The first time our family of five ever went to Disney World, we planned the trip around Disney’s Free Dining promotion. It was a great deal back in 2009!
Our kids were 3,6, and 8, so we opted to stay at the Polynesian Resort (We paid $390 per night). Having younger kids, I wanted easy transportation, but that year, you could have stayed at ANY of the Disney Resorts to qualify for the Free Disney Dining! For example, a Disney Value Resort at that time was $89 per night. (Side note: The best way to teach your children about inflation is to study Disney prices, packages and promotions for a decade!) Boy did this bring in the crowds!
I learned through a travel agent I’d be able to book dining reservations 60 days out. I picked all my restaurants based on reviews, and the morning our trip dates qualified the travel agent put in the call. I got everything I wanted except Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot’s Canada pavilion (Back then this was only 1 credit). Also, my husband wasn’t sure he wanted to eat at a little place called Ohana. I insisted because it was our first night on Disney property and it seemed convenient. Ha! Now it’s his favorite restaurant and we can NEVER seem to get a reservation no matter what we do!
Bottom line, a lot has changed since 2009, but Free Disney Dining can still make for a great trip. I’m not sure it’s a total money saver for 2017’s economy, but if you love to plan and you want to experience different dining options minus the stress of paying when you’re at the Disney Resort, then this may be for you! (Please note that tipping in NOT included in the plan)
#1 How will I know when Free Disney Dining is offered?
Keep an eye out for release dates. You can do this by finding a Disney Travel Agent or your favorite Disney Insider and following them on social media. Release dates matter because you want to be ready to book immediately, so have a plan in place. If you book your trip with less than 180 days, it’s going to be tough to get Table Service Disney Dining. If you can’t get reservations to any of the restaurants you want, then consider going with the Disney Value or Moderate Resorts.
#2 What should my Free Disney Dining plan include?
First, where you want to stay. You must book at a Disney Resort to qualify for free Disney dining. Second, you need to decide which resort. Value and Moderate Disney World Resort packages now only include snack and quick service meals. Basically, that’s two snacks and a walk-up service meal. Honestly, if you’re not a total foodie this is a pretty great option. We’re Californians, however, and we love dining and luxury. For me, free dining means a cruise ship at the parks. Therefore, we go with the Deluxe Resorts which include table service meals along with the two snacks and quick service.
#3 When should I travel to Disney World for Free Disney Dining?
Obviously, you must be able to travel during the dates Disney Free Dining is available. Disney tends to offer quite a lot, so we go when our kids have a school break. Of course, this is never when they offer free dining unless… That’s right! There’s a silver lining! Unless, you book your trip to coincide with the block out dates. For example, my family can only go to Disney World during the Thanksgiving break. We have that whole week off, but the free dining promotion ends on November 20th. Well, if I book a consecutive trip that starts on or before November 20th, I get free dining the entire week, or however long I’m there, as-long-as I am staying in the same Disney Resort for the entire trip.
#4 When should I make Free Disney Dining reservations?
The MINUTE you are eligible, you must be ready to make reservations. Please alert yourself as to when you’ll be 180 days out. This is critical with Free Disney Dining. This starts from the first day of your vacation. You will then be able to book reservations for your entire Disney stay. The qualifying time starts at 7 a.m. eastern time (Florida). It’s not midnight!!!! Therefore, we live in California, so we set our clock for 3:45 a.m. and begin calling at 3:57a.m.
#5 How do I know what to make Free Disney Dining reservations for?
Ok, this can be tricky, but that’s why you have us to help you! Our family starts by printing out the Disney Dining Plans Participating Locations from the Disney website. Everyone has a chance to read through the options and then choose one Disney Table Service Meal. We always make dining the first-priority, and then I plan the parks around our reservations. Give yourself at least two back-up restaurant options for every day you are staying at a Disney resort. For example, say Monday you want Chef Mickey’s (very popular among guests), but it’s all sold out, you’ll want a back-up restaurant and you’ll make Chef Mickey’s your first choice for Tuesday, Wednesday etc. until you finally get in.
#6 Can I choose my dining times?
