There Is No Such Thing As A Free Dining Plan

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“My family normally wouldn’t buy the Disney Dining Plan, but since it was free, we got it. It was way too much food for us, but it was such a great deal, we couldn’t pass it up!”

We here at TouringPlans receive reader comments similar to this frequently.  Since we always want our subscribers to get the best deals on their Walt Disney World vacations, when we hear their resort choice and party size, these comments can make us cringe. While free Disney Dining can be a great deal, it can also be a poor deal. It’s important to remember that not all Walt Disney World discounts were created equally, and there can be better ways to do Walt Disney World on a budget.

Free dining has become popular in this era of illusory discounts and careful marketing campaigns where businesses raise prices, then give greater discounts, simply because “Sale – 75% off!” is more appealing to customers than “Sale – 50% off!” even if the final price on both products is $10. In this era, “free” is the ultimate discount, even when what’s offered is not really free. Such is the case with “free dining.”

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So how do you tell if you’d be better off purchasing a package with free dining or one with a resort-only discount? Unfortunately, the answer varies, and requires math. Since there are so many variables at play, there is no simple answer. As a general proposition, the more expensive of a resort and the smaller your party size, the less beneficial “free” dining at Walt Disney World will be.  Stated differently, if you’re planning on a honeymoon stay at the Disney’s Polynesian Resort, free dining is not in your best interest.

This is because Walt Disney World packages with free dining require you to pay rack rate for your resort and to purchase full price Magic Your Way tickets from Disney with a minimum of two days for each person on the reservation. This precludes you from using resort-only discounts such as PIN Codes, AP discounts, or other discounts.  It also precludes you from purchasing reduced-price tickets from third party vendors, such as those on TouringPlans’ Walt Disney World Ticket Price Calculator. Since few, if any, Disney guests are not getting some discount, the dining plan is not free, but rather, it is an alternative discount.

To illustrate, let’s take the following variables: party of two adults, August 14-19, with 6 Day Magic Your Way tickets, first at the Polynesian and then at the Caribbean Beach Resort, with free dining and without.

Polynesian Resort with free dining:

  • Polynesian Resort (Garden View)
  • 6 Day Magic Your Way Tickets with Water Park Fun & More
  • 5 Day Standard Disney Dining Plan (1 Counter Service, 1 Table Service, 1 Snack daily per person)

Total Cost: $2,969.70

Now doing a la carte with 30% off (currently offered to the general public):

  • Polynesian Resort (Garden View) – 5 nights, 6 days: $1,382.50
  • 6 Day Magic Your Way Tickets with With Park Fun & More: $715.90
  • No Dining Plan

Total Cost: $2,098.40

Not surprisingly, the second Walt Disney World vacation package was less expensive, but this is in part because no dining options were included. Adding five days of the Dining Plan (theoretically, as it couldn’t actually be done for an a la carte package) adds $459.90 to the total cost, bringing the cost of the package to $2,558.30. Still, much cheaper than the free dining package, and the better option for almost anyone considering the two packages.

Rest and Relaxation

Caribbean Beach Resort with free dining:

  • Carribean Beach Resort (Standard View)
  • 6 Day Magic Your Way Tickets with Water Park Fun & More
  • 5 Day Standard Disney Dining Plan (1 Counter Service, 1 Table Service, 1 Snack daily per person)

Total Cost: $1,642.20

Now doing a la carte with 30% off (currently offered to the general public):

  • Caribbean Beach Resort – 5 nights, 6 days: $626
  • 6 Day Magic Your Way Tickets with With Park Fun & More: $715.90
  • No Dining Plan

Total Cost: $1,341.90

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Again, the a la carte vacation package is cheaper. However, adding five theoretical days of the Dining Plan brings the total cost of the package to $1,801.08.  The price difference here gives a $300.30 allowance for food. That’s $30.03 per person, per day (for five days, the same length of time you’d have the dining plan).  Given that two Quick Service meals per day can easily cost that, free dining will be a better option here for most people, if it suits your dining and touring desires. (Shortly before this post was published, Disney released a new PIN code offer for the Quick Service Dining Plan for Values and Moderates, and the Standard Dining Plan for Deluxe Resorts; if this PIN code offer is a harbinger of future free dining offers, the value of free dining at Moderates is greatly diminished.)

Your party’s Walt Disney World touring style and eating habits, as mentioned above, are another important consideration in determining whether free dining is the right discount for you. Consider whether you want to commit to sitting down for a Table Service meal each day and whether you would like to eat desserts with all of your meals. Many parties on the Disney Dining Plan also find that, due to the substantial amounts of food at each meal, they don’t use all of their snack credits. Others work hard to maximize the “value” they get out of the Disney Dining Plan.

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Your desired dining style must closely mirror what is offered in the dining plan in order to actually realize savings by using it (and as made clear above, you’re still ‘paying’ for the Disney Dining Plan with free dining, since you would have gotten a different discount if you did not opt for free dining). Another important consideration for those visiting Walt Disney World on a budget is that the “savings” you receive by receiving free dining will actually cost more money than listed on the vacation package, as it doesn’t include tips for servers. Make sure to include this in your budget when comparing the packages you create.

