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The Disney Free Dining Plan Debate

Walt Disney World: An analysis of the real value of the Quick Service Dining Plan.

From Russell Meyer
Posted October 24, 2010 at 9:24 AM
When the question was posed a few months ago, I was surprised that when given an option of different parks that would come with an on-site hotel booking or theme park admission, dining did not rank higher amongst Theme Park Insider readers. Disney has been giving the perk of free dining off and on for the past few years during off-peak times to fill their on-site rooms. The program has been so successful that they recently announced the free dining promotion would be in place for just about any hotel booking through 2011 (some blackout dates still exist). The enticement of free meals was enough for my wife and I to book an on-site room (Pop Century) after doing a preliminary analysis of the costs, and after our 6 days and 5 nights at Disney, we walked away with an extremely great value.


Comments in chronological order. Most recent at the bottom. Scroll down to respond.

From Tony Duda
Posted October 24, 2010 at 3:15 PM
"Free" dining is a great misnomer. To get it, you have to pay rack rates for the Disney room which is usually 30% higher than can be gotten otherwise. Also, you have to have each person in the room buy a Disney park multi-day ticket equal to the number of nights you are staying. A lot of people would like to spend a day or more doing non-Disney theme park things such as golfing, sightseeing, going to a non-Disney attraction or just lazing around the resort doing nothing.

Considering all the mandatory extra spending you must commit to, "free" dining is not so free. Also, if you have an annual pass or seasonal pass, that is a lot of extra cost even if you may be able to apply the ticket cost to future passes. Maybe you don't plan on continuing buying passes after the current one expires.

Some people really only want all Disney all the time, so the costs are well spent. Others are not so single minded and see it as a rip-off. It's all up to the customer.

From Bobby Miller
Posted October 24, 2010 at 3:58 PM
Russell, I'm taking my 12 year old grandson Zachary back to Disney next August. Because it'll be our last trip to Florida for 6 years, I wanted to make it special. Since we've been down 6 of the last 8 years all ready, I didn't quite know how to make it special for him, and then Disney came back with the free dining plan and I went WOW.

So I booked a room at Caribbean Beach to get the free regular dining plan. As a bonus for Zachary, I also booked a Pirate Room which cost extra. I got it for 8 nights and then came the sticker shock, ouch! That free food soon seemed less of a bargain as I crunched the numbers like you did. I compared a discounted room to a full priced room required for the free dining plan and decided to cut back on the stay at CB.

We'll be going to Pop Century(which Zachary loves) for 5 nights and then move over to Caribbean Beach for the 4 nights and 5 days required for the free dining plan. The ouch factor is still there, but not quite so bad. So Russell, I can see where your coming from about the cost. When are you booking for Pop Century, we'll be there August 14th to the 19th.

Bobby,formally known as Bob & Robert!!!!!!!

From Anthony Murphy
Posted October 25, 2010 at 9:18 AM
The meal plan, free or not, is a great value if you know where to go and what to eat.

Get a reservation for Canada NOW! You will thank me later :)

From M. Ryan Traylor
Posted October 25, 2010 at 12:21 PM
In 2007, I was on a trip with the free dining plan, when it included gratuity and appetizer. The savings was astonishing. To purchase the dining at that time would have cost us $640 for the stay. I made sure to compare the actual costs of the meal at the end of the trip, and including tip, out of pocket would've been just over $900.

The other thing that being on the meal plan gives you is an ease of mind. You don't have to worry about not having enough food. Robert has pointed out many times that splitting entrees is cost effective and the portion sizes are good for two adults.

I think there is a 2014 trip on the distant horizon for my family to WDW. A few of us want to have more eating options to try all the EPCOT restaurants and may upgrade our dining plan to offer us more table service meals.

However, I'm still bummed about the tip being removed from the dining plan.

From Russell Meyer
Posted October 25, 2010 at 7:36 PM
Tony: On our 5-day trip, we got over $500 in food, which essentially made our room cost about $14 per night. I don't know of ANY discount that Disney offers that gives you 70-80% off the rack rate. Also, you only need to get a 1-day base admission ticket to receive the free dining for the entire length of your stay. Also, if you're staying at a Disney resort, you're pretty much committing to doing Disney during that portion of your stay. I don't know of many people who stay at a Disney hotel and then spend a day or two at Universal or Sea World. Lounging around the pool of the resort, sure, but you can still use the dining plan there.

