Free Dining is Walt Disney World’s most popular promotion of the year, and for good reason. While we often caution guests to do the math because Free Dining is NOT always the best discount (there’s no such thing as a free lunch!), it can save families a lot of money. This is because you have to pay full price for your hotel room and purchase a non-discounted park ticket. This means you forfeit a potential room only discount and you can’t purchase discount Walt Disney World tickets.
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. For example, a couple of light eaters staying at the Grand Floridian are unquestionably much better off with a room-only discount than they are with Free Dining. It’s always important to crunch the numbers and not just be lured in by the marketing power of “free.” It isn’t actually free!
To help you leverage the discount that Free Dining will offer, we’ve come up with this list of the best hotel options for maximizing the value of the Free Dining promotion. Note that Moderate Resorts only receive the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan, so you might want to upgrade to a Deluxe (or upgrade your Dining Plan at lower tier resorts) if you want the full Disney Dining Plan. Additionally, several hotels are likely to have very limited availability, so they aren’t recommended here.
Let’s take a look at our top picks!
All All Star Resorts
The whole ballgame here is booking the cheapest resort and room in each category. That’s really it. The more you spend on your resort, the more likely you are to be better off with a room-only discount, as that offers a percentage-off savings on your accommodations. By contrast, Free Dining has a flat value that only varies based on party size and resort tier (Value/Moderate vs. Deluxe/Villas).
As such, Free Dining outperforms when you minimize the rack rate of your accommodations. And there’s no better way to do that than by booking the All Star Resorts! Many longtime Walt Disney World fans will turn their noses up at the All Stars, and I’m here to tell you that they are very wrong. Now I know an opinion can’t technically be wrong, but many of them are operating based on outdated perspectives.
I’m not just talking a big game here, either. The two resorts at which I’ve stayed more than anywhere else in the last 2 years have been Coronado Springs and All Star Sports. I have been very pleasantly surprised by All Star Sports–the new rooms are great, transportation has been efficient, and I haven’t had any problems with unruly sports groups (that last part won’t be an issue in late summer and early fall, anyway).
This is our top overall pick across all resort categories because it offers the best intersection of objective value and subjective quality. Although the All Stars are the objective #1 pick, I would personally still splurge on Pop Century if this were my big family vacation and I had the room in my budget.
It’s no secret that we’re huge fans of the value for money that it offers, going so far as to (spoiler alert) award it the #1 slot on our objective list of All Walt Disney World Resort Hotels Ranked From Worst to Best. (Before the hate mail continues to pile in over those controversial picks, keep in mind that cost counts. No, we don’t think Pop is better than the Poly if you’re paying for our stay. But it’s impossible for us to overlook the massive cost chasm!)
Finally, Pop Century is the only “pure” Value Resort offering Skyliner access to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and EPCOT. This is especially huge for Early Entry, as the Skyliner offers the International Gateway advantage at EPCOT of quicker access to Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure and Frozen Ever After. Same goes for Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which means you can beat almost everyone to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance or Slinky Dog Dash. Finally, even though Pop Century doesn’t have a table service restaurant, it’s a 5-minute “flight” from Caribbean Beach, and a delicious dinner deal at Sebastian’s Bistro!
Given all of these upsides, Pop Century is our top pick for the Value Resort tier for those willing to splurge just a little. To each their own, but I’d build this upgrade into my budget over Lightning Lanes. While you’re getting the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan at Pop Century as opposed to the standard Disney Dining Plan by default, it’s still a good offer.
Coronado Springs & Gran Destino Tower
One of the best options for 2024 Free Dining is Gran Destino Tower at Coronado Springs, and the resort itself. In our full Gran Destino Tower Review, one of the things we praise is dining. (It’s also an upscale resort at the Moderate tier, so there are two things going for it.)
The objective side of this is that the outer buildings at Coronado Springs are typically among the cheapest options in the Moderate Resort tier. So if you’re not comfortable “settling” for a Value Resort, this is the best option for minimizing your accommodations cost and maximizing your value.
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 always used to top our list, but honestly, it’s tougher to justify for 2024 Free Dining. Since the promo was last offered, the rack rates at Caribbean Beach have increased more than any other Walt Disney World hotel, to the point that it is now the most expensive Moderate Resort, on average.
Keep in mind, you’re only getting the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan at all of the Value and Moderate Resorts, so by booking Caribbean Beach, you’re essentially paying the most for accommodations while getting the least in terms of the Free Dining tier. It’s essentially the exact opposite of what you want to do, and the worst way to min-max cost and value.
Still…we love Caribbean Beach and it’s really hard not to include it on this list from a purely subjective perspective. We’ve been over this countless times, but the resort really is like the “Poor Person’s Polynesian.” (Well not so much poor given that it’s really expensive, but “Upper Middle Class Person’s Poly” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.) Suffice to say, you get a lot at the Poly that’s often only found at Deluxe Resorts–there’s a reason why rack rates are so high, and that’s because the resort is really good.