With all of these caveats concerning free dining packages, there’s one thing they offer that a la carte packages don’t: convenience. If becoming an amateur statistician to compare prices doesn’t sound appealing to you, and you can’t convince Fred Hazelton to crunch the numbers for you, purchasing a free dining package might have allure for its ease.

At the end of the day, when it comes to Walt Disney World vacation packages, remember the words of your grandmother: there is no such thing as a free lunch.

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Posted on February 18, 2011

92 Responses to “There Is No Such Thing As A Free Dining Plan”

  • I agree about the “free dining” not always being the best option. As a travel agent, I continually look at all promos even after my clients book. My personal family of 5 are going in August for free dining, staying at the Yacht Club. Free dining is a huge savings for us this time as my 2 sons just hit the “adult” mark. Another client and his wife are going at the same time, same resort. They booked free dining at first. Then I compared the 35% off room only with dining/tix add ons, and they saved over $300 from the free dining cost. It pays to either utilize a good travel agent to keep tabs of this for you or DO YOUR RESEARCH even after you book.

    • Dawn – you make an excellent point. I think I must be crazy as I actually enjoy tracking discounts myself, but if that doesn’t interest you, I highly recommend booking through a reputable Disney-oriented travel agent. Most do not charge fees (they get their ‘slice of the pie’ from Disney directly so you get the same ‘best rate’ you could get on your own without any added fees), so there really is no reason to NOT book through a travel agent.

      • I’m going to have to disagree with your comment, “no reason to NOT book through a travel agent.”

        I booked through a reputable Disney orientated travel agent for a trip. The day came when free dining was offered to the public. By the time she called to get my free dining, my hotel (POFQ) was booked with all the free dining offers. Coronado was also booked with free dining. My options were to stay at the Caribbean (no thanks), a value, or pay an extra $265 for a Royalty room at POR. I chose to pay the $265 – which irks me beyond belief.

        My lesson – I need to be in control of my own trip. I am an early riser, I could have called Disney first thing in the morning to add my free dining. (Although, who knows how many POFQ rooms they released for free dining.) My very knowledgeable travel agent had lots of customers she needed to add free dining. Maybe I was last on her list.

        • Lisa, that is awful!! (And makes me slightly nervous, as I am currently booked for POFQ and hoping for FD in late August!) However, I trust my agent (I’m sure you did, too). Also, I have a Disney Visa and get discounts at least a day before discounts are released to the public. Hopefully that will play in my favor!

        • I’ll tell you what one Cast Member told me about calling to get free dining: she said there were 10,000 people on hold at one point the morning it was announced, and some people were on hold for up to 8 hours. Take that with a grain of salt maybe, but that’s what I was told.

          We booked our trip through our CAA travel agent (AAA in the US, obviously). Travel agents apparently have a different line into 407-WDISNEY, so they won’t be on hold for hours and will grab those Free Dining reservations first. Basically, I kept track of the blogs and when free dining was going to be announced the next day, I sent her an email and she got on the phone first thing the morning of and booked it for us – easy breezy. You just need 1) a good travel agent, and 2) you need to force their hand; don’t rely on them to take the initiative. It’s YOUR vacation, travel agent or no.

          • Travel agents do have a separate number to call, but we can still be on hold for hours to switch over reservations when an offer is announced. But as a travel agent, it’s my job to be on hold so your life can go on as normal.

      • I would question your claim that Disney-oriented travel agents get their slice of the pie from Disney. Any travel agent that I have ever known has told me that they make their money from the volume of clients (charging a fee for their services) and not from the resorts that they book reservations into.

        • Then I suspect the travel agents you’ve known aren’t Disney agents.

          • All of the travel agents I have known had the ability to book a Disney Vacation. Walt Disney World has its own Travel company that is specifically on the payroll of Walt Disney World, so they would in-fact get their piece of the pie from Disney. The other travel professionals I have known have not received any payment from Disney for booking a trip for a client; nor have they ever been a “Disney” agent…short of working for Disney directly I don’t know of any “Disney” agents.

    • I don’t know if we’re allowed to mention agencies but MEI TRAVEL doesn’t charge a fee and their whole business is orientated around Disney. I’m not saying other travel agents can’t book Disney trips but they have some insider things connections that others might not. Our agent has always been on top of things and we’ve always gone with the free dining b/c we’re all adults and love to try out the higher end restaurants that we would otherwise not be able to afford.

      • I think that is more the issue that I am eluding to really. I concede that there is a payment from resorts to travel agents for their booking in a guests (Disney included), but that having been said there are many travel agents who are charging a fee for services that is in addition to the “piece of pie” that they already receive”. I am unaware (painfully at this point) of how one chooses a “Disney” agent, but still suggest that if you are planning a trip you should call and get at least a quote if not two before visiting a travel agent and paying what you think is the best price. That having been said; anyone who has booked their own trip knows the kind of time and searching it can take for finding prices and promotions. If you do not have the needed time to spend a travel agent may be your best best for the best priced trip–with or without an additional fee.

