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Doing the math on Walt Disney World's free dining deal

By Robert Niles
Published: September 21, 2009 at 1:08 PM
A long-time Theme Park Insider reader sent me the link to a post where a writer does the math and determines that it is actually cheaper not to get the much-advertised "free dining" offer when staying at one of Walt Disney World's "deluxe" resorts.

The writer said that you would be better off booking the regular "Magic Your Way" room-and-tickets rate, then adding on either the quick-service or basic dining plan, than buying the supposedly "free" dining plan that Disney's offering. (With the usual caveats that prices vary by date, yada yada, etc.)

The point reminded me of the great advice that many readers offered during our series last winter on planning your theme park vacation: Make a budget and always do the math on your options.

For me, well, I have to admit that I've never stayed on property at Walt Disney World. You see, my parents live by themselves in a four-bedroom house in Celebration. And nothing Disney's offered to date can compete on value with having that free place to stay in nearby Celebration. (Not to mention the priceless benefit of staying with the kids' grandma and grandpa, of course!)

And yet... we have stayed on site at Universal. Why? Because the value of staying within walking distance of the parks, plus front-of-the-line access, coupled with the awesome pool and facilities, makes that a better deal for us for a couple nights than staying with grandma and grandpa.

Let's break it down. At Disney, here are the benefits for staying on-site:

Disney's Magical Express: Disney's free bus service to and from the airport is of no value to us since we wouldn't visit Orlando without seeing my parents, and to do that, we need a rental car.

Proximity: To me, proximity is of value only if I don't have to get into my car. That means I'm not getting any value on this point unless I'm staying at one of the deluxe resorts on the Magic Kingdom monorail line, or at one of the Epcot resorts.

Extended park access: That would be of some value to me, but not nearly as much as Universal's front-of-the-line access, which I can use at any time of day. Disney's Magic Hours are limited to specific times, and used by many other on-property guests at those same times.

Free dining: This can be a great perk, but by itself isn't enough for us to swing the value toward staying on-site, given that neither I nor anyone else in my family is a big eater. We usually split entrees when dining out, drink water and rarely order appetizers or dessert. That makes the marginal value of a free dining plan relatively small to us.

Quality of accommodations: A plus for Disney, but hardly unique, given the variety of accommodations available in the area.

Now... if we didn't have relatives in the area, we'd lose the free room option, as well as the need for a rental car. That makes the Magical Express a real value and puts an on-site Disney stay in play versus other high-quality hotels in the area.

At that point, it would come down to price, and the value we place on the benefits available at Disney and nowhere else. If that value is greater than the difference in price between a Disney hotel and off-property one, then we would book at Disney.

I'm curious to see what Disney will offer as a deal for 2010. But unless Disney puts some form of FastPass benefit on the table, along with a significant discount, it's hard for me to see how we'd opt for Disney over the chance at free front-of-the-line for Harry Potter by staying at a Universal resort next year.

Again, we like Universal Orlando as much as Disney World. And it is often easier to book shorter stays at Universal than at Disney, where week-long bookings are the norm.

The real lesson here is, as always, do the math. And do the math for yourself and your family. As the Niles family experience shows, what works for one family very often doesn't work for others.

Readers' Opinions

From 65.192.185.2 on September 21, 2009 at 1:57 PM
I have to disagree that the free dining is not worth it. We booked a trip to Disney World for Dec 2009 between Xmas & New Years. Doing the MYW, dining & fun & more options. We decided to change our plans and go at Thanksgiving instead, same package, saving us $300+. Upon seeing one of you postings on Facebook I went to the suggested site and the promotion code was for the free dining. Doing this gave us everything we had originally purchased and saved us ANOTHER $800 for the dining package!!!! Last year was the first time in our 6 visits to WDW that we did the dining package and said we would ALWAYS do it! It was worth every penny we spent! We ate at places we would not have, the kids had snacks all the time...which we would not normally do, and our quick meals were more than McDonald's!!! I would personally encourage anyone to do the dining plan!!!!!
From James Rao on September 21, 2009 at 4:35 PM
The problem with Free Dining is you almost always pay the rack rate for the room. You really have to calculate out how much you would normally spend on food if it wasn't free, and compare that savings with what you could save with a 40% room discount, or even more if you stay offsite.

Granted, for my family of five, if we ate like kings all week, free food would seem like a good deal, but if we ate like we normally do (small breakfast on the go, light lunch, moderate dinner), the room discount is always a better offer.

Think about it this way: if you stayed at the Beach Club Resort utilizing the Buy 4 Days - Get 3 Free offer, you would have saved $1000 on your room. I don't know about most folks, but $1000 worth of food - even at a theme park - seems excessive for a seven day trip. I don't even spend that much in a month at home.

Remember too that free dining does not include the tip, so if you eat at the most expensive restaurants and order the most expensive menu items, you still have to fork out an additional 18 - 20% tip on a meal that you wouldn't have even considered without free dining.

Remember, Disney is in the business of making money.... question everything. The truth is out there.

