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 isn’t 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. In other words, it’s always smart to crunch the numbers.
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!
This is our top overall pick across all resort categories because it offers the best value under the promotion. Pop Century’s Free Dining status has improved, which is due to Moderate Resorts now (also) only receiving the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan during the Free Dining promotion, which makes Value Resorts a better, well, value by comparison.
Given all of these upsides, Pop Century is far and away our top pick for the Value Resort tier. 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. We actually recommend paying to upgrade to the standard Disney Dining Plan.
The re-imagined Caribbean Beach Resort is finally construction-free now that the adjacent Skyliner and Disney’s Riviera Resort have both opened. Our full Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort Review details why we love the rooms, grounds, pool, and other amenities at this lush tropical hotel. Some of these “Poly-lite” rooms can officially accommodate 5 adults, making it a great option for leveraging the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion.
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 a couple of years ago. And naturally, dining is a big part of the Free Dining experience!
Dining at Caribbean Beach is even better, as you also have all of the superlative options 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. Non-bus transportation at a non-Deluxe Resort is rare, which is what makes Caribbean Beach and Pop Century such strong recommendations.
Coronado Springs & Gran Destino Tower
One of the best options this year 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.)
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.
Animal Kingdom Lodge/Wilderness Lodge
In terms of the best value for your money during Free Dining, you either want to choose Pop Century, 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, 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.
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 v. 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 Free Dining.
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.
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!