        • I’d suggest visiting Google.com.

          There, by entering a query such as “Disney no fee travel agent,” you will find–literally–hundreds of travel agents specializing in Disney who do not charge a fee for their services.

          • i agree to get multiple quotes. did that this year and they came out about the same. However if you go directly through Disney they seem to be almost 2 grand more. You’d think it would save u but no way.

    • We did our research and found that because of the restaurants we wanted to go to, free dining was better than the discounted room rate. We easily would have spent a lot more at those same restaurants had we not had free dining.

      This post is wrong on one front though; we didn’t have to buy fully-priced park tickets. We still received the CAA/AAA discounted rate (along with the coupon/free admissions bundle that comes with it).

  • Great post Tom, free dining is something I constantly rally against because the value has been watered down so much from it over the past few years. Quite frankly, even when it does save you some money, it’s still not as good a deal as I feel one can get by opting for a room only discount. It just isn’t the same deal it once was and I applaud you for calling it out!

    • Agreed. When Sarah (my wife) showed me the PIN code email she received on Wednesday that had Moderates only receiving the Quick Service plan (the latest dilution of the offer), I wasn’t too surprised. I know not everyone receives every single PIN code that Disney puts out like we do, but the PIN room only offers, plus the Tables in Wonderland card, are almost always much better for us.

  • This is a great article! I’ve often said it doesn’t seem to make sense – especially since, agreeing with Matt, from what I’ve heard/noticed, that the quality of some of the restaurants has gone down since the inception of the dining plans.. Glad to see I’m not alone! (or even better – right!)

    • Don’t even get me started on the quality of dining. There are still some gems out there, though. My current favorites in terms of value-for-money include The Wave, Sanaa (notice that both are new? I wonder if they haven’t had the chance to had their menus diluted yet?), and Kona Cafe (dinner).

  • I absolutely agree that ‘free dining’ is certainly not free – you pay for these things one way or other. And I agree that you should research the different options available to you to figure out the best package for you at the time. Coming from the UK, the packages offered are different. What ‘free dining’ we get is different too – nothing for a value resort, quick service at a moderate and the full plan at a deluxe. This obviously has an impact on the savings. Also, if you book at the right time you can get room discounts AND free dining, so really it can be a win-win situation. As a rule though, all the packages offered to us are equal in value. In 2009 I booked a stay 14 nights, pay for 10 offer. Later in the year, free dining was offered instead, for the same time period. The price of the first deal, plus dining plan worked out exactly the same as the cost of the second. Sadly we have to pick a deal and go for it – once its booked we can’t change it if a new promotion offers us a better deal – the only option is to cancel, loose your deposit and re-book – which generally wouldn’t be worth it.

    • I’m not totally sure how it is for UK residents, but I know I was able to transfer a currently booking under one promo to another promo, and the deposit followed through without having to cancel/rebook. It maybe different if you are changing resorts, however.

    • All packages offered may be roughly equivalent to you because of your family size and perhaps resort preferences, but I would be shocked if they are all the same for everyone if you begin altering variables (length of stay, party size, number of adults, resort level, etc.). With the way Disney frequently tweaks its discounting and with all of the variables in play, it’s difficult for all of the discounts to be completely even.

      • You’re right of course Tom, if there had been more people in the party, the free dining would have been the better option as we’d have been getting more for the same cost. And if you don’t utilise the dining plan fully, then its ‘value’ isn’t as much. I find that for us, 2 adults, the savings often work out the same (and I do the maths pretty reguarly in my hunt for another holiday!) Actually for our next holiday (already booked) if we booked for the same time but using the current deal offered, we’d lose out by over £1000 – so I guess that disproves my own argument! Great article by the way, Tom!
        DawnMaree – we have tried to just switch a promotion before with no other chanages with Disney and had no luck, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you can get lucky/unlucky, depending on who is on the other end of the phone!

  • Would you say that it depends on the size of your family? I have a family of 5 and it seems to be that the free dining always works out better for us. We would opt for dining if it was free or not.

    To Tom, I had no idea they were offering free QC dining at the mods…that is not good.

    • Party size most definitely comes into play. The more adults you have in a room, the more likely it is that “free” dining will be a better offer. However, note that nothing is absolute. There are many variables at play, so it’s hard to say with certainty that one offer is better than another when only considering one variable.

      You should still investigate other offers, as what is best one year suddenly may not be as good the next year.

      • Whether buying the plan (instead of getting it free) saves money also depends on what foods (and how much) you typically eat and your mix of buffets versus non-buffets (on table service). We “did the math” once last year and found a few general rules seemed to apply:
        1) Kids age 3-9 usually saved a little money on the plan.
        2) If you go to table service buffets in the parks or higher-price resort buffets (say, Boma), you’ll tend to save money on the plan.
        3) Picky eaters (who eat “simple fare”) and people who generally eat pasta will tend to lose money on the plan.
        4) People who generally prefer chicken and pork will tend to roughly break even on the plan.
        5) People who generally prefer steaks and seafood will tend to save money on the plan.
        All of this was based on last year’s plan and rates; I have no idea if it’s still true.
        The bottom line, as you point out, is DO THE MATH!