Anthony: In case you didn't know. LeCellier will be a 2-table service credit meal for dinner, but is still a 1-table service credit meal for lunch. The new rules will begin January 2011.

Ryan: The tip was removed because so many people were confused, and diners didn't feel like they were being treated fairly when they told their server they were on the dining plan. As a server, would you work as hard for a table that wasn't going to give you a tip commensurate of the service you provided?

Unfortunately, about 75% of my post didn't make it on here, so I will try to add it below...

"Disney does a stellar job of masking their costs to customers when they book vacation packages, so it’s difficult to ascertain the true costs of the dining plan, but our package that we purchased totaled $1691.11. That seems like a lot, but we always purchase 10-day non-expiring park hoppers when we’re forced to buy admission media from Disney (required for the free dining promotion), so our 5 nights at Pop Century with free quick-service dining essentially cost approximately $650 after subtracting out the cost of our theme park tickets. At $130 a night (including 2 weekend nights), we probably would not have stayed on-site, but when you consider the transportation/parking that onsite guests receive ($14 per day/$70 total), and assumed value of the free dining ($30 per person per night/$300 total), the true cost of the room comes down to less than $60 per night. That cost is right in our prime price range for hotels when we vacation in Florida, so we booked it.

The free dining is offered as the Quick Service Dining Plan for guests staying in value resorts (Pop Century, All-Stars, and Fort Wilderness campground), but is offered as the standard Disney Dining Plan for moderate and deluxe resort guests. The Quick Service Dining Plan gives each guest two counter service credits per guest for each night booked, two snack credits per guest for each night booked, and one refillable travel mug for each guest. Our package, therefore, gave us 20 counter service meals, 20 snacks, and 2 mugs to use during our 6 days and 5 nights we were planning to stay on Disney property. Counter service restaurants exist all across Disney World, and can be found in all 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, just about every resort hotel, and Downtown Disney. However, not all counter service restaurants are created equal, and many offer more diverse menus and/or better values than others. Also, what you actually receive as part of a counter service meal credit is not always readily apparent. In general, a counter service meal includes an entrée, dessert, and non-alcoholic beverage. However, some entrees come with side dishes while others do not, and desserts range from a cookie to crème brulee. The biggest confusion has to be with breakfast, where you still receive an entrée and non-alcoholic beverage, but the dessert is replaced with juice or other non-alcoholic beverage, and I don’t know how many people I saw walking out of breakfast with just an entrée and one drink.

The other thing that confuses people is the snack credit. Generally, snack credits can be used on items like 20-oz bottles of soda, cookies, muffins, and selected baked goods, popcorn, selected bags of snacks, and some candy. That’s a wide range of stuff, but most of it is very clearly marked with the dining plan snack logo either on the menu or on the shelf, yet many people think they can get a non-eligible item with a snack credit only to end up paying cash after finding out from the cashier that the snack credit could not be used. Additionally during our trip, the EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival that was being held around the World Showcase offered any food and non-alcoholic beverage item sold at the kiosks as snack credit eligible items. Because of the F&W Festival, we were able to get exceptional value from our snack credits, and actually used all 20 snack credits in a single day as we ate our way around the World Showcase. Many people forget to use their snack credits until they’re ready to leave, and you can see them in cafeterias and gift shops buying up armfuls of chips, sodas, and candy for the trip home. Guests who plan ahead to use their dining plan wisely and efficiently can attain great value, even from the Quick Service Dining Plan. The standard and deluxe versions of the Disney Dining Plan can also give guests a great value, but force guests to be good planners by making advance dining reservations, or ADRs, at the best WDW restaurants up to 180 days before they leave for their vacation. We’ve done both, and while the regular Disney Dining Plan is nice and provides a sit down meal every day, my wife and I just aren’t the kind of people that like to block out 2 hours to have a sit down meal every night of a vacation; and since so many of the best table service restaurants at Disney World are not at the theme parks, it takes a big chunk out of the day to take advantage of the table service credits that the Disney Dining Plan includes.

