Saturday, May 7, 2011

Free Dining... Not So Free

I had a request from a friend and follower to talk about the popular Free Dining promotion that Disney sometimes offers.

Free Dining Promotion = "Free" Disney Dining Plan 

You never know exactly when Disney will offer this promotion to guests but typically you can count on it being offered in the fall from August through September.  You must be booking a Magic Your Way package.  Which means you will need to pay rack rate for your resort room (obviously on property) and your tickets.  You must book a certain amount of nights (this varies) so be aware of that if you're planning on a super short weekend trip.

Back in the day when Free Dining first started, you would get the "basic" Dining Plan no matter what level resort you chose.  That included one snack, one counter service, and one table service meal a night per person.  Since the popularity of FD has spiked Disney has caught on and realized they could make more money if they restricted guests who stay at Value resorts by giving them the "new" Quick Service Dining Plan.  Also, when FD first started the Dining Plan included your gratuity.  Well, Disney caught onto that too and cut that out.  They also cut out the appetizer in the table service meal.  Throw in the always rising room rates and you're starting to lose the "free" part of Free Dining.  You get where I'm going with this, right?  Paying more while getting less?

If you compare another popular discount, the "Room Only Discount," to Free Dining then you'll see where Free Dining truly isn't as amazing as Disney (and uneducated WDW guests) think that it is.  I'm not gonna break down the math for you because it's sort of boring for most of you who don't enjoy the nerdy mathematical stuff like me.  What I can tell you though is that if you're staying at a value resort and participate in FD then you are probably getting a good deal.  Even if you upgrade your Free Dining Plan to the "Basic Dining Plan" for a small additional fee.  Moderate resorts are sort of hazy but most of the time it's still a good deal as long as you can maximize the Basic Dining Plan fully.

If you're choosing to stay at a Deluxe resort then please think about discounts presented to you in THIS sense.  When you opt for a "Room Only" discount you can often get 25%, 30%, even 40% off of your standard room rate.  That's a HUGE savings if you're paying $450 a night for a room!  I just helped my friend save $700 with a "Room Only" discount at Animal Kingdom Lodge.  He will definitely not be paying $700 in food for his week long trip so the savings is pretty obvious.  My point is clear.  Pay out of pocket for food if you're staying at a Deluxe resort and use the "Room Only" discount.  Don't be fooled by the Free Dining Plan.

I suppose it's relevant to touch on the fact that the actual value of the Disney Dining Plan is slowly becoming obsolete.  I wish I could remember how much the DDP cost when it first premiered but I believe it was around the ballpark of $35 per night per adult.  Back then the only DDP offered was what is now referred to as the Basic Dining Plan.  And back then you were given an appetizer, entree, and dessert with a table service credit.  On top of that your gratuity was included in the meal plan!

The Quick Service Dining Plan offered now is $35 per person per night while the Basic Disney Dining Plan now runs you $46 per person per night.  Isn't that kind of sketchy that Disney is now offering a less bulky dining plan at the same cost as they used to offer a very full packed dining plan?

Disney has since removed the appetizer and the included gratuity in the Basic Dining Plan.  After this change occurred I was among many folks that e-mailed Disney and inquired about what spiked the change.  We were told by Disney that guests complained about having too much food.  They also claimed that guests wanted to control their gratuity instead of having 18% chosen for them.

Around this time we started to notice that many restaurants menus became a little more pricey.  Yet the menu items remained the same.  Every year since then this trend has remained.  Portions get smaller and prices get bigger.  What I believe Disney is doing is making their menu items more pricey so people feel like they're getting their monies worth using the DDP.  In actuality, guests are just paying more for their meals out of pocket or more for their DDP.

I'm a firm believer that the reason the appetizer was removed from the Basic DDP and not the dessert is because it's much easier to mass produce desserts than appetizers.  Mass producing cuts costs for Disney.  Most guests would never think of that so no harm no foul in Disney's eyes.

How far is Disney going to go with this?  How many more years can they increase the price of the DDP and still keep guests hooked?  When will guests begin cutting out or cutting back on out of pocket sit down meals?  Eventually Disney will hit a wall and they will have to remain at a point that guests are still willing to overpay for food.

Next up... Maximizing the Disney Dining Plan.


  1. Free dining promo is a good deal for us, but we almost always stay value. Saved us over $500 last year. This year, if it's offered for our dates, will save us about $600, since my son is over 3 and no longer free. But I is not a great deal if you stay moderate or deluxe.