        • Great breakdown! If you think like this, I think you’ll like one of my upcoming posts concerning the dining plan, more specifically.

          When my wife and I went on our honeymoon, we decided to do the DDP. We are steak and seafood people, and for once, it was nice to open a menu and not get squeamish looking at prices. Granted, we were still paying at least 70% of the prices listed, but for something like our honeymoon, we thought we owed it to ourselves to splurge!

        • Kidatheart is exactly right – do the math.

          This was a great post, but the flaw in the final math of adding back in the theoretical cost of adding a dining plan a la carte is that you should really add what you’d actually spend on food without the plan. That’s the true math.

          When we went most recently we added the dining plan – we are DVC members so that changes the conversation but not the math. In 8 days we did 5 character meals and LeCellier (among others) – doing the math on those dining experiences and cost of that food – YES, we saved money with the plan. BUT….no way we would have done all that if we’d been on cash and been just as happy. So, again, do the math and do it based on what and where you’ll actually eat.

          Also – keep in mind with the dining plan you are still laying out cash for tip – that adds up fast!!!

          • I understand what you’re saying, but I respectfully disagree that there’s a flaw in the math. In the case of the Polynesian, the numbers were so skewed that no conceivable math would make free dining a better option, so I left it at the cost of room plus tickets, plus theoretical dining cost.

            In the case of the Caribbean Beach Resort, since it was a much closer call, I compared the cost difference in packages ($300.30), which would become the “food budget.” Here, in my opinion, is where the true comparison lies.

            However – your point is well taken. I would caution readers against doing the math based upon what they’d actually spend if not on the plan versus what they’d spend with free dining, as that may not be apples to apples. The dining plan gives you the luxury of eating places and foods you otherwise wouldn’t, and if you’re comparing your $20/day budget (that involves sharing meals and no snacks) to the dining plan, which includes desserts, snacks, and other things you may want but not be willing to splurge on but for the plan, it’s a skewed comparison to compare your actual costs to the DDP’s actual cost. Compare your ideal dining scenarios (that fit within the plan) to the plan’s actual cost–that’s how you truly determine whether the plan is good value for you.

        • It also depends on which meal(s) you’re eating as table service and if you’d be ordering dessert and soda . . . this past trip, we did not do as many TS meals as we had days, and most of those were breakfast or lunch (buffets and character meals). We skipped dessert at most of our QS meals and I’m not a big soda drinker to begin with . . . definitely saved money for us not to do the dining plan and was more flexible, too. But, I figured it out very specifically using the menus available at various places online before we made our final decision.

  • My DH and I opted for the free dining this year over a % off the room – but for us it wasn’t a pure monetary thing. The lay out of having a small quick breakfast (snack), a counter service lunch, and a nice sit down dinner works perfectly for how we like to tour.
    But even beyond that, it is the idea of turning the vacation into an almost “all-inclusive” package that we love – don’t have to worry about paying for dinner (outside of tips) and it’s all taken into account up front. Since we don’t have kids and we don’t drink much, it’s so much more relaxing to not have to worry about anything but bringing our room key. I understand this isn’t the situation for everyone, but for us, it is perfect!

  • Great post Tom! As a frequent Disney visitor, I always look for great deals. I would have have never considered utilizing an outside travel agent, as I love planning myself and feel like I do a decent job. After this post, I might need to give Dawn a call when its time for our next trip.

    • I like you Sarah! LOL. Part of the fun about going to Disney is the planning, and with an agent, you can still do so much on your own but still reap the benefits.

      I find this particular blog extremely interesting as with all the different discounts with Disney, the “free dining” is really one you need to do your homework with to know if it is truly right for you.

    • I’m in the same boat as you. I have a tough time releasing the planning “reigns” – even to my own wife! ;)

  • First, great article Tom! It amazes me that although this “free” program is consistently reviewed -with numbers to back you up- by all of the TP staff, many people still think it is the best. I know someone who booked the free dining, and even after I had broken down the math for them and showed them that they could get the same vacation for almost $1,000 less with a different discount, they opted to go with the “free” dining because of all of that free food. (Ummm…food that costs $900+ is so NOT free.) Then, when they got back they mentioned that they had skipped a bunch of table service adr’s because they didn’t want to waste the time sitting down to eat…bless their hearts.

    I know that there are situations where free dining actually saves money, they just don’t ever seem to apply to my family. Ahhhh, but Tables in Wonderland, that is a card that has paid us back over and over again! I also respect others who like the DDP because of the pre-paid nature, even though the cost of that convenience is too high for me. I always think that if I wanted to pre-pay for my meals, I could just buy gift cards.

