Free Disney Dining…Is It Really Always Free?*

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If you have ever planned your entire Disney vacation around the free food offer, then you might be a Cheapskate Princess. Believe it or not, people frequently make their trip plans to Disney completely around the Free Dining offers and rightly so.  But is the free Disney dining always free?

4 Reasons to Love Free Food

1. Free food. It’s like the personal anthem of a Cheapskate Princess, and you can probably hear the commercial advertisement in your sleep. “Free Disney Dining.”

2. The Free Dining offer can save you a ton of money on really nice meals, especially if you were already planning to stay at a Disney resort during your vacation rather than a cheap hotel somewhere off property. So you were already planning to stay on property, and now you get to eat for free. It’s like a Disney gift straight from Walt himself.

3. Free Dining will you allow you to order expensive menu items without worrying about the cost. Relax Disney Princess, it’s free! This is the way most people I know have enjoyed multiple character meals on one trip. You might not normally take a family of four people over the age of ten to Chef Mickey’s for dinner, simply due to the cost, but what’s to stop you now that it’s free?

4. Free Dining is great for those who really enjoy Disney snacks. If a snack can run upwards of $7, now is the time to get one guilt free.

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The Fine Print on Free Dining

1. You cannot just vacation any time you want to receive the offer. Availability is extremely limited, and not all resorts may be available. It’s a sure bet the Value Resorts you know will fit your budget will fill up fast. You must check into your Disney resort on one of the available dates in the fall or spring to qualify.

2. You cannot check in before an available date and receive the discount.  You only qualify depending on the day you check into the resort. If you have decided to visit before the dates free dining is offered, you’ll be paying for your food.

3. If you extend your vacation outside of the available dates, you will still receive the free dining for your entire stay, which is fabulous!! But this can lead to other expenses. More gas for your car if you are driving around or off property, more money for your hotel, more temptation for all those amazing souvenirs, and extra expenses that just pop up on any vacation. Every Cheapskate Princess loves more time at Disney, but the longer you stay, the higher your costs will rise.

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4. Your vacation must be booked by certain dates. For those who fly by the seat of your pants and make your hotel reservations from your iPhone on the drive to Orlando, this deal is going to pass you by. All the hotel rooms will be booked by the time you make plans, if they are not already. Facebook only shows you about 10% of what your favorite Disney information sites post, so we suggest you get in touch with a travel agent to make sure you are aware of upcoming promotions. Othrwise, you may find out about the free dining promotion after your preferred hotel is filled up.

5. Your gratuity is not included for table service meals. So while you may not be paying for your meals during free dining, Disney’s “suggested tip” for your wait staff is 15 to 18 percent. This is going to add up fast for character and other pricey meals, so bring your wallet.

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4 Ways Free Dining May Not Be As Great as it Sounds

1. Did I mention availability is extremely limited, and not all resorts may be available? You may not be able to book a room at the resort of your choice, you know, the one you can afford without warping your Visa.

2. The type of dining plan you receive depends on which resort level you choose, and holy cow, some of those upper Deluxe Resort level rooms are expensive. If you want to eat all day for free, you’ll be paying for a really fabulous room or for the dining plan upgrade, which cancels out the notion of free dining being free. You pay for what you get, one way or another.

3. The list of accommodations you can NOT choose to qualify grows/changes each year. In 2012, the Free Dining offer excluded all suites, campsites, three bedroom villas, and standard Little Mermaid rooms the Art of Animation Resort.

Here is the list of exclusions for Free Dining Fall 2013:

  • Campsites
  • 3-Bedroom Villas
  • Disney’s Art of Animation Resort
  • Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort
  • Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter
  • The Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa

If these are places you planned to stay for free dining, then you’ll be changing your accommodation plans or paying for your food.

4. If you normally stay at the Motel 6, then upgrading to a Disney resort is going to be more costly for you, and the better hotel upgrade, the more it will cost. In this way, free food isn’t really free since you are paying more for it by staying at a nicer hotel. The Disney Resorts are amazing, but there is a huge difference between a $59.99 a night hotel room and $139 a night Disney Value Resort room. And I’m just estimating that $139- it could be higher.

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5. Can you really handle all those meals each day? For people accustomed to eating small portions, you may have trouble finishing everything, even if it is free. I know, I know, you plan to stuff yourself like there is no tomorrow. Am I crazy to question too much free food? You might, once you head off to the parks with a full belly and miles to walk. Let’s not even talk about when you’ll have to work off those extra pounds you bring home once the clock strikes twelve and you find yourself back in post-vacation reality.

