Free Dining: To Upgrade or Downgrade?

The Free Disney Dining Plan promotion offers two tiers: hotels and dining plans. In some cases, as you change Walt Disney World hotel tiers, your Disney Dining Plan tier also changes. Additionally, you can change your Dining Plan tier independently of your resort hotel tier by paying for an upgrade.

In this post, we’ll analyze whether making an upgrade–or a downgrade–during the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion might make sense. Like so many of our Free Dining posts, this will include a dreaded component: math. Beyond getting more value out of the promo, the other reason upgrading or downgrading is good to consider is because Free Dining availability is quite limited at some resorts. This means that flexibility is the name of the game, and you might need to be willing to choose something other than your #1 or #2 hotel. This post offers some recommendations for a few other hotels.

To that end, we’re going to look at whether it makes sense to upgrade or downgrade your hotel selection. There’s only one resort tier from which both options are possible, and that’s the Moderate Resorts. Moreover, since there’s a change to Free Dining at Moderate Resorts this year, with them only receiving the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan, we think it makes the most sense to analyze this from the perspective of Moderates.

For the sake of this comparison, we’re going to use Coronado Springs Resort as our baseline. It’s an easy pick among Moderates, as neither Port Orleans Resort is available (consistently, at least) for Free Dining, and Caribbean Beach is undergoing extensive refurbishments this summer and fall that make it less appealing.

For the upgrade and downgrade options, we’ll be using Pop Century, which is our top pick for Value Resorts (and really, all resorts) during Free Dining, and Animal Kingdom Lodge. We have a hard time choosing between Animal Kingdom Lodge and Wilderness Lodge, but figured Animal Kingdom Lodge would be the better pick this year given the opening of Pandora – World of Avatar.

While I promised math here, we’re going to use fairly loose numbers since prices fluctuate throughout the rate seasons during which Free Dining is offered. During Free Dining season, the average weekday rate at Coronado Springs is $220/night. The average weekday rate at Pop Century is $139/night and the average weekday rate of Animal Kingdom Lodge is $391. Note that all of these averages exclude holidays, which represent minimal periods during Free Dining (and are often excluded, anyway).

The Coronado to Pop Century comparison is an easy one. It boils down to whether, all else being equal, Coronado Springs is worth an extra $80/night to you. This is obviously a personal question that depends upon budget, how much space you need, etc. Assuming that you’re looking for the best value (and I’m guessing that’s the case if you’re reading about Free Dining), I’d probably recommend the downgrade to most people.

Coronado Springs is a nice resort with upgraded amenities and better rooms, but saying that’s all worth an extra $80/night, particularly for those seeking the best value, is a stretch. In my opinion, at least. I think exceptions to this are parties of 4 who might value the extra space in their room, and adults traveling without kids who will spend more time at the resort.

On the other hand, if you’re planning on spending most of your time in the parks, and your hotel will simply be a place to shower and sleep, a compelling case can be made for Pop Century. Not only is it cheaper, but the bus situation is better and the food court (for breakfast first thing or late night dinner) is more convenient to access for most standard rooms. Obviously, your mileage may vary. If I were personally in this position, I’d downgrade to Pop Century without a second thought.

The upgrade question is a trickier one. If we were simply going on prices, the $170/night cost to upgrade to Animal Kingdom Lodge is a lot. (Side note: perhaps I’ve just gotten accustomed to using DVC points, but I had no idea rack rates for Animal Kingdom Lodge were this high until looking it up–I think the last time we paid out of pocket here several years ago, we paid <$200/night!) However, there’s another variable at play here: receiving the standard Disney Dining Plan at Deluxe Resorts.

With an upgrade cost (let’s make it an even $20 for simplicity’s sake) to go from the Quick Service to standard Disney Dining Plan, this could amount to as much as $80 in value if you have 4 people in your room. In that scenario, it becomes a question of whether Animal Kingdom Lodge is worth the $90/night splurge.

If that’s your effective hotel upgrade cost (once offsetting the cost difference between the Dining Plans), I think a strong argument can be made for the upgrade being worth it. This is potentially true even if you’re a bargain hunter–just remember that ‘value’ is the intersection of quality and price, not just whatever’s cheapest!

With Animal Kingdom Lodge, you get considerably nicer accommodations, some of the best amenities at Walt Disney World, and an excellent dining slate at your resort in Jiko, Boma, The Mara, and Sanaa.

That math assumes 4 people in a room, which might not be the case for some parties. If you’re a family of 3, the cost difference is ~$110. In that case, Animal Kingdom Lodge becomes a tougher sell. (If you’re a party of 2, you’re actually in territory where you should be looking at room-only discounts or renting DVC points, anyway.)