    I do, however, think that the “problem” of all of those left-over snack credits could be solved with a trip to KaramelKuche at Epcot or Starring Rolls at DHS… ;)

    • Oh! I forgot to say: Beautiful picture of the Poly, Tom. Stunning!

      • Like I mentioned in the post, “free” is some powerful marketing-speak, even if what you’re getting is nowhere near free. What I find interesting is that each year Disney raises its prices. Even in the midst of economic downturn, prices increased, discounts just increased more. To me, this is very telling. There is no doubt a certain psychology to discounting, and what makes people respond better. Not to get on too much of a tangent here, but this is one of the reasons why I cannot stand the store Kohls. Certain relatives of mind love all of the sales. However, almost nothing is ever full price in there. Shoppers aren’t really getting deals, they’re just getting the impression of getting deals. I can’t say I fault businesses for doing this, but we as a consuming public should be more savvy than to be duped by this marketing.

        Thanks for the kind words of the photo, too! Based on my experiences there, I think the Polynesian has some “special access” to gorgeous sunsets. So many times we’ve been at the Poly during a beautiful sunset only to leave for the Magic Kingdom and find it less-pretty (perhaps the fleeting nature of a sunset is the true cause! :) ).

        • Tom,

          I agree about your assessment that “Free” is a very powerful marketing tool. Dave Ramsey during his Financial Peace University goes into great detail about this type of marketing campaign as well as many others that manipulate us into spending more money than we would’ve if we were able to resist it’s temptation and do the research

          • We’re big fans of Dave, too, and graduates of FPU. We take a cash envelope to the parks for dining money. We study the menus beforehand, have a cost range in mind, and plan for that (plus a little more just in case we “need” to splurge).

  • We ran it with a 35% off PIN and with Free Dining. Because we are staying at POP it was cheaper to go with free dining. You have to run the numbers for your group every way possible to see the best option. We do too many character meals not to include dining. The amount we save on my daughters meals more that makes up for it. Plus most of the lunch QS my mom and I share (because they give you so much) so we have more QS for breakfasts. Works for us, but doesn’t mean it works for everyone.

    • I’d be curious to know whether this was when Values still qualified for the Standard Plan, or if it was more recently, when you had to pay to upgrade to the Standard Plan (now, Values get the Quick Service Plan unless they pay to upgrade). Back in the “old days,” even for two people at a Value, free dining (Standard Plan) was almost always the best deal. In the last year and a half or so, that has changed. It sounds like you have at least three people in the room, though, so it still is probably better than 35% off!

      • Hi Tom,
        I have heard several people say with a value resort you automatically get quick serve dining….I am looking to book at Music resort for Dec. and I have not seen this anywhere did they do away with this for 2012?

  • I have found the DDP does not work for me. I usually either go solo, or with friends who pay their own way. I usually like a TS breakfast, a CS lunch, then a 3 course dinner. I also save a lot more with the AP discounts then I would make up for with dining. If you are an AP holder or a FL resident, I would STRONGLY urge you to get a Tables in Wonderland card. You get 20% off the TS meal (but they add a 18% tip). So basically, you get tip for free. Has saved me LOTS!

    • Tables in Wonderland takes a lot of heat for adding in the 18% tip (I’ve seen many of people call it a 2% savings). While I don’t want to open up any cans of worms on tipping, I would hazard a guess that most people tip. Of those, most people tip between 10 and 20%, with 18% being close to average. So if you’re going to be tipping anyway, it definitely isn’t just a 2% savings.

      Like you, my wife and I have saved A LOT with it, and we’re not even Florida residents. In just two meals (granted, they were at Victoria & Albert’s and California Grill), the card more than paid for itself for us. The break even threshold for the card is pretty easy to calculate, I would encourage any frequent visitor who doesn’t do the DDP but does some Table Service dining to consider it!

      • I usually tip 15%-20% anyway, so this is no big deal for me. The way I see it, instead of “saving” 20%, I basically don’t have to tip (since the 18% and 20% cancel each other out). This can really add up if you eat a lot of TS meals. Now even some CS locations (all at resorts I think) are taking TiW and do NOT include the 18% tip (even at lounges). If you pay $75 for the card (AP member), you have to spend $375 on eligible meals to break even. Is it sad that I did that in 2 trips?

        Oh, AND it’s good for up to 10 people in your party (if you are all on the same bill).

        • AND TIW gives you a discount on your entire check, including premium beverages. Woot!

        • I don’t think it’s sad that you broke even on 2 trips. I broke even – actually was ahead – on 2 MEALS! We were traveling (and paying for) a group of 10, so one character meal and beaches and cream and I had already broken even. Still had 5 meals on that trip plus my upcoming December trip that is just savings.

  • Amen!

    I’ve always done the math, and the one time that Free Dining worked out for us was staying at a Value resort with a party of 2 adults, at a time when even the Values got the “regular” Disney Dining Plan for free (ie, not the Quick Service), and it still included tips.

    • Ahhhh, the good ‘ole days!

