Is Free Dining Worth It?
With the Free Dining Plan at Walt Disney World promo now available for July through September 2019 travel dates, I thought it’d be a good time for a refresher on this post. At first blush, whether Free Dining is worth it might seem like a silly question. After all, Free Dining is free, right?!
Of course not. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, nor is there such a thing as a free Dining Plan. It’s “free,” with air-quotes. This has been particularly true of late, as there’s a precedent from the last couple of years for Disney requiring more and offering less, particularly at Value and Moderate Resorts. With higher occupancy rates, it makes sense that the promo would have less availability–there’s less need to incentivize guests to fill (fewer) empty rooms.
This post essentially evaluates the opportunity cost of choosing the Free Dining promo, in lieu of other discounts. The other discount you’re typically giving up is usually a room-only discount, which is frequently offered for the same dates as Free Dining. (Even if one isn’t offered, you’re giving up renting DVC points, staying off-site, etc.) There is literally no scenario in which guests gain Free Dining without giving up anything. Hence, there’s no “free lunch” here.
Let’s start with the general rule concerning Free Dining v. room-only discounts. For parties of 3 or more in a single room, the Free Disney Dining Plan discount is usually the best discount at all resorts. For parties of two or less in a single room, the room-only discount is often the best discount at Deluxe and Villa Resorts. Basically, the more people in the room, the better value the Free Dining promotion offers.
As with last year, there’s once again the (relatively) new wrinkle to this that the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan is offered for Moderate Resorts. In many cases, Free Dining will still work out to be a better offer for parties of 3 or more in a Moderate Resort, but it’s no longer a sure thing.
Moreover, it’s also now a very close call for parties of 2. Those who are not big eaters might find the room-only discount more alluring. (Even though the Disney Dining Plan has a sticker price, what it’s “worth” to you could be lower than that amount if you’re party isn’t big eaters.)
With that said, you need to do the math. Parties of 3+ in a Deluxe Resort might be better off with either promotion, depending upon resort, ticket preferences, etc. Likewise, parties of 2 in Values or Moderates could go either way. You don’t even have to do the math in your head–price out your trip with different discounts on DisneyWorld.com.
Note: The math and dates that follow in the post are based upon packages we priced out once Free Dining went live last year. The 2019 math should differ only slightly, as dates, hotel rack rates, and prices of the Disney Dining Plan are all different. The underlying points remain the same, however.
To illustrate the point, let’s price out a few packages under the current Free Dining and room-only promotions. For all of these, we’ll use the example of 2 adults dates of September 11-17 with 7-day Park Hopper tickets. (It’s worth noting that we could have used our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post to save even more with the room-only packages, but to keep the math “clean,” we just bought the same 7-day Park Hopper tickets from Disney in both scenarios.)
We are using a party of 2 for the sake of this comparison because that’s where the ‘close calls’ lie in this comparison. If you’re a family of 4, the Free Dining offer is a better deal than the room-only discount at every resort tier.
First, a standard room at All Star Music. With the Free Dining promotion, the total cost is $1,863.14. The same promotion, with the room-only discount, but without the Disney Dining Plan is $1,490.28.
That’s about $373 to spend on food over the course of 6 nights for 2 adults, or ~$31/night per person. Given that the Disney Dining Plan provided to Value Resort guests during Free Dining is the Quick Service one (so no table service meals), that comes down to $14 per meal plus a snack.
That could go either way, but given that part of this trip occurs during Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival, I’d recommend taking the Free Dining offer, stockpiling snack credits, and using them there when they’re “worth” the most at the Food & Wine booths.
Next up, same dates and tickets, this time at Fort Wilderness Cabins. With the Free Dining promotion, the total cost is $3,051.84. Same details but without the Dining Plan: $2,523.30.
That’s a little over $500 to spend on food, so just over $40/night per person. This is another close call. I’d probably recommend most people take the Free Dining offer here, unless you’re really light eaters or don’t like doing table service meals. It’s easy to spend over $40/night on food per person at Walt Disney World.
Fort Wilderness might seem like an odd example for 2 adults given that it sleeps 6, but I used it as an extreme example because it has the best room-only discount of the Moderates for those dates, and is the most expensive, meaning that if the Free Dining promo is a better deal for you at Fort Wilderness Cabins, it’s going to be a better deal at all Moderates.
In years past, Moderate Resorts are where Free Dining has made the most sense. Getting the full Disney Dining Plan coupled with the lower (than Deluxes) price point was a winning recipe. However, that won’t be the scenario this year, and if the ‘difference’ amounts to pocketing ~$40/night on food per person or taking the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan, I’d be inclined to pocket the savings.
Finally, a standard studio at Saratoga Springs Resort. With the Free Dining promo, total cost is $3,145.16. With the room-only discount (and tickets), but without the Disney Dining Plan, the total is $2,483.00.
Note that at a more expensive Deluxe Resort, like the Epcot or Magic Kingdom resorts, the gap is larger as the room-only discount saves more. So, if you’re thinking of the Grand Floridian, Boardwalk Inn, or Beach Club, you’re most certainly better off with a room-only discount.