From Anthony Murphy on September 21, 2009 at 9:49 PM
Maybe I am not getting what you are saying, but free food anywhere is a PLUS for me!

As for the dining plan at Disney, my family did the math and it was cheaper doing the Deluxe plan IF we ate like that (and weighed 400 pounds each)

My view on the Dining plan was it was great deal, but way too much food! But I agree, regular Dining Plan will get you far and usually keeps you in budget.

From W McDougal on September 22, 2009 at 1:05 AM
What's your opinion of Celebration? It's been criticized as having a Stepford Wives style atmosphere. I don't think Disney owns or manages it anymore, but the pictures I've seen make the town look nice.
From James Rao on September 22, 2009 at 3:22 AM
Anthony, I guess what I am saying is that if you do the math it is more expensive to get free food and pay the rack rate on your room, than it is to buy your food and get a discount room rate.

And, W McDougal, all I will say about Celebration is this: only travel there during the day! People are strange when you're a stranger.... ;)

From Luke Sweeney on September 22, 2009 at 6:02 AM
How about if they add a free Water park fun and more option if you book a 6 day/5 night magic your way base package? I know that would bring me in.
From Anthony Murphy on September 22, 2009 at 6:46 AM
Sorry, that was directed towards Robert's main point. One thing that I forgot was my family is DVC members so the Meal Plan is paticularly enticing since DVC is a deal over time. I guess you really have to prepare for the meal plan/know your food at WDW.

The only complaint I have is that its ALOT of food, but for the amount of food you are spending, its worth it. I also greatly enjoyed using the meal plan at Yachtsman, Hoop de Do, and the Luau. But yeah, tried it once, that was enough for us so I guess I agree with you guys...sorta

From Robert Niles on September 22, 2009 at 9:35 AM
Celebration is a housing development. Nothing more. If it's supposed to be an example of "New Urbanism," it's a lousy one, because you can't walk to any stores, schools or workplaces from most homes. The central business district is tiny, and even at that size, still too large to be supported by the small number of residents. (I once read that the majority of housing units in Celebration are empty - either used as second homes, bought for speculation or in foreclosure. I don't know if that's accurate, but I have seen a large number of empty homes there.)

All that said, the homes I've been in are nice. The lots are small, but that's not a huge issue for me (being used to living in Pasadena). I like the trails and it's a very convenient staging place for trips to Disney.

From Joshua Counsil on September 22, 2009 at 10:23 AM
I see your point, Robert.

For our group, however, a Disney Vacation Club was the best option on our recent vacation. Why?

Accommodation Price: For our group of eight, we would require two rooms or a suite at Universal's hotels, both of which are more expensive than the DVC rate we received by booking from the DIS Discussion Boards.

Proximity: Universal's two parks require two days of driving if I'm off-site; extra if I visit CityWalk often. Disney's parks require between four and six days of driving if I'm off-site; extra if I see the water parks, Downtown Disney, the Boardwalk, mini-putt, etc.

Extended Park Access: We only visit parks during the off-season. For this reason, the only long lines we experience are with new attractions: on our recent trip, Toy Story Midway Mania and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. We were able to see Midway Mania with a ten minute wait thanks to Fastpass, but Rip Ride Rockit did not have its Universal Express line open yet. Additionally, Extra Magic Hours decrease not only wait times but crowds in general. Dining and strolling after hours is much more enjoyable in an empty, cooled down park.

Dining: I would never pay full price for a DVC just to get free dining. Free Disney food for a week or more would make me lethargic and useless. Disney's DVC suites, however, provide full kitchens, making dining exceptionally cheap.

Free Parking: If I don't stay at Universal, I have to pay for Universal parking twice. If I don't stay at Disney, I have to pay for Disney parking at least four to six times, maybe more for the water parks et al.

Advantage for my group: Disney.

From Anthony Murphy on September 22, 2009 at 12:53 PM
Great point Josh!

Thats why my family is part of DVC at OKW!


Its alot of money up front, but it pays off if you are going to Disney at least once a year for a week or more!

From Bob Miller on September 22, 2009 at 2:36 PM
When Zachary and I were down this year, I took the buy 4 deal, plus 10 day tickets with water park and Disney Quest added on. After doing the math, it saved me nearly $400. Not bad, that's why we stayed on site for part of the vacation.
From 92.12.76.198 on September 23, 2009 at 12:58 AM
Having been to Orlando on vacation from the UK a number of times i can honestly say i would never stay at Disney, sure we have visited all the parks, but as far as value for money goes Disney is just too exspensive and in my humble opinion offers far less for your money than Universal.
Far less investment goes into the parks and magic kingdom has hardly changed since the 1990s
As for the eating options, better value is found in nearby Bahama breeze and the many other great eating places.
As for acomadation, we book a Villa every time, a private pool beats a public one,and the peace and quite make for a more relaxing stay.
We will continue to visit Orlando every year as we love it, we always put Universal parks top on our list along with sea world and Bush gardens, and if just if Disney invest in a new attraction worth visiting , then we will be the first in line at the land of mouse.

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