Disney brings back free dining, but is it the best deal for you?

April 25, 2016, 10:30 AM · The Walt Disney World Resort has opened reservations for its annual "free dining" promotion. Visitors who book an eligible vacation package at a Walt Disney World hotel for selected dates in late summer and fall can get the Disney Dining Plan added for everyone in the room, at no extra charge.

The Disney Dining Plan covers two meals a day, plus a snack, at a cost of $64 a day for adults and $23 for children, who must order from the kids' menus. (The Quick-Service-only version of the plan is $44, but does not allow you any meals at table service restaurants.) The free Dining Plan promotion erases those charges... but requires you to pay the rack rate for your room. The deal is for five-night/six-day stays and must be booked by July 8 for arrival between August 23-October 1, November 15-21, November 26-28, or December 10-21, 2016. You can book the offer through Disney's website.

Remember back in high school, when you wondered if you'd ever need to use math in the real world? Well, here is one of those times when you do. Take a look at the prices for the Disney Dining Plan, then figure out the total cost for all the adults and children in your group, times six days you will be visiting Disney. That total is how much you will "save" with the free DDP.

Now, look at the price of the room you'd pay for the free dining promotion versus the room price you can get without it. (Here is where you can find the other discounts Disney is offering.) If that difference is greater than your savings with free dining, then forget about free dining and go with the discount on the room rate, instead. But if you'd save more with free dining, you should keep considering that offer.

Why wouldn't you just take it right away? Here's the thing — the real value of the free dining plan is not the price of the DDP. It's the price of the food that you would eat using the plan.

If your family are light eaters, it's possible that you won't want to eat the two courses per meal and between-meal snacks that the dining plan includes. (And while we're talking about meal costs, remember that the DDP — free or not — does not include tips at table service restaurants, and you should always tip your server!) This doesn't mean that you should rule out free dining if you don't think you'll eat all that food. Many Disney fans look forward to the free dining deal because it's the only time that the Disney Dining Plan makes financial sense for their families. Even without eating all that food, the savings on the free dining still outweigh the increased room rate for them.

The lesson? As always, price your options, don't let emotions sway you toward a bad deal, and go for whatever combination of room, tickets, and other extras provides the best value for you and your family.

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Replies (17)

April 25, 2016 at 11:34 AM · If you can afford it, why not? Nickel and diming can be exhausting on vacation. The kids prices is actually pretty good. The 5 nights 6 days rate is short enough to make it affordable for most people. A longer trip will be more shocking with the prices adding to a higher tally.
April 25, 2016 at 12:22 PM · They continue to tweak this promotion to the point where it is no longer valuable, and applicable to only the smallest number of guests. They used to run the free dining promo 2-3 times per year, and in recent years have trimmed it down to the slower fall months. 2 years ago, it was good virtually all periods from Labor Day through the week before Thanksgiving. It also did not require a 5+ night stay, just that you purchase a full MyMagic+ package to receive the free dining (3-day minimum).

I know of a lot of frequent guests that visit WDW in the fall now because of this promo will be frustrated this year that they're being forced to stay on WDW property for 5 nights and purchase 6 days of admission to get the free dining. Some guests have already booked trips assuming the promotion was coming and will be disturbed to find out that almost the entire month of October and first part of November (during the EPCOT F&W Festival) is not eligible. At this point, this promotion has appeared to outlive its usefulness, and I wonder if Disney will see any bump in reservations because of this anymore.

The DDP can be a nice perk as a free add-on, but when you have to contort your vacation to get it, stay longer than you want, or purchase additional admissions, it's no longer worth it unless your planned dates fit the promo, and you're the type of person that can make the most of the DDP.

I agree with Anon, that the DDP is a great value for kids (even when purchased separately), especially when booking character meals, but the value of getting free dining with a vacation package on these very limiting dates (a 5-minute search for availability got me ZERO available value or mod resorts in the entire month of September eligible for the promotion) is simply not appealing. This is nothing more than a halfhearted attempt by Disney to demonstrate a vacation at their resort is "affordable", which it really is not.

April 25, 2016 at 1:51 PM · I am going to Disney twice this year..one in September and one in December we were intending on getting the dinning plan anyway. This promotion saved us 298 on one (upgraded to park hopper and regular dinning plan) AND WE ONLY PURCHASED 4 DAY TICKETS, though we are staying 5 nights. On the one in December we saved 455 (upgrading to park hopper as well from original package.)
April 25, 2016 at 4:07 PM · If you eat alot, it is a good deal...

If you don't, it might not be a good deal....

The other trick is knowing the food options at WDW. I am guessing most people jumping on this plan are not the biggest "pros"

April 25, 2016 at 4:39 PM · Re-Russel.

I definitely see your point, but I must ask, shouldn't those people have waited until Disney made the official announcement before booking their reservations? Not that their dumb or anything, but it just seems like common sense to me.

April 25, 2016 at 8:32 PM · Enjoyed Free Dining years back, but it does seem like the terms are not nearly as favorable now. However, if it works for you, make sure you lock in those ADRs as soon as possible. No matter how valuable you find this perk, its value plummets if you're stuck burning table service credits at a restaurant at which you do not want to eat.
April 26, 2016 at 5:54 AM · You don't have to stay 5 nights to get it. We booked just 4 nights and were able to get it. We did use the Disney Visa free dining plan. Not sure if that makes a difference. I juggled it several ways and this way was the best deal this time.
April 26, 2016 at 8:14 AM · @

Nope...People do it all the time, especially when they know they're going to visit WDW every single year at a specific time. We did it 2 years ago when we booked a resort to make sure we could get our V&A's Chef's Table reservation, and then made changes to the resort reservation to make it fit into the Free Dining Promotion 2 months later when it was announced. In fact, we actually had to change the week we were staying at WDW to qualify for the promotion (completely reversing our itinerary that initially had us finishing at Universal but ended up finishing at WDW).