In our Saratoga Springs comparison, that’s a difference of $662, or ~$55/night per person for food. Reasonable minds may differ, but for me, choosing the room-only discount is an easy call. Even dining at table service restaurants, we can easily spend less than $55/person on food per day. This might be a puzzling choice, as $55 is less than the cost of the Disney Dining Plan.
It’s important to remember that there is a difference between cost and value. The cost of the Disney Dining Plan is ~$75/night for an adult. If the adults in your party will only eat ~$50 worth of food per day, or would just as soon eat off-property, or do grocery delivery to prepare meals at your Walt Disney World resort hotel, the Dining Plan does not have $75/night worth of value for you. A while back, we crunched the numbers on this in our Disney Dining Plan v. Paying Out of Pocket post. For us, the value of the Disney Dining Plan is far less than $75/night.
Accordingly, you should not give it that value when doing the math for your own circumstances unless it’s worth that much to you (for most people–it isn’t). We tend to get caught up in the hype of Free Dining, because it’s such a popular promotion. However, for many people, it’s more food than they want or will be able to eat. Not everyone wants steak and dessert for every sit-down meal, and a cupcake for breakfast. Before buying into the hype, take a step back and consider whether you actually want that much food.
Because, at the end of the day, Free Dining is not actually free, and getting it just because it’s the ‘best deal’ even if you won’t use that much food is like buying something you won’t use on Black Friday because it’s “too good of a deal to resist.”
Thinking more about Free Dining? Check out our other Free Dining posts! For where to eat (including food photos), read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews.
Planning other aspects of a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!
Have you done the math? Do you save more money with Free Dining, or a room-only discount? Is the Disney Dining Plan too much food for you? Any other Free Dining tips or tricks? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments!
I feel like I am doing the math wrong.
If I pick Pop, 6 days, 5 park tickets, 2 adults, 2 kids under 9. For my dates, that’s 939$ room and $1741 tickets for $2839 total.
I need to pay $319 for hopper to get the potential free DDP that historically has been offered for my dates. And I will take your advice and upgrade my DDP to Standard, so thats another $229. Making my upgrade investment $548.
But, if Pop also offers 30% off room only, and I get my tickets from Undercover Tourist, that’s $281 saved on the room, and $171 saved on the tickets. Plus pay out of pocket for Standard DDP $1241 (apples to apples).
That’s $241 cheaper to have Free DDP, and I get a hopper ticket out of the whole thing.
Is this right?
Pop will never off 30% off as it is a value plus, so you are looking at 10-15% max room discount there
A Free Dining package requires the purchase of tickets. But we are already passholders that are not blacked out for the dates we want to go. Assuming that we want a free dining package and we will not use the tickets, can we use them at a future date? Another option is not to do free dining and just do discounted rooms. But after doing the math, the free dining package is cost effective if I can postpone the use of the tickets until next year (or two). What do you think?
We are a family of 5 with 3 teenage boys so im thinking that the free Disney Dining Plan is a huge value for us and we also don’t mind staying at the value or moderate resorts. Any tips or suggestions?
Tom, The lady at Disney that answered my calll, told me I was her 1st calller of the day. I called the 1st day free dining was available. She told me there weren’t any more free dinings available for PoP which is where we’ll be staying, I couldj’t Believe how fast they went. I’ve tried and tried with no luck. Hopefully we’ll at least get a room discount later, As for now, I’m keeping my reservation exactly what I need to get the free dining. We were going to upgrade to the table service. I started trying to change my reservation online with no luck there either before I called in!! Just doesn’t make a lot of sense unless there were only a few available for PoP
I am trying to figure this all out…. I have been to Disney many times, but never with the free dining promo. I have booked a week at Art of Animation, in a family suite (3 adults, 3 kids), Dec 15-22 with the free dining. I can’t tell if this is a good deal or not!! ALSO… is it ever a good deal to on top of that, go up to the next level in dining plans? PLEASE HELP!!!!!
We always upgrade to the 2nd tier. While the quality of quick service is improving in MK. It’s still no comparison to the sit downs.
We said the same thing the last time we visited Disney! The magic is being replaced with stress and frustration!
I am a HUGE, lifelong Disney fan and have visited the parks on both Coasts, about a dozen times at Disney World. I have to say that I am so glad my children are now adults, and we traveled there when you didnt have to plan every minute of each day like the invasion of Normandy. It has absolutely KILLED the fun spontaneity of travel there, and I am very sorry about that. I have no clue what time I want to eat dinner 6 months from now, and if its a rainy day and choose to sleep in, I dont want issues about the fact that I will now miss my appointment for a reserved ride. I am tired of seeing people with ride “reservations’, walking in ahead of me when I have been standing in a non-moving line for a half an hour, without being asked to wait EVEN A FEW MINUTES to accommodate the rest of us. Who, by the way, ALSO paid for our tickets. This is now true even on the less popular, minor rides, which used to be first come, first served. I have always loved Disney and it pains me to say this but I find it impossible to enjoy the parks much anymore because of this pre-planned Hell they insist is wonderful for everyone. They continue to build more timeshares without expanding the amount of eating facilities so that even if you are ready to eat, its standing room only. Magic Kingdom/ Fantasyland has a particular problem with this. Lets not get started on the lack of space on the monorails. With the new park sections opening, this overcrowding will become even more of a nightmare. I am sorry to say it will be a long time before I visit again. As a stockholder the overcrowding should make me happy, but in truth it only makes me sad. Walt must be turning over in his grave. Eisner at least respected the magic of the place. Right now it is just being treated like a boot camp/ cash cow.
