With the Free Dining Plan at Walt Disney World promo now available for August through December 2018 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 that follows in the post are based upon packages we priced out once Free Dining went live last year. The 2018 math should differ only slightly, as both hotel rack rates and prices of the Disney Dining Plan have creeped up slightly in nearly-equal measure.
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!