Free Dining was just released for Disney Visa cardholders, and will be available for the general public later this week. Free Dining is Walt Disney World’s most popular promotion of the year, and while we often caution guests to do the math because Free Dining isn’t always the best discount (there’s no such thing as a free lunch!). However, for many people, it is the best promotion that Walt Disney World offers.
The reason we encourage people to do the math when it comes to “Free” Dining is because with Free Dining, you have to pay full price for your hotel room and purchase a minimum 2-day non-discounted park ticket. This means you forfeit a potential room only discount and you can’t purchase discount Walt Disney World tickets. “Free” is an incredibly persuasive marketing term, and because of that many guests fail to realize that a room-only discount at a more expensive hotel might be a better discount for them. A couple of light eaters staying at the Grand Floridian, for example, are unquestionably much better off with a 30% off room-only discount than they are with Free Dining.
Conversely, a larger traveling party staying at a less expensive hotel is going to be much better off with the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion. This post will take a look at a few of our top picks for places to stay during the Free Dining promotion. Note that several hotels are blocked out of Free Dining this year, and since those aren’t options, they aren’t recommended here.
Let’s take a look at our top picks!
We’re not going to fixate on this one. We recently ranked the Walt Disney World Value Resorts, and Pop Century was second behind Art of Animation. With the Little Mermaid rooms blocked out at Art of Animation, the best non-suite Value Resort becomes Pop Century. That’s our sole basis for recommending it.
Note that guests booking Value Resorts only receive the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan during the Free Dining promotion. For that reason, we really only recommend Pop Century if you’re on a very tight budget and have only 2 people in your room. If that doesn’t apply to you, read the Coronado Springs section below for our highly recommended “upgrade.”
Of course, the cheapest way to get Free Dining is to book one of the Value Resorts. In fact, with four people in a Value Resort, you’re basically getting the hotel room for free (depending upon how you allocate costs). However, you’re getting the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan as opposed to the standard Disney Dining Plan. We don’t recommend this lower tier plan, and paying ~$18/person per night to upgrade to the standard Disney Dining Plan isn’t always the best move. By the time you pay the upgrade costs, you might already be pretty close to the cost of a Moderate, which offers the standard Disney Dining Plan during the Free Dining promotion by default. Why not pay $10-20 more per night for a much nicer hotel?
In our full Coronado Springs review we described it as having the nicest rooms of the Moderate Resorts. Quality-wise, Coronado Springs’ rooms seem on par with many Deluxe Resorts. While this isn’t true resort-wide outside of the rooms, it’s definitely more upscale than other Moderates, likely because of the convention crowd to which it caters. Because of this, and because Port Orleans Resort Riverside (our favorite Moderate Resort) is excluded from Free Dining this year, Coronado Springs is our top pick.
In addition to the nicer rooms and overall quality, Coronado Springs is a good choice during the Free Dining promotion because of its counter service restaurant, Pepper Market. We love Pepper Market, which has become one of our favorite counter service restaurants at Walt Disney World. More importantly, it’s one of the best uses of counter service Disney Dining Plan credits. That means that it has the most expensive entrees, so you get the most bang for your buck out of those credits. Even if you aren’t directly paying for the Disney Dining Plan during Free Dining, you’re indirectly paying for it, and it’s good to get mileage out of those credits!
This one really only works if you have 5 or 6 people in your traveling party, or if you really like the theme at Fort Wilderness. Unlike the campsites, the cabins are eligible for Free Dining, and since they are technically considered Moderates, that means the standard Disney Dining Plan for up to 6 people. This is the same number of people that can sleep in an Art of Animation Suite at almost the exact same price point, but the Art of Animation suites only get the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan. Deluxes can sleep 5 people, but they’re all more expensive (and 5 is obviously less than 6).
Fort Wilderness definitely is not for everyone, but it is one of my favorite resorts at Walt Disney World, and has a unique character unlike any other resort. When I was growing up, we often stayed at Fort Wilderness on our family trips. It’s one of the few vestiges of the original “Vacation Kingdom of the World,” and really doesn’t feel like a hotel. For many people, that will be unappealing. However, while the theming is natural and Fort Wilderness is an undisturbed bastion of wilderness, Disney guests never are truly “roughing it,” as the Fort Wilderness Cabins are very nice.
For parties of 5-6, we think Fort Wilderness is always a good value, but this is especially true during Free Dining with the Moderates that sleep 5 being blocked out. Unless you really dislike the theming at resorts like Wilderness Lodge, we highly recommend Free Dining. That’s doubly true if people in your party like rustic theming, or activity like fishing, boating, or camping without having to truly “camp.” If you are considering the Fort Wilderness Cabins during Free Dining, book early. The number of cabins are limited, and often book quickly.
These two resorts are often lumped together in terms of theming, even though they are much more distinct from one another than, say, BoardWalk Inn and Beach Club. We aren’t lumping them together due to a misunderstanding of theming, but instead because they are Deluxe Resorts, each sleep 5, and are typically the cheapest of the Deluxe Resorts. In terms of value maximization when taking advantage of the promotion, that puts them in a special class.
Strictly speaking, they are not the cheapest options during Free Dining, even if you have a party of 5. However, there is a difference between “price” and “value.” Something might be the cheapest from an objective perspective, but subjectively, guests may not find that it offers the best value to them, because it doesn’t comport with their needs or preferences. There are plenty of deal-seeking guests to whom luxury is important, so staying in an Art of Animation family suite or the Fort Wilderness Cabins may not exactly be appealing. For those people, these are our Deluxe Resort picks for Free Dining.
So, which to choose? We love both, but that doesn’t help you much in deciding between the two. You might be restricted to what’s available. These are also popular choices during Free Dining, and in doing some random searches, we’ve already found that “Standard View” rooms for each are already sold out for many Free Dining dates. With that said, we would recommend Animal Kingdom Lodge if you’re visiting during earlier Free Dining dates because of its superior dining options (The Mara, Boma, and Sanaa are all highly recommended when on the Disney Dining Plan; we love Jiko, but since it’s a 2-credit Signature Restaurant, we don’t recommend it on the Disney Dining Plan). If you’re going during the December Free Dining dates, go for Wilderness Lodge, which you cannot beat at Christmas.
Obviously, everyone is going to have their own favorites for the Free Dining promotion. This list is based entirely on our subjective determination of “best value,” and doesn’t take into account other variables that might come into play, like personal preference. We feel you can’t really go wrong with any of these choices, but if you prefer resorts like, for random example, Caribbean Beach and Yacht Club, don’t hesitate to book those on our account. Whatever you do, just make sure to do the math before you book, because Free Dining is not always the best deal!
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What do you think? Which is your favorite hotel to book during the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion? Are you a fan of Free Dining or do you generally go for a room-only discount? If you have any questions or additional thoughts, please share them in the comments!