By Jacob Passy
One of Disney’s /zigman2/quotes/203410047/composite DIS +2.17% most popular vacation promotions aims to feed travelers’ hunger for savings, but is the deal all it’s cracked up to be?
This month, Disney released the details of its latest free dining promotion for Summer 2019. The deal gives travelers booking a stay at select Walt Disney World in Florida hotels free access to the “Disney Dining Plan,” which pays for meals at the theme parks and resorts around the complex. Under the deal, guests who pay full price for a room essentially eat for free (although the deal doesn’t include gratuities).
The free dining promotion first came about in the wake of the financial crisis and has developed a massive following among Disney vacationers.
This is the second time this year that Disney had promoted a free food deal for this summer. Disney previously announced a free dining promotion back in January, which some perceived as a sign that fewer people are booking trips to the “Most Magical Place on Earth” this summer.
“Most people are guessing that they released it early to incentivize travel to Disney World,” said Sue Pisaturo, owner of Small World Vacations , a Disney-authorized vacation planning company. “It seems that people are holding off making plans until Disney announces when Star Wars Land will open later this year.”
The free dining promotion first came about in the wake of the financial crisis and has developed a massive following among Disney vacationers, said Don Munsil, co-owner of the vacation planning website MouseSavers.com . “People love free food,” Munsil said. “It triggers some primitive impulse inside us.”
When Jennifer Mascitti, a stay-at-home mom from Atlanta, booked a trip to Disney World last September she opted against doing the free dining promotion as her family had done in the past. According to her calculations, the free dining promotion would have actually cost her family an additional $1,200 over what she had paid when she had initially booked her trip with a room-only discount. “That’s a lot of money to come out of pocket,” she said.
And those considering the deal this year might want to follow Mascitti’s lead. Factoring in the other costs, the food is not exactly free. Rather, the deal is an enticement on Disney’s part to get families to stay at its hotels and to visit its theme parks.
How the free dining deal works
This time around, Disney actually released two different free dining promotions. Disney Visa Chase /zigman2/quotes/203660239/composite V +0.18% card holders will have access to the traditional promotion in which guests will get two free meals and two snacks for each night’s stay. To get this deal, they must book a vacation package that includes a four-night stay at select Walt Disney World Resort hotels and five-day theme park tickets with the Park Hopper Option. Disney Visa Chase /zigman2/quotes/205971034/composite JPM +5.47% card holders must pay their deposit with their Disney Visa to qualify.
Guests at more expensive hotels have access to a souped-up version of the dining plan.
The types of restaurants travelers can eat at with the free dining plan depend on which hotel they are staying at — guests at more expensive hotels have access to a souped-up version of the dining plan.
Disney also released a second dining promotion where guests who book a a non-discounted Walt Disney Travel Co. package that includes a four-night stay at the resort’s lower-priced “moderate” or “value” hotels will get one free quick-service meal per day. The meal includes an entree and a drink. Unlike the other promotion, this deal is open to any traveler.
Will the free dining promotion actually save travelers money?
A family of four staying at Disney’s “low-cost” value resorts will generally pay at least $97 a night for their room. Under the Disney Visa free dining promotion, they must pay the full cost for their room and are also required to purchase the upgraded “Park Hopper” or “Park Hopper Plus” tickets for Disney’s theme and water parks (these tickets let guests visit different parks in a single day.) The offer may not be combined with any other discounts or promotions.
So for a five-night, six-day stay at Disney’s All Star Music Resort, a family of four with two kids over the age of 10 (at Disney anyone 10 years of age or older counts as an adult) would essentially need to spend upwards of $500 for their lodging and more than $2,000 for their theme park tickets to qualify for the free dining promotion.
Meanwhile, the quick-service dining plan that Disney Visa card holders staying at this hotel can get during the promotion costs $52.50 per “adult” per night. This dining plan entitles guests to two meals at counter-service restaurants and two snacks per night of their stay, plus a refillable mug for drinks. For a five-night stay for a family of four, that would normally cost roughly $1,050. (The dining plan does not cover gratuity.) As such for travelers staying at Disney’s lower-cost hotels, the value of the free dining promotion can exceed the cost of lodging, making it a good source of savings.
But the math changes for people staying at the more expensive moderate- and deluxe-tier hotels because of the higher cost of lodging. Those staying at the deluxe hotels will get complimentary access to the “standard” dining plan through the free-dining promotion, which includes a sit-down meal, a counter-service meal and two snacks per night, plus a refillable mug for drinks. The standard dining plan typically costs $75.50 per night for an “adult.”
“They need to compare available discounts to see where the dollar and cents savings are the best,” Pisaturo said. “It’s not always free dining.”
The traditional free dining promotion has some significant limitations. The promotion is only available for certain dates and hotels in May through August, and guests must stay at least four nights to qualify.
Because travelers with free dining must also pay full price for their rooms and “Park Hopper” tickets, they could actually lose out on possibly better savings through getting a separate discount on their hotel room from Disney, buying their park tickets through an authorized re-seller or staying at a non-Disney hotel, said Tom Bricker, who owns DisneyTouristBlog.com . “You can do a number of things that can save you money,” Bricker said.
For instance, Disney is also offering up to 25% off hotel stays at certain resorts from May 28 through August 28. Those savings could potentially outweigh the value of the free dining plan, depending on the room.
Also, in the past, guests had access to the standard dining plan during the free-dining promotion if they stayed at “moderately” priced resorts, where room rates start at $200 per night. But starting last year, guests at these hotels now get the quick-service plan during the free-dining offer, which has less value. “Now it’s not quite as easy a decision to make,” Bricker said. “They’re not doing this out of some corporate benevolence — they want to increase their occupancy rate.”
As for the second promotion Disney announced last Wednesday, which is open to any traveler, the savings are relatively paltry. “This promotion is Walt Disney World’s way of catching the attention of potential guests with those magic words that everyone loves (free food!), but without actually offering a great deal,” Bricker wrote .
Since guests who book through this promotion are only getting a single free meal a day — and the most expensive counter-service meals don’t add up to enough to represent true savings compared with other discounts that are available.
Alcoholic beverages are now covered by Disney’s dining plans. But this too is a situation where visitors’ mileage may vary. For instance, families who plan to spend the bulk of their time at the Magic Kingdom won’t see much benefit from the change if they get the quick-service dining plan, because only a few of the theme park’s restaurants even serve alcohol.
Moreover, travelers who don’t typically have big appetites won’t get their money’s worth if they find themselves skipping meals to take in the attractions. “The added value can be illusory,” Bricker said.
Looking to the future, it seems likely that, if anything, Disney will reduce the value of the free-dining offer rather than increase it, Bricker said. Though higher prices did prompt attendance to drop at Walt Disney World back in 2017, Disney opened a new area at its Hollywood Studios theme park based on the “Toy Story” franchise last summer and is set to unveil a new area inspired by the “Star Wars” films this fall. With the record numbers of visitors expected to flock to Florida for those attractions, Disney won’t have as much need for the free-dining incentive in the coming years.
Potential budget-busters aside, the free dining plan can be a good option, particularly for first-time travelers, as it removes a lot of the guesswork in planning for food, Bricker said. “I would definitely consider it,” he said.
Disney shares are up 23.5% year-to-date, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA +1.44% is up 13.1% and the S&P 500 /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX +1.05% is up 16.7%.
This article was updated on April 25, 2019.