Doing the math on Walt Disney World's free dining deal
By Robert NilesA 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.
Published: September 21, 2009 at 1:08 PM
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.
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