6. Gratuity for meals other than counter service is a prime case of free not being free, however, even while you may hear occasional stories about bad service and an empty drink glass, the vast majority of Cast Members are busting their butts to give you a quality dining experience. Smiles, friendly conversation, and exceptional service are the Disney norm. Odds are, you will love your wait staff, so don’t complain about the idea of paying the tip. Just plan accordingly, and add this into your Free Dining budget: 15 to 18%. A Princess knows when to do the right thing.

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So there you go, Cheapskate Princesses, a look at the Free in Free Dining. It’s always a good idea to look at your options and know the facts before your vacation.

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How much will it cost you to pay for the Dining plans out of pocket?

Can a Cheapskate Princess Afford the Disney Dining Plan?

 

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Comments

  1. immrsd2u says:

    Chances are, you will not find a decent room for $29.99 per night. When my son & I went in December, we stayed the 1st night in a big name property which cost us almost $50.00 per night, & it was in quite the riff-raff part of town. Prices for hotels/motels outside of Disney have went up considerably. My value resort stay, with free dining, is ending up costing $125 per night, so you still have a valid point, because a nice off-property room can be obtained, but more to the tune of around $75 per night, so still substantial savings.

    Also, snack credits now have limits. I think $4.50 is the high. Anything over that, & you pay out of pocket.

    With that being said, my husband, my 15 year old son, & myself are spending an entire week at a value resort, & for $1,500 this is what we’re getting:
    7 days/6 nights of Disney themed accommodations, with 4 large pools, & a lakeside/fireworks view from our balcony;
    2 counter service meals & 1 snack per day of our stay, each;
    Free drinks for our entire stay on property, along with a souvenir mug for each of us to take home;
    4 day passes for 3;
    All transportation needed, so no gas or parking expenses (Im pretty sure parking was at $12.50 per day, last I checked); and something you forgot to mention,…
    Extra magic hours, which give you, as a Disney property guest, extra time in the park that others dont get, which means much shorter ride times.

    I priced out a trip to Branson, Missouri for a week, including theme park, attraction, & show tickets, + accommodations, + food, + gas & parking fees, & it very quickly added up to much more than I’d be spending at my beloved Disney, so Im definitely casting my vote for free dining. It can be worth it, if you know how to swing it in your favor!

    Great article, & yes, I am one who plans my vacay around free dining!! ;-)

    • Anonymous says:

      I always stay on property, si I had no idea parking had increased to that degree, but Im not shocked.

      I, too, figured it was only a matter if time with snack credit cap. I also wasnt surprised when they removed the table service meal from value resort free dining, nor when they removed the 2nd snack per day credit. What DID shock me was them excluding The Little Mermaid rooms from free dining at AoA. When I asked why theyd done something so unheard of, I was told by a CM that the rooms were booked up so far in advance, Disney had no need to offer free dining, bc free dining is only offered during slow times to fill up resorts.

      • Amanda says:

        Yea, Free Dining is a way to get you to stay on property, and those rooms are so popular, there is no need for enticement. I know two families that had reservations to stay there this fall but switched resorts to dine for free. Can’t blame them. We yak about paying for annual park passes, but we drive to all the parks, and that parking fee adds up quick. Thanks for reading! ~A.

    • Anonymous says:

      I plan my vaca around free dining, too. You only get your meal per nights stayed, not days. So if you are staying 7 days/6 nights, you will get 2 counter service meals and one snack each per night (12 counter service and 6 snacks each total).

    • Amanda says:

      I priced a week on the Gulf of Mexico for Spring Break, and with a lovely view but no seriously entertainment, my lodging prices would have been 3 times higher. So even if Disney vacations are pricey, they are not as high as some. Thanks for your excellent comments, and enjoy your next Free Dining vacation! ~A.

  2. immrsd2u says:

    Sorry, the comment above was from me. I thought I was signed in already, but thats what I get for assuming!

  3. MaxS. says:

    Two things: parking is now $14/day, although for true cheapskate-ness, you could park at Downtown Disney and take the bus/ferry.

    And that DVC members staying on points never get free dining. I really think that Disney should let us use points to pay for the dining plan, and I also think that they should offer an off-site guests a dining plan (like Universal does).

    • Michelle says:

      The buses do not go from Downtown Disney to any of the parks. This is to keep people from treating Downtown Disney as a free parking lot and stealing all the parking spots, leaving little for people trying to go to DtD.

      You CAN ride from DtD to a resort, then hop on that resort’s bus to the park, but that will take a much longer time and just isn’t worth it- You might not even get on the first bus leaving the resort and have to wait even longer! $14 just isn’t worth all that…

  4. Michelle says:

    We (two adults, no children) just went in December 2012 for 6 days in the parks and 7 nights accommodation at an All-Star resort.

