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. 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. Given that a resort-only discount is likely to be released for many of the same dates as Free Dining, it’s good 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 this post was last updated to take into account the big change that Moderate Resorts will only receive the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan this year, and the hotel exclusions for Free Dining in 2019. Several hotels are likely to be blocked out of Free Dining this year, and since those aren’t options, they aren’t recommended here.
In fact, we’re now hesitant to recommend the Moderate tier of resorts at all, and instead suggest people try for Pop Century or one of the cheaper Deluxes, like Animal Kingdom Lodge or Wilderness Lodge. 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.
From the Moderate tier, there are a few very good options. One of the two best options this year, we think is Coronado Springs. The new Gran Destino tower will be finished by Free Dining season, and that will bring with it a wealth of new amenities that guests can take advantage of even if they aren’t staying in the tower.
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.
The re-imagined Caribbean Beach Resort is totally finished, and should be construction-free by Summer 2019 as the adjacent Skyliner and Disney’s Riviera Resort projects wrap up. You can read our Photos & Thoughts: Re-Imagined Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort post for more thoughts on the significant upgrade of Centertown.
In addition, our full Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort Review details why we love the rooms, grounds, pool, and other amenities at this lush tropical hotel. In terms of the “Poly-lite” rooms, the pull-down bed is among the great additions, and this is a huge one substantively. It means the room 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!
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 this year, 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. Beyond that, 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).
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!