    • This is exactly how it “was”. I took advantage of the very first time that Disney offered the Free Dining option back in September 2005. Staying at a moderate with free dining (TS/CS/Snack) for a family of 4 adults staying in the same room was a no-brainer. No trips since have financially made sense to do the free dining. Then I’ve watched as each year the value diminished, first removing the gratuities, then the introduction of the free “quick service” plan. It’s just not usually worth it.

      That said, we loved our trip with free dining, simply because it encouraged us to make our way around the world and resorts eating at restaurants we wouldn’t normally bother with. It was a great experience that the dining plan motivated us to try. That had a small value, but not as much as it now costs. :)

  • I think to accurately figure out the cost benefit, you have to take a few things into consideration:
    1. How savvy are you with the DP, do you use it to share meals (like breakfast and lunch, do you use snack credits to supplement the meal rather than to purchase junk you won’t eat? Do you take a Water bottle for your dessert (where available)? Are you squeezing every dollar out of the the DP?
    2. Are you using the DP at restaurants were ala carte would be a lot more that the price of your daily DP fee?
    3. For instance, with my family (2 adults, 2 teens) the retail value of what we ate on the DP last year exceeded $1600 for the 7 days we were there. We squeezed every dollar and every great meal we could out of the DP.
    4. We would never ever spend that much retail on our food. When we pay out of pocket, we budget about $1000 for a weeks worth of eating in WDW. So for us, it’s $600 worth of food that we would not have splurged on otherwise. Mind you, we don’t go for too much junk, enough is already included in the meals you get, we stretch as many meals as we can out of it. We don’t put much more that $100 of misc. expenses food wise out there.

    So for us, staying at a moderate, it’s a good plan.

    • Excellent points! One thing that does concern me a little about using the plan–and I found myself doing this at a couple points–is being so gung ho about trying to squeeze as much value out of it as I could that I was considering more expensive options not because they looked better to me, but “for the sake of better value.” I’m sure there are plenty of people for whom this would be no issue, thought!

  • I’m one of those people who do the math, too, and haven’t found that Free Dining works for my family, where we like to stay, and our eating habits (no need for so much food). We prefer room discounts and Tables in Wonderland.

  • Great article, and the comments have been really interesting. We’ve done “free dining” several times, always doing the math beforehand. For us, the break-even point between %-off the room or free dining fell right at the cheapest room at Wilderness Lodge — if we stayed at a moderate, free dining was the better deal, and if we stayed at any deluxe room beyond the least expensive standard room, %-off was the better deal. We’ve come to view “free dining” trips as just a different experience than %-off trips. In the former case, it’s about having lots of special meals, while in the latter case, we’re more likely to be on the go, just stopping here and there to grab something quick.

    But when you do the %-off deal, you face the fact that the menus involve a whole lot of sticker shock. We were thinking of doing Tusker House for lunch again this year — loved it last year on the dining plan, but we’re blanching at laying out $90 for lunch.

    • Yeah, that sticker shock is tough. When Sarah and I looked at some menus online while paying out of pocket, we decided against more than a couple of restaurants. I think the huge increase in prices at Disney restaurants is another marketing tool to give the impression of a greater savings on the dining plan. Unfortunately, it really hurts those of us who pay those prices out of pocket!

  • by Teri (lazmail) on February 18, 2011, at 9:08 pm EST

    Great blog, Tom. The thing I love about touringplans.com is all the fact based information! Keep us the great work!

  • Great article Tom! BTW I had no idea they were offering QS for Mods…what dates does that take into account if you don’t mind me asking please? I’m booked into a Mod for the week of 9/18 but haven’t been notified of QS dining being tacked on…probably because right now I’m paying for it! LOL

    • Which Mod? Here is the list of CS locations at Mods that accept TiW: Ft Wilderness (Crocketts Tavern), PO-R (River Roost), PO-FQ (Food Factory with strange name and Scats Club Lounge).

      • Hi John…I have no clue personally which Mods…Tom made mention of it being offered up for free right now so that is what I’m trying to find out…Well, that and the dates it’s being offered :)

        • Ok I misread – Tom and Sara got a PIN for free QS at Mods..so not everyone is being offered that up…ok sorry about that thread! (and Tom!)

  • Tom great blog. I want to add one wrinkle / factor. If you are there during the Food and Wine Festival using snack credits to sample the foods around the countries is awesome. Good portions and delicious. We found ourselves wishing we had more snack credits. yum….

  • I would say this sounds true but after looking at the bill from one of the restraunts we went to while using the free DDP, there would be no way we could afford to eat there without the DDP. One of the ones just my mom and I went to in Epcot cost $150 and it wasn’t super fancy. It was so good and I was happy that the DDP allowed us to enjoy a meal that would normally have been way out of our budget. Also since we aren’t FL residents it’s hard for us to get extra discounts and I’m not sure what a PIN is. We do use a travel agent from MEI. They are great and free. She’s gives us the best options and that seems to be the Free DDP. I have noticed that the DDP has gone down in value. When my parents first took advantage of it in 2007, it included tips and all. All in all it just makes for a stress-free time to know that all is paid for and your decisions on where to eat is done.