So with a bit of planning, and some prior experience, here’s how my wife and I (and 8-month old son, who didn’t eat anything beyond a few french fries and hash browns) made the most of the Quick Service Dining Plan during our recent 5-night stay at Pop Century…

Our initial plan was to share breakfast and lunch each day and have our own dinner each evening. While that plan did not hold through the entire trip, we felt it’s a good way for a couple to approach the conundrum of only having 2 meals per person per night on the Quick Service Dining Plan. Each morning, we started our day in the Everything Pop cafeteria in our resort. Breakfast entrees varied from Mickey waffles to omelets to breakfast sandwiches to breakfast platters to the ever-popular breakfast pizza. The most expensive entrée on the menu (best value) was the Bounty Platter ($8.29), which includes a giant scoop of hash browns, scrambled eggs, 2 slices of bacon, 2 french toast sticks, one sausage patty, and a biscuit. For my wife and I, this was more than enough food for the two of us to share. We ended up getting this entrée every day we were there, because my wife was not interested in the specialty omelets (both had spinach), which also come with a big scoop of hash browns. Since we both got refillable mugs as part of the dining plan ($29.66 if we had paid for them) that could be infinitely refilled at the beverage station, we chose to get bottled/canned beverages to go with the breakfast that we could enjoy later. The first morning, I had assumed that only 20 oz bottled beverages and bottled juices and milk were included as part of a counter service credit, but noticed cans of Monster energy drink and Illy cappuccino drinks in the coolers next to the bottled soda. I decided to give it a try on the second day, and sure enough, the Monster and Illy were indeed included as non-alcoholic beverages that come with a counter service credit. In total, we ended up eating 5 breakfasts at Everything Pop, which would have cost $93.34. Certainly some would argue that many hotels provide some form of breakfast as part of the room, but none are going to give you infinite fountain beverages and canned energy drinks or bottled soda/juice.

Our first partial day at Disney (Wednesday) was spent at Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party shortly after we checked into Pop Century. The Magic Kingdom has quite a few counter service options, but only a few offer a good value on the Dining Plan. For our first Disney meal of the trip, we chose Columbia Harbor House, which is located between Liberty Square and Fantasyland. This restaurant offers fried fish, shrimp, and chicken strips all served with fries. My wife and I got a chicken a fish with fries combo and a chicken strips with fries entrée along with two large sodas, an apple crisp and chocolate cake, which would have cost $30.82.

Our first full day (Wednesday) at Disney was spent primarily at EPCOT, and this is where our snack credits came into play. We chose one item from each of the kiosks to enjoy, but since there were more than 20 kiosks, we knew some of the items we would need to pay for, and used $3.50 as the cutoff as to whether we pay for the item or use a snack credit so as to get the best value out of the Dining Plan. Over the course of the day, we got $95.45 worth of food with our 20 snack credits, which, along with a few extra items we charged to our room, was more than enough food for the two of us to skip using any counter service credits for lunch or dinner.

The next day (Thursday) we split between Disney Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom, but only ate lunch in Magic Kingdom. Our lunch was at Pecos Bills (between Frotierland and Adventureland), with me getting the deluxe cheeseburger with fries, chocolate cake, and large soda and my wife getting a BBQ sandwich with fries, chocolate cake, and large soda. The lunch would have cost $31.73, and the advantage of eating at Pecos Bills is that with an unlimited toppings bar including grilled onions, mushrooms, salsa, standard toppings, and nacho cheese, a standard entrée can be stretched even further. Later that evening, we ate dinner at Wolfgang Puck Express in Downtown Disney. This restaurant is probably the best-kept secret of the Quick Service Dining Plan. Entrees here are restaurant quality with large portions, and brought to your table while you wait for them to be prepared. I got the bacon-wrapped meatloaf with mashed potatoes with a refillable soda and crème brulee, while my wife got grilled chicken alfredo with a refillable soda and crème brulee, which would have cost $44.36. The restaurant is a bit out of the way, but is open late for those who are willing to trek over to Downtown Disney after a long day at the parks. We would end up going back here two more times during our visit.