    We scheduled our check in for December 13th, in order to take advantage of the free dining plan. Since it was a value resort, we were allotted 2 quick service and 1 snack per day. I paid about $230 to upgrade to the next level giving us 1 quick service, 1 table service, and 1 snack per day. (worth it!)

    Being vegetarian and only two people, we really didn’t get as much value out of the free meal plan as other people would. (Vegetarian dishes tended to much cheaper menu items than meat dishes) but we added up all the food and “spent” about the same as it would have cost us to buy the same meal plan out of pocket, so we got the full value of the plan.

    The best part was taking advantage of so many places we would not have tried otherwise. We had some AMAZING table service meals and even did a couple of character meals, just because we could! If not for the free meal plan, we would have eaten almost all, if not all, our meals at quick service locations to save money and 6 days of veggie burgers and other quick service fare would have gotten old quickly!

    We also wouldn’t have gotten nearly as many snacks OR dessert after every meal either. It was a LOT of food… more than we really needed… but we’d still like to plan our next trip during another free meal promotion.

    I feel like for a non-vegetarian family with children, it would be an even better deal!

  5. Christie says:

    We just took a 10 day at All Star Sports, 8 days in the Parks vacation at Disney last December. Free dining rocked!! We had counter service dining, which was absolutely the perfect amount, were able to eat wherever we happened to be at mealtime, and didn’t have to plan our lives around reservations. It was awesome, and our hotel room was about $95 a day, starting the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Add in Extra Magic Hours, Free Parking, Disney resort theming, and Free Transportation to the parks and Downtown Disney, what was there not to like? It was an awesome vacation.

    • Amanda says:

      With total counter service dining, I will completely agree. No tip means you aren’t paying anything extra. (See my other comment on tipping, because I tip 20%, which is like adding a 6th person to our family at table service meals. Then it wasn’t free. Cheaper, yes, but not free) People plan their whole year around free dining, and your story is a great example of why. And those snacks are awesome too. Glad you had fun, and thanks for reading! ~A.

  6. Anne says:

    In August 2011 we stayed at the All Star Movie Value Resort and had free dining; me, my 8 year old twins and my 5 year old. It was convenient and we had some nice meals… but it was too much food.

    We will be visiting this July (2013) and based on Disney’s Cheapskate Princess’s articles, I think we will forego the dining plan. As others have mentioned, we normally only drink water with meals and we usually don’t eat dessert. On top of that, my 10 year olds do not need adult size portions… and with the heat of summer… my overstuffed stomach often sends me running to the toilet. I know… “it’s vacation”… but so many people have forgotten that food is supposed to be fuel for the body.

    I LOVE Disney, and I understand that it is a business… but they are helping to make people fatter… and there are already too many people who need a scooter to get around the parks!

    • Amanda says:

      Several people have commented through the years, “Don’t eat it all. Just throw it away.” I feel wasteful doing that, and then totally stuffed when I don’t. With those buffets, you are definitely paying for large portions, I mean who is going to tell you when to quit? My main point is on tipping. Despite being a cheapskate, I always tip 20%, because that’s the right thing to do. Having a family that qualifies as adults in terms of pricing, an extra 20% is like bringing along another person to a table service meal. Even if 5 meals are free, I still have to pay for that extra 20% person, and then it’s not free. It’s way cheaper than paying out of pocket, but free is not really “Free” when you pay the tip. Many people hear free and forget to factor in tipping, if they will be having table service meals.
      Thanks for reading! ~A.

  7. Mendy says:

    Hello!! We are getting ready for our 4th year at Disney with “free dining.” What I decided to do this year to off set the price of tipping (4 adults in our party) at table service meals is to save my coin change at home and when I think I have $25, cash it in and deposit it in my bank account. I then go to the Disney gift card website and order a $25 gift card (one for each TS meal). I order them 1 at a time, when I have enough money from change to do so. That starts my tip off in the right direction, then if I need to add more then I will do so in cash at the meal. If it is higher than 20% then we will be spreading Disney Magic to the CM’s. Even with tipping, though, I feel as if I am getting an awesome meal for just the price of a tip and it is restaurants I probably wouldn’t have tried if they weren’t “free.” Another thing I read to do was to get your desserts that come with your meals to go so you can eat them for breakfast the next day. It sounds like a good idea but I usually have tons of those chocolate cakes from the counter service meals stacked up in my room to “eat later” and never do.

  8. Brooke says:

    So, when in the fall do they usually do the “free dining” with Disney Resort stay? I wanted to go sometime in October, but I will change that idea quickly if we can get free food….last time we went to Disney (December…ugh, so busy) the food was SOOO expensive! (seriously, $2.50 for a juice box?)

  9. Pam Hill says:

    We were at POFQ last fall and we did receive the free dining plan so that part of the article was incorrect.

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