Monday, May 10, 2010

Free Dining: Friend or Foe?

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Early in the spring, my mom said something that every college student wants to hear: "I have these extra park hoppers, do you want to use them?  I'll pay for your resort."  Angels sang until she ended the thought with "...if the free dining offer comes out again."  And so I waited.  And waited.  And waited and waited and waited until I nearly lost hope.  I researched restaurants.  I checked the Touring Plans crowd calendar.  I made ADRs (advance dining reservations) online just in case.  And then the wondrous announcement came out:  Disney was offering the dining plan free from August 15 to October 2.  And so we booked it.

The reason that my mom was so keen on the dining plan was that we used it last summer, and we really liked it.  Even though we have a timeshare roughly 10 minutes away from Walt Disney World, we booked an All Star Music family suite figuring we'd save tons of money feeding a party of five.  And we did.  We ate at five table service restaurants and five quick service restaurants, not even including our snack credits.  We never went hungry for a moment, and we got to eat at places we probably wouldn't have visited if we weren't on the dining plan.  In short, we loved it.

So when my mom saw the opportunity for my boyfriend and I to go to the World, with one major expense free, she jumped on it.  We're booked to stay at the All Star Music, and we upgraded to the regular dining plan from the quick service that is now coming with the value resorts.  But I understand that the free dining plan is not for everyone.

For my family, and even for just my boyfriend and I, the dining plan is definitely worth it.  Since we plan on staying at a value, the room only discount doesn't match the amount we'd likely spend on food each day.  Additionally, once I became really interested in the Disney community, there was no way I couldn't try to get ADRs at Le Cellier or Jiko (which I did get, by the way).  And it would be so hard for two college students can pay for something like Jiko out of pocket.

On the other hand, if you plan on staying at a moderate or deluxe, or if you don't eat much, the room only discount may work out to be cheaper than the free dining plan.  It really comes down to crunching the numbers.  Also, depending on how late you book, it could be hard to work out the dining plan if you don't already have ADRs.  Like I mentioned earlier, I made ADRs far in advance of the free dining offer being released.  And I STILL had to settle for a lunch reservation at Le Cellier (okay, okay, I'm extremely grateful that I got a reservation at all).  If you don't have the ADRs made, the dining plan might not be worth it for you.  Also, if you are staying on DVC points, you aren't eligible for the free dining plan in the first place.

There's also the factor of the quick service vs. the "plus dining" plans if you plan on staying at a value resort.  The current offer dictates that those staying in value resorts get the quick service plan (2 quick service credits, 2 snack credits, and a refillable drink mug) for free, while the moderates and deluxes get the plus dining plan (1 table service credit, 1 quick service credit, and 1 snack credit).  It is $10 per person per day to upgrade from the quick service to the plus dining.  In our case, we upgraded because of the aforementioned reasons, but for many people, the quick service plan makes more sense.  For example, some people don't like the idea of making dining reservations so far in advance.  Unfortunately, without ADRs it's very unlikely to get table service restaurants during free dining season.  So if you don't plan on making ADRs, the quick service plan would probably be a better choice.  Staying with the quick service plan is also a good way to save money.

Overall, there are many different factors you have to consider when deciding to go for the free dining plan or a room only discount.  These are just a few.  So now I'd like to hear from you.  Why do you choose to get the free dining plan?  Why do you choose not to?  Has a past experience with free dining changed your mind about the whole thing?  How do you feel about the value resorts only getting the quick service plan for free?  Let me know in a comment, on Twitter (@discollegeblog), or on the Facebook fan page.  I'm interested to know how others feel about this offer.


  1. We chose to not do the free dining - this time our ds and dd are teens, and cannot share a bed. We also wanted to stay on property. We looked at properties which also had a daybed, but many of them did not guarantee a daybed. The only resorts which pretty much guaranteed a day bed were the Contemporary and the Polynesian. (My teens cannot do the bunks at AK, as they are very tall.) With the 40% off in August, we would be paying either $219 a night, or $303 a night for Club Level. For the difference of $84, it was worth it for us to have breakfast, daily snacks, appetizers and desserts (also unlimited soda and a glass or two of wine and/or beer) to upgrade to Club Level. The extra lounge space is going to be wonderful as well, for having some of us getting ready while the others hang out in the lounge. We have three meals as ADRs, and will have counter service if we otherwise get hungry, though with the heat and the food at the lounge, we don't think we will.

    We might have done the dining plan as you did, at a Value resort, with an upgrade, however we would have had to book two rooms (teens can't share beds) as well as at least a day pass to one of the parks in order to get the dining plan (we have "no expire" tickets from a prior stay.) I've crunched the numbers many different ways, and we are just paying slightly more, (with the added cost of three table service meals.) Those are our reasons. (We also preferred it when the tip was included with the plan.)

  2. Yeah, in deluxes, free dining usually isn't worth it. It's all about crunching the numbers and seeing what works.