There are lots of people who book WDW vacations 12-18 months (or more) in advance, and then make modifications to take advantages of deals, offers, and other perks.

In fact, Disney's bounce-back offers tout the flexibility in your reservation, which is completely refundable until the admission tickets are issued, typically 45-60 days before check-in day. Phone staff explicitly state your ability to shop for other deals, but encourage callers to make the reservation under the bound-back deal to make sure you have a place holder in the system.

You can see on a number of the Disney message boards that many people are upset to find out that this year's Free DDP promotion only covers the very first week of the EPCOT F&W Festival (advantageous because snack credits have been traditionally acceptable for items at the World Showcase kiosks, representing a significant increase in value over traditional snack options), and not at all during October when many guests plan trips around Halloween events. It makes sense because the month of October is no longer as slow a period at WDW thanks to events like MNSSHP and the EPCOT F&W Festival, but there are people out there that made reservations for October counting on the Free DDP that will not be available.

In general, Disney has severely cut back the discounting because they can. People are willing to pay full price for a WDW vacation, and Disney is able to fill up the parks and resorts virtually every day of the year. What were slow periods are no longer, and people no longer need to be enticed to make trips during less crowded periods (many recognize that less crowded parks are enough of a perk).

April 26, 2016 at 11:59 AM · We're from the uk and use it everytime, love the idea of not choosing a meal based on its price but choosing a meal as that's what I want to eat, for me it just takes away those thoughts of should I pay that or pay this.
April 26, 2016 at 12:52 PM · Russell, the people who book on the expectations of switching to a free dining package later is why Disney don't need to run the promotion for as long. If the hotels are sold out, they don't need to discount them.

It's generally reported that Disney are achieving 90%+ occupancy rates, if the resorts are this busy they don't need to offer as many discounts. This is also why they are making people take 5 day trips for this offer, it cuts down on the people who may have chosen to do 3 days Disney and 2 days Universal.

The UK offer is very different, they don't offer as many other discounts for us. UK guests are more likely to visit anyway and the free dining offer is mainly there to get people to book very early as you can book now for trips in 2017

April 26, 2016 at 1:09 PM · I am an AP but I priced it out to see how convenient it would be to go during my AP blockout dates. It let me book only 3 nights with 2 day tickets and still gave me free dining... It was still WAY too expensive, I am guessing because of the full price on the rooms (we usually get the AP discounts on rooms) so I decided not to do it anyway. I just went for 3 nights at a value resort with the Regular Dining Plan and it was $658 total for 2 adults. This one priced as $1200 with the tickets and the resort so it is a HUGE difference for us...
April 26, 2016 at 6:40 PM · "Caveat emptor" applies to everyone, folks, even Disney guests. When the economy is slow, tourist destinations sweeten the deal. Now that WDW seems to be busy again year-round, the deals have obviously thinned a bit. Neither Disney nor anyone else owes me an "affordable" vacation: the term has no meaning save to create a straw man fallacy. I'll stick with our free enterprise-based Republic, thank you very much. The rest of you can vote for Bernie and hope the Socialist promises to give away free vacations, too.
April 26, 2016 at 8:22 PM · Need some advice from Disney pros! My friend and I are booking Disney for our 30th bday! Only doing 4 nights. 2 days in Disney parks and a day in universal. The travel agent we are going through quoted us the quick service meal plan "free". If we have that are we still able to go to sit down places and pay out of pocket? Since we will only really be in Disney 2 days is it even worth the meal plan??
April 27, 2016 at 7:48 AM · Re-

I can't really help you out on that first question, but I kinda-sorta can on that second. Keep in mind, though, that this is more of a suggestion than a solid answer; finances aren't exactly my area of expertise.

If you're only staying 2 days, I don't think you'll need the dining plan. I think it really comes down to how smart you are with how you spend your money. Before you decide on how much money to spend on food, you should probably first see how much money you'll have to spend on airfare, park admission, and the hotel(s). Then see hoe much money you'll have left to spend and make sure you can spend it on meals before anything else.

I could be wrong about all this, but it's the best I can give you. Just take it with a grain of salt.

April 27, 2016 at 8:15 AM · with the quick service you get 2 quick service meals (including dessert and a beverage) plus 1 snack per day and the mug at the resort that you can refill with coffee, soft drinks, tea, etc. You could use 1 for breakfast and one for lunch or a late night meal (at the hotel if you are not going to the parks)... Just be aware that if you use it for breakfast it does not include desert. If you are not using the beverage you can add a snack to your meal (for example if you are using the mug). Since you are staying 4 nights you actually get the 8 entitlements for meals plus the 4 snacks and you can use them anytime you want to add flexibility (like you can have 3 meals one day and 1 meal another day, etc.). If you go to sit down places of course you will pay out of pocket. Since it is free I would say it is convenient...
April 27, 2016 at 10:12 AM · There is nothing FREE about this dining plan. I can't believe how many people fall for this promo. You're paying for it!
April 27, 2016 at 2:56 PM ·, just pay the extra to upgrade to the regular dining plan. Should be about a $20 per person per night difference and then you get one table service meal and one fast food meal.

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