One of the other big reasons we love Caribbean Beach is its dining options (Spyglass Grill, Sebastian’s Bistro, Centertown Market, and Banana Cabana), which are much more ambitious than they were the last time Free Dining was offered. And naturally, dining is a big part of the Free Dining experience!
Not only that, but you also have all of the superlative restaurants at Disney’s Riviera Resort within a short walk. Add to that everything within a 15 minute Skyliner commute, and you have over a dozen restaurant options easily accessible to Caribbean Beach–and that’s just what’s outside the theme parks.
Oh, and did we mention the Skyliner? This gondola transportation to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot is a huge selling point for all of the same reasons it’s a great option from Pop Century. Non-bus transportation at a non-Deluxe Resort is rare, which is what makes Caribbean Beach and Pop Century such strong recommendations even at their higher price points.
Animal Kingdom Lodge/Wilderness Lodge
In terms of the best value for your money during Free Dining, you either want to choose the least expensive Value or Moderate Resorts, Wilderness Lodge or Animal Kingdom Lodge. Without question, these are your best choices for getting the most mileage out of the Free Dining discount.
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 or location, but instead because they are the cheapest of the Deluxe Resorts and two of the best-themed resorts at Walt Disney World. In terms of value maximization when taking advantage of the promotion, that puts them in a special class.
Due to Moderate Resorts only receiving the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan, these two lodges offer some of the best per person value during Free Dining if you have a party of 4. Even though these hotels will cost more than a Value or Moderate Resort, they come close to recouping the cost difference by virtue of the per person value of the standard Disney Dining Plan (as compared to the Quick Service DDP).
On top of that, you enjoy the luxury of staying in two of the best-themed resorts at Walt Disney World. The reasons why you might want a Deluxe Resort over a Moderate Resort–even in the absence of Free Dining–should be fairly self-evident. In case not, they have interior hallways, larger and better rooms, and are just generally nicer. For all that we talked up Caribbean Beach as the “Poor Person’s Poly,” it’s still not on the same level and you’re making a lot of sacrifices to stay there.
In other words, if the rack rate cost of Caribbean Beach Resort is $306 per night and the cost of Animal Kingdom Lodge is $441 per night (an actual example from mid-September 2024!), we would choose AKL even at the higher price. The value of the better version of the Disney Dining Plan will almost completely bridge the gap, and to the extent that it doesn’t, the nicer accommodations will.
So, which to choose? We love both, but that doesn’t help you much in deciding between the two. Take a look at our Animal Kingdom vs. Wilderness Lodge head-to-head to help you determine which is right for you. We’re huge fans of Wilderness Lodge–it’s my #1 resort at Walt Disney World–but that’s in large part during the Christmas season, which is not pertinent for 2024 Free Dining (yet).
Beyond that, we would recommend Animal Kingdom Lodge if you want to take advantage 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). Additionally, there are Awesome New Rooms at Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Speaking of new rooms, the Boulder Ridge Villas at Wilderness Lodge are home to our new #1 rooms in all of Walt Disney World. The problem, though, is that there is incredibly limited inventory of those set aside for Free Dining, so they’ll be nearly impossible to book. Which brings us to the final bonus entry…
BONUS: Old Key West & Saratoga Springs Resorts
These are real wildcards. In a vacuum, Old Key West and Saratoga Springs Resorts are both cheaper than the aforementioned lodges. Their nightly rates for the lowest-tier of studios (standard rooms) are cheaper than the cheapest rooms at Animal Kingdom Lodge or Wilderness Lodge for almost every single night from July through September 2024. If you’re just searching single dates, you should see that.
The problem is that, in practice, this is often not the case. Since Old Key West (OKW) and Saratoga Springs (SSR) are Disney Vacation Club resorts, there isn’t a lot of room inventory set aside from the ‘hotel side’ of Walt Disney World to book (the full explanation is more complicated, but that’s all you really need to know).
As such, if you’re searching for a weeklong vacation, there’s a good chance you won’t see the cheapest rooms at either Saratoga Springs or Old Key West. Heck, there’s a decent chance you won’t see anything under $1,000 per night (those are the multi-bedroom options). But maybe you’ll get lucky, and there will be something at the lowest price points.
DVC diehards are going to hate me for this, but honestly, I’d still pay more to book the lodges. We love both OKW and SSR, but they are very much acquired tastes built for repeat visitors. If you’re an infrequent visitor or Walt Disney World first-timer, we do not recommend them. They are very much, “if you have to ask, they aren’t for you” types of resorts, in our view.
Everyone is going to have their own favorites for the Free Dining promotion. This list is based entirely on our determination of “best value,” taking our preferences into account, as well. We feel you can’t really go wrong with any of these choices, but if you prefer other eligible resorts, don’t hesitate to book those on our account.
If you need personalized help with planning any aspect of your vacation, or want someone to watch for the Free Dining promotion for you and book it once it’s available—we recommend contacting a no fee “Authorized Disney Vacation Planner” (Disney’s term for a travel agent) to get a quote and to help you plan. They get their commission from Disney, so none of the authorized (key word) planners will charge you for booking their trip and helping. Here’s one such recommended Authorized Disney Vacation Planner.
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!