On Friday, we split our time between Disney Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. My wife wanted to try one of the best little-known counter service meals at DHS, and so before hopping to Animal Kingdom, we stopped at Starring Roles Café, which normally just sells desserts and coffee (some of the best desserts in any of the parks), but offers a limited number of gourmet deli sandwiches, which are humongous. The sandwiches go fast, so it’s important to get there before noon—we hit the shop around 11:35, and they were almost sold out for the day. The turkey focaccia sandwich along with a bag of chips, peanut butter and chocolate cupcake, and large soda would have cost $17.68. Later in the afternoon, I had lunch at Animal Kingdom’s Yak and Yeti counter service. Not to be confused with the table service restaurant, this Yak and Yeti (located near the entrance to Kali River Rapids) has a simple menu of Asian-inspired dishes. They also offer one of the better uses of a snack credit, a 3-egg roll snack. I ended up getting the orange beef with jasmine rice (a little too orange-y for my taste), a large soda, and a frozen lemonade cup. The meal would have cost $18.36. Later that evening, we returned to Downtown Disney to try another little-known counter service restaurant, Cookes of Dublin. This restaurant is on the backside of Raglan Road, and offers Irish fare. I got a battered burger with fries (different, but very good), refillable soda, and fruit cup, while my wife got the beef and lamb pie, refillable soda, and cookie, which would have cost $34.42. The food here was good, but the seating area is not adequate for the number of people they were attempting to serve. Also, the dessert choices were limited to the two that we got, despite a number of other desserts appearing on the menu including the interesting sounding “doh-bars” (deep-fried candy bars). Before leaving Downtown Disney, I couldn’t help but get a Wolfgang Puck Express pizza to go, and got a meatball and pepper pizza with a slice of cheesecake and a bottle of juice to take back to the room for a midnight snack. This one counter service credit would have cost $22.63.

On Saturday, we spent the day at EPCOT, and had reservations for the Party for the Senses, so we only ate one meal, which we used for lunch at the new La Cantina de San Angel outside the Mexico Pavilion. My wife and I shared the tacos de carne (beef tacos), which came with chips and salsa, a large soda, and churros. This meal would have cost $20.35.

Finally on Sunday, we made a return trip to Wolfgang Puck Express for lunch and a pizza for the trip home to use our last 3 counter service credits. My wife got the bacon-wrapped meatloaf with a refillable soda and crème brulee, while I got the pennette bolognese with a refillable soda and crème brulee. We got another meatball and pepper pizza to go with a crème brulee and a bottle of juice for the ride home. This meal of 3 counter service credits would have cost $70.88.

So there you have it. Five nights of the Quick Service Dining Plan that was free with our hotel stay at Pop Century, and while we probably ate a little more than we would have if we weren’t on the dining plan, we really didn’t change too much from what we normally do when visiting theme parks. It’s likely that we would have gone to an off-site restaurant or two in the evenings instead of eating at Downtown Disney, but we actually enjoyed both Wolfgang Puck Express and Cookes, and would probably go back there again even if we weren’t on the dining plan. When everything was said and done, the dining plan, which we figured was worth about $300 when booking our trip, was really worth $509.68. Those who don’t think free dining is worth it, the Quick Service Dining plan essentially made our room at Pop Century cost approximately $14 per night. Some may prefer front of the line, early entry, or other perks with their on-site hotel room, but everyone has to eat, and the savings that the free dining promotion offers can be an extremely valuable perk."

From Anthony Murphy
Posted October 25, 2010 at 9:09 PM
Le Celliler for lunch is still a deal.

Even if a place is two credits, thats still not bad. Yachtsmen Steakhouse is the best deal and its two credits!

My family doesn't do it anymore because,strangely, its too much food. You also need to plan all your meals which can be a little tough.

From M. Ryan Traylor
Posted October 25, 2010 at 10:42 PM
Anthony:

I agree that it is too much food. And you definitely have to plan your meals. But that aside, it's great!! And personally, I'm a planner. Hell, I pretty much do that for a living.