Once again, it’s going to come down to personal preference. If you’re group that will only use the hotel for shower and sleep, Animal Kingdom Lodge might not make sense no matter the price difference. (I will say that even in that case, the value of waking up for a sunrise cup of coffee and watching the animals active on the savanna is close to priceless.)

On the other hand, if you plan on spending a lot of time at your hotel, enjoying the full “resort” experience, and focusing a lot on table service dining, Animal Kingdom Lodge is pretty compelling. If Sarah and I were traveling with a couple of kids and we wanted to splurge, I’d absolutely make this upgrade.

The basic takeaway here is that I probably would not do a Moderate Resort this year during Free Dining. Saving money or splurging make a good amount of sense, to me at least, depending upon your preferences. I have to reiterate that this is incredibly circumstantial–you’re going to have your own unique considerations that might make my generalizations and assumptions inapplicable.

The point here is to offer a starting place for your own planning, not offer a definitive “YES, ABSOLUTELY UPGRADE/DOWNGRADE UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES!” It’s impossible to be that authoritative when it comes to Free Dining (or really, most things Walt Disney World-related).

The next question is whether you should upgrade your tier of Disney Dining Plans. It’s another personal question, but I’m generally in favor of moving from the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan to the standard one. Given the ~$21 upgrade cost, I think this makes sense from a value perspective, too.

Roughly speaking, the value of a counter service credit is $15 and a table service credit is around $40 (so, a $25 value difference versus the $21 you’ll pay). If you look at our Dining Plan Best Value posts for counter service and table service restaurants, you’ll see it’s easy to squeeze more value than that out of both meals. However, you can squeeze around $10 more per value out of table service credits, whereas $5 more in value out of counter service credits is the best case scenario most places.

Beyond the value considerations when you do the math, table service meals are an essential part of the Walt Disney World experience to me. I think having a mix of sit-down and quick meals enhances the overall vacation. A week of nothing but counter service would get old. Again, at least for me, personally. (Have I added enough “in my opinion/personally” caveats yet? 😉 )

Now, if you have young kids who might not want to sit down for an hour (or more) for a table service meal, or if it’s your first visit to Walt Disney World and you’re trying to do as many attractions as possible, maybe this is poor advice for you.

Another scenario where I think keeping the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan makes sense is during the Epcot Food & Wine Festival, particularly if you’re going to allocate almost all of your snack credits to the Food & Wine Festival Marketplace Kiosks (which is what we recommend).

In that instance, so much of your foodie experience might already be oriented around the Epcot Food & Wine Festival that doing a daily table service meal in addition to that would be overkill or mean allocating an inordinate amount of time to eating.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the question of whether you should upgrade to the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan. This is a question I feel like I’ve already answered pretty well in our “Big Savings on the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan” post. Beyond what’s there, I’ll add that with another ~$37 surcharge over the standard Disney Dining Plan (or ~$58 over the Quick Service DDP), it makes sense when looking strictly at the numbers. 

That $37 surcharge is less than the value of a table service credit, which makes it an objectively good value. The problem here lies with the fact that, objectively good value or not, most visitors don’t have “objectively” this much stomach space for food on a given day, nor “objectively” this much time in their itineraries.

There are a limited set of circumstances under which the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan makes a lot of sense (most notably doing a character breakfast and nice dinner). When this version of the DDP works for people, it really works. We’ve made it work well for us, and we intend upon using it again later this year. I do think that we’re the exception, rather than the rule, though. I’d be hard-pressed to recommend the Deluxe DDP to first-timers. It simply requires too large of a time commitment to make sense.

Okay, that’s a lot on downgrading and upgrading when it comes to Free Dining at Walt Disney World. If I were to distill this all down to a couple of basic points, they’d be that the Free Dining ‘defaults’ are not the best options for a lot (most) guests, and also that so much of what is best comes down to personal preference and your Walt Disney World itinerary outside of dining. A sensible approach to this, I think, is to create your Walt Disney World itinerary first (we have 1-day plans to help with that), and then circling back to see what your schedule is like in terms of free time–both for enjoying your resort and allocating time towards meals. From there, determine whether it’s appropriate for you to upgrade or downgrade, and do that as possible. Hope this post helps with that, or is at least interesting food for thought! 😉

Want more dining tips? Check out our 101 Delicious Walt Disney World Dining Tips. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

Your Thoughts

Are you thinking of upgrading or downgrading your Free Dining booking? Do you think any of these moves we recommend are good or poor ideas? Are you skipping Free Dining this year in favor of another discount due to the changes at the Moderate tier? Any other tips or suggestions for leveraging Free Dining to get better ‘value’ out of it? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share any questions or additional thoughts in the comments below!


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