Free Dining for Summer 2018…Well, Sorta

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A variation of Free Dining is being offered for Summer 2018 at Walt Disney World, including dates May through August. It’s not the normal Free Disney Dining Plan promotion (which we still expect to be released in the spring–potentially with some dates overlapping this promo) that has developed a loyal following for fall dates.

This discount is available at Walt Disney World Value Resorts and is available for arrivals most nights from May 29 through August 25, 2018, for bookings made through February 11, 2018. The promotion offers guests staying at Value Resorts one Quick Service Meal per night and requires a minimum 3-night stay and purchase of at least a 2-day ticket.

Free Dining fans should not get excited about this deal. Basically, this is “Free Dining Light” Now with two-thirds fewer calories than normal Free Dining! We think this promotion is Disney’s sly way of catching the attention of potential guests with those magic words that everyone loves (free food!), but without actually offering a great deal. With that said, those looking for the full Free Dining discount shouldn’t freak out, as if this is a sign of a diminished form of Free Dining to come…

We say that because this promotion is becoming an annual thing (the dates this year are literally only a couple days different from last year) having been introduced two years ago and then dubbed the “Summer Meal Plan Offer.” Accordingly, this is an updated-for-2018 post from last year offering analysis of whether the Summer Meal Plan offer is worth it…

This is sure to be a popular topic among Free Dining enthusiasts and our posts on the Disney Dining Plan are some of the most popular on this blog, so we wanted to share the details here and provide our reaction to this new offer.

In addition to the aforementioned minimum stay and ticket requirement, Disney’s fine print indicates that the offer applies only to Value Resorts, excluding the Little Mermaid rooms at Art of Animation and campsites.

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Note that the free meal for 2018 is not the standard Disney Dining Plan definition. Instead, you get a quick service meal consisting of an entree and 1 non-alcoholic beverage. No snack, alcoholic beverage, or refillable mug. If you want more than just the single free meal, you can upgrade to the Quick Service or Standard Disney Dining Plan at a discounted (prorated) price.

While Walt Disney World obfuscates the dollar amount of many of their discounts, the ‘value’ of the Summer Meal Plan Offer is pretty easy to reverse engineer by subtracting the upgrade cost from the full price of the various Disney Dining Plans. In the case of this deal, the dollar value is roughly $19 per adult or $8 per child. (That’s the objective value assigned to the meal by Disney–you can always leverage the Disney Dining Plan to make it worth more…or use it poorly to make it worth less.)

The majority of counter service entrees (thankfully) don’t cost enough to make this actually worth $19 per adult. If I were to get a burger and Coke at Cosmic Ray’s, the out of pocket cost would be ~$15. If I didn’t buy the Coke (I normally just do water), that entree would only be $11.99. There are a lot of counter service entrees in the $10-14 range.

For most Walt Disney World Free Dining regulars, it should be apparent that the numbers simply don’t add up, and that this isn’t as good of a deal as the normal Free Disney Dining Plan promotion. You only get one component of the lowest tier of the Disney Dining Plan, not an entire plan. Normally, with even the Quick Service Disney Dining Plan, each person would receive two meals and one snack per night, plus a refillable mug (per stay).

In other words, this promotion does not even offer half of the value that the normal Free Dining promotion offers. Rather, you’re looking about a little over one-third of the value of Free Dining. That’s a pretty huge difference.

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Now, this isn’t to say it’s impossible to get enough value out of this deal to make it worthwhile. Let’s use ourselves as an example: a party of 2 adults booking a room at Pop Century. If you focus on restaurants in our Best Values Uses of Counter Service Credits post, you can find order combinations that exceed $20 per person in value. Not a ton of them, but they do exist.

Summer rates for Pop Century are around $144 for weekdays and $169 for weekends. Let’s convert this to room-only discount terms. For 1 adult staying only weekdays, this would be around a theoretical 14% room discount, for 2 adults a 28% room discount, for 3 adults a 40% discount (due to +$10 for the additional adult), and 4 adults a 49% discount (due to +$10 for the additional adult). In other words, a paltry discount for a single adult, but a pretty solid one for a party of 3 or 4. Of course, all of this math assumes the value of meal ascribed to it by Disney.

That’s rough math, but should provide the baseline for crunching your own numbers. As you can see, this is either a lukewarm discount or a good one depending upon how many people you have. Even with only 2 people, it’s better than the standard room-only discount this time of year–at least in theory. Unless you are flying solo, the Summer Meal Offer is usually a better theoretical deal than a room-only offer.

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With that said, keep in mind that you have to purchase full price tickets from Disney. This negates the value of the offer for Annual Passholders, and also means you can’t purchase discounted Walt Disney World tickets from an authorized reseller, which is something to keep in mind when doing the math yourself to determine if “Free Dining” is a good value for you.

For others, the problem is as simple as a counter service meal not being worth $19 per adult. This is why we keep calling this a good theoretical deal. When we crunch these numbers, we land on an actual value of $14 for us, meaning our actual discount with this promotion on that same room at Pop Century would be less attractive than a room-only discount. (That’s before you factor the money saved on park tickets. In any case, this deal is a non-starter for us since we have Annual Passes.)

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The question that remains for a lot of people is whether this means Free Dining will still be offered this fall, or if the promo is being reduced and offered earlier this year. Given current trends, I will say with about 95% certainty that Free Dining will still be offered this fall. First, this same promo was offered last year, and Free Dining was released later. Second, the bounceback Free Dining dates have already been released for 2018, and they are exactly what you’d expect them to be.

There is the possibility that the full Free Dining promo will be scaled back this year. Attendance trends were very strong for Walt Disney World last fall, with an uptick in crowds across the board. Given that, it’s very well possible there will be fewer dates, more resort restrictions, or less availability for Free Dining in 2018. None of that would surprise us.

The thing is, the existence of this discount does not offer any insight into that whatsoever. This discount is nearly identical to what it was last year, and its dates fall mostly over the summer months (arguably, a time when more aggressive discounting could be useful for Disney given crowd trends the last couple of years).

We don’t expect Free Dining to disappear…in 2018. Even though Toy Story Land will likely be a big hit, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge won’t open until the very end of 2019, and there’s nothing new to market at Magic Kingdom or Epcot this summer. This year, Disney will still have to incentivize people with discounts to draw them to the resorts during lower occupancy periods. Next year? Well, the jury is still out on that, but if the buzz ahead of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is strong, we may see next to nothing in the way of special offers for October through December 2019. But that’s a long time from now in a galaxy far, far away.

Overall, our take is that this is an okay offer, so long as you have at least 2 adults in the room and can’t find a room-only discount that works for you. Room rates for the Value Resorts have creeped up over the last several years and are now in ‘absurd’ territory for what you’re getting, and this bumps them down into a more realistic realm. It’s not the best promotion ever, but it might be the best you’re going to get for this time of year. People often travel during the summer months for lack of better options; Disney does not typically offer aggressive discounts for the summer, presumably because those aren’t necessary to ‘lure’ guests to the parks that time of year.

If you are still unsure of whether the Summer Meal Offer might be right for your party, or you want personalized recommendations for Walt Disney World, click here to get a vacation quote from a no fee Authorized Disney Vacation Planner. If you’re doing the planning yourself, we recommend reading our comprehensive Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide to make the most of your experience.

Your Thoughts

Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of the Summer Meal Promotion at Walt Disney World? Will you be taking advantage of this deal? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!


54 Responses to “Free Dining for Summer 2018…Well, Sorta”
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