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Free Dining v. Actual Dining Costs

When it comes to ‘doing the math’ on Free Dining at Walt Disney World, often I see people compare the actual cost of the Disney Dining Plan to a room-only discount in order to determine whether Free Dining is the best offer for them. This is a fallacious comparison unless the Disney Dining Plan perfectly matches your eating preferences. (This is a point we’ve made before several times, so if you feel like we’re preaching to the choir, this article is not for you.)

To illustrate what we mean, think of the dilemma consumers face when browsing Costco or Sam’s Club. I think we’ve all been there: we see an exceptional buy one, get one free deal on a bulk package of something that makes that product effectively half price! Even though it’s way more than we need, we buy it anyway.

We use a quarter of one package and the rest goes stale. (Or, in our case, this is how we’ve had the same ginormous boxes of Keebler Club Crackers for the last 2+ years. Now, the only thing I buy in bulk is Slim Jims. Thanks to scientific advancements, they never go stale!) Suddenly, we’ve overpaid for that “exceptional deal.”

For many people, this is the exact scenario with the Disney Dining Plan. I cannot stress this enough: if you’re arbitrarily ordering the most expensive thing on the menu, only eating half your meal, or stockpiling treats on the last day to take home, the Dining Plan is not worth its full price to you. A deal is only a deal to the extent that you’re getting something you want and will actually use.

To further demonstrate this, I thought I’d use our meal costs and stay at Fort Wilderness during our last trip to Walt Disney World as an example. Since Free Dining was not offered during our visit (a room-only discount was), I’ll adjust our dates for this hypothetical, moving our trip forward to late August when both Free Dining and a room-only discount of 25% off is available for Fort Wilderness.

Free Dining v. Actual Dining Costs

With the room-only discount, we would save $78 per night on the Fort Wilderness Cabin. As we’ve noted before, this savings is static regardless of whether there’s one person in the room or 4 people; whereas Free Dining is incremental. This means that Free Dining becomes a progressively better deal as you add more people to the room. In fact, for parties of 4 in a single room, we almost always recommend choosing Free Dining over the room-only discount.

We also would save $83 per person on park tickets over the course of the trip by not having to purchase the Park Hopper option, and also buying from an authorized reseller. (See our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post for more info on this.) Your mileage may vary on this depending upon whether you’d want the Park Hopper.

This amounts to a total savings of $722 over the course of our 5-night trip. Let’s see how much we ended up paying for meals out of pocket, and whether that would’ve closed the gap…

Day 1:
Fort Wilderness Brunch – $97.98
Planet Hollywood Observatory – $87.29

Day 2:
Epcot Festival of Arts Snacks (x6) – $31.25
France Snacks (x3) – $15.71
Via Napoli – $51.46

Day 3:
50s Prime Time Cafe – $111.46
Sunshine Seasons – $50.02*

Day 4:
P&J’s Southern Takeout – $44.04*
Gasparilla Island Grill (plus 4 snacks) – $72.54*
Magic Kingdom Snacks (x2) – $10.63

Day 5:
Plaza Restaurant – $83.07
California Grill – $55.01**
Magic Kingdom Snack (x1) – $4.57

*Total cost extrapolated for 4 people based upon 2 person costs. 
**Total for 2 people and not extrapolated

What We Paid…
Total: $715.03 (plus tips)

Free Disney Dining Plan Totals…
Upgrade Cost to Standard Disney Dining Plan: $423.40
Out of Pocket Cost: $55.01 (plus tips)
Total Savings of “Free” Dining: -$485.38

In the end, we would have lost about $485 by virtue of Free Dining. As mentioned above, though, this was a far from perfect case study. In large part, that’s because it’s done after the fact, and with even slight adjustments to our itinerary, we could have broken even.

This would’ve been possible to accomplish by sticking to counter service restaurants instead of upgrading to the regular Disney Dining Plan, or upgrading and doing more expensive table service restaurants (and switching our California Grill lounge meal to a counter service meal…or a couple counter service meals).

Free Dining v. Actual Dining Costs

However, I think it’s at least somewhat instructive, as it shows what our “natural” Walt Disney World dining experience was when choosing where we wanted to eat and paying out of pocket. There’s no doubt that part of the reason we would’ve lost so much with Free Dining was because we didn’t tailor our dining experiences to take advantage of the promotion nor did we try to fit within the confines of what credits we had.

This brings us to something that grinds my gears about the Disney Dining Plan: people saying it’s more convenient than paying out of pocket. It boggles my mind that people think ordering what you want and paying for the actual cost of that food is less convenient than keeping track of different credits, planning meals that comport with those allocations, and using all of said credits.

As is the case for many visitors to Walt Disney World, we would’ve had leftover counter service and snack credits. We would’ve also had an insufficient number of table service credits. This would have necessitated modifying our dining behavior, and also stocking up on junk at the end of the trip to take home so we didn’t waste credits. That is not more convenient than eating where you want, and paying as you go.

Free Dining v. Actual Dining Costs

The other common argument I suppose people could make–and one I find absurd–is that the Disney Dining Plan still would have been better because we could’ve eased our mind about menu prices, and not have been cost-conscious. There are a number of times when we ordered a less expensive menu item, shared, didn’t order a drink, etc., because we didn’t want to spend extra money. There are also times we splurged.

In news that will surprise no one, we’re frugal. We could’ve afforded to splurge at every single meal, but we tend to look at prices and nix certain items because, to us, they are not worth it. Since when is being cost-conscious a bad thing? At a time when American consumer debt is at an all-time high of $12.73 trillion, my humble opinion is that being careful about how you spend your money is a good idea. Avoiding reality by creating an artificial buffer of “credits” to psychologically trick yourself–even on vacation–may not be pragmatic.

Free Dining v. Actual Dining Costs

In fairness, this frugality cuts both ways. If we had the option for Free Dining on this trip, I would’ve taken it. If we modified our meal schedule to better-leverage Free Dining, we would have come out ahead. It would’ve cost us a bit more money and been less convenient than paying out of pocket, but that would have been be fine. Having Free Dining would’ve improved our overall experience as we could’ve splurged more without seeing our out of pocket costs increase.

This all might seem contradictory. Those potential contradictions lie in our frugality and convenience. With regard to the frugality, it’s important to remember that the distinction between being frugal and being cheap is a very meaningful one. We’re willing to pay more when the experience is commensurate with the cost. We think the gains made by taking advantage of Free Dining would have been “worth it” here.

Second, convenience. We do a lot of planning for trips, and some of that requires a bit of inconvenience for an improved experience. I don’t take issue with inconvenience–I just want to call a spade a spade. To that end, it irks me when people contend that the Disney Dining Plan is more convenient than paying out of pocket. The Disney Dining Plan is inconvenient, but that does not mean it’s always worse.

The salient point here is the same one we’ve made in probably a half-dozen other articles about Free Dining–that there’s no such thing as a free lunch and whether free dining is a good deal for you depends upon your personal circumstances. It’s the same point again and again, just stated differently. While this blog might sound like a broken record, as long as an alarming number of people keep indicating that they are opting for the Free Dining promo “because it’s free,” it’s a point we’ll continue making.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

Your Thoughts

Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of Free Dining? In your personal circumstances, has Free Dining been more or less advantageous than a room-only (or other) discount? Any thoughts about our case study? Any questions? Hearing from readers is part of the fun (and is helpful to others), so please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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