We said the same thing the last time we visited Disney! The magic is being replaced with stress and frustration!
I feel exactly the same way. It is now all about the almighty dollar and not about families and Magic anymore.
I just have to amen on that. My mother hates going everywhere, but theme parks and we grew up going to one pretty much every summer. Like you I’ve been dozens of times to both coast and while it’s one of my favorite places still based on memories I left a long review of frustration and drama on my last trip this past spring. What was supposed to be my two year olds indoctrination to love Disney as much as Mommy was met with blocks at every turn from app crashes, to reservations and reservation changes. They really need to reassess for those of us who enjoyed the old way where you start at one end, wait in line which was always part of the fun and do everything in that area. If we didn’t finish a park we went back the next day and started over. When you got hungry or it was raining you walked into a restaurant and waited for a table or moved on if you didn’t want to wait that long. It’s way too much work now and having to wind through some building to see Mickey Mouse without really understanding what you’re waiting for is for the pits. Keep the line in plain view and if we don’t want to wait look we’ll see Mickey in the parade or the show. Did I say too much drama? Old head regulars already don’t expect to relax in a Disney trip, but spending more time on my phone than I do for work just to make sure we have a place to eat then cancelling cause we don’t want to eat then, then being stuck with the equivalent of a $25 vending machine sandwich or cafeteria burger when we are ready to eat. Not cool.
One last rant just to blow your mind my Mom made fun of the whole process throwing out how we just used to drive to Orlando and just drive up to hotels on I-drive with no reservation and take advantage of the sales kiosk and timeshare presentations for ticket deals.
It is just the two of us, so the cost is pretty comparable for the Free Dining or Room Only Discount. The big thing for us is the convenience and freedom of not having a dining plan. I like to be able to eat what I want when I want without being tied down to a reservation. Just grab a snack or quick service meal. Whip out the phone and pay by Apple Pay and it is so easy.
This last year we started adding the Disney Dining Plan to our WDW vacation and I think we’ll continue. However, we’re in the unique position of being able to add it to our room only reservation since we’re military. We get 30% off Values, 35% off Moderates and 40% off Deluxe resorts. We can get the military salute tickets on base, tax free about 215 for 4 day park hoppers and 230 I think for 5 days… that’s one heck of a deal. We tend to do one buffet meal/character meal per day, if not one dinner at a higher price point restaurant… so for us the DDP is an especially great value. I know this option isn’t available for everyone but if you happen to be active or Retired military don’t forget to check into military discounts!!!
Thank you for your service!
If we have the CBR $75 gift cards do you think we can modify the reservation to include the free dining promo and keep the gift cards? Or would they be forfeited since we are changing then original reservation?
Does anyone know if you will have to purchase the park hopper in order to get the free dining?
What would be the price difference from upgrading to standard dining from quick service?
It may be in the neighborhood of $20/adult per day to upgrade to the basic dining plan from quick service Kelly. Not completely sure, but I think I saw that somewhere online recently. You could always call Disney to get an accurate answer.
We did this for our trip and it was $60 a day for 2 adults and 2 kids
What is the cost to upgrade from quick service plan to regular dining plan, including one quick service and one sit down dining, per person?
I would like to know the answer to this as well!! This would help tremendously!
21.16 per adult per day and 4.07 per child per day
In 2008, I went to WDW with my co-workers (including my boss). It came about because that were bewildered (yes, I just said bewildered) as to why I took multiple WDW trips each year. So I told them to join me in December and maybe they’d understand. (Who thought they’d agree? Not me). Free dining was offered, so we opted for that over the room discount. It was the basic plan (we stayed at PO FQ), and I think gratuities were still included.
The idea of not having to divvy up the bill was a big deciding factor (we were in accounting and, as much as we love numbers, we do not want to deal with them on vacation). It was good to just be able to get up and leave. We decided to dine at one signature restaurant (actually, I decided, they knew nothing from nothing about Disney), the reason being the trip fell during Hannukah (my boss was Jewish), so we surprised him with a visit to a Jewish deli off property
Free dining may not be worth it for many, but for some, it works well. This year we are ten people (not co-workers, thankfully) going the day after Thanksgiving for a week. We’ve decided on free dining because we are celebrating five birthdays, and that means at least five table service restaurants. It may not be a financially sound idea, but for us it is a “smooth” one.