $105, free dining totally rocks. We had counter service, but LOVE that. You can eat wherever you are, no worries about being in a specific park at a specific time, who cares if you’re in a short line for one of your favorite rides, you don’t have to be somewhere else. You can relax and enjoy the moment. Oh, and the free snack every day? Awesome. I got to have a Dole Whip, a Mickey pretzel, and a host of other scrumptious things I never would have tried otherwise. Free dining all the way!

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