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There Is No Such Thing As A Free Dining Plan

by on February 18, 2011

“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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Outsmarting the Disney World PIN Code Monkeys

by on September 10, 2010

Bigfoot’s usual stomping grounds. What conceivable interest any ‘intelligent’ UFO would have in earth. How Sean Connery avoids aging. And until now, Walt Disney World’s method for determining to whom to send discount PIN Codes. Strike the latter off of the list of society’s great unsolved mysteries, as Disney’s PIN Code recipient selection process is about to be resolved. For those unfamiliar, PIN Codes are the holy grail of WDW discounts; an exclusive discount sent to a limited number of recipients that frequently allow early booking of a special offer that will later become available to the general public, or a variant of a deal that will become available to the general public, typically offering a more advantageous or ‘better’ discount for most Walt Disney World guests.

For years, Disney’s manner of choosing recipients for these PIN Codes has perplexed Walt Disney World visitors the world over. Some assume its based on luck of the draw, or perhaps alternatively that Disney has a room full of monkeys tucked away in the Cayman Islands and the company uses the whims of the monkeys to make decisions. A dangerous practice, no doubt, but some of the practices of the Walt Disney Company are so head-scratching that the only logical explanation is that they were made by untrained chimps.

Unfortunately, this glamorized version of the process Walt Disney World uses for selecting PIN Code recipients is likely untrue. As someone who frequently found these PIN Codes arriving in my email inbox and home mailbox up until a few months ago, it is my assertion that Disney more than likely has some sort of formula for determining who should receive the PIN Codes.

My fascination with these elusive PIN Codes began to grow a few years ago when I first heard of a friend receiving a PIN Code. The prospect of such a great discount piqued the interest of my frugality, and I embarked upon a mission to receive one myself. He cautioned me against trying, since the codes were sent out randomly, and nothing I could do would improve my prospects of receiving one. For a short while, I was content with this advice. However, after I began listening to WDW Today and hearing the hosts discuss how they never or seldom received the Codes, I began to think that maybe there was more to the process than haphazard luck.

On a whim, I decided to sign up for everything Disney-related that I could. Some of this I had already done due to the fact that I was an obsessed Disney-geek.  However, there were other things I did to help my odds, like creating multiple Disney.com accounts, registering as both “Tom” and “Thomas,” putting my address down as my mother-in-law’s house for some accounts, and some other questionable things that I thought might help my odds.

Suddenly, the Walt Disney World PIN Codes started to pour into my wife’s and my inboxes. Over the course of the two years, my wife and I received, from best I can tell based on my activity on various Disney forums, four of each PIN Code offer that was sent out. It is important to note that during this time, while we vacationed to Walt Disney World twice per year, we never booked a room ourselves, instead always having a Cast Member friend of ours book for us. This June we finally used our Disney Vacation Club membership to book a trip ourselves, and since, we have only received one PIN Code offer, and that only went out to two of our email addresses.

While two PIN Codes is better than none at all, I can’t help but theorize that the decrease was precipitated by us booking a Walt Disney World trip ourselves. Disney has little reason to incentivize frequent guests to continue visiting with these ‘exclusive’ discounts, so it is counter-productive for the company to send the discounts to these guests who will come anyway. Offering them a greater discount only loses Disney money, so instead, Disney likely concocted some sort of algorithm to determine to whom to send the PIN Codes, and the frequency thereto. This would explain why the hosts of WDW Today and other folks who commonly visit receive the PIN Codes with less frequency. While I am hardly a mathematical whiz, my intuition says that there are a number of variables that impact the algorithm, and that even frequent guests can employ certain ‘strategies’ to attempt to beat Disney’s algorithm.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Create a Disney.com account for each of your email addresses and express an interest in Walt Disney World with each account.
  • Order a set of Custom Park Maps for your kids or yourself to enjoy.
  • Order a Vacation Planning DVD (since both this and the above create waste, consider giving these to friends who are planning trips when you’re done using them).
  • Make Advance Dining Reservations for random dates, cancelling them shortly thereafter.
  • Search for Resorts on Disney.com while logged into your accounts, completing the survey that will pop up when you close out the window by selecting the option indicating the cost was too high.
  • Place a booking hold on a resort over the phone, cancelling it shortly thereafter.
  • Inquire about Disney Vacation Club.
  • Attend a Disney Vacation Club web sales presentation (you’ll receive a free gift) or in-person “Vacation as You Wish” presentation (Chicago/New York/New Jersey only)
  • Sign up for Disney Movie Rewards.
  • Sign up for any other Disney-related account you find.

I believe that using different mailing addresses (that you can access) and variants of your name “James” for “Jim,” etc., might help your chances, but I cannot substantiate this. We have managed to receive a high number of PIN Code offers by utilizing all of the above, so I have reason to believe that these factors will at least help increase your odds of receiving a PIN Code!

Have any other suggestions for increasing the odds of receiving a Walt Disney World PIN Code? Let us know your secrets in the comments!

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