  • We are going for Mardi Gras, March 2 through 12 and our dates were firm no matter what discount was offered. They did have a few, a gift card, the kids stay and play and dining. We opted for dining as our kids are 9 & 11 and it just seemed like a better discount for us even after figuring the gift card. We are staying at All Star Sports and definitely wanted Quick Service meals. We are not the sit down for an hour type although we do have the Fantasmic dinner package booked one night. I did get a pin code but being only about 35% off, the dining was still the better option.

    That being said, I think a travel agent is ONE of the most IMPORTANT tools you could ever use for planning a vacation. We were not going until March 4 but she told us if we got there just 1 day earlier, we would qualify for the dining, so of couse we moved it up. I had no idea that as long as you checked in by the last day of free dining, that it would extend for the duration of your stay, up to 2 weeks. She ran all the discounts, including the pin and gave us the numbers. We looked at everything carefully and kept the dining.

    We also bumped my daughter to 10 yrs old so she didn’t have to have the child’s dining. It was about $25 more to our total package and I was not going to force her to order off of the child’s menu. That may have been a waste of $$$ in the long run but I want her to be free to choose. Some have told me that all your credits lump together and they can’t tell whether you have child or adult credits and some have told me the opposite, so I just bumped her, just in case.

    I also don’t think anything is truly free in life. We are paying for it in the room/tickets rates in the long run. But for us, it was a blessing.

  • My personal experience with the “cost” of free dining….

    The family was considering a Disney trip for the Christmas season last December. After pricing out the trip with all the options we wanted – Polynesian Resort, Base ticket with hopping, DDP – I cringed a bit. Considering the cost of air fare, rental car, food, etc. in addition to the Disney costs, we put off a final decision.

    Shortly thereafter, received an email with the Free Dining offer for the dates we were considering. Priced the new package and there it was – a $700 dollar savings for 4 people on a six-night stay at a Deluxe resort. maybe I’m just not saavy enough to see where I was taken but we booked and had a FANTASTIC time! Although, was disappointed by the decline in the quality of the food and the general service. And don’t get me started on the quest to book reasonable ADRs during Free Dining….

  • For us it free dining was a great deal.

    We stayed 11 nights, peak period at the CSR for $4400 inclusive of park tickets, room and dining. With free dining we got $2700 of value, while with the room-only discount we would only have got about $1000 of value, which is far less than even our most basic dining would have cost.

    But part of the reason we got such great value is that we had four people staying in the room, so four free Dining Plans. If we had only had two people the difference would not have been so great.

  • Interesting article and good advice. We had the opposite experience when booking our January trip to the Polynesian in that we found the free dining plan deal to be better than the room discount deal (it was my husband, my 5 year old daughter, 3 year old son, and me going on the trip). We actually upped our plan to the Deluxe Plan, and it was worth it. We ate at Le Cellier, Hollywood Brown Derby, Hoop Dee Doo Revue, Cinderella’s Royal Table, California Grill, and a whole host of other places, including 4 other character meals. It was worth it to spend the time comparing all the deals we could get and even when we spent the money to upgrade the meal plan, it was still a better value than paying out of pocket for meals or adding on a meal plan, and we had a great trip in the end.

    • I’m not trying to suggest that free dining is a bad value–in some cases, it’s excellent. As mentioned above, when there are four people in a room, it’s almost always a better deal. The examples above used 2 people as the baseline. The takeaway is that it’s important to do the math to determine what’s best for your family and your circumstances.

      • Better yet, get a travel agent and they can compare all the discounts and steer you to the best deal. For us, it will be easier. My husband and I would share a meal many times and then eat whatever the kids didn’t eat. Well now the kids are older and eat more. Plus I’ll finally get to eat a Casey’s Corner. I could never see paying THAT much for a hot dog but since it is on the Quick Service Plan, we will definitely be enjoying some hot dogs.

  • We had planned to stay offsite at Bonnet Creek this year and pay out of pocket with 4 TS meals. DH really wanted a one bedroom. We would have liked more TS meals, but were trying to stay within a specific budget. Then the free dining deal came out. Then we started entertaining the idea of staying onsite again. We prefer to stay onsite. Suddenly, DH wanted that more than the 1 bedroom. I looked at renting DVC (with limited availability by this point) or staying at a moderate with free dining. The free dining plan at a moderate came out to be within a couple hundred of Bonnet Creek with cash outlay, plus we could completely rely on Disney transportation and take advantage of onsite perks and Disney service. Also, we were able to book 2 additional TS meals (for “free”) and got the ones we really wanted. We do plan to maximize the dining plan and will order steaks and seafood and picked mostly higher-priced restaurants and character buffets, so this worked well for our family this time. I have looked and not seen a PIN for discounted rooms.

    However, I don’t see the dining plan always being the best. When I have an AP, I hope to get TIW. While we do like dessert, I wouldn’t say we need it with every meal. I really dislike how the dining plan did away with appetizers. I would prefer selecting a dessert OR an appetizer, as I really like salads or soup with a meal sometimes vs. dessert. Still, I like that we know our dining costs up front and are able to budget so that our souvenirs and tips are our only variables going into our trip. I also like that my husband and kids can get the milkshakes and lemonades and treats they like to order even on a budget without any guilt of the cost (now, the calories are a different story.)