    For now, we really like the basic ddp. We like having everything prepaid. We've done the math and it still saves us money, and allows us to eat meals we would most likely not be able to do if we paid OOP. Character meals are pricey to pay OOp. But when my daughter turns 10, probably won't do it anymore. No way will she eat enough to justify paying adult price. Unless they offer it for free, of course! :)

  2. Definitely worth Free Dining if you're staying at Value Resort level. Definitely!

    I've learned to let go of the "pre-paid" thing because you can essentially do the same thing with a gift card. The convenience is exactly the same basically.

    You make a good point about having children. There is a point where you have to ask yourself, does your 9 year old eat like an adult and will they have enough food given to them eating off the kids menu? And does your 10 year old not eat like an adult so the amount of food would be purely wasteful. This is where the dining plan requires some number crunching on each and every families parts.

  3. You'd be amazed how many negative comments I receive if I write anything against the DDP, whether free or paid for in advance.. It just doesn't make sense for me, but people take it personally! good post :)

  4. Seriously, DisneyBabies?? Everyone does what's right for them and no one should say what is right or wrong for someone else. If you post soemthing it's just for information's purpose, not to attack someone's choices

  5. I think the DDP is kind of dumb. At least for us.

    Well, the Quick Service one would probably suit us best. But after running some numbers, based on the types of meals we usually eat, with the DDP we'd end up paying roughly the same as out of pocket.

    Personally, I think the dining plan seems like a huge pain in the ass. I don't want to have to worry about which places accept it. Or trying to figure out what all counts as a "snack" and whatnot. I'm just way too lazy for that.

    I think the deluxe dining plan is utterly ridiculous and is way too much food. I cannot imagine eating that much....and I eat a lot, so that's saying something!

    Plus, I think ADRs/sit-down meals are usually a big waste of time for us...which is why we only had two on our week-long trip last time...and none the trip before.

  6. Oh I agree about the deluxe plan!! To even remotely get your money's worth you need to eat every meal at a sit down place! That's a lot of time eating everyday! We do like one sit down meal per day us a chance to sit and relax and have someone else wait on us. There are only a few places on property that don't accept the plan and snack credits can be used on pretty much anything that is under $4. We loved using the snack credits at the Food and Wine Festive booths!

  7. It's absolutely a personal thing whether the DDP works for you and your family or not. There isn't a right or wrong answer. Often it's if it fits or not.

    Jill, you and Graham are prime examples of people that the DDP was not made for. Haha! I agree that sit-down meals are a huge time suck and if it's your goal to get as many attractions done in a short time then I totally do not suggest the DDP.

    The deluxe dining plan, like mentioned, it ridiculous in my opinion but I'm sure there are some people that go to WDW to eat. Trust me, I've thought about it. I just can't imagine having to organize all those ADRs for each day and worrying about making it on time to each one. Just sounds like more of a hassle than it's worth to me.

    I don't think it's hard at all to actually use the DDP. The convenience is wonderful and your credits remaining are printed on each and every receipt you receive. Stephanie, as you said, there are only a very small number of restaurants that don't accept DDP credits. In fact, so few that I have to really struggle to think about which restaurants they would be! They've made knowledge of what qualifies as a snack credit REALLY easy now because they use a little DDP emblem next to an item if it qualifies as a snack. Usually anything under $4 but there are some exceptions where an item over $4 qualifies. And you'll know it because the emblem will be next to it on the menu.

    I love using our snack credits on snacks for the room at night and even extra waters when we're out. We find the snack credits to be the hardest thing to use up. Normally, we have some left over credits and we grab some goodies to bring home with us as souveniers.

  8. LOVE LOVE LOVE using a snack credit for a pineapple float from Aloha Isle and then just sitting there and relaxing for a few minutes!! :) It used to be really hard to know what was a snack and what wasn't, but yeah, they've made it much more user friendly.

  9. I like just using my room key to make all of our food and souvenir purchases. Then they get printed out all nice for me when I leave. You can only charge something like $500 so now we make sure we pay the balance half way through the trip just to be safe.

    I don't have to worry about how many credits I have or trying to get my money's worth. I just buy whatever I'm in the mood to eat and then pay it all in one big chunk at the end of the trip.

  10. :) Wish I could go and just spend without without trying to be thrifty! :)

  11. Thanks so much for this great and informative post! I actually missed out on "free dining" during the dates I went this past Decemeber and was really bummed. But, we were staying at The Beach Club, and got a 30% off room-only discount. Now that I read this, I realized that I probably made out on this deal and shouldn't have been upset about not being able to eat "for free"!! Thank you, Disney guru!! :-)

  12. We're thrifty by doing mostly counter service. Counter service is pretty cheap for the most part.