My upcoming challenge (with a trip in 2014), will be making the ADRs with such a large group. I'm sure that a grand gathering may be in order, but I haven't done my research there yet.

I've been thinking of the idea of making two reservations at the meal time for the group, that way people can choose where they would like to eat. Obviously we wouldn't use all the seats and therefore free up some for standby guests. And if you don't like the two options we pre-selected, well being a party of one shouldn't have a problem finding a table.

Russell:

In response to the tipping, I agree. At the same time, if we felt that our server went out of the way to please us (my wife being a vegetarian and not every menu was friendly) or we order alcohol, we always gave an additional cash tip.

From Jack Curley
Posted October 26, 2010 at 12:16 PM
I just booked a Disney vacation for early December (staying at Coronado Springs). My options were getting 30% off of my hotel or getting the dining plan (1 counter service, 1 table service per day) PLUS a $300 gift card.

I had to finagle the dates around to make it happen, but getting the dining plan and gift card was a much better value.

From Tony Duda
Posted November 8, 2010 at 2:08 PM
I knew in previous years you only needed to buy a one day ticket no matter how long your trip was for but something about only needing to buy a one day ticket to get the new, current free dining plan didn't sound right. So I went to Disney's web site and looked around. Here are 2 quotes about the current plan.

"FREE Disney Dining Plan. For example, purchase a 4-night/5-day non-discounted Magic Your Way package at select Disney Moderate Resorts and save $599 for a family of 4."

"Savings based on non-discounted price for the same package. Tickets are for one theme park per day and must be used within 14 days of first use."

These seem to be conditions that mean everyone in the room needs to buy a ticket for every day of their 'free dining' package.

I would like to have someone confirm that you still can buy only a 1-day ticket and get multiple days of free dining.

From Anthony Murphy
Posted November 8, 2010 at 3:23 PM
I thought they gave you the meal plan based on how many days you stay at a resort.

From Bobby Miller
Posted November 8, 2010 at 3:32 PM
Tony, I went over this same question with the agent when I booked with Dreams Unlimited. She stated that it was now a 2 day minimum basic ticket to get the free dining plan. You must purchase a ticket for everyone in the room that is going to be on the free dining plan, children included, they must have tickets if they're on the dining plan.


^Anthony, that's sort of correct, you do get the free dining plan for the lenght of your stay(in the dates they have the plan) but you must book a 5 day 4 night trip, plus you must have the minimum 2 day basic ticket for everyone in the room.

Bobby, formally known as Bob & Robert!!!!!!!

From Tony Duda
Posted November 9, 2010 at 1:02 PM
Bobby*, I wish the travel sites and Disney's site would clearly and explicitly state the conditions of the 'Free Dining' plan. I know I am completely turned off by this offer since I am a Florida Annual Passholder. I don't even want to talk to anyone about this since it looks like such a bad deal for me since I often travel to WDW alone and meet people there. I don't want to spend $232 for a 4-day base ticket just to get about $120 of 'free dining' and pay about $140 more per value room (~$35 extra per night). If the web sites state the minimum conditions to get the 'free dining', I think a lot more people may be interested who are from Florida and/or are pass holders.
(*Bobby formerly ...)

From Bobby Miller
Posted November 9, 2010 at 7:40 PM
@ Tony, since your from Florida, you would think they would give you guys a special rate over a guy like me who's from Pennsylvania. I got a 10 day ticket thinking we could get it early since we'll be there for 2 weeks but that was a no go. And since you need a 2 day basic ticket for the dining plan, I didn't want to buy 2 sets of tickets just to get the free food.

So, with not much else planned except Disney, they pretty much forced me to shift plans and now we'll be going to see the wonder boy at Universal for 3 days. Oh well Disney, you didn't want my money, but I guess the Potter people will love it huh?

And from what I understand Tony, if you stay at a value resort, you can only get the quick service plan free, if you want anything else, you have to pay extra. Have you tried the Dis Boards, you can get some good answers over there too? Boy Disney sure made this free dining plan difficult to obtain, I won't go for it again.

Bobby, formerly known as Bob & Robert!!!!!!!

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