  • I think free dining is the way to go – my kids get to eat 3 character meals, they would not have been able to otherwise

    • I agree…even if it isn’t really ‘free,’ it gives me the freedom to not look at prices when booking meals! One of those conveniences I guess :-)

    • I completely agree Bethany. We always get the value rates for hotels plus make the most of the table service meals while we are there. We would never be able to enjoy the meals we enjoy if we went at a time when Free Dining was not offered. We often use any leftover food from our counter service meals for snacks and use any snack credits to buy Disney snacks to take home with us. Who else can enjoy a character meal every day if they chose for the same price as the above mentioned package prices unless you have free dining? We just want the whole Disney experience I guess. :-)

  • We are taking our son to Disney World for his 4th birthday this September, which happens to be during a free dining time, so it saved us a bit over $500. Of course, we are staying at Pop Century (I’m one of those who think’s it silly to pay for a moderate or deluxe resort, I just don’t personally see any value for the money, and that’s coming from someone with a very high income household, living completely debt free, with money to blow.) So yeah, a value resort seems worth it to go with free dining versus a room discount. However in my opinion, neither free dining nor a resort discount makes a moderate or deluxe resort a good deal, considering you can get much better accommodations offsite for much cheaper. So to us, a value resort is the only one worth is’s value since you get immersed in Disney for a bargain price. Of course, that’s just my opinion :-)

    • actually…there are many times that the free dining option is more expensive than using the advertised discounts and adding the dining plan, so make sure you have your agent check both options! and we used to be like you, but as our boys have gotten older, they love the theme pools and the slides, so we’ve moved up to the moderates and for this trip, we are staying at AKL. However, I was always like you and we always stayed at the value resorts (usually a family suite) because they are still very nice and offer a GREAT price!

    • Dee-when staying at Pop wondering if you use rental car, take cabs or take disney buses to from parks? Just wondering what you find is best for your group? the math shows my famiily can still save significant money by staying at Pop and taking 4 cab rides per day vs Poly and no cab rides just not sure how well that plan would work in practice. thanks russ

  • This is such a tough call for me.

    When I go out to dinner, I NEVER buy the most expensive dinner, rarely get dessert and I don’t drink pop (or alcohol). And I try not to go to super expensive places to eat.

    So using the Dining Plan gave me that excuse to eat the most expensive meal with dessert at a nicer restaurant. It was nice to do on such a great vacation!

    About to make reservations for October 2012. I guess I’m crossing my fingers for a pin, but won’t mind a “free dining” plan.

  • Bricker, I just want you to know that I have this blog post bookmarked and refer friends to it weekly. Great work.
    You take great photos, write well, AND can do math. Now that’s a triple-threat!

  • This is kinda off subject but I was just looking at his quotes and my land have prices gone up. We actually going to the Poly and will have two different rooms with two people in one. Just with two people in the same scenario as above it’s costing our family 4,000! Just for two people. It’s a little over 9,000 all together after we kick in the free dining plan it will cost around about 7,000. I mean we’re excited but it would be even more exciting if we were able to go at the 2011 price lol

  • Highly HIGHLY recommend the incredibly useful spreadsheet made by Lines user @NotThatKevinSmith. It analyzes your dining reservations to find out if the DDP is worth it, if TiW is a better option, even whether or not “Free” Dining actually saves you money. You can find it off his website at http://seeyareelsoon.wix.com/seeyareelsoon

  • How does one get pin codes for free dining or resort discounts? Do i just keep watching the Disney website?

    • you can sign up for updates from Disney and they will send out emails with the info. It also depends on when you want to go. They don’t always offer free dining or discounts during the high volume season. But usually if you want to go in the fall they come out with codes in April/ May, or if you want to go at the very beginning of their Christmas season those codes are released about June or so. Be sure to read the fine print b/c some of the dates are very specific. It is my understanding that as long as you are checked in during the duration your covered. ie the dates are from aug 10-16th. If you check in on the 16th that you qualify.

  • Ok, I know this thread is old, but the discussion points are still relevant. Couple of years ago we did “free” dining, and this year we went to Disneyland (with no dining, of course). I doubt ex would pay for the DP if it wasn’t included. I mean, I don’t think we would have paid for it separately from the rest of our package. I really liked two things about the DP. All of our decisions about food were made before we ever left home. We didn’t push too long between meals thinking, “if we wait just a little longer, we can have cereal back in the room”. When we started getting hungry, we ate. It eliminated a stress and worry. Also, without the DP we would never do TS, but I gotta say, I really liked having that hour to sit in air conditioning and chill for a bit. It was almost as good as the midday nap.

    We’re a family of 5, so financially “free” sometimes makes sense, but stress-wise, it’s definitely worth it for me, and might be worth considering for you.