A few days ago, I teased some big news was on the horizon, and that big news has indeed hit – I will be joining the White Dragon Podcast Network with my very own Walt Disney World show – Storybook Radio. Each episode will consist of a Walt Disney World segment and Universal Studios segment, as well as travel tips and other odds and ends. I’m very excited about this project, and the debut episode will air Wednesday May 13.
All about Free Dining
Long time readers will know that I’m a fan of free dining and have experienced the joys of it twice. There is a lot of conflicting information out there about the pros and cons of Free Dining, so hopefully I can help out a little with that now. Free Dining was announced Monday, so it may be difficult to secure now anyway, but it’s always worth having more information.
The promotion applies to a variety of dates between the end of August and the third week of December. The resort exclusions include Fort Wilderness Campgrounds, Deluxe Villas, All Star Sports, the Art of Animation Little Mermaid suites, and Port Orleans Riverside (but French Quarter is included, which is awesome, because it wasn’t last year!)
I’ve taken advantage of Free Dining each of the last two years. In 2013, we were able to stay at Port Orleans French Quarter, which is a resort I would not hesitate to stay in again. Last year, we stayed at Coronado because both Port Orleans resorts were excluded – it’s too bad, because we really wanted to stay at Riverside and Coronado is not a resort I would be interested in staying in again. Given that guests now have the opportunity to stay in French Quarter – and staying at a moderate resort does provide the best Free Dining value – is pretty great.
A lot of people wonder if Free Dining is worthwhile. Many websites out there have posited that if you are fewer than 3 people (a couple without kids for example) it’s not worth it, but I contend that it is (you also have to be careful, because some bloggers and podcasters out there definitely seem to have an almost militant anti-free-dining bias). There are a number of things to take into consideration. Here are a few:
Is there a hotel discount being offered as well, or perhaps free park tickets? You need to do some math to see if the value of a dining plan, per person, is more of a discount than 20%-30% savings off of a hotel’s rack rates, often offered at the same time for the same dates. The reason that a Dining Plan is definitely a larger discount in terms of actual dollars out of pocket for a family of 3-5 (I believe 5 is the most number of people that can stay in 1 resort room) is because the cost of the hotel room stays the same while the cost of feeding your family goes up as the number of people in your party goes up.
Now, to get free dining, you have to buy an entire Disney package – hotel room and park tickets, and you can’t double-dip promos. That means that if you’re somehow being offered free park tickets, they’re likelier to be the better option than free dining.
At deluxe resorts, you’ll generally save more money with the room discount, though it still depends on how many are in your party. The Standard Disney Dining Plan is worth $60 USD per adult and $19 per child. If you have two adults and two kids, your savings with free dining is $158 per day. At Port Orleans French Quarter (and remember, at these slow times of year the rooms are already cheaper than at busier times), your per-day hotel room savings might be $40-$60 per night. The math is pretty simple on that one! But, on a deluxe room that normally fetches $500 per night, your 30% savings gives you $150 off per night. Now you have to do some thinking! In that scenario, you may be better off taking the room discount and splitting meals.
Do the people in your party have good/diverse appetites? There are a number of amazing restaurants at Walt Disney World, but if you have a picky 10-year old that will only eat hamburgers, you’ll probably be better off with more counter-service meals (you can get the Quick-Service Dining Plan if you stay at a value resort during Free Dining). It’s important to remember that at Walt Disney World, meal portions are typically large. Two people can definitely split most meals, an option that is essentially taken from you if you’re on the Dining Plan. If you have two people in your party and neither of you eat like horses, a Disney Dining Plan may be overkill and you’d be better off with the hotel discount. I eat like a horse, so…
Do you want to try a number of different sit-down restaurants? The reason Free Dining was important for me and my wife was because there were lots of great restaurants in which we wanted to dine, and many of them were in the “expensive” category. The Dining Plan therefore made sense for us, and over the last two trips we’ve had the opportunity to eat at Le Cellier, O’Hana, San Angel Inn, Via Napoli, Boma, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Tokyo Dining, Teppan Edo, Biergarten, Sanaa and more. I don’t think this would have been possible if not for Free Dining, because we would have been a little less cavalier with our spending on meals.
Will you use snacks? Will you use all of your meal credits? There’s no argument that Free Dining is only a good value if you plan to use all of your credits. If you stay for 8 days, and you have 8 snack credits, you can easily get about $40 out of it. Starbucks locations, now in all parks, are a great use of snack credits. Try the awesome Mickey pretzels. Go to Epcot’s World Showcase and go nuts! Seriously, if you don’t use at least one snack credit in World Showcase, you’re missing out. The Kringla Café in Norway is replete with wonderful snacks. Try the shaved ice in Japan. Not using your dining credits is bad too. I’m not sure why this would happen since you have to eat everyday, but if you do end up with a couple left over, grab some breakfast! The Dining Plan gives you two meals per day, and many people eat three times, so the math definitely works to not waste any meal credits.
Don’t Be Afraid of Two-Credit Meals. Look, most of the blogs and podcasts out there will instantly tell you to not waste 2 credits on one meal. A number of restaurants out there require diners to use up 2 credits for one meal – they are called “Signature Dining”. They include Cinderella’s Royal Table, Le Cellier, Jiko, California Grill, Narcoosees, Citricos, Hollywood Brown Derby, Monsieur Paul, Fulton’s Crab House and Dining Room at Wolfgang Puck. However, using up 2 credits at one go just means you’ll have to be creative another day – split a counter-service with your spouse, for example – easy to do. But, the value is still there. Consider this: at Cinderella’s Royal Table, adults shell out $55. However, unlike other meals where the Dining Plan only covers the tax and not the gratuity, your double-credit at CRT also pays an 18% gratuity. That means that you’re basically covered for around $70, plus you get to eat in a Castle and meet Disney princesses. Since most table-service meals come in at around $25-$35 anyway, I’d say it’s a pretty good value – and so are the other double-credit restaurants.
Understand the time of year. Free Dining is offered at specific times of year because they are the slowest times of year at Walt Disney World. I’m a huge proponent of travelling to Disney World during hurricane season (late August through September/mid-October): it’s dead, it’s hot (consistently, none of these 45-degree days you get in November-January) and it’s cheap. Because of the slow time of year, Disney is trying to encourage people to get down to Florida. It means that travelling at this time will afford you more time to do all of the things you want to do – check out all the rides on your list, all the shows, all the parades, all of the nighttime shows. You’ll have time to stroll, time to smell the roses. You won’t be rushed. It’s a beautiful time of year to go – to me, going to Disney World when it’s slow means you can get most things, if not everything, done, AND for cheaper. That’s a slam dunk to me. It means that you’ll have the time to sit down and have that table-service meal you’ve been coveting without worrying about fast-passes or ride queues. It’s worth while!
Well, those are my thoughts on Free Dining. What do you guys think?