Yes and no. When you put in the date and the restaurant on the dining Disney website page, it will give you times available. Realistically, you need to be open to anything. If you have small children, you may need to choose more character dining and probably breakfast because little ones are early to rise and early to bed. Therefore, your table service character dining will count for breakfast and you might use your walk-up quick service for dinner. If possible, make sure to go to the park first and then eat around 10 a.m. We have teenagers, so we are eating at OHANA at 9:55 p.m. because it was all we could get. Since teenagers tend to stay up late, we can live with this.
#7 I have young children/teenagers, is the Table Service Disney dining worth it?
Ok, so if your budget says Value or Moderate Disney resort and you have young kids, don’t worry because they must order off the kid menu if they are under 9. It’d be cheaper for you to pick their favorite character and pay out of pocket for that one Disney Character Dining experience. Teenagers may not want to waste time with sit down dining, so it’s really a decision based on your family’s preferences. However, you will get your money’s worth because they will order as adults.
Extra Special Note: Be Our Guest (Disney Restaurant in Magic Kingdom) If you’re on the Free Disney Dining Plan, you can make a reservation here for dinner OR for lunch. If you choose dinner it will be considered a table service meal, but if you choose lunch, it’s QUICK SERVICE, but you still need a reservation! 60 days before your trip, you will be asked to pick your lunch entrée. The menu is different, so make sure to choose wisely. I like this for quick service because I mostly want to see the restaurant and table service meals are too valuable for me to use if I also have the choice of a quick service meal.
#8 Can I use my Free Dining Plan any way I want?
I’d say yes! If you want to use three table service meals in one day, you can, but I wouldn’t. I try to space them out. If we want to have a breakfast, then we will have a quick service for dinner and our two snacks as a lunch etc. I try to keep with snacks for breakfast, quick service for lunch and table service for dinner. This way I get the most for my money! Plus…mornings are for riding rides!!!
#9 Do I want to use two credits for the Disney Dining Signature Restaurants?
Hmmm… I think it depends. In 2009, there were only about 3 to 5 restaurants in that category, but now there are about 13. Personally, we have never used two credits. I feel like there are so many great options with one credit, why bother? However… As the children grow up, I am certain to want to fine dine… Nope, it’d be better to pay out of pocket (me thinks) than to use 2 credits…
#10 What about Disney Dining Dinner Shows?
There are two. Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. These were included in the 2 credits of our first Disney Free Dining Experience. It was tempting, but we waited for another trip. We’ve seen the Hoop-Dee-Doo. It’s got a great back story and my kids truly had a good time. Food was yummy. My only reservation besides price would be that both shows are neat, but not necessarily Disney. Hoop-Dee-Doo would be great if you were camping at the Disney Campgrounds or going with a big group. I like Hoop-Dee-Doo, but when I’m at Disney give me CHARACTERS!
#11 What about the Concierge Level at the Deluxe Resorts?
Now, I am going to be honest… Our first trip to Disney World for Free Disney Dining, the great cast members at the Poly upgraded us to the Concierge Level (It was the end of September). I had packed a suitcase full of water bottles, breakfast bars and other little snacks. It’s the only time I’ve ever come home from a trip with food still in the luggage. Thanks to the Disney Concierge Level, we were able to eat and drink to fill in any gaps. We had breakfast every morning, one night a late second dinner and often hot cocoa and even the occasional sangria. There were water bottles always readily available and they piped in the music from the Magic Kingdom firework show, which was much more convenient to watch. This was especially helpful with little ones. I’d also like to mention that in 2009 they only offered one snack per day and not two.
Overall, do I think Free Disney Dining is all it’s cracked up to be?
It’s a great question! I’m not sure yet. I’m going to crunch the numbers and you should too! Our family was ALREADY considering a trip, so when they announced free dining, that was a bonus. In 2009, it was really an AMAZING deal! Now, you must buy Disney Park Hopper tickets AND stay at the Disney Deluxe Resort AND pay your gratuity separately. Getting reservations is TOUGH and good luck getting any table service reservations if you book after the 180-day reservation opening. We chose to stay at Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and Villas which I like for park accessibility. Therefore, I don’t mind purchasing Disney Park Hopper Tickets. With teenagers, it’s much easier to go to more than one park in one day. However, when my kids were young, I never bought park hopper tickets at Walt Disney World. It would have been a waste of money. Disney Deluxe Resorts are great for young children or awesome grandparents! If you go this route, then the Free Disney Dining Table Service option is nice! I’m not sure I would book my trip around free dining, but if it fits what you’re looking for in a vacation, I say go for it!