For 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?
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.
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?