Disney recently announced the return of its popular free Dining Plan offer for the fall. During this same time period, August 15 to October 2, there are currently three discounts available for the general public—the free dining, a room-only discount, and the “Kids Stay and Play Free” offer. So which one is best for you? Obviously, there’s no simple answer. It all depends on you and your circumstances.
The free Dining Plan is immensely popular, but we have yet to try it. It just doesn’t seem to match our style of eating at the parks, so when considering any cost savings, I don’t compare what the Dining Plan would cost compared to buying the same meals out of pocket, I compare it to what I would be spending normally. For our family, eating is secondary to enjoying the attractions. I’m sure that if it were physically possible, my kids would forgo meals altogether in order to ride Big Thunder Mountain a couple more times. So we usually do counter service every meal. I’ve found that the four of us typically spend around $100 a day on days we only eat counter service. Compared to the Dining Plan cost of about $168 a day, we definitely come out ahead by not purchasing it. The Quick Service Dining Plan comes closer to what we normally do, but while we don’t eat a table service meal every day, we do like to have a couple over the course of a week. If we were to use the Quick Service Plan, we’d be forced to either skip the table service meals or pay for them out of pocket, which negates any cost savings the plan might offer.
Of course, the key word in “free dining” is “free,” right? Well, almost. While you don’t have to pay for the Dining Plan, you have to pay the full rack rate for the resort. When there are competing offers like the room-only discount currently being offered, you shouldn’t automatically jump at the free Dining Plan without considering your options and which would save you the most money.
I sat down and crunched some numbers, and here’s what I discovered. If you’re booking a Value Resort (with the Quick Service Dining Plan) or a Moderate (with the regular Dining Plan), free dining does indeed save you money compared to the room-only discount. For example, for a typical week’s stay for a “typical” family (two adults, one child over nine, one under nine) during the week of September 12th, Disney quoted me a price of $1,533.56 for a vacation package at All-Star Movies with 7-day base tickets. Using the 30% room-only discount for the general public, buying 7-day base tickets from Undercover Tourist, and assuming that this family would spend the value of the Quick Service Plan out of pocket to cover food costs (about $636 for the week; you may be able to spend less than that), I found that the free Dining Plan would save our typical family over $400. I came up with a similar savings for paying rack rate at a Moderate Resort and getting the regular Dining Plan for free.
However, when moving up to a week at the Polynesian, I found that by buying the components of the package a la carte and using the 40% general public room-only discount, I could beat Disney’s free dining deal by about $200. This is because the discount for Values or Moderates is only 30%, while Disney’s offering a 40% discount to fill up its Deluxe and DVC rooms. Plus, 40% of the cost of a room at the Poly is a lot more savings than 30% of a room at the All-Stars.
Another thing to factor into your consideration is the “hidden” cost in the free dining plan. I’m mainly talking about three things. First, I know a lot of people talk about the large amount of food you get with the regular Dining Plan. But I’m a fairly heavy eater, and when I count up one table service meal, one counter service meal, and one snack per day, I’m thinking there’s a meal missing somewhere. That meal is either going to come out of my pocket, or I’m going to have to steal credits from my wife and kids. On the other hand, if you are a lighter eater than I am (most people are), then you may be paying for credits you don’t use. (I know it’s free, but you’re “paying” for it by paying regular rack rate for the package, instead of taking the room-only discount).
Another thing to consider is if you’re planning on spending any time somewhere other than the Disney parks. (GASP!) This year, for example, my family is planning on spending a day at the “other” park in Orlando. I know, I know, that’s sacrilegious, but my wife and daughter are big Harry Potter fans. Since you have to get the Dining Plan for each night of your stay, any meals we eat while visiting an off-property location would have to come out of pocket, and we could easily end up with unused credits.
Finally, if you’re taking advantage of the regular Dining Plan, don’t forget to factor in tips. Once, when we almost took a trip during free dining, while making ADRs for every day, we realized that since the Dining Plan doesn’t include tips, and each table service meal would run around $100 or more, we were looking at around $20 a day for tips. For a week’s stay, that’s $120. Of course, if you pay for the meals yourself, you’ll still have to pay the tips, but I think with the “free” being emphasized in the dining promotion, your mindset is that all meal costs are covered. I know that’s how my mind was working.
I don’t want to sound totally down on the Dining Plan, just offer some food for thought. If you typically eat at a table service restaurant every day, or if you don’t, but would like to try some more table service dining while the plan is free, then free dining may offer the best deal for you. Definitely, if you’re planning on staying in a Value or Moderate Resort, you should consider it. There’s also the “peace of mind” value of having most of the costs of your dining paid for with your package. This alone may be worth more to you than any savings you would enjoy by using the room-only discount. Just don’t forget to factor in the costs of tips and any out-of-pocket food.
The third discount offer, which I haven’t discussed much, is the “Kids Stay and Play Free” program. What this amounts to is that kids 3-9 get to stay in your resort room for free, and also get free base tickets for the length of your stay. Now, letting your kids stay in your room without charging you extra isn’t a discount, no matter what the Mouse says. But free tickets can be a pretty good deal, especially if you have several children in the 3-9 range. I still don’t see this being as good as the room-only discount, especially if you’re staying in a Deluxe or DVC property. Even if you have three kids between 3 and 9, it would only save you $600-$700 in tickets, while a 40% discount on six nights at the Poly, for instance, comes closer to $1,000 in savings. Likewise, getting free dining for two adults as well as the kids seems to be a better savings than just getting tickets for the kids.
What’s a better deal, but not offered to the general public, is the “Kids Stay, Play, and Dine Free” promotion during the same period for Disney Visa cardholders. It’s essentially the same promotion, with the added bonus of free Quick Service Dining for the kids when the adults pay for the Quick Service Plan. I could see this being a really good deal if you had two or more kids in the 3-9 range and were staying at a Value or Moderate Resort. Unfortunately, my youngest turns 10 in July. Welcome to Disney adulthood, Noah!
I hope this discussion helps you pick the best discount for your family and vacation preferences. With so many offers to choose from, late summer and early fall is going to be a great time to save money at the World.
Contributed by: Mark J. (NDD#102) Mark is our resident “how to save money while living the Disney Driven Life” expert.